The black salon is about more than hair: it's culture, community & care
Zodwa Kumalo on the black hair salon as a safe space
"Sweetie, do you want these leftovers?" screams Jenny (not her real name) from across the hair salon, proffering a container of what are evidently restaurant leftovers. "If you don't I'm going to feed them to the dog. Or maybe one of your customers will want them?" As Jenny disappears into the next room, the air freezes over as we wait for Jepchumba (not her real name either) to answer Jenny's question.
After struggling to find an affordable salon space to rent for many months, Jepchumba had rented a corner of Jenny's predominantly white salon — four chairs, a basin and a shared waiting area — for her mostly black customers. This was week three.
As Jepchumba's clients, we are all aghast with shock. But the insult is completely lost on Jenny as she goes about her business. Jepchumba gives us a knowing look and we understand this is the new norm.
A large proportion of black people in SA feel, on a daily basis, the sting of disrespect — racial or otherwise. Some verbal abuse, whether intended or not, deserves to be addressed and quickly; many of us constantly weigh up whether other comments are even worth a response.
At the very least, black hair salons have offered a place of protection from this relentless abuse. Even a two- to 12-hour respite, depending on your salon visit, makes a world of difference. With its modular basins, damp towels, loud chatter and laughter occasionally drowned out by noisy hairdryers, the black hair salon is one of the few spaces where black people can just be. Here, there is no need to defend, shrink, attack, explain … and all the other exhausting reactions often needed to navigate public spaces.
Mpho Masango, founder of and self-taught cook at Plump Kitchen, says what matters most to her about hair salons is that they are spaces dominated and governed by women. There, women from the neighbourhood, brought together by their hair, talk about their work and hustle, their challenges, their children — how annoying they are and how much they love them — the stress of finances and school holidays, what's new in the hair world, politics and government and more.
"For me, it's where I get to switch off the noise of my life, hear others and be tended to," says Masango.
The same can be said of the technicians who provide the service and work in the space. Masango says she has developed a special bond with hers over four years. "Oh man, she just gets me and does it better than I asked. She makes suggestions and adjustments that make sense and work better. I'm not paying for location and aesthetics; I'm paying for actual quality service. She's black and a woman in a black-run and -owned salon, so my money is going where I want it to go," says Masango.
An excerpt from The White Racial Frame: Centuries of Racial Framing and Counter-Framing by Joe R Feagin reads: "By establishing the salon as a soothing, peaceful environment, where black women could discuss anything, salon owners were able to create a place where black women and their concerns, issues and perspectives were fundamental rather than marginalised … The creation of the salon as a safe space allows black women owners to challenge systemic, gendered racism by presenting their businesses as a haven from its debilitating effects. Systemic gendered racism in the larger society renders black women invisible, unimportant and irrelevant. Owners challenge this by consciously establishing salons where black women are central, important and necessary."
That was the vision of both Tina Wiklund of the now-closed hair salon Mmuja in Parkhurst and Akona Carol Lali, hair blogger and founder of Honour Your Crown salon in Maboneng, both in Johannesburg
Says Wiklund, who closed her salon after moving abroad: "We offered mostly natural hair products and helped clients grow their natural hair. We decided to specialise in hairstyles that protected their hair and hairline. We wanted to teach little children to love and look after their natural hair."
The gorgeously blue-and-white-wallpapered space on 4th Avenue was done up complete with hidden drawers for handbag storage, conveniently placed charging portals, free and fast Wi-Fi and bubbles and wine on client request.
"I wanted people of colour to be able to go to an upmarket hair salon, in a beautiful and comfortable area, in areas where we love and also feel safe. I also wanted someone who was going to care about my hair and look after it with proper products."
And because safety goes beyond the politics, when it comes to the black hair experience it would be remiss to omit the countless traumas, including the ones inflicted by your own mother every other Sunday. Too many of us can share horror stories about being burned by hair chemicals used by unqualified stylists, the agony of braids plaited too tightly subsequently damaging hairlines, the peril of not regularly treating and moisturising your hair or continuously wearing weaves without giving the hairline regular breaks and more.
