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10-in-10 with Stanford's Linda Sol

Lightning rod or ray of light? How about both?

by Suzy Welch
April 24, 2020

To hear Linda Sol tell it, much of her extraordinary life has been accidental. The leap from Chicago’s West Side to Stanford. From poet to rapper. From nonpartisan observer to Fox News lightning rod. Yes, Fox News. But we’ll get to her arrest, and its unexpected aftermath, later.

First, it’s important to understand Linda Sol as an artist in the midst of shaping her “accidental” life into a narrative of her own authorship, a fascinating interior journey you can hear about on her debut EP, 72, named for a much-traveled bus route of her childhood. On the same EP, you can also hear Sol’s rapid-fire rhymes, wickedly smart lyrics, and eclectic mix of conscious hip-hop and low-fi neo-soul.

"‘I’d like to think that my music does some work of healing,” says Sol, a junior and Urban Studies major. “Maybe it helps you remember somebody or remember a place, or it helps you think about yourself in the context of this world. I think art is a way to deal with the hand you’ve been dealt.”

Sol’s hand started within a tight-knit family in the vibrant neighborhood of Humboldt Park. Her mom, a poet in her earlier life, devoted herself to the kids; her dad loved to DJ the soundtrack of their many celebrations. Her first exposure to rhyming came at 7, when she tagged along with her older sister to Kuumba Lynx, a music and dance workshop program. In ninth grade, she attended her first open-mic poetry slam, and was instantly all-in for a high school experience defined by spoken word performances and prizes. Along the way, a few people pulled her aside to tell her that, with the unique cadence of her speech, she was a born rapper. Her answer was always the same, “I’m not a rapper. I make poems.”

She arrived at Stanford in the fall of 2017. She will tell you she was slow to make friends and fit in, until two events, both again accidental, launched a musical career that would soon have her opening for 2 Chainz, Ella Mai, Shangela, A. Chal, Mereba, and Dreezy.

In a recent video call from her Chicago bedroom, Sol talked with Quadio about choosing her name, finding her voice, and the 16 bars that changed her life.  

Can we start with your name, which you created as you became an artist --

Yeah, I thought, if I’m going to get serious about this, what am I going to call myself? I always liked hearing people say my name in Spanish, which is Melinda, so I took a piece of that. And then “Sol” because I want to radiate positivity and spread joy, sunny vibes and good energy.

And yet, the way you first really got known as an artist was not exactly about sunny vibes, right?

It was just kind of surreal what happened. I remember being on the phone with my mom afterward, saying to her, “Is this happening to me?”

The story is kind of crazy. I would consider myself a pretty observant person; there is a reserved side of me that just watches things. So, I was riding my bike back from class, and I saw the Stanford College Republicans tabling, and I could see they were challenging a woman who was disagreeing with them, and at one point, I just felt the need to intervene. And it was really ironic, because I didn't go over there to debate my politics. All I wanted to say was, “There's a better way to have this conversation. We should speak with people who disagree with us, but the way that this is happening right now is clearly not pushing us to some sort of emancipatory end.”

The conversation escalated, but not all that much, I thought. The next thing I know the police came, Stanford’s diversity officer came, and I don’t know, it was like I blinked and I was on Fox News. The president of the club said I shoved him. I didn’t. But the story that was being told was that conservatives didn’t have free speech at Stanford. They tried to make me apologize; they were like, "We'll drop the charges if you apologize." But my feeling was, "What am I apologizing for? I didn't do anything." A week later, they dropped the charges anyway.

I didn't know how to handle the situation. I didn’t have representation; I was afraid whatever I said could be used against me. The only thing I could think was, "I'm going to write." I wrote "Testimony" the day that the story was on Fox News.

Would you say the positive reaction to “Testimony” was the upside of it happening?

I'm not glad it happened to me. I’m not. But I’m glad that it happened to me versus somebody else, because I felt like I could take on the situation in a way that was like, "I'm going to flip the script, there's going to be something that comes out of this that is good.” For me, that was that people are going to listen to my music. People could get to know me more as an artist.

But also, I had a lot of important conversations after it happened about political tensions on campus. Conversations about -- what does it mean to build a bridge rather than burn it with people who disagree with you? I was on a few panels, I was in a short film, so I got to meet a lot of people and have conversations that needed to be had.

