This is an article from a upper middle class paper about Dread locks
It starts with. ''Dare to dread''
Hair has often been used as a symbol of identity - never more so than with dreadlocks. It's more than just a style; it's an attitude, a way of life, inspiring passion and disapproval in equal measure. So why is it more popular than ever, asks Hannah Pool
Saturday August 23, 2003
What do you think when you see someone with dreadlocks? Be honest. Maybe you assume that they are a Rastafarian. Perhaps Jamaican. If pressed, might you hazard a guess, they had a liking for listening to reggae and smoking joints - if they're white, might you begin thinking of anticapitalism and road protests? All that based on a person's choice of hairstyle. Or do dreads tell a different story now?
Hair has always carried a special significance of the wearer's sense of self and the image they are trying to project. Hair has also long been connected to religion - Sikhs, orthodox Jews, Buddhists monks are all identifiable by their hair (or the lack of it). But dreadlocks are not just about religion; in fact, most of the dreadlocks you see today have got as much to do with the Rastafarian religion as a short back and sides. On the other hand, to dismiss these newer dreadlocks as just "fashion" dreads also misses the point. Speak to anyone, black or white, with dreads and they will eulogise them. They will tell you that it's more than a hairstyle; it's an attitude, a "dreadhead" mentality, a way of life.
The link between hair and the black identity cannot be underestimated. Wearing your hair in any "natural" or traditional style (such as braids) is a way of turning your back on a society that is constantly telling black people that their hair in its natural state simply isn't good enough - that only short hair is acceptable (if you're a man) or chemically straightened (if you're a woman). In the 1960s, the afro was the militant black person's hairstyle of choice. As much as the clenched fist, it became a symbol of black power. But, over the years, the afro lost its ability to shock. As one friend puts it, "Once your mum thinks it's OK, and middle-class black kids started wearing them, it was all over."
Even if the remnants of a black-and-proud cachet cling to the afro, it is dreadlocks that are the controversial hairstyle today. They are a talking point. People - black and white - will assume a level of political awareness if you have dreadlocks. Then there's the constant questioning. Are you a Rasta? Are they real? How long have you had them? And, inevitably, have you got any gear? Everyone has an opinion. When one black friend cut off his dreadlocks, none of his white friends could understand why and kept telling him what a shame it was. When he told them that he suspected his dreads were stopping him getting a job, they were shocked.
I've always seen dreadlocks as a positive hairstyle, and also a brave one. They come with a burden of responsibility. To you they might be no more than a fashion statement, but others won't see them that way. Yet, despite all the baggage, I've always suffered from a bad case of dreadlock envy. Those with dreads talk about them emotionally, passionately even. And I'd like that passion - I feel as if I'm missing out on something.
As the kind of people who wear their hair in dreadlocks has changed and diversified - they're not just a black thing any more - so too has their meaning. A black person with dreadlocks is no more likely to be a Rastafarian than a white person with a skinhead is a Nazi. And as for white people with dreads, well, these days they are just as likely to be working in an office as demonstrating outside Starbucks. So how did this hairstyle come to symbolise so many different things to so many different people, and where did dreadlocks come from?
The Rastafari movement started in Jamaica in the 1930s, inspired by the visionary Marcus Garvey, who pioneered the idea of black pride and championed the back-to-Africa movement. Rastafarianism as a religion takes in aspects of the Bible, but regards Ras Tafari Makonnen - the Emperor Haile Selassie, king of Ethiopia from 1930 - as the messiah, or did until his death in 1975. During the early days, Rastas, looking for meaning in the Old Testament, found the following passage in Numbers 6:5: "All the days of the vow of separation, no razor shall pass over his head. Until the day be fulfiled of his consecration to the Lord, he shall be holy, and shall let the hair of his head grow." And so, in emulation of the Nazarites, religious ascetics with whom Rastas identified (they also saw themselves as "chosen ones"), they adopted dreadlocks as a tradition of the movement. It suited the character of Rastafari, too: many Rastas are vegan, most are vegetarian, and leaving your hair to grow naturally, without cutting, combing or styling, is another manifestation of the belief in living life as naturally as possible - hence most Rasta men also have beards. This idea of naturalness also combines with a rejection of the evils of white society - Babylon - and its (white) definitions of beauty. Babylon says that black people are dirty, Babylon says that afro hair is messy, Babylon says that dreadlocks are unclean and unkempt. And so dreadlocks are not only a way of seeing beauty through black eyes, but about being a proud African man or woman.
