In 2016 a school in Pretoria, South Africa, a country that is no stranger to racial tension, made international headlines when their female Afro haired students revolted against a school policy that bans Afros.
Across the pond in the States, Butler Traditional High School in Kentucky came under fire for banning twists, Afros, and cornrows claiming that such styles were “extreme”, “distracting” and “attention grabbing”.
Black women and girls have long been discriminated against on the basis of their textural of their hair and their natural hairstyle choices. And it is a global issue. In 2017, an online petition was created by Leanne Sullivan whose daughter, a student at Fulston Manor School, Kent, was told to remove her braids and return to a ‘normal’ style, as braided styles were in breach of the school’s uniform policy.
While there have been strides made to combat what could be seen as a war against afro textured hair; (the US Army recently reversed their ban on popular black hairstyles like twists and locs, both California and New York have just outlawed racial discrimination based on hairstyles) black girls worldwide are still being told – overtly and otherwise – that their hair, when not conforming to Eurocentric standards is ‘wrong’.
This is what led Michelle De Leon to launch World Afro Day in 2015. The organisation’s manifesto is crystal clear: World Afro Day is designed to be a day to celebrate, educate and change perceptions of Afro hair globally.
In celebration of W.A.D we profile dynamic black women who are fearless agents of change, working tirelessly to champion the beauty and uniqueness of Afro hair in all its kinky, coily, curly, wavy glory, pushing back against the insidious narrative that black hair is unprofessional and undesirable’ And so in ode to World Afro Day 2019, we celebrate some of the women championing the beauty of Afro hair.
We can’t think of a celebrity in recent years who has represented the beauty, versatility and creative flair of natural hair than Hollywood superstar Lupita Nyong’o. Whether it’s rocking the red carpet with her trademark natural crop, paying homage to traditional African styles like Fulani and Amasunzu, and of course, those iconic ruby coils worn in the seismic, game-changing superhero blockbuster Black Panther – our favourite citizen of Wackanda continues to slay.
Most black women who return to wearing their hair in its natural state have a story to tell about transitioning. It just so happens that Oscar Winning actress Viola Davis decided to share her story with the world. Who can forget the iconic moment in 2012 when the Hollywood icon illuminated the red carpet wearing a form hugging emerald Vera Wang gown and a perfectly coiled auburn TWA (teeny weenie Afro)?
Rather than shrug the moment off as inconsequential, the How To Get Away with Murder star spoke candidly during her media rounds about the process of reacquainting with her natural 4c kinks, and unlearning the unwritten beauty rule which states that special occasion hair should only be straight, silky and flowing. The unstoppable force that is Viola has also just been announced as the new face of L’Oreal, once again expanding the beauty paradigm to truly reflect our diverse world.
Tracee Ellis Ross
Before terms like ‘big chop’, ‘transitioning’ and ‘co-washing’ became firmly established in black hair lexicon, Black-ish actress Tracee Ellis Ross was rocking her big, beautiful curly ‘fro week after week in the hit comedy Girlfriends, which premiered in 2000 and ran till 2008. Just recently Ross launched her own haircare brand called Pattern Beauty, aimed at those with curly, coily or tightly textured hair.
We seldom see short Afro hair gracing the catwalks during Fashion Week, and for this very reason Lineisy Montero deserves an honourable mention for representing a rarely seen version of Black Girl Magic in fashion. Whether it’s blown out, tightly coiled or cornrowed, the Dominican beauty’s natural hair has become her trademark, and has subsequently led to bookings with industry giants such as Prada, Louis Vuitton and Givenchy.
One academic powerhouse who is determined to let the world know that Afro hair is not a gimmick or passing trend is writer and historian Emma Dabiri. Earlier this year she gifted the world with Don’t Touch My Hair, a powerful reference book which offers a cultural and historical journey through black hair, unveiling the myriad meanings behind some of the hairstyles which remain prevalent to this day but have lost their cultural significance. Dabiri touches on themes such as pre-colonial Africa, slavery, pop culture and how intricate hairstyles like cornrows were a conduit for conveying everything from mathematical systems to location mapping to liberate enslaved Africans.
