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The dreaded conversation

The cultural appropriation debate around dreadlocks has migrated from USA to Berlin, where many Germans continue to sport the style. A former dreadhead himself, Cameron Cook took a deep-dive into the issue. It’s not always a matter of black or white.

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Left: Dreadlocked artist Jan Muche at his studio in Wedding. Right: Fatima Muhammed. Photos by German Palomeque

The cultural appropriation debate around dreadlocks has migrated from the US to Berlin, where many Germans continue to sport the style. A former dreadhead himself, American writer Cameron Cook took a deep-dive into the issue and found that it’s not always a matter of black and white.

The summer between seventh and eighth grade, I decided to grow my hair out into dreadlocks. Lauryn Hill had just released The Miseducation, inspiring me to sit in a chair in our kitchen while my cousin painstakingly twisted my mini-Afro into tight little rows. It seemed like a natural progression in my own style journey, but when I rolled up to the playground on the first day of school, you would have thought I had somehow sprouted another head during vacation. Under that amount of awe and scrutiny, I didn’t end up feeling like one of the popular kids, even if the attention wasn’t completely malignant. I felt like a science project. After all, no one seemed to randomly run their fingers through my white classmates’ hair during math class, or marvel at the back of their heads while waiting in line for lunch.

This was years before the current political debate about cultural appropriation in America, but the experience was a precursor to my understanding of it. For many social justice activists, this is the crux of the issue – it’s insensitive to partake in expressions of a culture that is not your own, because you’re shielded from the negative effects of actually being part of that culture. When someone wears a Native American Halloween costume, for example, they’re not only taking that community’s signifiers out of context, they are erasing the generations of pain and conflict actual Native Americans deal with when wearing the real thing. Many feel that when white people appropriate traditionally black hairstyles, they’re inserting themselves into a narrative that doesn’t include them, reducing what can be a powerful choice into a fad.

So when I moved to Berlin a few years ago, I was immediately struck by the number of white dreadlocks on display – not completely offended, just slightly perplexed. What I assumed was a 1990s fashion hangover clearly had stronger roots in something inherently European. At the same time, I realised that talk of cultural appropriation was beginning to percolate here as well. At this year’s Queer Zine Fest, for example, an event that was billed as “a space that centres around marginalised people”, the mostly white production team partnered with the watchdog group White Guilt Clean-Up to find ways to make the festival more racially sensitive. They came up with a door policy that outright banned white people with dreadlocks from attending.

But was it really appropriate to import this conversation wholesale from the US? And why were there so many Germans with dreads, anyway? I decided to do some digging.

The first indicator that the cultural appropriation debate had taken roots here was that it took me literally weeks to find a white person with dreadlocks willing to speak to me about race. Luckily, I met Jan Muche.

Jan’s studio, located in the heart of Wedding, is lined floor-to-ceiling with his boldly coloured paintings. Red, black, and white lines cut across glossy canvases, brutal and stark. You could easily picture them as the work of an austere-looking man in a black turtleneck, but Jan couldn’t be farther from that art school cliché. Tall, affable, and in his early 40s, Jan wears his dreadlocks in a long ponytail that falls down to the middle of his back, and I can immediately tell they convey the message he wishes them to: that he’s a creative whose hairstyle is both a casual afterthought and an aesthetic consideration.

Jan started growing his hair when he was 18, right before he moved to Berlin from western Germany. “It was really more about laziness,” he explains as we sit down among his studio’s bric-a-brac. “I stopped brushing my hair, and then I had, like, a big bubble on my head and had to do something with it. I felt like, ‘This is me!’ quite fast, but it wasn’t a political or cultural statement. I would say it’s the most unfashionable haircut you can have – I came more from a punk and squatter movement, and the challenge was to look as stupid as you could,” he says with a laugh. “It’s still a haircut where people think they can deduce something about your identity. But for example, I really hate reggae music, and I was never into the typical hippie scene.”

Listening to him, I was taken aback. In my mind, there was no separation between dreadlocks and black culture. Our hair locks naturally and white hair doesn’t, so I always assumed that white dreadlocks were an emulation of black ones. That they could be considered to exist on their own, completely disassociated from black hair, was an entirely new concept.

Although he’s never been confronted as a cultural appropriator, Jan says he does deal with negative associations. “When I’m at exhibitions, and the press come around, they always write about my haircut first, whichreally pisses me off. It’s like, ‘Hey, let’s talk about art.’ Sometimes they even try to find a relation between my paintings and the cultural ideas they think they extrapolate from my hair.”