"The Rasta dreads evolved over 20 years as the Rastafari movement developed," says Professor Horace Campbell of Syracuse University and author of Rasta And Resistance. "Rastafarians living in a colonial context [in Jamaica] wanted to represent themselves as different from Europeans. So they took on a physical form which represented their identity with Africa."
There are plenty of other examples of dreadlocks as an integral part of African culture: Bahatowie priests in Ethiopia have had locks for centuries, the Himba peoples of Namibia and Angola, the Samburu and the Massi of Kenya, the Ibo of Nigeria and many others wear their hair in locks. Even in African communities where dreadlocks aren't common, they are often worn by priests or healers. Outside Africa, other holy men, such as Sadhus (and Sadhvis, their female counterparts) have had locks (or jatta) for centuries. It's probably also significant that at the same time the Rastafarian religion was spreading in the 1950s, pictures of the fighters in the Mau Mau rebellion in Kenya showed them wearing dreadlocks.
As looking to Africa, the motherland, for inspiration and guidance was the backbone of the Rastafarian religion, and as locks are an integral part of African history, what better way to show where your heart lies?
When reggae in general, and Bob Marley and the Wailers in particular, took Rastafari out of Jamaica, dreadlocks came with them. With Marley, "Rastafari became a worldwide movement and was represented through song, and the song communicated the message," says Campbell. "Bob Marley transcended the radical characteristics of Rastafari and embraced all cultures and became a spokesman for the movement."
The release of the Natty Dread album gave Marley his first UK top 40 hit in 1975 with No Woman No Cry, and in July of that year he played two sell-out shows at the London Lyceum. "Bob Marley and the Wailers, and others after them, popularised the look," says Shango Baku, editor of Rasta Speaks magazine. "Thousands of people would gather to see the concert, but the doctrine was also accessible, it was cool, it gave a younger generation a way of thinking and acting, but also a way of looking."
Until then, the Rastafarian presence in this country was tiny, and unless you happened to live in west London you might never even have seen dreadlocks. With Marley, all that changed. "That time was like the Renaissance of the Rasta movement," says Jah Blue, Rasta activist and author. Reggae and Rastafari offered disaffected black Britons something to identify with. "It was an exciting time," says Blue. "Youths everywhere were starting to natt up. It was almost as if, if you didn't have locks, you couldn't get a girlfriend."
Dreadlocks became an outward expression of rebellion - just as they had represented a reaction against colonial society in Jamaica - and, predictably, were met with hostility. Schools refused to teach children with dreads, Rastas in prison had their dreadlocks shaved off. Those with dreadlocks were considered unemployable. "I remember being in the job centre and they actually offered to give me an allowance to get them cut," says poet and Rasta, Benjamin Zephaniah.
Around the same time, but on a culturally different planet, an ambitious hairdresser called Simon Forbes opened a salon, Antenna, in Kensington, London. Forbes was looking for a challenge: "I was desperately looking for something else creative, for another medium. We started experimenting with Barbie-like hair and hair designed to make extensions for afro hair. It was then that I came up with the idea of dreadlocks and extensions for caucasian hair." Forbes went all over the world in search of something that would bond with straight hair and could be added to it to give length; he ended up in Japan and southeast Asia. Since then, his idea has been copied widely, but Forbes is still credited as the pioneer and is still as enthusiastic about the style as he was 20 years ago. "The beauty of the dreadlock is that you can create the details with it," he says. "Relatively speaking, braids are hard, stern and almost unfriendly. Dreads can look powerful, but they are a friendly medium, they are pillow-like."
