Willow Smith moves freely between hairstyles in both her art and real life. (The singer famously shaved her locs onstage during a show.) In her performance visuals for 2021’s “Transparent Soul,” she wears a set of Fulani braids at least four different ways: adorned with hoops, piled high in a bun, and twisted into Bantu knots. In one scene, Smith appears in smoky black cat-eye shadow. In the next, the makeup is more intense, sprouting a few extra wings for good measure. Watch a little longer, and you’ll see her in washes of lavender shadow blended out to her temples, framed by painterly strokes of white.
On the cover of 2020’s 2000AND4EVA album, Bree Runaway licks her fingers adorned with extremely long, light blue square-shaped nails. Her talons are a fitting contrast to the choppy, shaggy ponytails anchored by blunt bangs she wears like an ancient ceremonial headdress. Her hair, though it is straight, mimics the volume of an Afro. She looks like a cross between a ’round the way girl and a glorious extraterrestrial.
These looks indicate a shift in the music industry and an increased agency Black artists are able to have over their images. It’s something Richard says she wasn’t able to enjoy early on in her career. “I remember going into the industry and being told I couldn’t wear red lipstick, no color lips, because [it makes Black girls] look like clowns,” she recalls. “It was so much. We had to have this bone-straight hair or the windblown look. We had to look a certain way or it isn’t considered pop culture.”
You can credit social media for this shift. In our pockets, we have access to what is essentially a buffet of micro and macro beauty influencers. These are (or in some cases, were) regular people who happen to have takes on beauty that a lot of people like. Even if their followings don’t launch them to mega-stardom, they are very much still tastemakers in their own right.
“Everything trickles down so much faster than it used to,” says Sir John. “When I’m going on Pinterest or these other social platforms, it’s easy for me to pull looks for a job or get inspired and pull references. It could be some girl in Harlem or Flatbush wearing beautiful, celestial neon liner. No longer are we looking at the relics or red carpet for inspiration. We’re looking at real people. So it’s backward in a sense, with [celeb fashion and beauty] instead following the realness that we see in everyday life.” And when that realness is re-imagined for the stage or the lens of a photographer or director, it’s taken to extreme heights — as high as Afrobeats artist Chika’s cornrowed ponytail stood in a live performance of “Songs About You” at the NBA Conference Finals.
Social media has democratized beauty enough to allow Afrofuturist aesthetics to thrive. People want to see a reflection of themselves, and platforms like Instagram and TikTok grant Black women and femmes that opportunity. The mainstream has to keep up with the demand. And as a group largely left out of the discussion, Black women are the ideal vessels through which these forward-thinking beauty moments can be authentically crafted. As we witness the emergence of a growing new class of Black women musicians, we have an opportunity to experience in real time another evolution of Black culture.
“In the word Afrofuturism is the word future. Anything that pushes possibility is the spectrum, and we just so happen to be people of color that do it,” says Richard. “Afrofuturism is that choice where my genre can sit anywhere, my makeup can sit anywhere. I don’t have to be pigeonholed.”
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