Throughout the explosive anti-racist politics and protests of the 1960s and the 70s, the Afro-hair style was perhaps the most unifying fashion icon.

Unlike dreadlocks, which were largely associated with the Rastafarian movement, of dagga smoking or equally rebellious types, the Afro had little of the dreadlocks’ quasi-religious baggage. It cut through gender, age and geographic divides. To wear an afro was a political statement of solidarity with calls to black pride and power against racism in the world.  

The ball-shaped puffed hairdo unified radical activists like Assata Shakur, fighting feminists like Angela Davis, and pop icons like the Jackson Five. Today, the afro is less charged but just as funky.

It has previously been spotted on the likes of singer and model, Solange Knowles for its undiminishable cool. Rap-star producer and drummer, Amir QuestLove Thompson of the Roots maintains its rounded glory with the iconic afro-comb popping up for all to see. However, it would appear that even before its modern pop manifestation, the Afro had much of its social force in pre-colonial African cultures too. While stars QuestLove might appear hip with a plastic afro-comb, African royalty and nobilities along with hip and happening individuals had their variant to show.

There are fine sculptural examples in London’s Museum of Mankind, which houses among its collection an Afro-comb originally taken from Nigeria’s historic Benin City. It is an ivory comb with horseman in sixteenth-century costume on top. The Fante people of Ghana too have a fine afro-comb making tradition. Some carved and sculpted from wood. Their handles are often carved with ornaments on both sides surmounted by a human head with elongated neck and scarification marks. These are design tropes that persist even in modern designs of the plastic handle and steel teeth afro-comb. Though today’s incantations of the hair care ornaments may be in active use, the historic wooden versions are tradable cultural objects that compete for art-auction space with high-value contemporary artworks. Online art sales of the sculptural Afro-Combs vary from 400 to 900 Euros.

The multimillion Rand hair product industry represents another way which the Afro has been the gift that keeps on giving. One of South Africa’s beneficiaries and success stories in this regards is the politically vocal venture capitalist and investor, Herman Mashaba. In 1985, he started Black Like Me, a company creating African hair care and perm products. Though he used to sport a shiny, Mashaba doesn’t wear a perm Afro anymore. He’s opted for the inverse-equal hairstyle, a shiny clean shave which carries its own history as a symbol of pride and power politics and fashion.

With all the styles now available, with nylon and even real hair weaves, are you brave enough to let it all bounce up? What statement do you want to make with your hairstyle?

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