Locks unbound

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Photographs by Francesco Mastalia
and Alfonse Pagano
Introduced by Alice Walker
Artisan, $35, 144 pp.

Fashion dread, a young people business
Material dread, a young people business
Styling dread, a young people business
Commercial dread is some other kind of
people' business. Original dread, a
rasta business.
Original dread, a rasta business

"Rasta Business"
by Burning Spear

The last haircut I got was May 12, 1992. I went with my 3-year-old daughter over to my sister's house so she could visit while my nephew cut my hair about as short as it can be cut without a razor. It was part of my get-a-haircut-without-paying-for-it program.

I'll remember that date for life because the next morning I found my daughter, a premature baby with bad lungs, dead.

It was in the weeks after that tragedy that I felt the urge to go dread again. I felt I needed the spiritual strength of letting my hair grow naturally to help get through the pain. I hoped for a spiritual grounding such as Samson's biblical-Talmudic rebirth as his hair grew back and his strength returned after he had been barbered by Delilah and captured by the Philistines; the strength of a Nazarite who makes a pledge to the lord. As it says in Numbers 6:5: "No razor shall pass over his head until the day be fulfilled of his consecration to the lord. He shall be holy and let the hair of his head grow."

Not only the ancient Israelites, but also spiritual traditions around the world have taken ungroomed hair as part of their regimen. Most notably to modern Americans, the Rastafarians of Jamaica are known for the hairstyle. But also the Sikhs of India, hermetic priests of Africa (where people with unkempt hair are considered wizards or witches) and Maori warriors of New Zealand have proud heritages of unkempt hair. All of these traditions and more are presented in the book of black-and-white photos, Dreads, by photographers Francesco Mastalia and Alfonse Pagano, with an introduction by Alice Walker.

The photos are striking and include some known figures, such as musician Vernon Reid, actor Keith Hamilton Cobb ("All My Children") and model Cheryl Browne. Most of the images are accompanied by a short text addressing the photo subject's relationship with dreads.

Back to nature

Walker's wide-ranging introduction refers to a natural hair movement across the earth and includes braiding and hair wrapping as related to the dread phenomenon. Adorned by dreadlocks herself, Walker writes about the spiritual roots of the practice, yet includes those who dread because they hate the comb or simply because they find the hair beautiful — a natural body art.

And therein lies one of the basic contradictions of dreadlocks for me. I'm not a Rastafarian — at least not in the religious sense. I do feel deeply spiritual at times, but I belong to no religion. I follow no written creed. And, bottom line, I think that dreadlocks, for all the baggage that some people carry about them, are nothing more than hair.

Still, I believe the commitment to wear locks speaks of something not seen in the wearer. A dread is someone who is willing to stand aside from the typical. Willing to be different and suffer the castigation that comes along with it. Someone willing to stand steady and firm as an outsider to convention.

That same spirit comes through in Dreads. As Jamaican wood-carver Joshua McFarlane recalls from his experiences in the 1960s:

"I go through a lot of trouble. Back then, Rasta had to live in the bush."

I loved dreadlocks from the first moment I saw them on the cover of Catch a Fire, Bob Marley and the Wailers' groundbreaking 1974 album. Marley's nappy head graced the album cover. It was nappiness taken further than I'd ever seen. My own Afro had edged toward that. I just wasn't one of those guys with the beautiful blown-out 'fro that was even, round and symmetrical. I was nappy. I dragged a pick through the naps a few times a week. But an actual coif was never going to be my thing.

Dreads is rife with tales of people who always hated combing or brushing their hair. People for whom dreads were a breath of life, something they naturally gravitated to. White New Zealand bartender Ana Lisa Doran says it this way:

"I was ten years old and didn't like brushing my hair, so I stopped. ... I didn't even know what dreadlocks were."

Another white New Zealander who stopped brushing her hair at age 8 relates the harrowing tale of her mother grabbing scissors and just cutting it all off.

My first time

I was made for dreadlocks. Rather than taming the hair, they were a declaration of "I'm nappy and I'm proud." The nappier the better. And reggae music espoused by Rastafarians, with its roots rhythms and spiritual lyrics, spoke to me, too.

It took until 1977 for me to actually go dread. I was in Jamaica walking up a mountain road when a man sitting in front of his home called me over. He pulled off his hat and the locks came tumbling down. They were the first that had ever been close enough for me to touch. My hand leaped to his hair, into the tangle of tightly woven knots without even asking permission.

Then I came to my senses, pulled my hand back and begged his forgiveness. He laughed and said it was OK. Then I asked him how to get dreadlocks. He said, "Don't lay no razor in your hair — don't lay no comb in your hair, and soon come."

I went dread on the spot. It had been six years since my last haircut and it would be another six years before a comb went through my hair.

My own reaction to encountering dreads made it easier for me to forgive others who touched my hair in the ensuing years. I definitely became a curiosity. There were few dreads around Detroit in the late 1970s. Maybe saxophonist Faruk Z. Bey was dread before me. Maybe the artist Ashebar. Maybe storyteller Nubia Kai. Joe Simpson, a blues musician who now goes by the name of Po Boy Slim, claims to have had dreads in the early 1970s. I don't know.

I lived in the Cass Corridor near Wayne State University. I looked wild enough that when I took late-night walks through the neighborhood people would cross the street to get away from me. There was a woman I would see around who drove a Volkswagen van. We never really met but she would call out to me, "Grandfather dread," because I had the longest (and in her mind oldest) locks around.

There was one time I stood in line to get into a program at the Detroit Institute of Arts. Two gray-haired suburban women stood behind me and asked to touch my hair, which I allowed them to do. I always let folks touch my locks when they ask. I figure it makes me less mysterious. I eventually went undercover, though, with a couple of beautiful hats knitted for me by Lamia Tefnut, herself a dread in the early 1980s.

