Why These Women Want To Take The "Dread" Out Of "Dreadlocks"

"My locs are far from dreadful, they are simply locs. They are beautiful, twisted sections of my hair," says April-Louise, one of the four women I met with photographer Olivia Ema while photographing Black British women who proudly wear their hair in locs.

Until we sat with April-Louise, I hadn’t considered why the word “dread” was ever associated with the style and have since made a point of ridding it from my vocabulary.

Though they have existed for thousands of years, when talking about locs, many refer to the late Bob Marley – the globally renowned Jamaican musician and proud Rastafarian who was one of the first icons to have locs when he emerged in the '70s and often spoke about them in relation to his identity.

Unfortunately, ignorance about the hairstyle still exists today. In February 2015, Giuliana Rancic of Fashion Police made a disrespectful comment about Zendaya Coleman’s hair smelling like "patchouli oil and weed." Just last month, a 12-year-old student at Fulham Boys School was threatened with being placed in isolation unless he cut his dreadlocks, as his hairstyle was a breach of uniform policy.

While the natural hair movement is thriving both online and off, few are talking about locs specifically and the profound relationship that women and men have with them. Speaking to the four women in this feature, Olivia and I learned that the decision to allow your hair to grow into itself without interruption is never taken lightly. Each woman's reason for choosing the style is different but they all speak of a personal evolution in sync with the evolution of their hair.

Olivia and I met April-Louise Pennant, Jaha Browne, Angela Dennis, and Keisha Cameron on social media and through chance encounters around London to chat about the fascinating intersection between hair and identity.

Photographed by Olivia Ema.
Angela Dennis, 32, Fashion & Lifestyle Photographer

We had intended to meet Angela at Shutterbug Café, one of her “long-time hangouts” in Shoreditch, but arrive to find it has closed down. So we make our way instead to South African activist photographer Zanele Muholi’s exhibition.

Angela is of Spanish and Jamaican heritage. While her background is in commercial photography, she currently loves shooting portraits and street style. She also has a passion for movement and the body, and has been in love with yoga for three years.

"I started my locs in 2011, about six years ago," she says. "I’d already been on a natural hair journey for quite a while, and I made the decision to go natural at the age of 18. I wore an Afro for a long time, but I think I got tired of it in terms of the upkeep. Having to think about how to style it every day and twist it before bed — I was getting to a point where I wanted something more easygoing, I wanted to spend more time focusing on who I was and what I’m offering to the world.”

One thing I notice about Angela is that she speaks about her locs, which now sit just below her collarbone, as an entity – as though they are a second body attached to her own. She agrees: “Sometimes I think my locs do talk to me, when they’re thirsty or it’s time for nourishment. I remember a time after I had washed and moisturized them, I literally felt like my scalp was smiling.”

She even has favorites, and talks about the conversations she has when meeting others with locs. “I think there’s something around the personality of individual locs that we talk about. We know that there are certain parts of the scalp where the loc that comes out of it might be really thick and tough, while others may be slimmer and have a curly finish. We might even give them names by their characteristics,” she says with a smile.

While she has this close relationship with her locs, “now that they’re adult, they’re stable and [she] can really judge what they need.” Initially, there was an element of fear about “relinquishing control to a loctician” – especially having learned to braid her own hair from the age of 7: “I spent the first 2-3 years with that surrender, until gradually I got more confident with my locs’ behavior. I now know how often they want to be washed, how much, and what kinds of moisturizers they like.”

Pride is a recurring sentiment in women who wear locs, says Angela. “I feel proud that as a woman with Afro hair, I’ve found a way to wear my hair with pride and confidence. As well as with ease, one that serves my life. I don’t spend so much time worrying about how sweat, steam or the rain is going to affect my appearance. I can go swimming if I want to go swimming. I feel less controlled."
Photographed by Olivia Ema.
April-Louise Pennant, 24, PhD Researcher

As we stroll the decorated streets of Shoreditch, April-Louise tells me that her research is “about the educational experiences and journeys of Black British women in the English education system.” She is passionate about uplifting and empowering Black people, but especially Black women in a British context, because that is the experience she is most familiar with. April-Louise does this through her research, her blog, and the words of encouragement she shares with me throughout our conversation.

Her sister-loc journey began on her return from a year in Hong Kong in 2014. “I couldn’t start before because when you first do locs, you have to re-tighten them more often. So when I came back, it felt like the perfect time,” she says. After years of experimenting with weaves of all colors and lengths, as well as chemically straightening her hair, she realized the importance of self-love.

“I’m saying I want to elevate my people but I can’t even be proud of my own hair?” says April-Louise. “It’s been the best journey ever, there’s a quote that says, 'Once you start to truly love yourself, it becomes spiritual.'” She talks about how her locs encourage her to be a better person: “Because they’re natural, if you’re not being healthy, your hair is not going to be healthy either. It goes hand in hand. They make me want to drink more water and make sure I’m living right. Eventually I will improve my diet, but for now I don’t smoke and I don’t drink.”

