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There’s more to African hairstyles than their obvious elaborate and attractive designs, styling, and ornamentation. However, knowledge of the origins, inspirations, cultural beliefs, and development of these hairstyles remain limited to some individuals who choose to adorn them. This leads us to the present exploration of this fascinating aspect of widely admired African hairstyles.
As African hairstyles such as braids and cornrows continue to witness increased popularity across the globe and issues such as appropriation in popular culture arise, it becomes pertinent to understand how and from where they came about. A key objective with this is to help substitute blatant cultural appropriations of these hairstyles for appreciation, just as with various innovative trends cutting across fashion, lifestyle, and culture that are also rooted in the continent, but have been shared with the rest of the world.
African braids (more popularly known as Cornrows) are a form of hair plaiting/weaving done to lay flat on the scalp. This intricate style notable for its geometric and oftentimes complex designs is believed to have originated in Egypt around the Nile Valley, from where it spread to other parts of Africa, including among the Fulani, Bantu, Hausa, Yoruba, Maasai, and Wolof.
It is one of the oldest African hairstyles known for using its designs to symbolize the age, social, or marital status of the wearer, especially around the fifteenth century. The Wolof men, for instance, wore the traditional African braids to go to war.
Single braids have evolved to feature a plethora of styles including box and bob hair braids. This particular hairstyle is famed for its function which transcended hair care to become a means of socialization for the African women who were involved in the art. Socialization by means of hair braiding was inevitable because of the many hours—sometimes up to a day or more—which the routine required. As the women sat to achieve the braids, conversations would start and extend beyond the work at hand. Thus, as time went on, getting single braids done was seen as another way for women to meet and pass the time conversing while grooming and styling their hair.
Braiding of any kind is one aspect where hair ornamentation can be appreciated, as they can be finished off with beads, cowries, clips, jewelry, and so on. Also, braiding can be done with or without hair extensions to suit the tastes and purpose of the wearer.
Nigerian photographer Juliana Kasumu delicately captures this traditional hairstyle in her famous compilation titled “Irun Kiko“—Yoruba translation for “threaded hair.” Irun Kiko pays homage to hair threading, which originated among the Yoruba people of Nigeria. As with braids, threading hairstyles were used to depict sociocultural affluence, as some of the styles are made to resemble crowns or skyscrapers. This hairstyle involves the use of cotton, rubber, silk, or wool threads to completely cover sectioned hair from root to tip. Ms. Kasumu, in turn, received some inspiration for her acclaimed work from a similar compilation undertaken by famous Nigerian photographer JD Okhai Ojeikere.
Twists are similar to single braids in their origins and styling. However, unlike braids, which use a three-strand format, they are achieved by taking small sections of the hair, dividing them into two, and twisting them around each other, usually while or after twisting the individual strands around themselves. This particular hairstyle is believed to have originated in Senegal, hence the name. These are also usually decorated with hair ornaments and made with or without extensions.
These outstanding knots can be traced all the way back to 17th Century southern Africa among the Zulu ethnic group. With bantu knots, hair is sectioned into as many parts as desired, twisted, and then rolled wrapped around themselves to form tire-like knots on the head. The knots are then either decorated with ornaments or jewelry or are simply left to stun in their rolled up glory.
Today, all of these African hairstyles can be seen making impressive “comebacks” in film, television, music videos, and fashion, with recent instances such as Rihanna rocking Bantu Knots, and threaded hair making a big feature in Beyonce’s visual album, Lemonade, among many others. However, parallel to the joy and pride in the re-popularization of these hairstyles is the issue of cultural appropriation which threatens to overshadow the wave.
While braiding, in general, can definitely trace its origins back to different civilizations from centuries ago, certain hairstyles—starting with Bantu Knots and ending with African braids—are deeply rooted in African origins, thus making it impossible to ignore appropriation in popular culture.
Yet, this problem aside, African hairstyles continue to dazzle with their innovative designs and purposes, including serving as means to protective delicate Black hair, or prep hair for a restyle, as in the case of twist or braid outs.