So on some level, Jan has an idea of the scrutiny dreadlocks provoke. “I lived in China three years ago, and when Chinese people saw my haircut they would try to touch it, saying ‘Viking! Viking!’ But you’re right, [around black identity] this hair thing is a special discussion.” When I ask him specifically about these racial differences, he says: “I think the point is that our realities are different. You have these discussions in the US, and we don’t really have them here. If you travel around the world, people have a clear idea of what Germans are supposed to look like and how they are supposed to behave. Maybe not for my generation, but for the generation of my father, breaking out of fascism was a big issue. They had to find a new cultural identity. This also happened in fashion – they had to break out of the lederhosen, yeah?”

This idea, of dreadlocks being part of a new fashion template that separated young Germans from their past, makes sense to me. However, it still doesn’t account for the very real issue of how cultural appropriation can play out, even across borders. “It’s more of a social crisis when I see white kids totally copying hip-hop culture, playing with this gangsta style,” Jan says when I press the issue. “That’s more than just hair, that’s copying an entire culture. But yeah, if I went to America, then I could say, ‘Okay, maybe my dreadlocks are a black identity thing.’”

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Fatima Muhammed caters to a client at black hair salon Ebony and Ivory: The Experience. Photo by German Palomeque

After leaving our conversation, I couldn’t help wondering: what would someone who deals with black hair for a living think about Jan’s dreads?

On a brisk afternoon, I met up with Fatima Muhammed, a hair and wellness specialist from Brooklyn. After finding success with salons in New York and Atlanta, Fatima and her daughter Muhairah moved to Schöneberg two months ago to open Ebony and Ivory: The Experience, a spin-off of Berlin’s premier salon for black hair. While the original Ebony and Ivory offers straightening and relaxing treatments, “The Experience” only caters to natural hair, from Afros to bantu knots.

Fatima’s own hair is in thin dreadlocks that go just past her ears, some of them dyed purple. She’s petite and energetic, approaching middle age but you would never know. A staunch vegan, she exudes an aura of calmness and fortitude as she explains natural hair’s quasi-religious properties. “I used to do Lil’ Kim’s hair, and a lot of the industry. But after working with those people I saw that their [straightened] hair didn’t enhance who they were, it broke them down more. When I think of the crown of the head, I think about the chakras and the alignment of the body and how your energy has to continuously flow. Think of a newborn baby and how soft that area is. And so to block that part of yourself for years, it keeps you dim, it’s keeping you in a shadow of some sort.” She stops herself briefly. “My mind just goes off with it, but that is just how real it is to me,” she says with a smile.

So if natural black hair is that important to her, what does she think when she sees black hairstyles on white people? Her answer surprised me. “I feel that we need to mind more important things in life,” she says matter-of-factly. “We need to remember that we’re all one. And I understand that white people take from other cultures and they have a resistant nature, but they’re still from us. You know what I mean?”

Like Jan, she sees a difference between the way race is handled in Germany and her native US. “Europeans have been integrated [with black culture] differently. From an African American perspective, everything is always racism because the forefathers of America were based in racism. The people who are fussing over all that, we’re like grandmothers. Everywhere they go it’s like, ‘The white man! The white man!’ because of the traumas that their parents went through. But today, we’ve taken their culture, they’ve taken our culture, it’s just all mixed up now, it doesn’t even matter that much anymore.”

One of my clients is a Jamaican dancehall queen. She’s white and her locs are 20 inches long. They way she dances – I can’t move like that, and I’m black! So who am I to decide how she expresses herself?

“Let me give you an example,” she continues. “One of my clients is a Jamaican dancehall queen. She’s married to an African, she’s white and her locs are 20 inches long. The way she dances – I can’t move like that, and I’m black! That’s rhythm I don’t have. It’s in her genes, so who am I to decide how she expresses herself?”

“Can I ask you a question?” she says to me as she begins work on a customer, who incidentally, came in to get their locs done. “So, do you have a problem with white people with dreadlocks?”

I take a moment to respond, to choose my words carefully. No, I say, not on an individual level. I’m not the hair police. But I do have a problem with skirting away from sensitive topics or ignoring people who have legitimate claims of cultural erasure, no matter their skin colour or how frivolous those claims may seem to some. Because if we’re not willing to confront these superficially little problems, how can we expect to tackle the bigger ones?