Don’t Touch My Hair

The other day, I was running my fingers through my hair, feeling every inch of each strand. Most don’t know this about me, but I developed alopecia just a few years ago. It was traumatic, to say the least. I always loved my hair because it was the one thing that connected me more to my culture and religion than anything else. So when I woke up with a giant, striking bald spot on the right corner of my head, I was mortified. My mental health was already in turmoil, my stress through the roof. The worst part is, the more I stressed out about it, the more patches developed over time. My best friend was the only person entrusted with my hair. I would only get the bare minimum cut off during trims, terrified of losing any more of myself. The attachment was so strong that it was probably a bit unhealthy. But my hair was so much of who I was.

Fast forward to 2020. Just three years later, my hair that I had lost has grown out to reach my shoulders. Don’t get it twisted, my life is pretty shitty right now, just like 80% of the population. But finding those strands and straightening them out to see the full amount they’ve grown shows me how much I’ve grown. It’s demonstrated to me that yeah, I’ve been through some shit. And yes, some of those problems seem insignificant in comparison to now. But they felt colossal at the time, and I still managed to power through, so if I could do it then, I can definitely do it now. A person’s hair can mean so much; modesty or sexuality, liberation or restriction, empowerment, or resentment. So much of it can be experience-based, or even connotative. But unfortunately, not everyone is given the same opportunity to create those ties on their own; instead, society does it for them.

Black people, women especially, have their own unique experience with hair, one that I could never possibly understand. For years, society has dictated conventional beauty for black women, with most accepted hairstyles being quite whitewashed. While most people can wear just about any hairstyle with no repercussions (myself included), black people are not afforded that same luxury. Instead, they are fired from their jobs, teased by ruthless kids their age, or judged while walking on the streets. The same hairstyles that were created by black people, tracing through their lineage for centuries, are being appropriated by non-black people. What is labeled a “fashion trend” for some means something so very different for others. And this is something I get so frustrated over. I see it with bindis and henna. When I was younger, I was teased for garnishing my skin with beautiful decorations that represented my culture because they looked too different. Because looked too different. Even today, I don’t feel comfortable wearing them. And yet they’re all the rage at Coachella, where I see the same girls who probably would have made fun of me wearing them as if they created them. 

We are finally in a time where black people are being accepted for their hair. I’ve always admired the versatility that black people had with their styles. The worth is tedious and intricate. The beauty in black hairstyles is infinite, but unfortunately, for a while, hip-hop reflected society’s standards of beauty in terms of hair. Different styles held different connotations for different women. There was an ideal, which ranged among the various sub-genres of hip-hop, but they were reflective nonetheless.

When describing their ideal woman, some artists like to go into a bit more detail than others. However, there has been an overarching theme that I’ve seen in several songs, ranging in sub-genres. For instance, in the song “Every Girl”, Lil Wayne raps that he “[likes] a long-haired, thick redbone”. And yes, Lil Wayne’s been in the rap game forever now. He’ll inevitably have repetitive lyrics. But this man has rapped about wanting a woman with long hair on “Ball”, “Scottie Pippen”, “Mona Lisa”, “A Milli”, and a billion other songs that I’m not going to mention because then I have to add them to the playlist. And let’s be honest now. It is possible for there to be way too much Lil Wayne. Regardless, I think it’s safe to say he has a type. Now let’s look at that first line I mentioned compared to Waka Flocka’s “Round of Applause,” in which Waka raps, “hair long, ass fat, shawty mean.” According to the two credentials these men have laid out in front of us, they could be rapping about the same exact girl! Their expectations clearly aren’t very high.

Hell, on “Notorious B.I.G.” even Biggie wanted “that big butt nurse with the long hair.” Gucci Mane took the most ignorant approach by specifying in “Go Head” that the woman had “long hair but it must be weave or something.” This contributes to the false notion that black women are unable to grow out their hair while also generalizing hair types. The line itself just seems utterly stupid in the sense that it doesn’t even sound like a good lyric. However, it’s also absurd given the fact that it’s a song about different beautiful black women while failing to acknowledge that they have different hair types. J. Cole, everyone’s favorite prophet (insert eye roll emoji here), describes the girl with “angel eyes, long hair” in “Never Told.” He also mentions the girl with the “long hair, brown skin, and the fat ass” in “Wet Dreamz.” He loves to rap about the natural beauty in women and yet it always seems to be associated with women with long hair. Granted J. Cole’s made his position about black women quite clear in the last few days in the most contradictory manner, so that doesn’t come as too much of a surprise. This repetitive standard of beauty contributes to society’s ideas that long, straight hair is beautiful and ideal, but kinky, curly hair isn’t. As a result, women are pressured to wear weaves or use relaxers rather than to embrace their natural hair. And please, I want to make one thing clear. This isn’t me trying to knock down women for choosing to wear weaves or straighten their hair. That was one of my biggest criticisms that I mentioned in Women In Hip-Hop 2 about Lauryn Hill’s “Doo Wop (That Thing)”, a song that I love but that rubs me the wrong way. While telling women how to act, one of the things she criticizes the listener of is “hair weaves like Europeans”. A lot of male rappers tend to shame women as well for wearing their hair in different styles. On the opposite end, Rick Ross rapped in “3 Kings” that he “only [loves] it when her hair long.” I understand that you can’t please anyone but this is fucking ridiculous. It’s one of those damn if you do, damn if you don’t type situations. I think the biggest takeaway needs to be to stop policing black women, and instead to allow them to be empowered by their hair, no matter how they choose to wear it. They shouldn’t be pressured into wearing it a certain way, but rather how they want to wear it.

