Have you ever wondered who invented dreadlocks and braids?
First of all, let’s speak of dreadlocks. It is not clear where the word “dreadlocks” comes from, but here are some of the hypotheses:
- Some believe it may have originated within the Rastafari movement, which has elements of Christianity. In Christianity the “dread” of God is often used to describe a deep respect and faith in the divine, therefore dread-locks could be the hair of a person who deeply believes in God. The locks of hair are mentioned in the bible and Rastas keep their hair uncombed, so they end up developing what we know today as “dreadlocks”.
- Some believe it came from the first impact between African warriors and the European colonizers: the warriors supposedly infused a sense of dread to the invaders, thanks to their intimidating look that included dreadlocks.
Either way, this word seems to be strongly connected to the African heritage, and many think the hairstyle itself originated there. But is it accurate to say so?
Photo by Airam Dato-on
As we saw in the Dreadlocks Creation Guide, anybody can grow dreadlocks just by stopping combing. This applies to any ethnicity and any hair type. Of course, some will lock up quicker or better than others, but if we don’t comb our hair, we’ll get tangles, and if we don’t undo them, sooner or later they’ll form dreadlocks. This means that this hairstyle is as ancient as humanity itself and no culture can claim its full intellectual property. The first people to wear dreads were probably cavemen.
We researched the first evidence of the use of dreadlocks:
- The first piece of written evidence dates back to 1500BC; it is brought to us by the ancient holy Hindu texts called the “Vedas”. In these texts Lord Shiva, one of the main deities of Hinduism, wears his hair in the so-called “Jaṭā” (locks of matted hair, basically the same as dreadlocks). Even in today’s India it is not uncommon to see Jaṭā hair: for example, the holy men called “Sadhus” wear their Jaṭā in big coils on the top of their heads. Sadhus believe that wearing our hair in this fashion will facilitate the cosmic energy flow and help elevate our consciousness.
- The first figurative evidence comes from Greece and dates back to a similar period as the Veda texts. A fresco from the island of Santorini shows fighters wearing dreadlocks. More evidence from the same period comes from Egypt and other parts of the Mediterranean and the Middle East, although sometimes it is difficult to tell dreadlocks from braids in a bas-relief or a painting.
Dreadlocks and spirituality
It seems that dreadlocks have often had, in history, a spiritual or philosophical meaning. Dreadlocks have been present in many religions as part of one’s spiritual journey: we already mentioned the presence of Jaṭā in Hinduism, but the same hairstyle is also present in Buddhism, Christianity and Islam in very similar ways. Buddhist, Christian and Muslim ascetics, similar to the Hindu Sadhus, embraced dreadlocks as a way to express their renunciation of vanity and material desires. For many of them the choice was between getting dreadlocks and shaving their heads.
Religions have the tendency to spread, and by doing so they tend to embrace elements of the cultures they cross. Their own representative elements spread with them, so it’s very likely that holy men influenced each other on the use of dreadlocks across different religions.
However, dreadlocks have been present in all the continents as a strong cultural and social symbol since ancient times, so it almost looks like ancient populations agreed on the importance of dreadlocks even without much contact. In pre-Columbian America, Oceania and Africa dreadlocks were used as a social and cultural symbol often associated with shamanism. This hairstyle represented a connection with the divine and with the spirit realm, and was often a symbol of strength and integrity for warriors and chiefs.
Poundmaker, a chief of the plains Cree First Nation, wearing long dreadlocks, 1885.
Image courtesy of the National Archives of Canada, C-001875. Copyright Prof. Buell, O.B., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons
Dreadlocks, reggae music and the Rastafari Movement
When speaking of the history of dreadlocks we need to mention the Rastafari Movement. In fact, the reason why dreadlocks are so widespread nowadays is in great part the result of the increase in popularity of reggae music, which became a global phenomena towards the end of last century, and has helped to spread the Rastafari message. This included the recommendation to leave our hair in their natural state, let it grow and tangle to form natural dreadlocks.
The Rastafari Movement is a physical and mental liberation movement, born in the context of centuries of colonialism and slavery. It started in the 1930s in areas that were heavily invaded and colonized by white Europeans, particularly Jamaica and the surrounding Caribbean islands.
The history of these places is rough. Not many know that, nowadays, the population of Jamaica is 100% non-native. The genocide of the natives happened in just over a century, first by the Spanish invaders, who occupied the island in 1494, and then by the British colonists, who kicked out the Spanish a few decades later. The population of Jamaica as we know it today is composed of the descendants of slaves brought from British colonies, primarily Africa, but also India and other countries. The genetics there are also mixed with white Europeans.
Slave trading became illegal at the beginning of the 19th century, and slavery in Jamaica became officially illegal in 1834, but in actuality people were still being enslaved for over a century through psychological manipulation. The desire for freedom of these people condensed into the Rastafari Movement, which was Christian based but had Hindu influences, for example the use of “ganja”, the plant sacred to Lord Shiva (the Vedic dreadlocks deity). It seems clear that the spiritual practice of wearing dreadlocks in the Rastafari Movement comes both from the African and the Hindu backgrounds.
