Exploring The Twisted Politics Of Dreadlocks

Photographed by Elizabeth Wirija

It’s a long-winded road

In celebration of Black History Month, NYLON is running a spotlight series called UNAPOLOGETIC. Every day, we’ll celebrate different aspects of black culture through profiles, interviews, roundtables, reviews, videos, and op-eds. #Blacklivesmatter and we hold that truth to be self-evident.

Black hair is politicized, whether intentionally or not. A young woman’s decision to go natural might have nothing to do with pushing back against the Euro-centric ideal of beauty, but it will be viewed as such. Conversely, one might decide to wear a weave or straighten their hair because it’s more conducive to their lifestyle, but people will think these moves have their own political motivations. The backstory, often, doesn’t matter; if you’re black and have hair, what you choose to do with it is going to be placed under a microscope. And there’s perhaps no other style that undergoes more scrutiny than dreadlocks.

The precise origin of locs is hard to track. According to some reports, the first recorded sighting spans as far back as 2500 BCE. The style was also found to be present during Ancient Egypt, with anthropologists discovering the style on mummies. Hindu men during the nineteenth century were also loc-wearers, and biblical Samson was is said to have donned the style. But while the look has a long and storied history around the world, it wasn't until the rise of Rastafarians in the 1930s—and, later and significantly, Bob Marley—that dreadlocks were widely popularized in the west. Rastafarianism is a religious movement founded in Jamaica; their hair was viewed as an extension of their rebellion, and is also thought to be emblematic of Rastafarians' spiritual journey.  

Choker by Martine Ali Studio, Suit by Christopher John Rogers.

In the ‘80s and ‘90s, cultural icons like Whoopi Goldberg, Jean-Michel Basquiat, and Lauryn Hill helped normalize the style and introduce it to popular culture. In turn, its rebellious label started to unfurl; with more exposure comes acceptability—if only in certain spaces. Bert Ashe, professor of English and American Studies at the University of Richmond and author of Twisted: My Dreadlock Chronicles, explains: 

Dreadlocks is not considered appropriate for official occasions, and we know that because if you look at newscasters on TV, nobody's wearing dreadlocks. Black people are not wearing dreadlocks on TV, in any sort of official capacity. Barack Obama, for all of his gifts and all of his oratorical and political skills, does not get elected if he is wearing dreadlocks. It's not gonna happen.

There are a lot of restrictions given to the person holding one of the highest offices in the world—especially if that person is black—so this might be a grand example. But the same restrictions are put on those in “smaller” offices, also. In September, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a case brought by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission against a company that refused to hire a woman because she wouldn’t cut off her dreadlocks, sending the vile message that wearing your hair in its natural state could cost you a job, which is a fact many black women have known for decades. Just look at the recent Implicit Association Test hosted by “The ‘Good Hair’ Study: Explicit and Implicit Attitudes Toward Black Women’s Hair.” Findings show a strong bias against “textured” hairstyles, which were viewed as being “less beautiful, less sexy/attractive, and less professional than smooth hair.”

Malcolm wears: overalls by APC, shoes by Vans. Aliya wears: wind breaker by Marcelo Burlon County of Milan, overalla by APC, ring  and left earring by Third Crown, right earring and shoes by Martine Ali Studio. Jada-Renee wears: rings in hair, choker, waist chain, and shoes by Martine Ali Studio, top and shorts by Marcelo Burlon County of Milan. 

“In the workplace, you have to be aware of what the norms are and then decide that you either want to push back at them or accede to them. On some level, the acceptability of dreadlocks cannot be denied, but only to a certain extent," Ashe says, "because if you're wearing short hair and neat hair, you can dress anyway you want, change into official attire and be accepted for who you are. And there are certain hairstyles—and dreadlocks is one of them— where it's not accepted on that level.”

Which is a nice, if not inevitable, segue into the appropriation conversation surrounding the style. A role call of instances in the past two years include: Marc Jacobs sending white models with faux dreadlocks down the runway last season; the Blonds doing the same a season prior; Kylie Jenner donning them two years ago, followed by Miley Cyrus seven months later. All were met with backlash.