With that being said, black women have reclaimed the idea of weaves and wigs. Men created their own meanings behind hairstyles. And this isn’t just a new age thing. Even conscious artists like A Tribe Called Quest are guilty of doing this by rapping lines like, “I used to stress girls with long legs and long hair, now, I want a woman with a spiritual flair.” By creating a dichotomy between the two types of women, you’re making implications based on their hairstyles. You’re implying that the two are mutually exclusive and that a woman who likes to dress up and wear weaves can’t be spiritual and vice versa. So black women took that shit back. They’ve created their own inclusive connotations, using the hairstyles to show their power, wealth, status, beauty, and independence. Missy Elliot’s “Fix My Weave” is one of my favorite examples. The song is Missy’s take on MC Lyte’s “Please Understand.” The hook talks about fixing her weave before walking into the club where she goes to meet guys. In the song, one of the verses tells the story of Chris. She tells him to “gimme cash to fix my weave, and I don’t want no excuses ’bout your baby mommy, cause your child support money don’t fix my weave,” and I love every second of it. Her weave is what gives her power and confidence, and throughout the song, she shows how it gives her the upper hand over the men she’s attracting. She claims her thrown, with her crown placed right above her weave. I’m not sure if I would claim that it’s an empowering song (I guess it could be?) but Cardi B even made a whole diss track about wack weaves. She comments on the cheaper price and poor quality, wondering who would even allow another woman to walk around like that, showing how hair quality can reflect a woman’s social status.

Of course, there is also the incredible movement of encouraging women to embrace their natural hair. While conscious rappers have preached about this for a while, it’s becoming increasingly more prevalent with new school artists, allowing it to make its way to mainstream media and garner more popularity. For instance, on “Poetic Justice,” Drake raps about a woman’s “natural hair and/soft skin, and/big ass in that sundress,” describing a different type of look that contrasts with the appearance earlier mentioned. But it’s not just the lyrics that reflect that. The tone, mood, and production are softened in comparison to those other songs that reflect the difference. While one is more of a party song, describing a woman dressed up, this represents something so effortless. The beats are more melodic and solemn, and the women are more intimate and vulnerable. This demonstrates that although one may have a preference (either in the woman or in the song), you can enjoy the variation because there’s something amazing about both of the styles. Kendrick Lamar did something cool in the way that he combined these aggressive beats in “Humble” but commented on wanting a natural woman with an afro, effectively raising social issues while doing it in a catchy and unconventional way. Rather than having a slower and soulful beat, he used one more intense to communicate his frustration with issues as well as the fact that this was becoming a more common way of thinking. With that being said, there was a lot of criticism over the lyrics, and a lot of it I don’t think I have any place to comment on because I can’t relate to how black women are feeling in this situation. The one thing I will say is that I don’t think wearing your hair naturally and being completely make-up free or lazy should be synonymous because it prevents the idea of wearing your hair naturally from becoming normalized as a hairstyle. However, I would absolutely love to hear from others what they think about this.

Qu’ality took a much smoother approach in his song “NA-TU-RAL,” which he dedicates to natural hair. He references a lot of beautiful black artists, as well as some of the products used in natural hair such as Carol’s Daughter to add to the imagery of the song. But what I love is the fact that he names tons of different natural styles, making sure to be inclusive while showing the diversity among black hair. Additionally, he does mention in his chorus the variety among women in general in regards to complexion and hair color, showing that natural hair means something different for everyone. He also discusses the amount of time and tiresome effort that goes into doing hair, something that society has overlooked for years. The lines, “it shows me that you’re strong girl, it shows me that you’re confident, you used to hate your hair, but then you snapped up out of it,” is iconic in the way that it references how much strength it takes to overcome what society has programmed women of color to believe, when in reality their hair is so fucking gorgeous that it deserves to be shown off. Although he does have a few lines in which he states that he prefers natural hair to weaves and perms, it overall has a beautiful message. Dead Prez has a similar song called “The Beauty Within” which praises women for embracing their natural looks in a world where Hollywood portrays women with weaves and perms. He does label those girls as pretentious, which comes across as a bit judgmental, but it does comment fairly on what Hollywood expects of black women. However, he goes on to say that “she doesn’t need to wear weaves or contacts, not judging other girls that got that” which at least proves that the girl he’s singing about wouldn’t think any less of the other women, despite his own tone.

