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Afrofuturism Exalts Black Beauty in a New, Entirely Unapologetic Way

What it is, where it’s headed and what it means for the beauty industry.

Black hair is reaching new heights — both literally and figuratively.

Whether wire-wrapped braids bent into striking shapes or locks twisted into towering crowns, the current resurgence of the afrofuturism aesthetic has given rise to hair and makeup art that draws on African roots to reenvision, reclaim and reimagine the range of Black beauty. The vision is a more self-defined future — not one that has been in any way colonized or defined by those who don’t own it.

Afrofuturism may have as many definitions as it does manifestations, but if you ask Anita Asante, who leads global strategic partnerships development for the Afropunk festival, where the aesthetic has been playing out for at least the last five or more years, “it’s actually a reimagining of Blackness.” As she notes, “If afrofuturism is a movement, Afropunk is its playground.”

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“We’re seeing it a lot in, whether it’s music videos, the way that people are doing their makeup and the shapes and the lines….I remember Grace Jones rocking the flat hair and the sharp lines of her makeup, so it’s really interesting how it’s sort of coming back,” Asante said, queuing up a return of the IRL festival in Miami in May. “You’re seeing it in a new way of artists all the way down from Bree Runway, even Chloe Bailey recently and all of her hair. It’s definitely a reimagining of the past, but then also it’s taking note of the future and seeing how we can kind of marry up both and create something that will work in this present day.”

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Afrofuturism has long been linked with science fiction. But to start from the beginning with this term many are still Googling, would be to go back to a 1994 article by American author Mark Dery (titled, “Black to the Future”) where the term itself first emerged. In the piece, Dery explored, through interviews with Black science fiction writers Samuel R. Delany, Greg Tate and Tricia Rose, how African American lives are enhanced through engagement with technology.

“In a literary sense, that’s like the tropes of science fiction which are space travel, engaging with technology, androids, cyborgs, things like that, but from a Black protagonist point of view,” said afrofuturist scholar Warrick Moses, Ph.D., a professor in Syracuse University’s Department of Art and Music Histories. Essentially, he said, themes of dislocation and dispossession, of a post-apocalyptic world, have really been a reality for Black people in America, with the Middle Passage being the sort of Armageddon necessary to rebuild from. “This idea of African Americans themselves being alien, African Americans living in a condition of alienation in America, for example, has also contributed to these ideas of transcendence and that manifests in ideas of escape.”

For those who don’t linger in sci-fi sections but have seen “Black Panther,” the essence of afrofuturism plays out there as well, where Wakanda is the futuristic kingdom Black people have been able to redefine. And Camille Friend, Hollywood hairstylist and head of the hair department for the film (both the first and the sequel expected to be released in November) that was at once a celebration of Black culture and, at least in part, a catalyst to the current afrofuturism resurgence, drew on the past to create the film’s future-facing hairdos.

“When we were doing research, not only just the tribal looks, but when you get into music and you look at Labelle, when you look at Parliament, when you look at Bootsy [Collins], all those people were creating an alternate universe through their music. People had a porthole to go into something different, so to me it’s been going on for a long time,” she said. “Truly, what [afrofuturism] is to me is embracing our culture as Black people but in a futuristic — even in your own creative way.

“We are in a movement and people just want to be able to create and be free. And I think that’s what afrofuturism is.”

So if the term has been around since the ‘90s and its manifestation was present even before then, why the resurgence now?

“It’s a response, right?” Moses said. “Afrofuturism, Black science fiction, has always been a response to whiteness, ostensibly. And part of this idea of an afrofuturist imagination is simply imagining that Black people exist in the future. There would be a resurgence or a prioritization of afrofuturism given as responses to social and historical oppressions of Black people.”

It’s a response to the times: to the country’s racial reckoning, to a had-it-up-to-here-with-exclusion sentiment, to the natural hair movement.