But Forbes's enthusiasm for white dreadlocks wasn't shared by everyone. "I remember Pete Burns and the rest of [pop group] Dead Or Alive being beaten up by a group of black kids in Liverpool and having their dreads ripped out," he says. And despite the fact that Forbes describes hairdressers as a "pretty non-violent lot", he was, and sometimes still is, accused by his colleagues, black and white, of ripping off black culture. "I regarded that as bullshit then and I regard it as bullshit now," he says. "If anything, they've been an integrating force, rather than an alienating one."
The ideology behind the dreadlocks that Forbes was creating couldn't have been further from that of Rastafari. Forbes's dreadlocks had nothing to do with being at one with nature. They were deliberately artificial. But whether you were a young black man wearing them to show your affinity with a motherland you had never visited, or a white pop star wearing them with make-up, to celebrate your sexual ambiguity, dreadlocks made a statement.
It was against this background that Cynthia McDonald opened Back To Eden in south London in 1986, Britain's first salon specialising in dreadlocks and natural hair. "I set the shop up for the Rasta community at a time when we were outcasts," she says. "People thought that dreadlocks and Rastas were frightening, nasty, unruly. The salon showed people that we did wash our hair, that we were groomed. I wanted the salon to be like someone's home, where you could relax, could know you were not going to be laughed at or treated badly because you were a Rasta."
Simultaneously, a little-known sound system called Soul II Soul was playing at parties and local youth clubs in London. They became known as the Funki Dreds, a reference to their neat dreadlocks. Soul II Soul also opened a shop in Camden, selling clothing and accessories, most of which bore the Funki Dred logo. As the group took off, so too did the Funki Dred look - young black Britons had reinvented dreadlocks yet again, but this time they were slim and smart, almost manicured. You could have them put in, as you could braids, rather than having to bother growing them yourself. "Once Jazzie B and Soul II Soul came on the scene, that was the turning point," says McDonald. "That was the first time you could have dreadlocks, or these Funki Dred styles, and not be associated with Rastas. That's when they really took off."
Slowly, dreadlocks became more mainstream. "The clientele has changed," says hairdresser Don Abaka, whose south London salon has specialised in locks for more than 11 years: "I get more professional people, people in their late-20s to mid-30s, who have never had natural hair before. Have you seen how good dreadlocks look with a suit and tie?" Although this new generation of dreadlocks are "fashion" dreads rather than "religious" dreads, they still seem to mean more than any other hairstyle.
The first thing you notice about Carole Tulox, who has curated exhibitions on black heritage, is her dreadlocks. Tumbling gracefully down her back, Tulox's dreadlocks are as fine and beautiful as they are long. I try to visualise her without them, but I can't; they are a part of her. "They work for me on different levels," she tells me. "After years of extensions, I'd forgotten how beautiful it was to feel my own hair. It sounds childish, but it was a form of liberation, a way of making a statement - 'This is me. What you see is what you get.'"
Jessica Edwards, a 31-year-old university lecturer in media, cultural studies and design philosophy, concurs: "My dreadlocks give me a degree of confidence, I hold my head up high. They are a significant part of my personality. It's more than being about aesthetic fashion, it's about philosophy and the way I want to live my life. Dreadlocks have a certain allure, a cultural kudos."
Speak to any black person who has dreadlocks and the same story always comes up. "Mine aren't religious dreadlocks," says Jan Blake, a storyteller who has had her locks for nearly four years, "but they represent freedom. So many black women spend so much time trying to make themselves look beautiful from a European perspective. My locks are a liberation from that, and from what is and what isn't acceptable. They are an expression of who I am, from the tip of my hair to my toes."
In a collection of essays, Anything We Love Can Be Saved, Alice Walker talks about the joys of not having combed her hair for 10 years and the "scandalised" reactions to this of some of her friends and family: "During the same 10 years they've poured gallons of possibly carcinogenic 'relaxer' chemicals on themselves, and their once proud, interestingly crinkled or kinky hair has been forced to lie flat as a slab over a grave."
