Hip Hop Hair: How Hairstyles Influence Movement
Hair is more than just strands of dead protein cells, it is the visual representation of our deepest thoughts. A hairstyle determines how you flow through life. The keratin that grows out of our head can teach us many lessons and like hip hop dance they both tell a story of struggle and victory.
This is a response to Temitayo’s article From Scarification to Krump where she speaks about skin the same way I think about hair. Her words inspired me – especially the quote below – to think about the function of black hair in hip hop dance.
“The body has always been a site for transformation. It is in many ways a skin, something that we change, put on and shed, and which in the process changes the way we see and interact with ourselves, and the way others interact with us.”
It's a rite of passage for a young boy to take a trip to the barber shop with his father or father figure. That boy learns about social issues in his community and often receives advice from older men when he’s old enough to sit in the barber’s chair. A young girl who sits on the floor at her mother’s knee to have her hair styled will learn life lessons as well. We begin forming beliefs based on the way our hair looks before we realise what is growing out of our scalp.
I remember the scent of dollar store hair gel mixed with coconut oil...when I think about those days I recall sitting for hours to get my hair braided. My scalp throbbed for the first few days but all the pain felt worth it, to connect to my first representation of female MC’s like YoYo and Da Brat. Those women showed how black women were equals in every way. I wanted to do what they did and look like they looked.
Swag is something deeply entrenched in hip hop culture. Black creators who come up with new trends set the bar for what’s hip hop and what’s not. Swag is an extension of thought from a tattoo to a high-top fade. A dancer's thoughts show in how their body moves. Good hair days and bad, black hair speaks of heritage, self-love, history, expression and style. Hair is urban storytelling without saying a word. A specific hairstyle paints a larger societal portrait. I’m thinking of Janet Jackson and MC Lyte wearing box braids in the 90’s. We called them dookey braids and I see that hairstyle as a representation of my transition from teen to adulthood because I rocked that style too.
I remember the first time I saw the Roger Rabbit at a college party. A girl I went to high school with attended Kansas University after graduation. She didn’t belong to a sorority, but her popularity got her invites to the frat parties, so she invited me to come hang with her on the weekends. There were no DJ’s back then just a guy playing mixtapes on a boom box in a community room on the college campus. The minute the fraternity steppers started gathering in a line, we waited to see what they would do. They yelled out their frat calls as they snaked around the room. The guys added popular dances in their step routines and it was the early 90’s so dances like the Roger Rabbit were new. The energy felt palpable. We stood around watching the impromptu performance cheering them on while I twirled my freshly braided hair flirting with the sorority girls across the room. I’d only seen that dance on TV until those frat parties. This was the era of Bobby Brown.
Braids neatly plaited in rows, fluffy afros and long dreadlocks are hairstyles seen on every continent - especially in the performing arts where fashion sets the trends. Think Big Daddy Kane with a high-top fade. He copied the style after he saw it on the artist Cameo because he thought it looked regal. That style has transformed over the years and immigrant barbers in New York are credited as creating the first geometrical shapes into extremely curly hair. Temitayo mentions skin being transformative, I see black hair as an evolution from era to era, new shapes change, but the original inspiration stays intact.
I remember the steppers dressed in oversized suits like Bobby. Most of the guys wore a slanted fade called a gumby or had steps carved into their high-top fade. Hard soled shoes rounded out the look making it easier to glide across the linoleum floors. My friends and I wore box braids to represent our culture. Younger generations recreating dookey braids still signifies an apparition of the past. When I look back at that time, hair is one way to show how we felt about being young, creative and black.
“How I grew to believe Black hair has power, genius, and magic in it, defying gravity and limitation. I mean, look at how marvellous it is: Black hair grows up and out.” Michaela Angela Davis
Angela Davis’s influence is deeply interwoven into my life. She spent 18 months incarcerated for her affiliation with the Black Panther Party during the 70s. The organisation gained momentum in fighting for the equal rights of black people in America and many members of the organisation were imprisoned or killed during that time. The video footage of her release from jail shows her with a fist raised high over her head and a perfectly round afro. That iconic moment made her a fashion icon.
She said there are more important issues to discuss than her hairdo, but her afro is synonymous with black people getting comfortable with our autonomy versus a society that wants us to assimilate to white beauty standards. Her influence wasn’t reserved just for me. Her release happened during a time when a new TV show, Soul Train, gave dancers a platform to shine. Afro hairstyles on male and female dancers showed up on the show in droves and it didn’t take long for the trend to spread.
