Sister Act: The Knowles and Williams siblings define healthy competition

Courtesy of @SaintRecords and @VenusWilliams

The Knowles and Williams sisters dispel the myths of contentious sibling rivalry.

"Beyoncé and Solange are the Venus and Serena of music," noted author and culture critic Alan Light on a panel entitled: "Everybody Still Wants to Fly: Activism in Pop from Prince to Solange," which was held at Yale University in late January. The younger Knowles sister served as the keynote.

That sparked inspiration.

You see, both the Williams and Knowles sisters proudly celebrate their black womanhood, and dominate traditionally white spaces -- tennis and pop music, respectively. Both sets of siblings allow their bodies to be canvases for their work, actively utilize style as a language (from beads to bustiers) and use their platforms to empower women and people of color.

Big sister Venus, 36, dipped her toe in the choppy tennis waters first. On Halloween, in 1994, she turned pro at the age of 14 at the Bank of the West Classic in Oakland. She lost to Arantxa Sánchez Vicario (who was ranked No. 2 in the world at the time). But, her talent was undeniable. By 2002, she had earned her stripes and became the first African-American female player to climb to No. 1 since the introduction of the WTA Tour computer rankings in 1975.

Littler sister Serena, 35, who made her pro-debut in 1995 at the Bell Challenge, lost her first match as well. But, the fire was ignited. And yes, Venus lit the way.

Fast-forward to the 1998 Australian Open, the Williams girls faced off in matching yellow and white beaded braids. Venus was the victor, but as she explained to The New York Times right after, that would surely change: "I see us as the No. 1 and No. 2 seeds, interchangeable." The scene was set. And history proved that the first and second spots were indeed held by each sister, fairly frequently. 

However, there's another famed sister twosome that defy all stereotypes of sibling rivalry, and consistently define greatness ... arm-in-arm.

Paul Harris/Online USA/Getty Images

Sisters Serena, left, and Venus Williams shake hands after a game in Compton, California, circa 1991.

Beyoncé Giselle Knowles-Carter, 35, was always a mentor of sorts for her younger sister Solange Piaget Knowles.

Solange, 30, started as a back-up singer and dancer for her big sis, who was then a lead singer for Destiny's Child (DC). Their careers have been stair-steps, each one climbing, and climbing, with an extended sisterly hand to help the other up.

Solange even filled in for DC mainstay and solo artist Kelly Rowland when she broke two toes during a performance in 2000. The favor was returned in 2001, when Solange acted as the lead singer, backed with Destiny's Child, on the title theme song for the animated television series "The Proud Family."

However, when Solange released her debut studio album in 2002, "Solo Star," she told MTV "[The album's title] means that I'm a star just being by myself, I didn't want to have everybody and their mama on my CD, it wouldn't make sense. I really wanted people just to get to know Solange on my first album, just to establish Solange's sound, just to establish Solange's personality. And when you have all these people on your record, it kind of confuses that."

At that point Beyoncé and her DC group members had already earned two Grammys for "Say My Name". They were megastars. Solange was still on the fringe.

Many pitted the Knowles sisters against each other. A culture critic from The Hartford Courant noted in January 2003: "Is Solange Knowles destined to one day outshine her big sister Beyoncé? Or is she just another younger sibling trying to ride coattails up the pop charts?"

The year 2008 proved that there were no coattails needed or outshining to be had.

Solange released her second solo album "Sol-Angel and the Hadley St. Dreams" in August 2008, which received great acclaim. Singles "T.O.N.Y." and "I Decided" echoed sentiments of independence and incorporated jazz sensibilities. She wasn't Bey's little sister and back-up singer anymore.

Though Beyoncé released two solo albums, "Dangerously in Love" (2003) and "B'Day" (2006), "I Am... Sasha Fierce," which dropped in November 2008, was a game-changer. Songs like "Single Ladies (Put a Ring on it)" and "If I Were a Boy" laminated her as a chart-topping pop-music icon, a role which was formerly held by white female performers like Madonna and Britney Spears.

Fast-forward to Feb. 26, 2012, the night a 17-year-old African-American male -- Trayvon Martin -- was gunned down in Sanford, Florida, by a man who claimed he was policing his neighborhood and standing his ground. Martin's crime: looking the part of a black boy.

There was also Oscar Grant, Michael Brown, Tamir Rice, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Alton Sterling, Philando Castile -- all black people whose lives were taken by the hands of those meant to protect them.

The tide was turning. Black athletes and musicians were standing up, and using their platforms for change. The Knowles and Williams sisters chose to bring their social and civic principles to the forefront.

Solange actively protested on the streets, on social media and in her music. On June 18, 2015, she noted on Twitter: "Was already weary. Was already heavy hearted. Was already tired. Where can we be safe? Where can we be free? Where can we be black?"

Beyoncé held moments of silence for the departed at her concerts. Along with her husband Jay-Z and other artists, she donated 1.5 million dollars to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement, and had the mothers of several of the men and women slain by police officers accompany her to the MTV Video Music Awards in August 2016.

Serena became outspoken on race and the Black Lives Matter movement too -- even raising her fist, which many saw as an act of African-American pride and solidarity, at the June 2016 Wimbledon games.

Venus, a champion of pay equality for women in sports, had a different approach. When reporters asked her about her sister's heartfelt Facebook post on police brutality and the protection of black lives, she responded to reporters at the Wuhan Open, by saying "All Lives Matter."

Whatever their stance or agenda, all four women thought it necessary to publicly address their blackness in respect to issues that were directly affecting the black community.

Last year Beyoncé's "Lemonade" (Serena Williams had a cameo in the visual album) and Solange's "A Seat at the Table" were released. Both albums were intentional love letters to black women -- complements to one another.

Serena Williams won her 23rd Grand Slam in January at the Australian Open. In pursuit of her win, she had to defeat her sister Venus (which she did 6-4, 6-4). After Serena lifted the Daphne Akhurst Memorial Cup, she was sure to thank her big sister.

"I really would like to take this moment to congratulate Venus. She's an amazing person. There's no way I would be at 23 (titles) without her," Serena said during her victory speech. "She's my inspiration -- she's the only reason I'm standing here today and the only reason the Williams sisters exist."

This bond, this sense of healthy competition, and of pushing each other forward is part of the formula. It represents a perfect blend of talent and humility, which forces us to fall deeper in love with both sets of sisters every step of the way.

Ericka N. Goodman-Hughey is a senior editor at espnW. Follow her on Twitter @ericka_editor

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