In this scenario, reggae music was a way to cheer people up, give them hope and strength, and in many cases to inform and educate them so that they’d be able to “stand up for their rights”. This music and its message continued to spread and in the 70s it became popular all over the world, as it still is today. People in Europe started supporting the Rastafari Movement and were captured by the strong message of hope and liberation. Many started wearing dreadlocks, using Rastafari symbols, and smoking ganja.
In the same period, more and more westerners started wearing Jaṭā hair after visiting India, or after meeting Hindus with Jaṭā hair that had traveled to other countries. “Dreadlocks” became the most common way to call this hairstyle, which has since been adopted by all kinds of different people, including hippies, metalheads, and more.
Busker with dreads. Image by Vladimir Buynevich
Dreadlocks and braids in our society
In the past, one of the ways people were stripped of their identity, humiliated, and made into slaves, was by denying their right to wear their hair as they wanted. This was particularly effective when one’s hairstyle had a strong cultural meaning related to personal identity, which is the case for dreadlocks and for braids in African descendents.
Box braids and cornrows, in particular, are typical of African culture. Even if they may have been used in other regions too, it’s in Africa that historically they had the most popularity. Quote: “In many African tribes, braided hairstyles were a unique way to identify each tribe. Braid patterns and hairstyles were an indication of a person’s tribe, age, marital status, wealth, power, and religion. Braiding was and is a social art.” (read this beautiful article on the history of braids on byrdie.com)
A beautiful Cape Verdian woman, carrying a basket of trinkets on her head, to sell to the tourists. Photo by Nick Fewings
For centuries wearing dreadlocks or braids has been one of the boldest rebellious acts for slaves, and the punishment for wearing their hair in such manners was often brutal. Even today, in our “civilized society”, when a person of colour wears their hair in such manners, they often get discriminated against at work, in school, or in sports. Some examples:
- It’s not uncommon to see white bosses fire African descendents just because they wear dreadlocks or braids (an example here).
- Children and teens are being told they will be expelled from school if they don’t cut their dreadlocks (an example here).
- Athletes are only allowed to perform if they conform and renounce their dreadlocks (an example here).
Today all kinds of people, with different backgrounds, beliefs and tastes, are wearing dreadlocks or braids, which can lead to controversy. For many the meaning of dreadlocks and braids is not that of physical and psychological liberation, or of cultural identity, or part of a spiritual journey. It’s “just a hairstyle”. And that, for some, is offensive.
When we look at history it’s clear that no culture can claim ownership of dreadlocks, but the accusation of cultural appropriation does have valid reasons to exist. To understand this we need to pay more attention to the pain and suffering millions of us are still going through today. For example, if we’re white caucasians raised in Europe, in the US or in another white-predominant country, it’s not so easy to notice the systemic racism we’re living in, because we are the ethnic majority. Systemic racism is a reminiscence of a history where people of ethnic minorities have been systematically stripped of their human rights. Violence towards people has been commonly accepted in our society until only very recently, and the fight to get rid of racism is far from being over.
When a person of colour wears dreadlocks or braids, they often get abused at work, in school, in sports, etc. If a white person wears dreadlocks or braids, they rarely get abused. Therefore it’s clear that these hairstyles are often used as a way to express racist ideology. The accusation of “cultural appropriation”, in a way, can be seen as a call to action, because there is still a lot of racism and we all need to stand against it, as we’re all equal.
In conclusion: some useful advice
It is very important to be aware of the topic of cultural appropriation when we decide to wear dreadlocks or braids as we are all part of society and we all contribute to it through our mentality and our actions.
- The first thing is, of course, to acknowledge that the accusation of “cultural appropriation” is a result of ongoing social injustice. Nobody can claim exclusive cultural property over these hairstyles, but the issue is that they are often an excuse to discriminate against people. We should defend our fellow humans when they experience discrimination: after all, we all would like to see others defending us when we’re victims of injustice. And consider this: when people of any ethnicity wear dreadlocks or braids at work, in school or in sport, it is an opportunity to underline that we are, in fact, all equal, and there is no space to be made for racism.
- It’s important to know the history a little bit, in order to respond to accusations in a calm manner. Dreadlocks and many braided hairstyles were made popular by African descendents, especially in the US and the UK, but the history of humanity is a history of cultural exchange. For example, the act of smoking ganja in the Rastafari Movement comes from the Indian slaves that were brought to the Caribbean. Ganja is a Sanskrit word, the plant is native to India and Nepal, it is also sacred to Shiva, but that doesn’t mean that only Indians, or only the followers of Shiva, can smoke it.
- Finally, it’s good to keep yourself informed about these important topics, but try to not overthink it. A caucasian-looking person with dreads/braids can have African descent and still be accused of cultural appropriation, while a person of colour can wear braids or dreads as “just a hairstyle”, meaning they don’t express anything in particular but they just look beautiful. At the end of the day, anybody with dreadlocks or braids is just a person who is using their hair as a means for self-expression. They’re beautiful hairstyles, and it’s nice to share our passions.
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