Don Cornelius started Soul Train with the mission of giving a platform to black artists. Dancers from that era of the 70’s were revered as innovators of urban dance and fashion. My Christian parents wouldn’t allow me to watch the show, but that didn’t stop me. I’d turn the volume down to barely audible in the privacy of my bedroom just to see what moves would strut down the line.
Pat Davis was a popular figure on Soul Train who decorated her afro with butterfly clips and went on to a career as a choreographer and singer. She was the youngest dancer to perform on the show because of her undeniable popping and locking talent and they allowed her on the show when she was 16 years old, even though the minimum age for dancers was supposed to be 18.
Fried, Dyed and Laid to the Side
There are specific hairstyles that connect black people to the fight for equality - like an afro and dreadlocks. I think of arms lifting up and out or dreadlocks defying gravity when a dancer spins. It’s a different type of movement and there’s a quantifiable power when the combination of rap lyrics and a fresh hairstyle meet the magic of creative movement.
When considering the essence of this article I thought about a video posted on Instagram by one of Les Twins. Larry begins the video by getting ready for his day. He used the downtime during the pandemic to encourage people to stay home and healthy by posting videos of him dancing at home. He says that his huge afro is frustrating him when he starts to dance. The edges of his hair kept floating down into his eyes as he moved, interrupting his freestyle. He finds a hair tie to pull the afro away from his face into a fluffy ponytail. Identical twin brothers, Larry and Laurent Bourgeois, are known for their signature matching afros and other styles like braids and twists. His frustrated moment stuck with me on a deeper level.
I used to wear my hair in an afro and I remember how it made me feel. Picking my curls out in the morning made me feel courageous like I could take on any challenge that came at me during the day. There is a powerful energy when leaving the comfort of home to step outside the house rocking an afro.
Usually, a white woman wanted to touch my afro. Sometimes people were bold enough to touch it without my permission - that never ended well. Those people didn’t realise that touching my hair out of curiosity is disrespectful. I encountered many white people who felt privileged enough to touch a stranger without asking first. My afro wouldn’t stay up or out all day because my hair texture is soft and I’d end up pulling my hair into a ponytail before returning home. Larry’s frustration stuck with me because dealing with a large afro isn’t easy. It does what it wants and it’s like it has a mind of its own. It blows in the wind, there are times it won’t conform to the shape you want it and when it’s free and loose, it beckons unwanted touches.
The way I move in and through the world with this particular style comes with consequences but I chose to wear it anyway because, much like my skin, it’s my most authentic self. The hairstyle is my ancestry. Both my parents once wore afros and it represents a rejection of any idea that I’m less pretty because my hair isn’t straight. It speaks for me and how I identify with the culture of others who wear the style. It is aggravating, liberating and it is mine.
I’ve spent over 30 years in the beauty industry as a barber, cosmetologist and eventually an instructor. I remember sitting down with the syllabus before teaching my first group of students. The school expected me to teach about the history of hair but the textbook avoided the deeper discussion of cultural appropriation. The textbook says Egyptians were the first trendsetters of hairstyles like braids and locks. It’s laughable because they didn’t innovate anything, they took their inspiration from ancient Nubians.
The Nubians ruled approximately 100 years before the Egyptians. Nubian hairstyles developed from tribal rituals and signified social status. Having long and healthy hair represented a person’s vitality and growing a head of healthy curls doesn’t magically happen overnight. There were specific styles which took years of treatment to cultivate, whilst grooming their hair before important ceremonies for celebrations, as preparation for war and other special occasions was a celebrated tradition.
Temitayo’s article describes skin as something we can change. Changes in black hairstyles carry history too. Cosmetology and barber textbooks begin hair history with Egyptians but it avoids the part where American slavery stripped away traditional hair practices for those stolen from distant lands. Slaves didn’t have access to the same natural ingredients to keep their hair healthy and they were stripped of the rituals which promoted hair growth. Many were forced to shave their hair off to humiliate them whilst slave owners started to separate the slaves with tighter coiled hair from those with loose curls implanting the ideology that white hair was more attractive. They promoted the idea that hair textures that swung loosely were more beautiful because the movement and texture is closer to white hair textures.
