The Shuffle: Revisiting India Arie’s timeless classic ‘I Am Not My Hair’
"I am not my hair, I am not this skin"
"I am not my hair, I am not this skin"
In just the space of a few months, we’ve gone from memeing our way through the pain to rallying together with the aim of dismantling long-standing discriminatory structures in our society. It seems that all across the world, people are demanding justice and welcoming the social reckoning that will inevitably bring about change in our treatment of each other.
There have been various uprisings in the past few weeks, aimed to tackle injustices in every corner of society. These collective actions are bringing systematic oppression to the forefront, with racial and gender-based injustices taking the lead and demanding for a change of societal attitudes.
Back in 2002, India Arie released the uplifiting classic, “I Am Not My Hair”, a timely track which was aimed to empower black women and remind them that Eurocentric standards of beauty are not the measure of their worth or desirability. I don’t know what you were doing in 2002 (or if you were even born) but I vividly recall this song being played everywhere from hair salons to shopping malls and even taking up space on the countdown charts on MTV.
This was in no way the norm in society back then, as there weren’t many black women on screen who looked like us or wore their hair like us. This is what reinforced the notion that proximity to eurocentric standards of beauty made you more accepted in society, whether it related to the complexion of your skin. I remember when I was younger, getting a relaxer to ‘tame’ my hair was the order of the day to make it easier to plait or style, which is crazy when you think about how the focus should really have been on making products to look after our different hair textures.
Thankfully, today, there are varied options for maintaining our hair, and this is why revisiting this song shows just how much the times have changed since we were younger. The song’s sound rests on the delicate pianos, pounding bass, and hi-hat-heavy beat, as both artists sing about being regarded as lower value than their white counterparts because of their ‘nappy [hair]’ and ‘dreadlocks’. India finds freedom and inner strength from society’s glamorisation to state that she is not her hair or your expectations, but is her own person and as such demands access to the same opportunities.
With a self-assured tone, she sings ‘Good hair means curls and waves/ bad hair means you look like a slave’ and then further declaring down the line that ‘At the turn of the century, it’s time for us to redefine who we be‘. She may not have known then that the Covid-19 induced lockdown would catapult us into mass social action with everything that’s been going on in the world, however, revisiting this song today is definitely a ‘gotcha’ moment. It’s not the turn of the century, but the new decade has definitely brought unexpected twists and turns and we’re seeing more black people speak out louder against injustices.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but the Akon-assisted number was not only about feeling empowered by your black hair, but also served as a politically charged track, which recounts the struggles that Black Americans constantly face when gunning for the same professional opportunities as white America. That should not still be the same tune we’re signing in 2020–but alas.
Just as the song is about to close, Indie Arie returns with a blazing impassioned soliloquy, ‘Does the way I wear my hair make me a better person?/Does the way I wear my hair determine my integrity?’ inviting listeners to think deeply about the beauty standards we uphold and the worth we place on people with hair and different from ours.
The politics of black hair has always been talked about in the media. Growing up, your natural hair as a black person always attracted attention, both at home and abroad, and certain styles are seen as deeply rebellious or ‘peculiar’. Here, in Nigeria, grown out ‘bushy’ hair made us look irresponsible, and school policies were in place to punish students with outgrown hair. Dreadlocks could get you raised side-eyes from police and passers-by and could even dangerously lead to you being profiled as a hoodlum.
In a way, not much has changed but it’s definitely not where we were 18 years ago when the song dropped. It’s been a rough few weeks for black people–most especially black women–as we are constantly consuming news of black death and several cases of sexual gender-based violence. That’s why we will always value women who are using their music as a means of communicating their lived experiences in the world as black women.
We’re hoping this song brings some well-needed nostalgia and message of encouragement through these unprecedented times.
Featured image credits/Grammy
Tami is living in a black mirror episode and can’t seem to wake up. Tweet your fave female artistes at her @tamimak_