The year 2017 was a good year for black hair. Solange did the absolute most, impressing us with African-inspired avant-garde hairstyles. Then there was Erykah Badu—aka “Sara Bellum,” aka “Fat Belly Bella,” aka “Medulla Oblongata,” aka “Low Down Loretta Brown,” aka “Analogue Girl in a Digital World”—who pushed all the way through in what she called “atomic micro cosmic Badu braids.”
And just when we thought this summer’s cornrow craze had calmed down, Nicki Minaj came through and put it on us with “Pink Lemonade,” a fully remixed version of Queen Bey’s “Lemonade” braids. As per usual, black hair is out here being great.
This wasn’t always the case. Like any initiative, it takes time and momentum to gain traction. When enough people get on board, it becomes a runaway train—a movement.
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Natural hair isn’t new; it was promoted during the Black Power and Black Arts movements of the late ’60s and ’70s, when African Americans were encouraged to celebrate black aesthetics and pride. These ideas were realized through hairstyles like the Afro, braids and dreadlocks. However, as the movements fizzled, the exaltation of naturally textured hair did, too.
A resurgence—that I refer to as “the first wave”—occurred in the 1990s as black representation became more visible in mainstream culture. Simultaneously, black women began to embrace natural hairstyles—braids and twists in particular. Ethnic hairdos like box braids, cornrows and twists, once reserved for leisure and younger women, moved into professional spaces and even into entertainment.
Thursday nights were spent watching Living Single and fawning over Erika Alexander’s fabulous bobbed nu-locs. And let’s not forget Brandy Norwood’s role as Moesha, the sassy braided teen. Their attention-grabbing hairdos boosted braiding salon services and marked a new era in black aesthetics called the natural-hair movement.
Celebrity stylist Debra Hare-Bey of Debra Hare-bey Private Parlor @ OMHH (Oh My Heavenly Hair) Beauty Oasis in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood of Brooklyn, N.Y., says that much like in the ’60s and ’70s, the catalyst for the natural-hair boom in the ’90s was due to “a feeling of pride from the inside that began to reflect on the outside.”
Moving into the new millennium, a shift occurred. Concepts of natural hair were not solely about being in vogue, but also about a lifestyle. As black women adopted more holistic approaches to living healthy, hair also became a consideration. Women resorted to the big chop, shirking chemical relaxers for their own healthy textured manes, and changed the landscape of black hair. The twist-out and ’fros were reborn, locs were more plentiful and protective hairstyles grew.
Accordingly, traditional hair-product lines were forced to recognize and respond to a rapidly growing market and new demographic that was previously ignored: “Black women immobilized an entire beauty industry to pay attention to their hair needs. Hair-care products, books and videos are now available in the general market. Target, Walmart [and] Sally’s all carry merchandise and product for natural hair. It makes me proud,” says Diane C. Bailey, expert stylist and author of Milady Standard Natural Hair Care & Braiding.
Forward-thinking entrepreneurs and stylists began accommodating these new naturalistas in committing to their kinky tresses by expanding natural-hair services and designing hair-care products that catered to the complexities of black hair. Innovators in that market were Jane Carter Solutions, Miss Jessie’s and, more recently, SheaMoisture.
As more women embraced the coils they were born with, the movement evolved yet again. This go-round, women took education and style into their own hands by learning texture and techniques and exploring creativity. Trial and error and black women’s agency and ingenuity resulted in the creation of a show-and-tell culture on YouTube and other social media. Many women transitioned from bathroom stylists into natural-hair gurus by sharing product reviews, how-tos and DIY tutorials.
These women created economic lanes for themselves while educating and empowering others who were at the start of their natural-hair journeys. These women are the new voice of the movement and the progenitors of new techniques and style. For example, Susy Oludele, professionally known as “African Creature,” is the masterful hair artist behind Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” braids. She developed her YouTube and instagram presence around her styling prowess, and has parlayed her colorful hair artistry into a successful business.
As natural hair evolves, we continue to see self-expression that pushes the envelope: bold hues, enchanting adornment, even shaved heads.
In a once quiet movement, women have discovered and liberated their true selves. Through hair—or a lack thereof—we black women are asserting our identity. Bald beauty and clothing designer Sarah Nicole François feels that much of what people decide about black women is attached to hair. She says that being bald, though it comes with its own presumptions, freed her from a lot of that.
“It’s like, y’all wanna use my hair to decide what kind of black person you think I am? Well now, I don’t have any. So what’s up?”
Black hair has a history of being politicized. However, the natural-hair movement has snatched those roots and redefined the black aesthetic for black women and popular culture. Natural hair has given women agency and voice when it comes to our identity and freedom of expression. It is no longer a movement, it is mainstay. And it is ours.