One of the most exciting models to emerge in recent years is Adut Akech, a Sudanese born model from Australia. In just a few years the model has scaled the ranks to become one of the most sought after faces in fashion following in the footsteps of Grace Jones, Alek Wek and more recently Ajak Deng: dark skinned models who revel in their beauty and short natural coils, and do so in spite of society’s tendency to overlook and often debase women who push against the archaic notions of beauty.
British Ghanaian natural hair specialist Charlotte Mensah was crowned Afro Hairdresser of The Year at the British Hairdressing Awards, considered the Oscars of the hairdressing world.. Charlotte is a fervent champion of Afro textured hair with most of her award-winning photoshoot imagery featuring black models wearing classic Afrocentric hairstyles – African threaded updos, big and beautiful kinky Afros, and flat tops a’la ‘80s era Grace Jones – many of which are rarely showcased in mainstream beauty spaces.
Jocelyn Mate and Rachel Corson
Hair entrepreneurs Jocelyn Mate and Rachel Corson, founders of the hair brand Afrocenchix, are two dynamic women on a mission to change attitudes to hair product usage one hair potion at a time. Last year a study conducted in the US by Silent Spring Institute made the startling revelation that some hair products marketed at black women contain high levels of toxic, hormone interrupting chemicals linked to conditions like fibroids, birth defects and cancer.
Even before this damning survey, Corson and Mate were committed to creating a hair product line made with gentle organic ingredients that not only work effectively, but most importantly, prioritises the health of users. In just a short space of time the brand has gained a reputation for its ethical approach to cosmetics, and is now being sold at Whole Foods and recently won an investment award judged by powerhouse entrepreneurs Sean ‘Diddy’ Combs and Gary Vee.
We were first introduced to Jamelia as a singer/pop star, but she has metamorphosised into a fearless advocate for inclusivity and diversity in the media and larger society. Signs of her socially conscious leanings emerged in 2008 when she presented ‘Whose Hair is it Anyway’, a documentary on where and how hair extensions are sourced. Recently she launched, Jamelia.com, a platform where she shares natural hair tips, hair routines and has spoken openly about feeling duty bound to conform to a straight hair aesthetic when making public appearances as a singer and TV personality.
Tri and Jay from Curlture
As true purpose driven millennials, best friends Trina Charles and Jay-Ann Lopez launched online empowerment platform Curlture in 2014 after becoming disheartened by societal ills affecting black women such as colourism and hair texture discrimination. The duo utilised Instagram and YouTube as a hub for the empowerment and celebration of black womanhood.
Paula Akpan and Nicole Crentsil – Directors of Black Girl Fest
Dialogue around natural hair movement tends to overlook those with short or shaved hair. But just think how freeing and revolutionary the act of cutting off one’s hair is in a world that tells us that our mane is a measure of our beauty and worth. Paula Akpan and Nicole Crentsil, founders of Black Girl Fest, are renowned for their beautiful short crops and also for providing a space for black women and girls to talk freely about their hair, sexual identity and mental health in relation to blackness.
The fuchsia fro wearing Winnie is the powerhouse visionary of Antidote Street, the online destination that provides women with curly, coily and kinky hair access to quality hair brands as well as valuable education and a beautiful user experience. Winnie and her Antidote Street cohorts took to the road over the summer with Hair Lab Bus Tour, providing the brand’s supporters with a fun, unique offline experience which included access to products, hair and scalp analysis and a braid bar.
Finding the right products as a curly/coily girl can be a tiresome, not to mention, costly task. It’s for that reason entrepreneur Jamelia Donaldson created the monthly subscription service Treasure Tress to enable black female consumers to sample those seemingly endless products that show up on our social media feeds and favourite websites at a rapidly increasing pace. The competitively priced boxes allow customers to explore and discover new brands aimed at Afro hair, and has also created a loyal community of followers with the tagline “where sisterhood connects over kinks and curls.”