The Guedra is a ritualistic dance which comes from nomads in Morocco where in preparing for the dance, people dye their skin blue. A woman from the tribe usually performs the dance and wears a headdress made of braids decorated with shells with her hair loosely woven in. The headpiece has space above the head to show off the way the head swings during the dance whilst the rhythms of the drums build as the dancer transforms from a soft sway into a frenzy of energy. Those watching the dance call out cheers of encouragement and the dancer gives all her energy to the point of exhaustion. When she collapses, another dancer replaces her. This reminded me of Krump, though the intent is different.
Marginalised people have always found creative ways to express ourselves and Krump is a way dancers release frustration. As Temitayo shared her thoughts on Krump, she explained how preparation before the dance has ritualistic nuances that resemble African tribal practices. Painting the face for warriors who prepared to go into battle is recreated in Krump as an innovative way to express grief and celebrate life: “Much like adornment, hip hop dance and views on it’s evolution are polarising, with some arguing for the preservation of original forms, while others push for the development of new ways of moving.”
I’ve witnessed this in black hair evolution too. Hip hop culture has come a long way and I’ve witnessed hairstyles evolve over the decades along with the dances. The perfect round afro is replaced with a less structured one. The high-top fade became loose curls on top with a fade on the bottom. I grew out my afro long after my days of performing with a drag king troupe, though I still attended many shows in the clubs and I even judged a few drag competitions too. Drag artistry changed as the culture changed. Chris Brown is more popular now than when I was transforming myself into LL Cool J. The music became sexier, fluid and it morphed into something nostalgic but different. I relate to the practice of rituals before a performance. Many special moments happened in the dressing rooms of queer clubs as I prepared for a performance as a drag king in Kansas City. Those moments where we gathered to fix our hair, paint our face, and practice our dance were just as important as the performance itself. Those moments of helping another drag performer line up their glued-on beard is where I learned about life. The hours spent in preparation gave us time to unpack deeper issues.
Dreadlocks are created by rolling sections of hair into ropes and now it’s trendy because many celebrities have that style. Bob Marely is to dreadlocks what Angela Davis is for me, a deeper connection to loving my blackness. JayZ, The Migos, J-Cole, Busta Rhymes and plenty of other hip hop artists wear the style, but ancient Nubians wore the style first even though the Rastafari religion popularised it and their hair became a symbol of rebellion against oppression.
Speaking of oppression...the Crown Act of 2019 in the USA prevents an employer from discriminating an employee based on them wearing a natural hairstyle. Only 18 States passed the act leaving plenty other employees having to conform to European beauty standards. I was a queer club kid long before legal protection passed and the club scene was the only place, besides home, where I could truly be myself safely. Not all dancers work full time in that career in the USA. Those from marginalised backgrounds may dance part-time while holding down a job that is very different from performing and hip hop dancing still isn’t viewed as legitimate work. Dancers who work corporate jobs in American aren’t free to wear their hair the way they want depending on the state they live in. I’ve known people to wear wigs over their natural hair to go to work and the only place they can reveal their natural hair is when they are at home or in a community with other dancers.
Thieves in the Temple
Temitayo pointed out how adornment for hip hop dancers creates different identities. Dance is a revelation of all the faces we show to the world. She wrote of how dancers show us the extremes of our history: “For many hip hop dancers, adorning the body before dance provides infinite possibilities to recreate our identities, and enables a sense of power and control over our bodies. Black style, and by extension hip hop has been an expression of controlling the extremes throughout history.”
The body is our first home, it’s a temple we adorn. It’s a difficult choice to decide what hairstyle to wear as a black person because I risk discrimination if I wear a style that expresses who I am. Styles such as braids, twists, locks, cornrows and afros are “so controversial” they need legal protection. The adornment of my hair transitions based on the environment and I re-create myself with each new style. I make a conscious decision regarding how I move whether it’s my hair or my body and lessons I learned about hair let me know when it’s safe to express my whole self.
I love that hip hop culture offers an opportunity to personalise whatever message you want to speak on, be it in dance, style or music. Temitayo’s article mentions that Krump offers dancers an opportunity for anonymity. Imagine being a whole controversy by being yourself so you wear face paint and wigs to feel free. She mentioned that dancers on the Krump scene are living in a “racist America.” The colourful afro wigs represent a bold thumb in the eye of anyone that wants to steal the style but not the struggle.