The controversy kind of amped up your writing, right?

I think I felt encouraged to be more of a public voice. I think as soon as I realized how much love there was and support that people had for me just as a person from that situation. Because again, I had this experience at Stanford where I felt very alone. But when [the arrest] happened to me, the amount of people that checked on me or said, "I'm standing with you," or "Whatever you need, I got you," was amazing. That to me was the moment that I was like, "I shouldn't be scared. I do have something to say, I should share it. I should share it by voice more."

Also, I now had a platform on campus, which made me able to network more and get more performances. And at that point it was kind of a cycle of, all right, if I'm going to have more performances, I need more songs. Because at that point, my sets would be mixed with songs and poems and I didn't have enough songs to fill a 15-to-20 minute set. And so I started writing and writing, sometimes two songs a week. By sophomore spring, my music life was moving so fast because I was auditioning to open for Blackfest, Frost, Fuck the Man, as well as to perform at frat houses. Some I got, some I didn’t, but all in all, it ended up being an experience of, “How do I make this something bigger than me?”

Can we talk about how you even became a rapper?

All through elementary school, I was writing poems that I wanted to perform and I was performing for my classmates. I was a shy kid, but I never felt like an outsider or alienated in any way. Then, when I was a freshman in high school, one of my friends invited me to his performance in a poetry slam called “Louder Than A Bomb,” the oldest and largest youth poetry festival in the world. In the audience, I said to my best friend, "I'm going to be on that stage next year. I promise you.”

What was it that you wanted to say so badly?

I didn't know what I wanted to say yet, but I definitely wanted to say something. I felt like the slam was a place where people had space. You get on stage and you have people's eyes and ears for three minutes and what you say is really important and what are you going to use that time for? You're saying your truth. I think the bravery of it, the anger, the sadness, the happiness, the strong emotions that were attached to the culture of slam, just drew me to it so much.

But why did you pick Stanford then, because, as a school, it’s so much about tech?

I didn’t even think about Stanford until senior year. I was planning to stay in Illinois. I wanted to stay close to my family. But one of my friends was talking about Stanford and how great it was, and I checked it out, and I felt like, oh wow, Stanford has a great balance of academics, as well as having a laid back vibe where people are just as casual as they are geniuses, you know what I mean? So I felt like it was good energy. But remember, at this point I was making music, but I wasn't taking it seriously.

During my first year, though, I kind of started playing with beats, and I remember the first person that came up to me, and they were like, "Oh, are you a rapper?" And I'm like, "No, I'm a poet." And they're like, "Okay." And when they saw me, again, they're around other friends and they're like, "Yo! This girl raps!" And slowly it started to pick up and that's how I would make friends. At one point I told my mom, "These people think I'm a rapper." And she said, "Well, just run with it." And I was like, "Okay."

What was the first time you performed as a rapper?

It was a coincidence the way it happened actually. I was at this place on campus that has a study center, and I saw this guy who had headphones on, and he was clearly vibing out to music. And as I got closer, I realized he was making beats, and I was like, "Oh, I feel like I need to talk to this guy." And so I worked up the courage to say hi and asked him what he’s doing, and come to find out we're both from Chicago. We both grew up in the “Louder Than A Bomb” slam space, and we know mutual people from the art space.

I shared that I rap and I make music and he said, “Oh, spit something!" So I spit something and I shared like 16 bars, we're going back and forth. I'm sharing 16 bars and he's like, "Yo, I think you need to be on this song for the performance." He was part of a Chicago band that was opening on Valentine’s Day for Ella Mai at the annual Black Love show at Stanford.

So that’s how it happened. I came up on stage for their last song and I shared a verse; it was the first time I was rapping in front of a crowd. I was overwhelmed with the feeling of what it felt like to be on stage in that way. It's a different motion of energy, and from there I knew that this is something I want to do, I want to be a performer in this way. Those 16 bars changed a lot of things for me.

In a way, it was an evolution?

Well, when I go back and see my poems as a kid, I realize I was always carrying a rhyme scheme. It's like things are coming full circle.

And so, what’s next?

The way I see it, for my entire life I've always done things I'm passionate about and it's gotten me to the place I am. So right now, I'm continuing to do the things I'm passionate about and trying to do them my best. My dream is definitely to be a touring artist, to continue to share and hear music. And hope that that builds up to something bigger than me.