By Shingai Shoniwa
I would describe myself as a Brit of Bantu heritage. Due to the colonial borders that were put in place in sub-Saharan Africa, a lot of Bantu people were separated into different nations. My grandmother is from Malawi, previously called Nyasaland. They made a sharp border with Northern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and the east Portuguese protectorate, now Mozambique, which is where my grandfather is from.
My parents were born in Zimbabwe, but I grew up in Lewisham, south London. I was lucky that as a child I was encouraged by my family and community to wear my hair in its natural state – my friends and I wore styles such as Bantu knots and cane rows with pride. Even my white friends would get the odd braid or two. Getting your hair done as a little black girl felt like an expression of love and nourishment. It would be styled by my gogo – my grandmother – or my mum, or an auntie, or anyone in the community, really; there was a support network for women of colour who cared for the hair of the children around them. The reaction from other kids towards my hair was positive – they thought it looked really cool, like an alien. But when it came to adults, and certain institutions, there was a more negative reaction.
At secondary school, that negativity increased. We were bombarded with chemical products from America, and teachers questioning whether our natural styles fitted the “hair code”. Things got more pointed once I entered the workplace. I worked at a posh department store in Kensington as a teenager – a very old, respected establishment. I had cut off all the hair damaged by those toxic chemicals, and put it into plaits. One day, I was pulled off the shop floor. I was making a sale – being my usual happy self – when I was marched off by three members of staff. They said there had been complaints about my hair, and that it could be seen as intimidating. It was, they said, more respectable when it was straightened, and they gave me two options: to have a stranger style my hair in the “grooming” department or be sent home. I stayed calm and said I would leave, but I went home and cried. I was so scarred by that experience. To me, the idea of grooming was for pets, not for humans.
Once I knew I wanted to be an artist, later in my teens, I started to feel more confident about my hair. I threw myself into drama and started singing and playing in bands when I was 16. It was then that I realised an intrinsic connection between black creativity and adornment has existed and been evolving since the beginning of time. I felt much more inspired and confident on stage, and in my community, asserting myself as an artist with African heritage. There was a lot of pressure to adopt the hairstyles that were being celebrated in pop music and fashion across the Atlantic, especially for primetime media positioning, so it hasn’t been an easy journey, but I’ve always celebrated natural styles, regardless of what was trendy.
So many artists in the UK have done the same, from Sade’s natural curls to Omar’s dreads. Grace Jones, Skin, Soul II Soul were also trailblazers. Then, latterly, you have had people like myself, VV Brown, Laura Mvula, Little Simz and Lianne La Havas. Artists in the US, such as Solange, Janelle Monáe, Willow Smith and Kelela have also been embracing natural Bantu-inspired hair styles. But when I started out, natural hair wasn’t visible or popular in pop videos or commercial content. I was treated like an outsider by the mainstream press, and even some of the black community. I had to fight to have every single piece of artwork approved for my releases, and I constantly had to remind people about the contribution of African musicians to rock-and-roll and punk. It felt as if I didn’t belong or deserve to excel in that genre, plus being a genre-fluid musician was rare. It wasn’t until I got the L’Oreal Mizani haircare campaign in 2013 that I realised I was being referred to as a natural hair icon. I’ve still to feel that way in the sense of my musical contribution, but I’m hopeful as it’s a great time for someone like me to be listened to.
I think it’s really lovely that people of other cultures can – and have – positively appropriated aspects of black hair and beauty. I just think it’s important that we are allowed to do that as well. A lot of people adopt and appropriate these styles and it’s called high fashion, but when women of colour do it, it’s not. It’s the same with music: when people who aren’t of colour make music that is African or Caribbean-inspired, it’s called “tropical pop”, urban or just pop; when people of colour create incredible pop music – inspired by their own heritage – it’s often put in the world music corner.
The title track from my new album Too Bold is the message I want not only young black girls to carry with them, but anyone who has been told by society that they can’t achieve their goals while being their authentic selves: “Don’t let them tell you you’re too dark, don’t let them tell you you’re too smart, too large, too old, too much, too bold”. I made that song as a clarion call, relating not only to hair, but all the personal and global movements taking place in 2020. We’re at a moment in time where people are beginning to learn more about these incredible kings and queens, and respectable black African people who wore their natural hair in amazing ways – it’s just breaking into the mainstream. I put a lot of testimony from my own journey into my music, and I wanted to take part in this programme so that natural hair is ever more normalised. Wearing your hair and presenting yourself in the way that nature made you shouldn’t be such a risk – we need to accelerate the process of acceptance, recognition and respect.
Growing up, it was really hard to find the confidence to broach these matters of identity without it feeling like the conversation wasn’t going to be a positive one. But this is a really wonderful time for people of colour to encourage each other to celebrate all of our identities, and also for people who are not of colour to appreciate our identities and immense creativity. My hair isn’t intimidating – it’s an expression of who I am.