November 1, 2010


Whirly Locks

Willow Smith's "Whip My Hair" is as innocent a song as there can be: a nine-year-old pixie (she turned ten over the weekend) demonstrating that she's still way too young to have to worry about neck problems. There are a handful of charmingly familiar elements in its sound– a touch of Rihanna in Smith's delivery, a hint of "Drop It Like It's Hot" in Jukebox's beat, maybe a gentle allusion in the song's backing vocals to Salt-N-Pepa's "Push It" (which came out 13 years before Willow was born, back when her dad Will Smith was just starting his rapping career). It's a song of self-confidence, and it doesn't mean to cause any trouble; the only thing it's opposed to is "haters." (And who likes haters, anyway?) Still, there's a potentially political question lurking in the wings of Smith's adorable debut: how did her hair get whippable in the first place?

For the past century, black people's hair has, more often than not, been loaded with political subtext. (Chris Rock's documentary Good Hair is an introduction to some of the issues around it.) Pop music, naturally, keeps coming back to hairstyles as a way to talk about the issues around them. There's probably never been a funnier song on the subject than Louis Jordan's 1938 single "(You Dyed Your Hair) Chartreuse," a sly routine about a young woman who "went too far in that beauty booth." (She used to have black hair, Jordan notes: he's not quite accusing her of selling out, but the point is clear.)

James Brown made a point in the '50s of his enormous, massively processed pompadour; then, in the late '60s, the Black Panthers reportedly convinced him of the error of his ways. In fairly short order, Brown released "Say It Loud (I'm Black and I'm Proud)," traded his process 'do for a natural Afro, and gave Hank Ballard (a star of the previous decade who'd hooked up with the James Brown revue) "How You Gonna Get Respect (When You Haven't Cut Your Process Yet)." An elaboration on the groove of Brown's then-recent hit "Licking Stick - Licking Stick," it's a direct exhortation for black listeners to "get that mess out of your hair" and make a political statement by switching to the Afro.

Black-hair controversies in pop songs aren't limited to African Americans. One of Jamaican singer Junior Byles' biggest hits, 1974's "Curly Locks," posits a scenario where his new dreadlocks, and the political and religious associations they carry with them, have set his girlfriend's father against him: it's a love song about a clash of cultures played out in the barber shop. In the mid-'90s, the British trip-hop trio Baby Fox recorded their own version of "Curly Locks," with modern production tricks on top of a rhythm track that recalled the glory years of Jamaican dub a few decades earlier. Their blonde, short-cropped singer Christine Leach switched the pronouns, of course, turning it into an answer song to Byles' version. But they also added a new part to the song: a bridge, halfway through it, where Leach's bandmate Dwight Clarke (wearing what looks in the video like an Afro wig and a fake moustache) purrs "The next generation will be carefree... black or white, we'll build one nation."

That may have come to pass, or it may have started to come to pass. India.Arie's 2005 "I Am Not My Hair" declared that the person inside, rather than the stuff on top, was what was significant, and suggested that good politics didn't require any kind of tonsorial conformity. (Akon's verse on their collaborative version of the song, though, notes that "success didn't come 'til I cut it all off.") And now we have Willow, whipping a dozen hairstyles around in her video to say nothing other than that she's celebrating herself, and celebrating her hair's possibilities. It's nice to think that's starting to be all it has to mean.