Published on Sunday October 28th, 2018 by Afrocks
The Difference Between Dreadlocks And Locs: Because You Want To Know (Please Stop Saying Rastas)
Picture credit: David McFadden, Associated Press file
“Dreadlocks? There is nothing dreadful about my hair!” I have heard this expression and read some interesting posts on Tumblr about the use of the word “dreadlocks” to describe the ropelike matted hairstyle popularised by Bob Marley in the 70’s. Because I was born and raised in the caribbean in the 90’s I could understand the very valid point made by these locticians and afrocentric activists about using language to elevate and not denigrate ourselves, but the country girl in me had some reservations and if you have time I’ll tell you why you will never have dreadlocks and if you do, why it is, on the contrary, a wonderful and powerful ting.
I have referred to my age and Caribbean roots because in the 90’s Rastafari was still very present in Caribbean culture at large. In rural Martinique, if you were not Rastafarian, you did not have locs, period. The hairstyle was demonised and anyone wearing dreadlocks was suspicious, a potential thief, definitely a drug addict whose mother was fervently praying for his deliverance. I use masculine pronouns because for a long time, in Martinique, Rastafari was mostly a male affair. They had spouses and partners but the Rastawoman was rare. These men had dreadlocks and had to suffer the prejudice of the population on a daily basis. They were said to be dirty, rural legends placed countless millipedes on their heads and even my ever sceptic grandmother was persuaded that they used good old kanekalon hair to obtain the waist length locs or bongos. Within this context of ignorance, dreadlocks equated dreadful lifestyle… But as French and Creole speakers we could not tell the difference could we? Locs/dreadlocks meant that you were a rasta and brought shame to your family as you would be unable to integrate polite society. The following is the historical point that most of us at the time failed to understand.
“With the adoption of matted hair, called dreadlocks, in addition to the already existing beard, they were visually breaking with the Jamaican middle class idea of respectability and appropriateness, erasing all ambiguities about their spiritual and ideological allegiance. The hairstyle was designed to shock, to inspire awe, to represent the “havenots”.”
Leonard Howell, the first rasta did not have dreadlocks
Picture credit @CaribJournal
“You don’t haffi dread to be rasta” TRUE! The very first man to call himself a Rastaman, Leonard Howell, did not have dreadlocks, he had a beard. The late Professor Chevannes, Sociologist and authority on Rastafari at the University of West Indies, tells us that in order to signify his departure from the spiritual and social paradigms of colonial Jamaica, he decided to wear a beard like H.I.M. Haile Selassie on the cover of the Time magazine of November 1930. Howell saw in the latter the Messiah for afrodescendants and quickly created autonomous communes for the economical, spiritual and social emancipation of Jamaicans. The Pinnacle, as this commune was called was routinely raided by the police. Howell and his followers were often arrested on flimsical motives creating an atmosphere of fear and defiance within the movement. The persecutions continued causing the movement to be radicalised circa 1949. The Youth Black Faith was not only about the social and spiritual radicalisation of the Rastafari movement, their reforms were also targeting the physical expression of the new faith and ideology. With the adoption of matted hair, called dreadlocks, in addition to the already existing beard, they were visually breaking with the Jamaican middle class idea of respectability and appropriateness, erasing all ambiguities about their spiritual and ideological allegiance. The hairstyle was designed to shock, to inspire awe, to represent the “havenots”.
The dreadlocks were the representation of their spiritual powers to be used against the colonial authorities and institution oppressing them: Babylon. At that time, you did not wear dreadlocks to be cute or have long hair… You wore dreadlocks because you were defiant, you believed that HIM Haile Selassie was God, you believed that all Afrodescendants should be repatriated to an African country with reparations. Your hair encapsulated this power granted by this new system of beliefs and you were a force to be reckoned with, you inspire dread to babylon. You had dreadlocks, you were dangerous and in danger.
“Wearing dreadlocks was risking your life to defend your Panafrican ideology.”
After the groundation of 1958, where all the Rastafari elders and followers met to demand repatriation, the relations with the police, which were not brilliant, became worse. Empress Rachel, one of the first women to have joined the Bobo Shanti House of Rastafari in the 1960’s, tells us that if you had dreadlocks in the 60’s, you ran the risk to be beaten, arrested, humiliated and shaved by the police, your house and yard could be raided and burned or you could just “disappear”. Wearing dreadlocks was risking your life to defend your Panafrican ideology. The situation became so dire that the government ordered a report on the subject from the University of the West Indies to attempt to understand the Rastafari movement and livity better. Sir Roy Augier, professors Rex Nettleford and MG Smith, the authors of said report, debunked many misconceptions about Rastafari. This effort, greatly contributed to appease collective hysteria about Rastafari and by extension secularised the hairstyle. That is the reason why I argue that you can always have locs, but not necessarily dreadlocks.
To honour all of these women and men who lost their lives or were persecuted by the police just because they denounced colonial injustice and oppression, I think that we should put some respect in the term.
To recap, If you are not a Rastafarian, there is nothing dreadful about your locs, no matter the neatness or lack thereof. You have locs and that is fine. This indicates that having natural afro hair is no longer radical and this is progress. However “dreadlocks” should be regarded as a powerful word. It has been and still is a symbol of empowerment and “wokeness” before the term “woke” was ever trending. To honour all of these women and men who lost their lives or were persecuted by the police just because they denounced colonial injustice and oppression, I think that we should put some respect in the term. This was a succinct post that I’ve tried to focus on hair, which does not do justice to the depth of the Rastafari movement. I recommend that you speak to an elder or/and consult the mini bibliography below. Remember: friends don’t let friends say “rastas” to refer to the hairstyle… stay woke!
Chevannes, B. (1994a). Rastafari Roots and Ideology, New York: Syracuse University Press.
___________. (1994b). Myths Among the Jamaican People, in R., Lewis, P., Bryan. Garvey His Work and Impact. New Jersey: African World Press.
____________.(Ed). (1995). Rastafari and Other African-Caribbean Worldviews. New Jersey: Rutger University Press.
____________. (1998). Rastafari and the Exorcism of Racism and classism. In Murrell. N.S. (Ed) Chanting down Babylon. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.
Van Dijk, F. (1993). Jahmaica – Rastafari and Jamaican Society 1930-1990. New York: One drop Book.
- Afro Hair Business Interview – Hazel, Founder of Sanctus Hair & Salon Owner: “In the black community, hairdressers are looked down on. They’re seen as uneducated or dropouts […]”
- Afrocks Interview – Kay Davis, Artist & Braider: “Transitioning from chemically relaxed hair to becoming natural is a journey! One that can be extremely liberating and often emotional”
- Afrocks Afro Business Interview – Aasiyah, Founder of The Renatural: “Versatility, ease and protection are the main reasons why black women wear wigs today”