As we continue to celebrate the giants of American music during Black Music Month, it’s no secret how their natural talent for original sound and exhibition remains so enormously powerful and inspirational.
Invented as a means of communication by the enslaved to express feelings of hope, joy, inspiration and sorrow when they were barred from communicating in their own native languages and vernaculars, music’s deep roots in heavy African stories and rhythm are enriched with a level of innate ingenuity that shapes the lives of so many people the world over – and it’s been that way for centuries.
Besides the fact that Black music can serve as a refuge, catalyst, salve, storyteller and agitator all in one, it also has an uncanny way of influencing us to look our very best. In a world that commands whiteness as the standard of beauty, Black musicians have illustrated a point of pride that often resists these limited ideals; and bestows a vivid narrative that belongs to us on our own.
In honor of Black Music Month, TheHub.news looks back on some of the most prolific Black hair moments in music history.
When the world was first introduced to renowned legend Nina Simone in the late 1950s, she wore straightened hair and performed cover songs of jazz staples, but during that time, the impassioned soul and spirit that would later become the hallmark of her craft and style wasn’t yet fully realized. When the Civil Rights Movement began, she found her voice; and embraced the appreciation of self-love, wearing her hair in wonderfully breathtaking Afrocentric styles, representative of pure, Black beauty.
The Jackson 5’s Afros
When the five Black brothers from Gary, Indiana, debuted in 1969 with the classic tune “I Want You Back” dominating the airwaves, so did their emblematic, perfectly-coiffed Afros. A representation of a reimagined link to Central Africa and West Africa, the style became a powerful political symbol of Black pride and a sharp pushback against notions of integration and assimilation.
Diana Ross’ Camp Hairstyle
Just months prior to Diana Ross’s career as a solo artist in 1970, she made a breakthrough performance in the televised special G.I.T. (Gettin’ It Together) on Broadway in 1969, wearing a colossal, floral-embellished wavy wig that covered her entire body as she sang her rendition of “Wash That Man Right Outta My Hair.” It would be years later, in 2019 – when the Met Gala embarked on a Camp theme – where hair stylists remembered and paid homage to Ross’ groundbreaking moment.
Stevie Wonder’s Braids and Beads
Having remarked how they made him feel like a king, legendary musician Stevie Wonder started wearing braids in 1972, worn in lengths that would often reach his waist, adorned with elaborate beading. The wearing of hair ornaments on braids remains an unmistakably African tradition with an origin that can be traced back 5000 years in African culture. Historically, the style symbolized important milestones like wealth, marital status, age and rank; and today is a reflection of individuality and a nonacceptance of mainstream beauty standards, worn by many noteworthy musicians over the years like Brandy and Alicia Keys.
Even decades after his death, Bob Marley’s classic locs continue to be studied and referenced in pop culture while serving as a prime source of inspiration around the globe. Used to communicate freedom from oppression and a rejection of Western standards while bringing unity to the masses, the megastar’s hair was symbolic of his Rastafarian faith.
Grace Jones’ Hi-Top Fade
Known for her ever-evolving influence on music, fashion and beauty that spans over 50 years (she turned 75 last month), Grace Jones has always owned a unique aesthetic vision. Although the 1980s ushered in the birth of rap music with beloved artists such as Kid ‘n Play, Big Daddy Kane and Doug E. Fresh, all sporting perfectly barbered Hi-Top Fade haircuts, it was Jones who actually helped propel the iconic 1940s-1950s military look with a cover and artwork collaboration with then-boyfriend Jean-Paul Goude for Warm Leatherette, her fourth studio album, in 1980.
In 1998, at only 13 years old when she made up one-third of the pioneering rap group The Fugees, Lauryn Hill was the industry it-girl for Black teenagers to look up to. At the time, she personified a type of Black beauty that still needed acknowledgment and distinction, but by her debut solo album, The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, her thick, glorious tresses had graced the covers of countless fashion and beauty magazines and TV and movie screens around the world. Her look encouraged young, Black and brown girls with textured hair and full lips to recognize and celebrate how beautiful they were, too.
Mary J. Blige
The undisputed Queen of Hip-Hop Soul’s most iconic hair moments have one thing in common, and it’s why they’re all so great: striking blonde tresses. As a pioneer who led the charge that thrust New York’s “ghetto fabulous” style movement into more conservative, mainstream spaces, the nine-time Grammy award winner cultivated a fresh, new demeanor and style.
After stomping onto the scene in 1993 with her debut, self-entitled album, Toni Braxton, rocking perhaps one of the most memorable pixie haircuts in music’s history, Toni Braxton’s infectious songs and hairstyle catapulted to the top of the charts in music and the hairdressing industry alike. A defining moment in personal style, the bold hair move was a statement of nonconformity and empowerment, informing Black women they could be beautiful and unabashedly badass.
Over two decades later, today’s beauty influencers still emulate Aaliyah’s sleek Side Swoop hairstyle. A deeply side-parted, glossy cult classic – prominently paired with dark sunglasses for the cover of her 1996 sophomore album, One In A Million – launched a deeply quiet and mysterious aesthetic that remains the blueprint for the silk-pressed looks many enjoy today.
It was 1996 when the protégé of the incomparable Notorious B.I.G. turned the Hip-Hop world upside down with her unyielding energy, feminist candor and vibrantly-colored wigs. One of the first Hip-Hop artists to use eye-catching, dramatically-dyed commercial hair as an expressive form of art that dates back to around 3400 BC in Ancient Egypt (rumor has it Cleopatra’s favorite wig color was blue), Lil Kim inspired a generation of female rappers and music enthusiasts everywhere to give their hair a color boost in the brightest, most fun ways possible.
When Missy Elliot introduced a new hairstyle, we were captivated for a reason. Always ahead of her time, with a wildly innovative style that comprised a fusion of Hip-Hop, R&B and electronic dance music since 1997, the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame honoree’s looks were as visually stunning and innovative as the futuristic, state-of-the-art effects of her music videos.