The British poet, Dorothea Smartt, gets a similar point across in her series of Medusa poems, Connecting Medium. Smartt also articulates a feeling of strength that comes from being a woman with dreadlocks:
full of sheself
... she could turn a man to stone
welling up her stare
natural roots Blackwoman
Smartt, who had her locks for 18 years, cut them off last year, saying simply that it felt time to do so - "Physically and spiritually I had a lot of my past on my head. I needed to sweep that away" - but occasionally she sounds as if she is missing a limb, or a loved one. "My locks were a statement about my ancestry and heritage. A statement of pride and ownership, a sense of knowing where and what I came from... It was also about who sets the aesthetics for what is attractive. Having locks showed me that there was nothing wrong with my hair, how beautiful it was and how beautiful it could be. It was something uniquely African, something that was 'ours' and ancient. We've been locksing since we had hair - look at the Egyptian statues and tribal peoples in the African continent."
In the mid- to late-1990s, dreadlocks were associated with yet another ideology, albeit a rather fluid one. A new generation of white kids - travellers, protesters in the Swampy era - started wearing dreadlocks as a badge of their anti-establishment credentials. The dreadlocks were as important as the vegetarian diet and the trips to Goa. This generation was ideologically worlds away from Forbes when he first invented dreadlocks for his musician friends. These locks were about being as natural as possible. Once again, dreadlocks were an outward signifier of the wearers' politics, beliefs and lifestyles, not unlike Rastafarian locks. And they were still very much about rebellion.
But, as often happens, the look of the counter-culture began to slip into the mainstream. Look around and you'll see more and more white people with dreadlocks. Look closer, and you'll see they're probably professionals rather than protesters. Like their black counterparts, white people no longer have to be making a political statement by wearing dreadlocks. "They were appropriated from black culture, that's a fact," says charity worker Cath Conway, who had waist-length dreadlocks for more than four years.
"So for white people to have them was seen as alternative, but to my generation - who've seen hippies and crusties with dreads before them - they have now become part of white culture. I'm 26 and I think we're the first generation where white people wearing them has been quite mainstream. The only people I get dissed by are white crusties - because mine are tidy dreads, they probably think I'm selling out."
Last year, Conway cut her dreads to shoulder-length, before getting rid of them completely. "It was time," she says. "I wanted to see what life was like without them. I'd been hiding behind them to a certain extent, but I certainly don't rule out having them again. I'd never say I had locks: white people have dreads and black people can have locks - that's my personal distinction. I have never pretended that it's a religious thing, but I have got a cultural awareness from them. They are my primary identifier. I thought it was just a hairstyle, but it's not the same as cutting or dyeing your hair."
Roofer Tim Nobel, 34, who has had dreadlocks for more than four years, agrees: "I underestimated the effect they'd have. I need to look after my appearance more: it's more important how the rest of me looks because, to some people, the dreads are unacceptable. There's a responsibility that comes with them, to the hairstyle and to myself and to every dread out there. It might be just my hair, but it symbolises something."
Incidentally, none of the Rastas or the other black people I spoke to had any animosity towards white people with dreadlocks. "Dreads don't 'belong' to the movement," says Baku. "In the beginning, they were important as an identifier, but now you can get Rastas who don't have dreads [they say they have them 'in their heart'] and you have dreads who aren't Rastas. It's much more diverse."
In fact, it's black people with fashion dreadlocks who give Rastas more cause for anxiety. "Others may take on the dreads but may not want to get into the deeper aspect of the religion," says Blue. "That's still positive, because they are still identifying with certain aspects of the culture." But, he adds, they must remember that, "if a man with locks does something wrong, the headlines will scream 'Rasta man...' They always make that assumption, and it condemns the whole movement, which is why we've become disgruntled [with non-Rastas wearing dreads]. We can't stop people wearing their hair in a particular style, nor would we want to, but there is a responsibility that comes with them."
There's that word again, responsibility. That's what it keeps coming back to. That's what makes dreadlocks so different from any other hairstyle. No matter who has them or why, everyone who has dreadlocks brings it up.
I wondered, when I started this piece, if it would end with me giving Abaka a call and asking him for an appointment. If I'm honest, a bit of me hoped it would. But the truth is, right now, I just don't know if I'm responsible enough.