Emotional. Striking. Riveting. These descriptions don’t even do justice to Michael July’s AFROS: A Celebration of Natural Hair. Capturing the history, ancestry and essence of our hair in its rawest form, the ’fro, July’s tome shares his photogenic exploration of the beauty and history of our hair. He no doubt makes it clear why the Afro should be celebrated: it’s special. His six-year journey led him to meet some of the most amazing Black men, women and kids with funky ’fros sharing the cool stories behind their hair.
July gave EBONY.com some of his precious time to discuss the deeper symbolism behind AFROS, and why he thinks contemporary America will be forced to embrace our hair any day now.
EBONY: Beyond the evoking force that is our natural hair, why did you feel that now was the time to publish Afros?
Michael July: I didn’t actually have a set timeline to publish the book. I came up with the concept in May 2006 and started shooting in July 2006. I thought it would be completed much sooner, actually. I figured three to four years top, but here we are… seven years later!
Artistically, I was really inspired by Stevie Wonder’s masterpiece Songs in the Key of Life, which is one of my favorite albums. Growing up, I remember reading how long it took him to complete the album, and how it kept getting bigger and bigger to the point where it became a double album with a bonus 45 record. Stevie had a great deal of patience when he was creating it because he knew what it had to be.
I took the same approach with the book and was blessed with two awesome designers, Darhil Crooks and Monica Whittick who worked tirelessly on the layout and book design. They were invaluable. Darhil, who was down from the very beginning, also encouraged me to self-publish the book.
EBONY: Do you think natural hair is here to serve as a fashion trend, or will it really remain a major part of the modern Black woman’s image?
MJ: I find the word “trend” a very destructive word. We live in a very temporary society where things are not built to last or be in production, long no matter how fantastic they are. You can have a product that does everything, such as a smartphone, but before you know it the brand will be producing another model that does even more and is smaller or larger.
When you look at the versatility of our natural hair, there is no other hairstyle that can compete. You can rock it in hundreds of different styles, and even straighten it then magically ’fro it out again. It can be shaped and styled however you wish, and our hair has been this versatile since the beginning of mankind. So to answer your question: natural hair is not a trend, has never gone away, nor will it ever go away.
EBONY: While natural hair is becoming more “accepted” in mainstream media, it still causes a dramatic stir in the corporate world. Do you feel like our natural hair will ever not cause White America discomfort?
MJ: Contemporary White America is fascinated by natural hair. But the corporate world—which we all know is ruled by older White men, and women in some cases—have certain rules and policies that are made to uphold the status quo. I find this both confusing and sad. America and a lot of other countries, such as the U.K., the Netherlands and Germany to name a few, are rapidly changing their social and racial makeup. In 20 to 30 years, things will be drastically different than the society we know today. The discomforts surrounding natural hair, particular Afros and ’locs, will soon be eradicated.
EBONY: Do you feel embracing the Afro is still a symbol of embracing Black heritage, or just a beauty statement?
MJ: I found through my research that the majority of those people of Black ancestry who choose to wear their hair natural do so because it is their way of tapping into their African roots. A lot of us are battling doubts about our identity around the world. We have pressures outside and even within our own communities to conform to a societal standard of beauty in order to fit in. This can oftentimes be compelling.
I’ve spoken with parents and guardians of younger children who bought my book to empower the youth. They want to expose them to wholesome and healthy images of people who look like them. They are intelligent, beautiful, talented, creative and accomplished, and send the message that they can be all of things too. These aren’t easily accessible in the mainstream media, so as a result, we often gravitate towards what we’re being fed vs. what is psychologically beneficial. We really can’t afford to do this, especially when it concerns our children.
EBONY: How did traveling across the U.S. in search of these amazing Afros change or enhance your perception of Black hair and Black beauty?
MJ: Traveling to different cities across the country made me more aware and appreciative of how universal the Afro is. I was always conscious of it, even before I started shooting for the book. But stepping out of New York City on my Afro quest brought me face to face with so many beautiful and remarkable people proudly rocking their natural hair. I’ve met men and women of Mexican decent in California who have dynamic ’fros. After visiting the Midwest, as a vendor at the Indiana Black Expo in Indianapolis, and producing the Afros exhibition at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, I was astounded by the number of people I saw with natural hair in all age groups.
EBONY: Is there one person you photographed and interviewed along this journey who said something you’ll never forget?
MJ: There were quite a few moments throughout this Afros journey that will always stand out to me. I am so grateful for this experience. One person that comes immediately to mind is Christopher Dupree a.k.a. Wordspit, a hip-hop artist from Brooklyn. When I met him, I started shooting him just moments later in a club near my home. He was just full of energy, moving around and pumping his fist throughout the shoot. At one point, I asked him if he could jump off a table he was standing on. He said sure, and did a perfect karate kick high in the air that I was able to capture beautifully!
When asked why he wore his hair natural he stated, “I wear an Afro because it reminds me of my Afrocentric roots. Plus I look like Jim Kelly from Enter the Dragon sometimes.” This was before he even knew I would use that particular image.
EBONY: What is the one thing you want Black men and women to take away from Afros?
MJ: I would say an appreciation of theirs and other people’s natural self. Do not be afraid to express yourself naturally and do not believe the headlines and hype. This is not a trend. It dates back to biblical times. Everyone on this planet was born with natural hair. It’s time to embrace it.
Melanie Yvette Martin is the Beauty and Style coordinator for EBONY.com, and the voice behind Beautifully Brown.