The decisions were poorly thought out at best, but Ashe explains it’s not entirely their fault. Black people do cool things, and white people like to raid their cool things and claim them as their own:

They attempt to participate in what they see as a phenomenally attractive cultural display, and that display is blackness. They want to "play." They have no sense of how offensive that play can be to the originators of the style, and sometimes when they do become aware of how offensive that is to certain members of the originators of the style, they shrug and say, ‘well, I like it,’ and end up doing it anyway.

The dismissal is why most of these appropriators end up in hot water. (That, and when they employ the off-base counterargument of “well, white people don’t say anything when black women straighten their hair or dye it blonde.”) We saw it with Marc Jacobs’ half-assed apology, we also saw it with Giuliana Rancic’s PR-friendly response to her comments about Zendaya’s faux dreadlocks at the Oscars in 2015. In all of these cases, though, they can get away with their mishaps because of one thing: white privilege. It’s the reason why we all move on to a different news story the next day, why they still have jobs—with their reputations more or less intact—and why instances like this continue to happen.

But it’s also the reason why, when white people attempt to adopt a style that has historically belonged to a marginalized group, it’s viewed as damaging. Ashe explains:

It's because of the historical power in equities that have been in play in this country, since we arrived here in 1619, until this very day that I'm talking to you right now. It's hurtful and painful for black folk to innovate and to be creative, whether it's with hair or other cultural forms, and have those that have the cultural power simply adopt those forms as best they can, as if we're on an equal plane, when we're not. The difference between Zendaya and Kylie Jenner is white supremacy. That's really all it is.

Not to mention the difference in reactions when a white person wears the style (trendy!) and when a black person does (probably smells like weed!).

Malcolm wears: overalls by APC, shoes by Vans. Jada-Renee wears: rings in hair, choker, waist chain, and shoes by Martine Ali Studio, top and shorts by Marcelo Burlon County of Milan. Aliya wears: wind breaker by Marcelo Burlon County of Milan, overalla by APC, ring  and left earring by Third Crown, right earring and shoes by Martine Ali Studio. 

People’s relationships with their dreadlocks differ. Singing sister duo Chloe and Halle tell us that they have an affinity toward wearing their locs in bantu knots or braids, which results in wavy tendrils. When asked, Halle says that her locs represent her in her “truest form.”

One of the models for our photoshoot, Aliya Will, often accessorizes dreadlocks with gold and silver rings. Her decision to embrace the style stemmed from her brother. “Constantly watching black girls with dreadlocks, afros, cornrows, being slandered in the media, restricted from career paths, and labeled unprofessional in the public eye,” motivated her to stick with it, she explains.

In a speech given on Founders Day in 1987 at Spelman College, Alice Walker opened up about the moment she knew she wanted dreadlocks: “Eventually I knew precisely what hair wanted: it wanted to grow, to be itself, to attract lint, if that was its destiny, but to be left alone by anyone, including me, who did not love it was it was.” Ashe, too, first loc’d his hair as a form of rebellion.

Aliya wears: top by APC, choker by Martine Ali Studio, ring by Third Crown. Jada-Renee wears: choker by Martine Ali Studio, Suit by Christopher John Rogers.

Every loc wearer has a different approach to their hair, all come from different backgrounds, with different experiences. In some instances, the only thing they might have in common is their locs. Regardless, society will lump them into the same monolithic category. 

“The individual who is walking around with the dreadlocks, is just walking around with the dreadlocks, but they're walking around with these frames and contexts, and cultural positions that are inside the heads of whoever it is that's looking at them in any given moment,” Ashe says. “They can simply walk from one corner of a public plaza to another corner of a public plaza and see a variety of different political perspectives and impulses and cultural norms exploded or confirmed, or have people see them in way that they have absolutely no control over.”

