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The Misunderstood Story of Dreadlocks

Hair is more than simply hair; it is an expression of one's individuality.

Hair is more than simply hair; it expresses our personalities, cultures, and history. Hair can reflect spiritual links in some cultures, while differing styles might imply distinct rites of passage.

The First Appearance of Dreadlocks

The first documented account of dreadlocks appears in Vedic literature, holy Hindu manuscripts going back to 1500BC, where Lord Shiva's hair is referred to as 'jata,' a term meaning "twisted strands of hair." Almost all pictorial portrayals of Lord Shiva show him with hair flowing beyond his shoulders or knotted over his head in a style known as 'jatamukuta' (crown of matted hair). Shiva's hair is so important to believers that the sacred river Ganges is said to flow from his matted locks. Locks were first discovered in the mummified bones of Ancient Egyptians as well as the pre-Colombian Incan civilization in Peru.

Locked hair is indicative of a spiritual link to a higher power in some traditions. In Ghana, for example, the Akan people refer to locks as 'Mps,' and they are mainly reserved for Akomfo priests. Similarly, the Spanish in Mexico noted that the Aztec priests' hair was undisturbed, long, and matted.

Locks are connected with strength in various regions of Africa and are exclusively worn by warriors. Warriors of the Fula and Wolof peoples of West Africa, as well as the Maasai and Kikuyu tribes of Kenya, are all noted for their locked hair. In Nigeria, locked hair is looked with disdain by both the Yoruba and Igbo people when worn by adults. Although when children are born with naturally matted hair, they are referred to as ‘Dada’' and viewed as spiritual beings. They are revered as fortune bringers, and only their mothers are permitted to touch their hair.

Although people of color have worn dreadlocks since ancient times in Africa, Asia, and the Americas, their popularity in the West did not begin until the 1970s. This was due to the popularity of Bob Marley, a Jamaican-born reggae performer who converted to Rastafarianism.

Debate over the Origins

The origin of dreadlocks within the Rastafari tradition is a heavily debated question. Leonard Howell, dubbed "the original Rasta," was believed to have connections with Indo-Jamaican Hindus and even had a Hindu-inspired nickname, "Gong Guru Maragh." Many people think that dreadlocks and cannabis smoking (note: 'ganja' is a Hindi term) were inspired by customs introduced to Jamaica by Indian indentured laborers. Others claim that Rastas were influenced by the locks worn by warriors of Kenya's Mau Mau revolt in the 1950s.

Although Leonard Howell wore his hair short, it is reported that his guardsmen at the Pinnacle Commune wore locks to project might and terror. Another legend attributes dreadlocks to the House of Youth Black Faith (HYBF), a group of militant young Rastas who founded in the late 1940s. They grew their hair into locks as an insult to Jamaican culture and to distinguish themselves from the majority. Dreadlocks quickly became such a difficult subject that the House was divided into two factions: the "House of Dreadlocks" and the "House of the Combsomes." The latter was eventually disbanded, and dreadlocks became the well-known emblem of Rastafari that they are today.

The True Meaning

Dreadlocks, on the other hand, are much more than simply a hairstyle for Rastas. They signify a link to Africa as well as a rejection of the West, which they refer to as Babylon. Dreadlocks symbolize a revitalized feeling of pride in African physical traits and Blackness, which corresponds to their conviction in keeping things natural. There is a deeper spiritual link as well, since dreadlocks are thought to connect users to Jah (God) and "earth-force," his mysterious power found throughout the planet. Some even claim that knotting or tying one's hair retains this power within the body and prevents it from exiting via the skull. The Biblical narrative of Samson and Delilah cutting his seven locks attests to this belief in dreadlocks retaining physical power.

There is visual evidence of Ancient Greeks with braided hair and maybe locks, however one might argue that the Greeks were inspired far more by their darker colored Eastern and Mediterranean neighbors than by their Northern neighbors. Regardless of this possibility, it should go without saying that white individuals sporting dreadlocks today are unrelated to their own past and are instead influenced by ours. When I asked white folks about their dreadlocks, I got comments ranging from "my hair would do this naturally if I didn't comb it" to "Vikings had dreadlocks." I investigated the latter statement and discovered no evidence to support it.

A bas-relief on the sarcophogus of Princess Kawit (2050BC), showing a deceased noble having their locks combed by a servant

Cultural Appropriation of Dreadlocks

This cultural appropriation is made possible by the erasure of the cultural effect of reggae music, Bob Marley, and Rastafarianism. In its most basic form, cultural appropriation occurs when a dominant culture takes something from an oppressed culture without acknowledging where it came from. This is troublesome for a variety of reasons. For starters, it overlooks societal disparities, leaving it up to people of color to "speak out" what we view as injustices. We are labeled as oversensitive in the process, as centuries of our history are destroyed before our eyes. It contributes to Eurocentric beauty ideals.

When a white person wears hair that is considered unprofessional on a black person, it becomes trendy. Once again, the majority culture benefits, while minorities are marginalized more. Justin Bieber is a prime example of this. He's created a career off of culturally appropriated Black music. It was therefore unsurprising when he wore fake hair to an awards show a few years ago. Despite this, he remains one of the best-selling musicians in the world. In contrast, when mixed-race actress and singer Zendaya (of former Disney fame) donned dreadlocks to the Oscars, she was slammed by TV anchor Giuliana Rancic, who said she "smells like patchouli oil and cannabis."

This cultural manipulation, which is a British export, has even culminated in a case published last month in which Jamaica's Supreme Court found that a school was legitimate in excluding a kid with dreadlocks for "hygiene" grounds. Emma Dabiri, an Irish-Nigerian professor, published "Don't Touch My Hair" last year, in which she discusses growing up in Dublin and learning to love and embrace her own hair. She just started a petition (with over 50,000 signatures) requesting that the British government change the Equality Act to include hair as a protected trait.

In Conclusion…

With the Black Lives Matter movement gaining traction, individuals are beginning to examine their own internal prejudices as well as the mechanisms that enable racism to persist. People are emphasizing the significance of aggressively combating racism and resolving inequities. Accountability should be included for activities that disadvantage and disable existing marginalized communities. The cultural adoption of hairstyles with a rich and significant history is essential to this. Ignorance of these concerns is unacceptable in an age when knowledge is at our fingertips. We must guarantee that cultural diversity are not only appreciated but also respected.

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