“In the same way that Blackness has been a real central topic for the last couple of years, people are really taking a look inward and focusing on what is it that is driving that interest in the afrofuturism space,” Asante said. “I think that we all like to reimagine Blackness to some degree and afrofuturism encapsulates and centralizes everything, so it’s like you are able to show up and show out…unapologetically….You’re able to be your true self and really show up how you want to show up in any which way that you want to.”

What’s more, as Catherine E. McKinley, author of “The African Lookbook: A Visual History of 100 Years of African Women,” says, “Embracing Black beauty is not a small part of a process of decolonization.”

“I think we’re in one of the deepest moments of decolonization, I don’t think we even really talked about decolonization in America so much as it was Civil Rights, it was Black Power and these other kinds of iterations that are all the same but we didn’t really use that term decolonization. Now, since the pandemic, people are absolutely fed up and know that we can’t rely on institutions or any of the things that we thought we could and so I think people are just divesting….I feel like that’s really at the heart of it. People are willing to take more risks, they’re reclaiming more pieces of themselves,” she said.

Afrofuturism, in McKinley’s eyes is, “taking what’s real — our present — and bending it, moving it to extreme locations; the future, space, the realm of the occult, in order to understand it and reckon with it, but to also put distance on it. To stand at a distance so that it makes it strange and newly beautiful.” It’s quite literally what happens with the hairstyles, too.

“It’s a lens on what’s most discomfiting and most loved. It’s a way back to the Indigenous. The African,” she continued. “[It’s] reaching back into the past — a colonial past and (to a lesser extent because we know less) pre-colonial past — and taking from it the strands of indigeneity, and the cosmopolitanism and modernism born out of frictions and even violent encounters.”

So what does that look like when it comes to hair and beauty?

“For me, it always goes back to texture, it’s color, it’s shape, it’s the elements that you add to it. Are you adding a metal, are you adding a wood, what are you adding to it to get to that?” Friend said. “I always like very asymmetrical or off shapes, but it’s about those things, where it’s going here [gestures from side to side] or how are we elongating it here [gestures from front to back], all of those things that make it slightly off is what, to me, makes it more Afrocentric or futurism.”

Chloe Bailey on the cover of Flaunt Magazine in August 2021, the cover of Black science fiction writer Nnedi Okorafor’s book, “Binti: The Night Masquerade,” and Lupita Nyongo’s 2016 Met Gala look are examples.

When it comes to the beauty industry’s offering to support this, as with most things, there has been progress but work remains to be done.

“I look at the modern afropunk or the natural hair revival because…when we did ‘Black Panther’ [in 2018] I could not find half the things that I wanted in texture — textured hair, textured products, texture, texture, texture — couldn’t find them. We were making everything,” Friend said. “This time, there’s a plethora of texture. I just know culturally in hair from, let’s say six years ago to now, it’s day and night. We couldn’t get certain textures because they weren’t making a 4A, B or C, that wasn’t really what people were making. Now, you can get anything and everything that you want in texture and that’s the evolution.”

The natural hair revival has made more space for Black women to show up as themselves, without conforming to Eurocentric standards of beauty. It has also meant a resurgence of hairstylists to accommodate them, according to Friend.

“The beautiful thing is people, before, if their hair was natural they had to be in the kitchen but now you have beautiful salons where people can go and get their natural hair done,” she said. “That brought more of an awareness, too, where it’s some place you can actually go and get service in a beautiful salon and I attribute that to hard-working hairstylists and the barbers in the streets making it different for their clients, knowing about natural hair.”

The CROWN Act, which stands for Create a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair and makes race-based hair discrimination illegal, passing in the U.S. House of Representatives earlier this year, has helped things along in part. But beauty brands will need to make some bigger strides, not just to keep up with afrofuturism and what it means for Black beauty, but to offer the Black consumer — whose buying power, according to NielsenIQ, is expected to reach $1.8 trillion in 2024 — more than just products that address lack.