Look at that!

I even became a tourist attraction. In 1981 while in Paris, I was approached by some German tourists for a photo while sitting outside the Notre Dame cathedral. I figured it was pretty good to garner attention while sitting near one of the world's biggest tourist destinations.

The same thing happened later on the same trip while in Morocco. Moroccans and Europeans vacationing there asked me for photos. Bob Marley was the biggest pop star there and Moroccans often followed me around and referred to me as "Bob Marley." I guess my wandering around carrying a guitar helped make the connection. A typical conversation would go like this (generally in French):

Moroccan: "Hey, Bob Marley."

Me: "I'm not Bob Marley."

Moroccan: "Then you are the brother of Bob Marley."

Me: "No, I'm not Bob Marley's brother."

Moroccan: "Then you are from the village of Bob Marley."

Me: "No. I'm from Detroit. It's in the north of the United States near the border to Canada."

Moroccan: "Ah, then your village is near the village of Bob Marley."

Back to bald

I cut off my first set of dreads in August 1983. It was hot and I was working as a general handyman — hanging drywall, rough carpentry, painting, roofing — and the long hair was bothersome and hot. I had to keep it tied back and it seemed a dirt magnet. A nurse I knew claimed I was developing a bald spot due to the weight of my hair.

So one hot, sweaty night when I couldn't sleep, when every time I rolled over there was hot hair rubbing in my face or on my shoulders and back, I got up, grabbed some scissors and whacked them off. In the morning, I went by my parents' house so my dad could even the hair out with his clippers. My mother, with whom I'd never had a discussion about the spirituality of my hair, asked, "Did God tell you to cut your hair?"

It took a while to get used to being a bald head. I felt lost at reggae concerts where the stroke of dreads against my body as I danced was part of the experience. No longer was I privy to the glimmer of acknowledgment in the eyes when two dreads meet on the street. I was out of the in-group. Artist Gilda Snowden had gone dread shortly before I cut mine. I watched her with envy as her dreads grew into a beautiful mane and my hair remained short.

I kept it short a long time. Then I went to a high flat-top with a fade during the heyday of the funk band Cameo and their hit "Word Up." I went dread again for several months in 1985, but cut them when I decided to try to be upwardly mobile in my employment and financial situation. I felt that if I was going to get a straight job I should look the part.

Trends and the Times

In the ensuing years, dreads seemed to get over. There were people wearing dreadlocks on TV. There were dread fashion models. Whoopi Goldberg wore dreads and became a major movie star. It seemed that dreads were evident in every walk of life. Artists, journalists, lawyers. There were salons where you could go to get your hair dread. Although early on dreads were mainly the province of men, sisters got into the act and decorated their hair with beads and weavings and colors. Blond dreads, blood-red dreads, purple dreads, all added to the palette. Even white people began to appropriate the dread look. I heard of communities of Japanese Rastafarians.

With all the widening of the world of dreads, when I returned to locks in 1992, I thought I would no longer be an anomaly, that I would be part of the crowd. After all, local people such as WTVS cameraman Kamal Amen Ra and W. Kim Heron (then a copy editor at the Free Press) wore dreads and maintained jobs in the straight world. I was wrong; I still attract a lot of attention. Two years ago while in New York, I was in a crowded elevator. Some foreigners were speaking behind me and they repeated a word that sounded like "fuzzila." I felt my hair move. After we got off the elevator, my companion told me that they'd been touching my hair.

Dreads still have the magnetic power to pull attention. When we went on strike from the Detroit Free Press in 1995, the television cameramen chose Heron and myself as an image to use from the picket line. A photo of me with a picket sign ended up in the New York Times. Sometimes when Kim and I are walking along the street together, with both our sets of locks flowing, I can feel the power as we pull tides of glances from passers-by. There are times I turn around to look at someone who has just passed to catch that person looking back at me.

They also have the power to transform the wearer. Even though I don't espouse any particular spiritual relationship with the hairstyle, whenever I have dreads I feel myself leaning more in that direction. People pay more attention to me and I feel that I should use that soapbox toward more good. That I should be on a righteous path. Jamaican poet Mutabaruka says it this way in Dreads:

"So a man doesn't have to have a spiritual connection to carry dreadlocks — and maybe it is his first step toward opening himself up. ... "

Family fun

My 2-year-old daughter, Tasia, holds my hair like reins when I ride her on my back. One of her earliest observations when she learned how to talk was, "Daddy hair funny." She likes to play with my dreadlocks, tickle my face with their fuzzy ends, throw them up and let them flop down on her head. Now whenever she sees anyone with locks, she points them out to me. Sometimes I wonder how shocked she would be if I cut them off. In a reversal from the usual, it would be strange for her to have a father without dreadlocks.

And sometimes I do think I'll cut them off someday. Maybe. I'm thinking that in a few years it would be good to get a different look for a while. But even when I think that, I also think that I'll eventually go dread again. And that'll be the growth that I'll wear to the end of my life. A glorious gray crown to keep people staring at the old man.

As Chinna Smith says in Dreads: "Because of my dreads, I cannot be ignored, thus my message cannot be ignored."

It's just hair. But it's really powerful hair.

About The Author

Larry Gabriel

Larry Gabriel covers cannabis for Metro Times. He also writes the Detroit Watch in the monthly Michigan Cannabis Industries Report. Larry's chapter "Rebirth of Tribe" in the book Heaven Was Detroit, from jazz to hip-hop and beyond chronicles the involvement of Marcus Belgrave, Wendell Harrison, Harold McKinney,...
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