People make assumptions, often, on falsehoods; relying on fake news, if you will, to cast judgment. And despite the attempt to break down the stigma of dreadlocks, it will always be twisted up in misconceptions. And, as history shows, we put up walls up around things we don’t understand, or care to try and understand. That ignorance turns into fear, the fear fuels hate, and the hate leads to exile. Will the style ever make it out from under its otherness? Ashe hypothesizes that, in order for that to happen, society's standards would have to shift. Given that the black way of life will never be the bar others hold themselves to, that’s unlikely to happen.

Aliya wears: top by APC, choker by Martine Ali Studio, ring by Third Crown. Malcolm wears: shorts by Marcelo Burlon County of Milan. Jada-Renee wears: choker by Martine Ali Studio, Suit by Christopher John Rogers. In outdoor photos: Malcolm wears: overalls by APC, shoes by Vans. Aliya wears: wind breaker by Marcelo Burlon County of Milan, overalla by APC, ring  and left earring by Third Crown, right earring and shoes by Martine Ali Studio. Jada-Renee wears: rings in hair, choker, waist chain, and shoes by Martine Ali Studio, top and shorts by Marcelo Burlon County of Milan.

"We will always have a way of looking at what is classic, western respectability in terms of hairstyle, in terms of clothing, in terms of bearing, in terms of speech patterns," he explains. "Even though they will continue to shift, and we don’t know what they’ll look like in 150 or 200 years, it’s hard for me to imagine that a way of wearing hair that African-Americans do with dreadlocks will somehow become respectable in a culture that has spent a good 200-plus years defining itself against blackness in a certain way. Having that flip itself and suddenly have—or gradually have—black cultural forms become the mode of respectability is a hard thing for me to imagine."

Cue Solange’s “Where Do We Go,” amirite? 

Other people’s prejudice shouldn't stop us from admiring the natural style in its natural state, whether it's by way of our beautiful models or of Ava DuVernay or Professor Ashe, or, for that matter, that girl or guy you saw on the subway. And it definitely shouldn't stop someone from getting dreadlocks themselves. Toni Morrison once said that the purpose of racism is to serve as a distraction; trying to persuade racist people of the validity of your choices as a person of color is a waste of time, and selectively picking battles is important. When it comes down to it, take comfort in knowing that the copycat will never be as good as the original. We’ll let Ashe play us out: "For me, I'm heartened; and there's a response of ‘Go ahead, you want dreadlocks? Twist your hair into dreadlocks, white person. But, your hair's not gonna look like mine.’ And I'll just sort of shrug and keep it moving.”


Photographer: Elizabeth Wirija

Stylists: Bianca Arielle Bailey and Ryan Davis

Hair: Andrita Renee, assisted by Ben Martin

Makeup: Marina Guidos

Models: Aliya Will, Jada-Renee Bland, Malcolm Evans at New York Models 

Male model casting: Cano Castings

Screenshot via YouTube

The band shared details about their new St. Vincent-produced album that will drop "you into the world of catastrophe"

Sleater-Kinney just shared more information about their St. Vincent-produced album and dropped a new single.

Per Billboard, Sleater-Kinney revealed that their new album, which they've been teasing since early this year and will be their first since No Cities To Love from 2015, will be called The Center Won't Hold. It's due out on August 16 via Mom + Pop Records. "We're always mixing the personal and the political but on this record, despite obviously thinking so much about politics, we were really thinking about the person—ourselves or versions of ourselves or iterations of depression or loneliness—in the middle of the chaos," Carrie Brownstein said in a statement. Corin Tucker further noted that the new album will "[drop] you into the world of catastrophe that touches on the election."

Janet Weiss noted that the band will "explore a different sound palette" with this album, and pointed to St. Vincent as the reason behind it. She said that St. Vincent "has a lot of experience building her own music with keyboards and synthesizers so she could be our guide to help us make sense of this new landscape and still sound like us."

To satiate us until then, the band released a lyric video for new single, "The Future Is Here," which is very grungy. Bump it, below.

Sleater-Kinney - The Future Is Here (Official Lyric Video)


This is so satisfying!

Even Jon Snow knows just how unsatisfying the final season of Game of Thrones was, and he's ready to apologize. Well, a deepfake of him is at least. A heavily-edited version of Snow's speech from the fourth episode—just before the bodies of those lost in the Battle of Winterfell get burned—now features Snow apologizing for the conclusion of the show and lighting the script on fire.