Appropriating black hairstyles is rampant. Non-black people see the power of thought and creativity represented in our hair. It’s what white people take freely for themselves without permission and without consequences. Straight hair textures are not ideal for dreadlocks, but white people force their hair into the style by ratting their hair into tangles just to achieve a similar look.
Gold plates once topped the pyramids of Giza. Robbers desecrated the legacy of ancient rulers when they took those precious adornments. History keeps repeating itself. Braids that that connect me to history and my community are worn by people who are not dealing with the same discrimination. The braids I wore in the 90’s meant I was called ‘ghetto and unprofessional’.
Credit is rarely given to the actual originators of urban style especially in terms of dollars. It is another way systemic racism suppresses black expressions while profiting from the culture. TikTok is a great offender of appropriation. Black content creators of dances, voice overs and hairstyles are frequently used by more popular white content creators. Some black creators of new dance trends are on strike waiting for the platform to figure out the logistics of giving them credit. The legal issues about copyrighting dances are a tangled mess.
A culture of appropriation caused all this. There is a nonchalant attitude about taking advantage of black artists. It’s too easy to take without consequences. One click of using someone’s original dance seems innocent enough. Copying is seen as a compliment, even though the dollars for viral videos don’t get to the communities that started it and need it.
Sets of Silhouettes
Every dancer casts a silhouette when they move. A hairstyle provides an opportunity to non-verbally show something deeper and hair is included in the architecture of a dancer’s shapes as they move. There is an iconic video of Larry Bourgeois dancing at Piccadilly Circus to a song by Yebba. The entire performance is deeply moving and the tendrils at the edge of his afro shake when his body mimics crying. You might miss the slight shake of his shoulders depending on what angle you see the performance from, but you notice that his body is shaking by his hair.
Larry Bourgeois (Les Twins) Freestyles at Piccadilly Circus. 2019. Credit Alena Schik
My drag friends decided to stage a tribute show when Michael Jackson died. We all picked a different era for his evolution of dance and hair. I transformed into Michael to perform Dirty Diana. I freestyled the dancing because there wasn’t time to rehearse. I remembered his video, a silhouette of him in a white shirt, lots of black belts, throwing himself to the ground while head banging his curls to the guitar player. I peeked out from behind the curls dangling over one eye at the crowd. The curly wig made a big difference in the performance and those juicy curls of the late 80’s represent a throwback to the era when we first saw MJ do the Moonwalk.
The show progressed like a time machine. One performer portrayed Michael with the Angela Davis like afro and the silhouette instantly reminded me of the Jackson 5’s moves and another performer danced to The Way You Make Me Feel. My friend skipped across the dance floor with her hair dripping curl activator and she’d occasionally toss her head back like MJ did. Each set of silhouettes created a portrait of an era and that tribute show sums up everything about the transformative power of hair in hip hop.
I watch dance more than participate these days, but there are infinite ways in which hair is integrated into movement. I notice how a dancer’s loc’s float around them when they spin creating an umbrella shape and it’s mesmeric to watch the shape of locs transform during a dance. It puts me in a meditative state, like watching a kaleidoscope. Seeing curls bouncing along with a head nod subconsciously makes my body want to bob my head too. Hip hop dance culture should always celebrate uniqueness and innovation as an evolving movement while still giving credit to the OG’s. I’m looking forward to seeing how dancers utilise their hair in their art in the future. I’m also growing my afro back because I’d like to feel the magic of it once again.
Commissioned for Ink Cypher, May 2023
A response to From Scarification to Krump by Temitayo Ince
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Some people paint pictures with words and others create art with language. Starla designs word play to engage the reader using a combination of her own life as a black-lesbian author and her love of all things hiphop related. She’s a former Drag King and rapper turned author, poet, spoken word artist, ghostwriter, LGBTQIA activist and warrior of words.
She has 15 published books and her newest novel is a new sci-fi/fan-fictional story using the dancing of Les Twins (French hiphop Artists) and Janelle Monae (African American Artist) as her muses.
She currently owns a business, Blue Notebook Publishing Consultants LLC, based upon her blue notebook of raps written 3 decades ago. Her mentorship and services assist marginalised creatives produce their own published books.