Like many black women, Solange Knowles sees her hair as an important part of her identity. In a track on her 2016 album, Knowles describes her hair as her “soul,” her “crown.”
The singer’s connection to hair as a form of expression and art was on full display during a photo shoot for Britain’s ES Magazine, affiliated with the daily London Evening Standard newspaper. Leading up to the shoot, an artist styled Knowles’s hair into an elaborately braided crown that towered above her head. The halo-like sculpture made for a striking image.
But when the magazine released the final version of its cover photo, something was missing: the braided crown. An editor had altered the original version of the photograph, removing the most dramatic element of the hairstyle.
In an Instagram post following the cover’s release, Knowles posted the original version of the photo, which captured the full length of the crown. She captioned the photo “dtmh,” an acronym for the song, “Don’t Touch My Hair.”
She also called out the decision in a series of Instagram stories — temporary posts that disappear after 24 hours — captured by the BBC before the images vanished. In one image, she drew a circle over her head where the braids should have been.
Following the public outrage from the singer and her fans, ES Magazine apologized to Knowles, saying it was “a matter of great regret” that the cover caused “concern and offence.”
“The decision to amend the photograph was taken for layout purposes but plainly we made the wrong call and we have offered our unreserved apologies to Solange,” the magazine wrote on its website.
The controversy was ironic not only because of the title of Knowles’s song, but also because of the way she described the importance of her hair in the magazine’s article.
In the interview with the magazine, Knowles said braiding is an “act of beauty, an act of convenience and an act of tradition.” It is “its own art form,” she added.
She spoke of growing up as a young girl in her mother’s salon, which she described as a “safe haven.”
“I got to experience women arriving in one state of mind and leaving in a completely transformed way,” she said, according to the magazine. “It wasn’t just about the hair. It was about the sisterhood and the storytelling.”
“To be honest, owning my body this year was really important to me,” the singer also said. “That can mean a lot of things. That can be in the physical form — wanting to have control over my physical body — and also wanting to have control in the way it is presented to the world. And it isn’t always easy.”
The braided crown was created by Joanne Petit-Frére, who describes her work as “curating experiences that trigger memory, culture and the spirit of the diaspora.”
“Would you believe they photoshopped the crown from the cover?” the artist wrote on Instagram following the cover’s publication.
Later, Petit-Frére wrote: “a British publication removes the literal crown from a hairdo off a cover story . . . I see, double imperialism.”
The journalist who wrote the article also complained about the final version of the piece, writing on Twitter that she was “publicly disowning” it.
“The entire piece was a fiasco despite my efforts,” the writer, Angelica Bastien, tweeted. “I told my editors to take my name off of the byline because they distorted my work and reporting in ways that made me very uncomfortable.”
Knowles has previously spoken at length about the significance of hair in black culture. On NPR’s “All Things Considered” last year, she described “Don’t Touch My Hair” as a moment for black women to take pride and celebrate their journey, to “look at where we came from and look at where we are today.”
“The hair journey of a black woman is so specific,” Knowles said. “And it’s really hard. And your hair can send so many different messages to so many different people in the world, that it becomes political. It becomes social.”
She said the hair part of the song is “not just about hair, obviously.”
“It encompasses a much bigger conversation of appropriation, of ownership, of protected space,” she said, adding that “it’s a broader message for black empowerment.”
In an essay she penned last year, Knowles wrote about microaggressions and “why many black people are uncomfortable being in predominately white spaces.” She described instances like having her hair touched, having her friend be mistaken as a porter, and being told she was mistakenly in the first-class line.
“You don’t feel that most of the people in these incidents do not like black people, but simply are a product of their white supremacy and are exercising it on you without caution, care, or thought,” Knowles wrote. “Many times the tone just simply says, ‘I do not feel you belong here.’ ”