"It's time for some apologies. I'm sorry we wasted your time," Snow begins. "And I know nothing made sense at the end. When the Starbucks cup is the smallest mistake, you know you fucked up! We take the blame. I'm sorry we wrote this in like six days or something," he adds, before signaling to his peers to light the script with torches and "just forget it forever." "Fuck Season 8," he says before the pages begin to crackle and burn.

If there were more lines left to alter, we would have loved to see Snow also tackle how messy Brienne of Tarth and Jaime Lannister's story line ended up, as well as Bran's kingship, Cersei's boring demise, and the water bottle appearance.

Watch the entire deepfake and try to heal the wounds left by HBO below.


Photo by Darren Craig

It premieres today, exclusively via NYLON

In LP's song "Shaken," the most recent single from her 2018 record Heart To Mouth, she tells the story of seeing her lover out with someone else—ouch. Today, exclusively on NYLON, she releases a cheeky animated music video that pokes fun at the song's heightened drama and perfectly demonstrates all the angst that comes with falling hard for someone.

"She looks at you like I used to/ And I'm just sitting in the corner sh-sh-shaken," LP sings, as the visual—with art by Maayan Priva—depicts the singer hanging out in a bar, watching the girl she likes meet up with another girl. Despite the situation's inherent drama, "Shaken" is less of a ballad and more of an upbeat bop. LP told us she loves the way "this little video captures some of the fun of the song, and its inherent comical anxiety." Sure, heartbreak isn't that funny, but our (sometimes) overly dramatic reaction to it kind of is.

"'Shaken' feels like a bit of a wild card on this record," LP says. "It's the closest I've come to writing a musical, which I hope to do one day." We heartily endorse this idea: Please, LP, give us the queer jukebox musical we crave.

Until that day comes, though, you can watch the music video for "Shaken," below.

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Photo courtesy of Sony Pictures.

This cameo has the Beyhive buzzing

I went to see Men In Black: International alone. Which would have been fine if it wasn't for the shock I received when I saw two specific characters on the screen. Unable to keep it to myself, I shared a curious look with the stranger next to me, who was obviously thinking the same thing as me. "Is that them...?" I whispered first. "I think… so," she replied. Then the two men in question started to dance, and we were both sure: "Yep, that's them."

It was Laurent and Larry Nicolas Bourgeois, better known as Les Twins. Fans of Beyoncé will recognize the duo as the talented brothers who often accompany her on tour and in music videos. In Men In Black: International, the two of them play shapeshifting entities—they're more like energy forces than aliens—who pursue Tessa Thompson's and Chris Hemsworth's characters throughout the duration of the film. The twins' ability to manipulate their bodies in ways that are graceful and otherworldly really helps sell them as extraterrestrials and is fun to watch.

So if Thompson in a suit or Hemsworth shirtless weren't enough motivation, here's another reason to go see it. If you look close, you can see them in the trailer below.


Photo by Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images for The Met Museum/Vogue

"I am honored to share this bonding experience with my own daughter"

In a heart-warming Instagram photo, Serena Williams shares the history of hair braiding and the importance of the tradition. The tennis player shared a photo of herself braiding her daughter Olympia Ohanian's hair and spoke about how "honored" she was to be able to "add another generation" to the tradition of the practice.

The photo shows Williams attentively braiding her daughter's hair while Olympia smiles, obviously loving the experience. Williams noted that hair braiding was created by the Himba people in Namibia, Africa, and that "we have been braiding our hair for centuries." "In many African tribes braided hairstyles were a unique way to identify each tribe," she continued.

Williams pointed out that braiding is a bonding experience. "People would often take the time to socialize," she wrote. "It began with the elders braiding their children, then the children would watch and learn from them. The tradition of bonding was carried on for generations, and quickly made its way across the world."

Williams closed her post with a sweet message about her daughter, saying that she's "honored to share this bonding experience" with her.

See the post, below.