Dreadlocks are a distinct hairstyle composed of matted ropes of hair. The term “dreadlock” originally comes from the Rastafari movement, but people of various cultures throughout history have worn dreadlocks.
A Detailed history In the introduction Alice Walker wrote for the book “Dreads” by Francesco Mastilia and Alfonse Pagano, Walker details the emergence and history of dreadlocks. To fully understand the history of dreadlocks and their start in the Western world, one should be familiarized with the Rastafarian religion, which has its roots in the Universal Negro Improvement Association formed by Jamaican-born black nationalist leader, Marcus Garvey, in the late 1920s.
According to Walker, Garvey was viewed as a political proponent of black equality. But in his native Jamaica, Garvey was somewhat of a prophet – the one appointed to announce the coming of a messiah who would be an Abyssinian king descended from David. In 1930, when Ras Tafari, an African prince, was crowned Emperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, many considered the prophecy fulfilled.
In 1935, Italy invaded Ethiopia and forced the emperor from his throne. Many of the emperor’s followers swore not to cut their locks until Selassie, “the lion of Judah,” was reinstated to the throne. Walker claims this is the birth of Rastafarianism.
The tenets of Rastafarianism spread to Jamaica – which was a slave colony under British occupation beginning in 1655 – through Garvey, who denounced the British regime as Babylonian, promoted repatriation to Africa and proclaimed the divinity of an Ethiopian emperor, Walker said.
British imperialists who felt threatened by this new ideology persecuted Rastas heavily. As Walker puts it, “In the Rastaman’s lion’s mane of locks, British Imperialists saw their worst nightmare manifest – the African primitive, unleashed.”
One of the attributions to the word dreadlock is the pejorative way in which imperialists used the word to describe the locks of hair: dreadful. But, according to Walker, Rastafari view their hair as a holy connection between a Rasta and their creator.
“Like the Nazarites of biblical days, Rastafarians regard themselves as ‘the separate ones,'” Walker said. “Dedicated to pure and holy living, Nazarites vowed not to cut their hair, and so were recognized by the mass knotted locks upon their heads.”
Reggae musicians, like Bob Marley, are heavily associated with dreadlocks and increasing their popularity in North America.
A local connection Clay Cheney, Manhattan resident and dread head, said he first listened to reggae music around the age of five. He said reggae music in particular had a long-lasting effect on him.
“The first reggae song I heard was ‘Electric Avenue’ by Eddy Grant, and there was just something about the beat and the nature of the song that really spoke to me,” Cheney said. He said it was about this time when he first saw dreadlocks, which immediately intrigued him.
“When I first saw dreadlocks, I thought, ‘I want my hair to do that; I wish that it could,'” he said. “I always had long hair growing up, and my hair was always something for which I was known. Little did I know that as I grew and matured, my hair would get coarse and become perfect for dreadlocks.”
Cheney said the last haircut he received was on Sept. 12, 2001.
“I got a very short hair cut, and it just looked terrible on me,” he said.
He first dreaded his hair about a year-and-a-half later, in January 2003, Cheney added. Growing dreads requires a lot of patience and is a huge commitment. Cheney highly recommends the Web site www.dreadheadhq.com for all products and questions related to dreadlocks.
“It’s tough to get started,” Cheney said. “It hurts to backcomb, and you definitely need a good friend or stylist to help you complete them. Making dreads really goes against everything they say to do to your hair, but it really is a completely natural process – your hair would naturally dread if left to its own devices.”
The decision to grow dreadlocks was both an aesthetic and spiritual journey for Cheney, he said. In addition to wanting dreadlocks because of the way they looked, Cheney said reggae music and the ideals of Rastafarianism were another major contributor to his decision to dread his hair.
“I don’t consider myself a follower of the Rastafarian religion, but there are many messages with which I agree,” Cheney said. “The overall message of the music is that of positivity and good vibrations; it is about creating brotherhood and maintaining a sense of personal peace and sharing that with others.”
Cheney says he does not regret the decision to grow his dreadlocks.
“I’d have to say that the response to my dreads has been about 99.9 percent positive,” Cheney said. “I get good attention and reception from people all the time. It’s the best decision I ever made.
“Ziggy Marley has said that it takes years to develop into the person you want to be. I’m in a good place in my life right now, and my dreadlocks have been a huge part of those positive developments in my life.”