While some people call locs “antennae to the universe”, to April-Louise they are her babies. She adds that when meeting other people, “it’s like if you have a child and you see another mother, there are things that you can easily relate to, like the different stages which become points for conversation.”

When it comes to maintenance, April-Louise compares her use of nourishing natural oils and water to taking care of a plant. “You’re basically watering your hair, and looking after it like you would look after a plant.” You could say the decision to wear locs is radical: "It’s a long process, it’s a journey and a commitment to completely loving you."
Photographed by Olivia Ema.
Jaha Browne, 29, Filmmaker & Reiki Practitioner

Jaha Browne takes us to the South Bank, where a lot of her filmmaking career has developed. She specializes in documentaries as an avenue that allows her to “explore other people’s truths and voices, as well as give them a platform.”

Jaha’s sister-loc journey began at the beginning of February. Inspired by her mum, who had just had them done, she looked into it and after a year of contemplating, finally followed in her footsteps. Prior to locs, she often wore her hair in box braids, but felt like “they weren’t a part of me and didn’t represent me anymore. With locs, I can truly say this is me. It’s not something that’s been added or attached. I like what I see when I look in the mirror, I like how it folds and it just feels right.”

Jaha and her mum met Sophia, their loctician, when they started doing African yoga last year. “We’ve all had bonds with hairdressers in some form, but with this one it’s really nice because you go to her house and she’s healing our hair with her hands, she takes her time to wrap the hair and loc it in. She’s so gentle and lovely, and we’re able to talk about things. These hair spaces are often for women to talk and confide in each other.”

As a reiki practitioner – the practice of energy healing from the hands – spirituality is significant to Jaha. “I’m spiritual in the sense that we are God; everything is God, life creatures, water and nature. Although I don’t come from a Rastafarian context, I do find locs spiritual because your hair is your antennae connecting out [to the universe],” she says.

“Hair does carry a lot of energy, your hair is you, so whatever energy you’re holding comes out through your hair,” she adds. This is why, after a conversation with her mum, she isn’t a fan of the term 'dreadlocks.'

“If you attach negative words to yourself, it’s like looking in the mirror and saying, ‘I’m not worth anything.' It creates this aura around you, even if it is subconscious. They’re not ‘dreads’, they’re just locs, it’s a locked form of hair. It’s society putting people in one box, and tarnishing them for not conforming to the way they want them to look, or not participating in how society ‘should be,'” explains Jaha.

With the lack of respect so often shown towards Rastafarianism as a religion – in America it has been ruled legal to refuse to hire someone for having locs – Jaha speaks about the freedom that comes with being a creative freelancer. “I haven’t had any negative backlash, but then also I’m a freelancer, so my occupation is quite free. I’m not tied to an institution where you do have to conform to certain things. That situation might be different.”
Photographed by Olivia Ema.
Keisha Cameron, 25, Sports Coach

Keisha Cameron loves American football, strength and conditioning science. She is also a dancer of many genres, mother to her 4-year-old son Rayne, and kind enough to welcome us into her home in northwest London. Sitting in Rayne’s cozy playroom, we get to talking about her loc journey, which began on March 27th, 2017.

It was a transitional decision that came after the difficult end of a long relationship. “I need a new start, I need to wipe the slate clean and start again,” says Keisha, recalling her feelings at the time. As her locs grow longer, she grows stronger, becoming more self-reliant and remembering to be kind to herself – particularly important, as she pours so much love into those she cares about.

“It’s a very disciplined journey but I see that from the time of having them to where I am now, I’ve gained strength. It’s a nice thing to keep me going, it reminds me that ‘You’ve done this and you can do more, there’s so much more you can do.'” Keisha started Rayne’s locs when he was starting school – it was "a whole new chapter for him too".

Many cultures and religions believe in the idea of energy and strength being carried in your hair, and regard hair as sacred. “I do feel like, it is more than hair and it does hold energy. Each part of us holds energy. Even down to our clothes,” says Keisha.

Religion has played a significant role in Keisha’s life: she was christened when she was younger, became a Jehovah’s Witness, then a Buddhist and finally a Muslim for three years before moving away from religion and settling into the personal journey of spirituality. “I was trying to find what I identify with; I’d been given a religion, I hadn’t really said that I wanted to be it,” Keisha says. That same self-determination is “the most important thing when it comes to starting your loc journey, because society is telling you straight or loose curly hair is in.” You have to find the confidence within: “I’m doing this for me. Whatever anyone else thinks is none of my concern.”

As for Rayne: “My son will decide what he wants to be. I’m not going to force him to be anything, and if it doesn’t work for him, we can cut the hair.” Keisha’s locs, however, will be with her for the rest of her life. “Even if I get bald patches and I’ve got one loc that’s hanging on, they’re going to stay,” she laughs.
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