We talk about the cultural significance of the afro with a natural hair campaigner
On Saturday afternoon Beyoncé dropped the video for new single “Formation” – and just for a moment, people over the world stopped what they were doing and paid attention.
Rightly, “Formation” has been described as Beyoncé’s most politically direct song to date, a defiant reclamation of blackness which nods to police brutality, cultural identity and the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Formation is also, of course, about Beyoncé’s visual identity, as one of the most influential black women alive today. It's about what it means to be black, and look black, in the 21st century. Which makes it, partly at least, a song about black women’s hair.
The idea of black hair is referenced explicitly in both the lyrics of Formation and the accompanying music video. As Beyoncé sings “I like my baby hair, with baby hair and afros”, the camera cuts to a shot of her daughter Blue Ivy, dressed in angelic white with natural, afro-textured hair. Let’s not forget that Blue Ivy’s hair was the subject of a petition signed by over 5,000 people not so long ago, who presumably were unable to find anything better to do with their time. Later on, the Formation video depicts three women standing in a wig shop; a reminder of the pressure felt by many women of colour to straighten their hair to fit ‘Westernised’ standards of beauty (a phenomenon which was expertly chronicled by Chris Rock in his 2009 documentary Good Hair). And at her Super Bowl performance Beyoncé was flanked by an army of backup dancers in Black Panther inspired outfits, with matching afros and black berets.
To find out more about the cultural significance of afro hair, Dazed spoke to Patrice Yursik. Yursik is a self-styled “brown beauty blogger”, whose Afrobella blog is at the forefront of the natural hair movement. We talked afros, beauty salons, and why Beyoncé’s hair is a political statement.
“It’s really important for Beyoncé in particular to come out and speak about her hair, because people have been extremely critical of her appearance as well as of Blue Ivy’s. The whole song [“Formation”] is about her addressing the criticism which has been lingering for far too long. What’s interesting is that Beyoncé uses the word ‘nappy’ in the song, which is interesting because it’s often a word that is used in a negative way – but here the meaning has been positively reclaimed”.
For Yursik, what’s important is that black women are able to choose how they wear their hair, free of social pressure. “I think the natural hair movement has evolved now to the point where it’s about women having the freedom to choose. Beyoncé can represent herself however she wants; she can wear her hair straight, or in cornrows, or blonde and straightened. And she can be surrounded by dancers with natural afro hair, to show that we are all shades and textures of beautiful.”
The lyrics of “Formation” particularly resonate with Yursik, who situates them within the context of how black women are historically and culturally stereotyped by broader media narratives. “There’s absolutely a historical lack of understanding and acceptance of black hair, and traditionally black features; especially when it comes to what is seen as ‘professional’ or acceptable in the workplace. For black women to say that ‘I’m a professional’ exactly as they are, with their hair staying the same way it grows out of their heads – that’s a political statement”.
As a beauty blogger, Yursik is more conscious than most of the issues which persist in our culture around afro hair. “I think it’s really fascinating, for example, how all these pictures of Michelle Obama go around on the Internet which purport to depict her with afro hair. They’re almost all fakes. And it’s interesting to me as a black woman, because you’re always expected to depict your beauty in a certain way. And when you reject that narrative, society has a hard time wrapping its head around it and embracing you as you are. So I think that seeing these kind of visual reminders that Beyoncé gave us, surrounded by these Black Panther dancers, with their afros – it’s incredibly inspiring and affirming for me as a black woman who wears her hair natural.
It reminds us that we all just need to work on loving ourselves in a very holistic way, however we want to be – and however we want to wear our hair”.