Friday, March 5News For London

“Wig or Frizz”: black hair and Identity

As the “Black lives matter” campaign rages on in the USA, some may be asking how much of it has reignited black pride sentiments in countries like the UK. 

Sipho Mnikwa has been keeping her hair natural since 2014. (Photo: Sipho Mnikwa)
Sipho Mnikwa has been keeping her hair natural since 2014. (Photo: Sipho Mnikwa)

Just before the largest natural hair show “Natural Hair week” kicks off in London, Manchester, Leeds and Birmingham from 30 April to 7 May, we take a look at how hair is becoming a revived statement of black pride among women living in the UK.

Black hair, black pride

The 60s and 70s are quite significant for black civil rights movements in America and the creative forms of protest that black Americans used to draw attention to self-determination. Elaborate hairstyles became some of the big statements adopted by black icons like Grace Jones, Diana Ross, The Jackson 5, Lionel Richie and the commodores among others, to reflect pride and acceptance of their natural looks.

Over the years, attention on black identity and how it is reflected through fashion had subsided until the “Black lives matter campaign” started in 2013. Not only has this campaign drawn attention to the violent deaths of black men at the hands of law enforcement agents in the US, but also to attitudes towards black talent as shown through the boycotting of the Oscars in February and Beyonce’s controversial performance at the super bowl half time show. Once again questions about black power and black pride have been revived and black women seem to be joining in through seemingly subtle statements of protest through their hairstyles.

US musician, Grace Jones, is known for her wild natural hair looks since the 70s. (Photo: Radioisotope)

For a number of years many black women have ignored, hidden or transformed their kinky, curly, course textured hair. Even more have believed their hair cannot grow beyond certain lengths or be healthily maintained without adding extra chemicals or processing. However, as more information is shared on platforms like You Tube and Instagram many are choosing to keep their virgin hair and this has encouraged more and more black women to take up the challenge.

Synthetic wigs, weaves, braids and hair relaxers have been the saving grace for black women for decades, but of late, choosing between continuing to use artificial hair and embracing one’s natural kinky afro has become a statement of identity. Huge debates about embracing one’s natural locks have been waged on social media platforms with many feeling that the media’s depiction of black women’s hairstyles has for a long time discouraged them from keeping their hair natural. This has in a way put pressure on some stars to take a stand on what they think about “being and looking black”.

US singer and poet, Nina Simone, maintained her natural hair in the 60s. (Photo: Dutch National Archive)


Black hair as identity

Beyonce’s latest music video for the song Formation is also laden with statements and images of the same. In it she shows her daughter with big afro hair and says she likes her with “baby hair afro” and her “negro nose with Jackson 5 nostrils”. This is quite a declaration given that Beyoncé is often seen in silky straight weaves and artificial hair. Natasha Green, a postgraduate student says she lost a lot of hair after adding colour to it in an attempt to look like Beyoncé in one of her music videos. She says: “I honestly thought that was her natural hair and not a wig.” Natasha went on to dye her hair as well.

But, does this mean kinky afros are coming back? Angela Jimu who has been keeping her hair natural for 2 years says she would like to see more black role models endorsing products that are made for kinky black hair. “Most if not all black stars endorse the very products we are trying to stop using like the hair relaxers and colouring chemicals. I would love to see Lupita Nyongo and Danai Gurira, both successful black women with short hair, endorsing hair products that are more suited for kinky afro hair,” she says.

more India.Arie and 100,000 more pictures at
American artiste, India Arie (Photo: More Things

Somehow hair seems to be becoming a political statement but should black women be prescribed or dictated to on how to wear their hair? Not everyone feels this way. A significant number of black women feel the ability to love one’s natural hair must not limit the choices they have but rather expand them. “I love being able to change my hairstyle. As much as I’m happy that my natural hair is now socially acceptable and fashionable, I still want the freedom to wear a wig, weave or even straighten it without the burden of being judged as hating who I am,” says Simmy Ncube, who has moved from natural to relaxed and weaved hair several times over the years.

Oscar winner, Lupita Nyongo inspires thousands of black women to go natural. (Photo:
Oscar winner, Lupita Nyong’o inspires thousands of black women to go natural. (Photo: Gordon Correll)

African-American chart topping artist Inida Arie also wrote a song that seems to neutralise the debate stating, “I am not my hair, I am not your expectations no, I’m the girl that lives within”. In it she re-lives the seemingly tough journey she’s had to go through to come to terms with her natural hair and what this has meant for her identity and the way people view her. Arie reveals that she had to perm, twist, colour and cut her hair several times in her teenage years before accepting that nothing on the outside mattered as much as who she is on the inside.

The “big chop” challenge

So do all women choose the afro look because of identity? It seems it is mainly the cost, time and damage that constant hair processing does which has a greater number of black women deciding to go for what has come to be known as the “big chop”. The “big Chop” involves one cutting off a large portion or all of their hair in a purging process. This is meant to help it start growing afresh, healthier and stronger.

Hair salon owner and trainer for hairdressers at a local London college, Ingrid Meyers argues however that the big chop may not be necessary. She says natural hair can just be as damaged as processed hair if not handled with care. “The problem is in the constant processing of the hair and not necessarily the use of natural products. If one pulls and tugs at natural hair, fails to nourish and oil it properly, it may eventually become as damaged as over relaxed or coloured hair” she says.

Angela Jimu (London), Simmy Ncube (Birmingham) and Sipho Mnikwa (US) talk about natural hair and identity in the audio clip above. 

The challenge faced by some black women in London is that there are fewer specialist hair salons that cater for afro Hair. Ingrid says the UK government has over the years cut funding to colleges after graduates in the afro hair industry did not go back to work in the formal sector. “Salons do not have a large enough pool of qualified hairdressers for Afro hairstyles because hairdressing colleges have not been offering the training for a long time. Much of what is known now is what has been circulating online,” says Ingrid.

Some salons have resorted to having part-time hair experts who come in once in a while to service clients that need this special hair care. Yonkell C is one such hairdresser, working in South Harrow. She comes in twice a week and says the interest in keeping black women’s hair natural has grown since she started offering the service.

According to the Huffington post, market research firm Mintel projects that in 2017 the black hair care industry’s global market will be worth almost three quarters of a billion dollars. The firm is cautious to mention though that these figures do not include market brands like weaves, wigs, styling appliances, beauty supply stores and so forth. With these included they project that the industry will be an over half a trillion dollar industry.

Fehim Ali, marketing manager at M&M Hair and Beauty shop in Harrow town centre says they have had to adjust a lot to market needs over the last few years. Their shop supplies women’s beauty accessories from hair extensions, hair chemicals and a hair salon at the top floor to cater for customers needing specialists in black afro hair. He says: “There has been a growing need for the natural hair oils like the Moroccan organ oil, the Jamaican castor oils and the Cantu hair products which are now part of our top selling merchandise.

Whether this is a trend that will stay fuelled by the viral nature of the internet , or a passing fashion phase that may fade with the attainment of objectives by the Black lives matter campaign is yet to be seen. It is notable however that black women now have a wider choice of styles and products to choose from and the internet is making these aspirations even more attainable.