“The beauty industry has to work harder to get ahead in its thinking because when it comes to Black people, and sometimes Black and brown people, we tend to think from a space of lack — there isn’t representation, we don’t have a fair amount of the shelf space, diversity of models, photographs, ads, etc. She doesn’t have enough of this. He doesn’t have enough of that, they don’t have enough of these things,” said Lisa Price, founder of Carol’s Daughter, which — though it’s now owned by L’Oréal USA — she still helps run. “We operate from the space of trying to fill gaps and fill spaces and address a lack. It’s hard to think about, OK now everything is on an even playing field. Let’s just go crazy. What is fun? What is interesting? What is new?

“In order to be in that space, where you think of things in a futuristic way, in a science fiction way and what does that look like creatively, you have to get out of the space of lack and move forward as if there’s parity,” she said.

Because Black women are no longer solely being sold a process of chemical relaxation to “manage” their hair because, as Price said, “it was what was perceived to be aspirational, it was how she was going to get the job, it was how she was going to get the significant other in her life,” there’s as much to be explored in product offerings as there is in hairstyles.

“It’s a whole new thing that’s happening with all of these things and I don’t think that anybody’s really having dialogue with [big beauty brands] about that. I don’t think that that’s being embraced and pulled apart and discovered. I think [the consumer is] figuring it out on her own and then we’re kind of running behind her like, ‘Oh, you need that? Oh you want that? OK, let’s help you.’ We need to get ahead of that process and create from a place of fun and not from a place of necessity,” Price said. “That’s the part that is getting there but still not quite there. And you have to get there in order to be in a place where you think about, ‘Well, what would it be like for somebody to have pink hair and rhinestones on their eyes?’ We’re so busy trying to get concealer shades, we can’t even think of rhinestones on our eyes.”

Whether it’s threaded hairstyles or Fulani braids or something else from the past that resurfaces in the present with a twist, the uniting theme of afrofuturism in beauty, at least according to Asante, is that it’s art.

“It’s avant garde and it’s a work of art and you can strip it down, you can really amp it up but regardless, it’s still super beautiful and it’s something that needs and deserves to be celebrated and put on a higher platform,” she said. “Some of these are styles Black people were teased for or sent home from school for and belittled for, so it’s a movement to be celebrated. It should be celebrated for those whose history it speaks to, those who are innovating the past to remix the future — not because Kim K. decides it’s a look she wants to co-opt.”

With an existing tendency toward cultural appropriation and a corporate tendency toward drawing the life from something once it becomes mainstream, to the beauty industry when it comes to its embrace of afrofuturism, Asante has a word of warning: “Don’t strip it down. Don’t water it down from what it’s meant to be and how it’s meant to be shown. When things start to get mainstream, they get diluted and what it started out to be is not what it ends up becoming, and it creates its own life-form and it has its own different commonalities.”

It’s about brands and those outside of the community striking a balance between sensitivity and celebration, according to McKinley.

“People need to express those ideas through fashion and appearance and self-love and the ability to be celebrated, it’s good for everybody, it’s good for the culture,” she said. “At the same time, the people that are appropriating need to be aware because it’s almost like there’s a new level of access, people are expressing more and putting more out there and taking more risks, and it is not an invitation to be appropriators.”

The afrofuturism resurgence — which may see even more fuel added to its fire when, as Friend puts it, an “expansion” on the aesthetic plays out in “Black Panther: Wakanda Forever” — isn’t going anywhere.

“The way that I see afrofuturism is that it’s really going to be shaping the next iterations of what beauty and what fashion looks like,” Asante said. “We’re already seeing it. Whether it’s music artists or top beauty influencers, we’re really seeing it in how they show up in their work and how they are just from fashion weeks and that type of thing. You’re seeing it come to life, so I think afrofuturism is definitely here to stay. We’re going to see a lot more of it in the future, pun intended.”