Or what of the many occasions you've walked into a black salon and have had to inquire whether anyone can do natural hair and what products they use. The lack of enthusiasm with which your inquiry is met is designed to make you feel like you are a nuisance for not having relaxed hair or not looking to install a weave. Because nobody wants to deal with natural hair - it's too difficult.
In 2016, four Ugandan friends and creatives created The Salooni Project, a pop-up salon art installation, in an attempt to imagine a future where Afro-textured hair is no longer a painful subject for black women. Writer-organiser Kampire Bahana, photographer Darlyne Komukama, multidisciplinary performance artist Aida Mbowa and fashion designer Gloria Wavanunno took the installation, featuring projections of traditional, contemporary and edgy Afro hairstyles, to festivals around Africa.
Kampire was quoted as saying The Salooni Project "is the first experience for a lot of black women to walk into a hair salon and not be yelled at and told that something is wrong with their hair".
We've come a way since then, with an increasing number of hair salons dedicated to looking after and styling natural hair opening up, particularly in Johannesburg.
Four years ago, Lali was in the weave game, importing and selling expensive Brazilian, Indian and Peruvian hair pieces. "I had just received new stock [in 2015], and I was touching and feeling the hair. I just had a moment and asked myself who I was fooling - 'This hair will never grown out your head' - and why am I hiding my hair exactly?"
Without even selling all her stock to recoup costs, Lali says she gave it to a friend who was also in the business and decided to "embrace my own crown and teach other queens to honour their crowns". Her months-old salon is in the courtyard of the Cosmopolitan Hotel in Maboneng.
This is not new territory for Lali. She has been blogging about natural hair for years, and has been obsessed with fashion and hair since she was a little girl. Opening a hair salon was a natural progression.
No longer as prolific in the blogosphere since launching her new business, Lali says she has developed relationships with a number of women who had been following Honouryourcrown.wordpress.com. Many are now her clients.
"I can always tell when they're not in a good space, or doing well emotionally," says Lali. "And they in turn know they can talk to me about more than just hair."
Lali describes her salon space as "not your typical hair salon". "We're not here to gossip about mutual people we know while I or one of the technicians do your hair; I like to make people feel good both inside and out and I wanted to create an environment that is beneficial holistically.
"We sell knowledge and experience; most hair salons won't teach you how to take care of your hair at home because they're scared you won't come back."
An appointment typically takes two hours, during which time you are asked about your hair routine, the products you use and how you use them. An assessment is made and advice given.
"For instance, if someone comes in asking to do Senegalese twists but their hairline is in ICU, we would definitely advise the client about the further damage it will cause before agreeing to do it."
"My mother always used to say: 'Stick to one technician, otherwise forget about having a full set of hair,' " says talent management practitioner Kefilwe Seome. Following that advice, she says she has a special relationship with a stylist who has become like family. "I'm finicky and I want what I envisioned executed properly and she just gets me. I no longer have the time or energy to teach someone new."
Seome says she finds being at a salon therapeutic. "You have a bit of time — most of the time longer than anticipated — to unwind, just to chat to someone other than your usual friends. It's a space filled with women relaxing and laughing and offloading a bit before they go back to being mothers, wives and carriers of everybody else's loads."
'THERE CAN BE HEALING'
"If no-one eats the leftovers, please just give them to a beggar or something," says Jenny nonchalantly, swinging her keys, waving goodbye to the salon occupants. It's painfully obvious why Jepchumba isn't responding. This is not a safe space.
Kelsey Blackwell, author of Why People of Colour Need Spaces Without White People, writes: "Black people need their own spaces. We need places in which we can gather and be free from the mainstream stereotypes and marginalisation that permeate every other societal space we occupy … When people of colour are together, there can be healing. We can reclaim parts of ourselves that have been repressed. We can redefine ourselves and support one another in embracing who we are. The necessity of these spaces is obvious to me as a woman of colour learning to embrace layers of my own identity by being in community with other black and brown bodies."