Janelle Monae does an absolutely beautiful job with recounting her hair journey through the song, “I Like That,” in which she reminisces on “when [they] laughed when [she] cut [her] perm off and [they] rated me [her] a six.” This song reflects the strength that Qu’ality rapped about in embracing one’s natural hair despite what others have to say. Janelle’s whole song is used to stand up to the idea of conforming to society’s ideas, which deserves so much credit. She repeats the line, “little rough around the edges, but I keep it smooth,” which works beautifully to represent both her personality and her hair. The cleverness in the pun shows that her edges and her hair are just one way in which she represents herself.

However, there are two songs that I would be extremely remised if I didn’t include them. The first is India.Arie’s “I Am Not My Hair” which is probably what I should be reciting in the mirror every morning to get over my weird separation anxiety. This song is just so fucking important. She tells her struggle of how she tried different hairstyles, with one in particular to get the attention of a few men. While that worked, it ended up causing her to be discriminated against, “cause corporate wouldn’t hire no dreadlocks,” remarking that “success didn’t come till [she] cut it all off.” But she also brings up a point that no matter how you wear your hair, being black will cause people to treat you differently. The cops will harass you. HR recruiters will judge you. So what’s the point in contributing to that? Why judge others, or let their feelings validate who you are? That’s why she emphasizes the point that no matter how you choose to wear your hair, it doesn’t matter because that’s not who you are; who you are is so much deeper within you. The incredible Solange created the other song which I have to mention, “Don’t Touch My Hair.” Instantly just in reading the title, you can hear the white women all around the world asking a young black girl if she can touch her hair, mysticized by its texture. I’ve had interactions like this, but unfortunately, mine came with a very different type of interest. It wasn’t quite as ignorant. But regardless, it still feels degrading. She sings “don’t touch my hair, when it’s the feelings I wear,” ultimately taking the opposite approach of India. Solange describes her hair as her identity, her story, her experiences, her pride. Despite the two artists seeing their hair in different ways, it is still theirs and no one else’s.

In my religion, Kesh is the practice of growing one’s hair naturally out of respect for how God perfectly created it. While I do cut my hair, I try to keep it long to relate to that. But I believe that even if I choose to cut all of it off, it still is perfectly created. It is divine. And that goes for everyone. Whether it is kept in locks or a fro, or dyed bright pink, or garnishing a lace front; perhaps it is covered by a wig or a hijaab, or it’s shaved bald; it is divine. It is yours to do as you please. But for it to be viewed as perfectly created, that needs to be extended for everyone. How is it perfect or divine when it contributes to systematic racism? When it gets Muslims targeted in Islamaphobia or prevents black people from getting jobs? When one group can wear a certain hairstyle and it’s deemed cute and trendy, but when another wears it after creating it, they get discriminated against? For something to be divine, it must be free of flaws. And these systems of oppression, inequality, and discrimination are what prevents that from happening. 

If you liked this post, here is a list of petitions you can sign to make beauty/hair schools more inclusive for black POC, especially in regards to the education of different hair types. A lot of hairstylists aren’t trained to deal with all hair types and that needs to be changed. It takes just one minute to sign them, so I strongly encourage you to do so. Change results from large numbers of people, and right now we need to maintain that solidarity. Please remember, Black Lives Matter.

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Local Black Artists to Stream/Donate to on Spotify (Philadelphia, Jersey, DC, Maryland, Virginia):

Below are a list of resources that you can reach out to/donate to to help the cause if you are unable to get out and protest.

This is obviously not a complete list, so please if you have any other places to donate, leave a comment below with the link and what it is for people to see. Leave song suggestions below, whether they are healing during these times or passionate enough to ignite the flames needed to be a part of the change. I tried to incorporate the songs mentioned above as well as some others that are fitting for the time. Share this if you’d like; I don’t really care about credit. I just want this message to be spread all over the world about how important this movement is and how ridiculous it is that even in 2020, we are still fighting for an issue that contradicts basic humanity.

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