During the eighties, songstress Anita Baker sashayed memorably through the video of her song Sweet Love. Clad in a simple black dress, she exuded a sultry womanliness that could teach the barely dressed pop tarts of today a thing or two.
In an interview back then, Ms. Baker was asked if she had a message for black women. She did have a message, one which she thought could be controversial, but which she was convinced needed to be said. Baker wanted black women to take pride in their natural hair. According to her, if you had hair down to your waist, great – and if you didn’t, that was wonderful too. The diva, who always wore her hair in a classy short back and sides cut, was expressing concern at black womanhood’s obsession with long, European-looking hair – nearly always bought in a shop.
Another hair indictment from the eighties came in a song by a man. Alexander O’Neal’s Fake goes:
“Your hair was long / But now it’s short / You say: ‘I got it cut’ / But I don’t see no hair on the floor /… You’re a fake, baby!”
In spite of this, and Anita Baker’s best efforts, the fake brigade marched on, till the black woman’s hair suffered a follicular colonisation. By the nineties, every Sarah, Sade and Nkem was walking around with multi-hued and multi-layered wigs. Added to sew-on, glue-on hair weaves of every texture imaginable – and black hair became shackled, never to see the light of day again.
One can understand some black women wearing wigs for the same reasons that some white women do; because they are losing or have lost their hair. One can even make allowances for wigs being worn for the occasional change of look. But how to explain young women with full heads of hair who will never be seen dead with their natural hair? Or those who will never admit that the fake hair on their head is exactly that? Thanks to these attitudes, the fake hair industry has grown so big that the revenue generated from it yearly is enough to sustain the economies of several small countries.
The term ‘human hair’ always conjured in my mind the image of some poor Indian woman having her hair sheared off like sheep to satisfy our insatiable desire for long, straight hair. One remains uncertain about how the ‘100% human hair’ in the shops is derived, but the image of the poor Indian woman refuses to leave the mind. Increasingly, what we are seeing is a cradle to the grave attitude to false hair. All around, we see everyone, even children, faked up in false hair. When a girl of six or nine is already sporting hair weaves, how is such a child ever going to grow up with any pride in her God-given tresses?
And the fact of the matter is, not all hair extensions look nice. Quite often at social gatherings, a lady will discreetly scratch her head and the whole hair will betray her and move like a swaying bridge from side to side. How embarrassing. Or even more bafflingly, some people will walk around with the seams of their weaves showing, like some hideous zipper. Then there are those with hair weaves so ragged, so matted, that they look flea-infested. And one cannot help but think: “Surely, your own hair must be better than this monstrosity?”
Music stars are among the most visible black women on earth, and they have not helped. Golden-voiced Whitney Houston looks ragged these days. Strung out on the twin addictions of drugs and Bobby Brown, she is but a shadow of her former self. But on the cover of her debut album two decades ago, Whitney posed with hair slicked back and looked more like a beautiful African Princess than a singing star. Clive Davis, boss of Arista Records and architect of Houston’s meteoric rise, was unhappy with the look. He felt it was too ethnic to be sold to white America. And so Whitney was ‘whitened up’ and with her second album came blonde weaves. I doubt that we have seen the singer’s real hair since then.
In an interview some years ago, Whitney gave us the great excuse of black womanhood: she weaves up to protect her hair. Pointing to her waist, she said, with the kind of attitude only a diva can muster: “Whitney’s hair is gonna be this long when she’s sixty.” Somehow, I doubt it. If she’s too chicken to show her hair at 30 or 40, how on earth is she going to do so when she’s grey? And who wants to walk around with waist-length hair when they are sixty?
At least Whitney told the truth. This is more than can be said for Janet Jackson. She has no qualms about baring her breast, but her hair, it seems, is locked up and the key thrown away. It is debatable whether we’ve seen Janet’s hair since she appeared as a fresh-faced teenager in the television sitcom, Diff’rent Strokes. Like Whitney, Somalian model Iman also admitted faking it, saying of her hair: “It’s mine. I paid for it.” But this fabulous flippancy is wearing thin.
Lauryn Hill is considered to have gone a bit loopy these days. This is sad. It wasn’t such a long time ago that the atrociously gifted Lauryn came out – boldly ethnic – with The Fugees. And with her groundbreaking solo debut, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, she inspired a whole new generation of black women and female artistes; spawning a batch of natural-haired singing stars like Jill Scott and India Arie. Lauryn is contemptuous of hair weaves and sang on one track, Doo Wop (That Thing):
“Look how you be in hair weaves like Europeans.”
Lauryn showed that a black woman does not have to compromise on her looks to be beautiful. So powerful was ‘the Lauryn effect’ that even Whitney Houston bought into the act. Although white Americans helped Whitney notch up millions of record sales, her ‘street cred’ in Black America was next to nil. With her career on the wane, Whitney sought to show African Americans she had been a good, ‘down home’ girl all along. She made the statement with the chart-busting single, My Love Is Your Love, written and produced for her by none other than Wyclef Jean, one third of The Fugees and by some accounts, Lauryn Hill’s one time lover. Whitney completed her ‘Lauryn’ transformation with her ‘homegirl’ look in the My Love Is Your Love video, also featuring Wyclef. But Whitney’s ‘Lauryn’ phase didn’t last; her heart was never in it.
Looking beyond Lauryn Hill, Erykah Badu is another fine example. When her flowing dreadlocks were revealed to be extensions, she shaved them all off and sported a bald look for a long time, saying defiantly: “This hair don’t make me.” Does your weave make you? Which is greater, your weave or you?
Perhaps one mega celebrity that cannot be faulted is Oprah Winfrey who wears her own hair, and does so beautifully. On the very rare occasions when she wears extensions, she tells the whole world it’s a weave.
During the 60s when the slogan “black is beautifu” was all the rage, the great South African singer, Miriam Makeba, was one of those who embodied the spirit of the times, for refusing to straighten her hair. “I see other black women imitate my style, which is no style at all, but just letting your hair be itself,” she once said. Black is still beautiful, and Makeba who is now in her seventies, still wears her hair as she always did – natural.
Closer to home, Nigerian singer Onyeka Onwenu’s hair is remarkable. She wears her natural short cut with its slash of grey in front with such confidence and panache, it has become her signature. Body enhancement entrepreneur, Modupe Ozolua, wore a very low cut some time ago and was outstanding. But most of our female celebrities, sadly, are lost in a sea of hair weaves.
There is a need to reject the tyranny which dictates that the black woman should be defined according to European standards of beauty. Year-long hair weave is one such tyranny. And where does it end? Hair that must never be seen; or eyes whose brownness must be mitigated by blue contact lenses, or green, or hazel?
There is a need to go back to basics, and make peace with our natural hair.
“Emancipate yourself from mental slavery / None but ourselves can free our minds,” sang Bob Marley in Redemption Song. It would seem that, for black women, this freeing of the mind needs to begin with our hair.