In Browsing Black History, we celebrate Black History Month by exploring the origins of internet trends and icons popularized by Black cultural producers, too often left uncredited for their work.
Black hair has a storied history that dates back to ancient Africa, where wearing certain hairstyles signified one’s cultural identity, heritage, and social status. Braid styles, twists, wigs, items of adornment, and afros were all wore pre-colonially by Africans as expressions of beauty. But by the end of the transatlantic slave trade to the US in the 19th century, Black people had begun to take extreme measures to straighten their hair, even if it meant getting burned via chemicals or a hot comb. Afrocentricism and the Black Power Movement of the mid-60s and 70s inspired some to proudly wear natural hairstyles, but then another shift came in the 80s when perms were back and Jheri curls were all the rage.
And then came the internet.
In the early 2000s, with the recession looming and socio-economic tensions on high, there was a subtle shift of Black women choosing to wear their hair natural. Some choose to do it out of rebellion to conservation white places of work; while others simply didn’t have the financial ability to pay for regular salon visits. For these reasons and more, Black women headed to message boards to find styling tips and community in nascent social media days on the precipice of the natural hair movement bubble blowing up.
“Message boards were the thing before any Instagram, before any Facebook group,” Patrice Yursik, creator of Afrobella tells Broadly. Yursik cites Nappturality, which launched in 2002, as one of the biggest digital natural hair hubs at that time. “We shared a lot of information there. It was the first time that people were able to share their voice and to share what was working for them and get that, ‘Yes, girl!’ validation that you weren’t able to get in your day to day life.”
Adding, “This was at a time when not everybody had natural hair, so you might have been dealing with some family that didn’t like your hair or some people in your school who thought it was wack. This was a place where people were cheering each other on and happy for each other.”
While Yursik, often regarded as the “Godmother of Brown Beauty Blogging,” enjoyed the message boards, there was still something missing for her. Her search for another option lead her to create her own site in 2006.
“I wanted something that was more like a magazine,” she says, “that was more personal and relatable and that didn't just stop hair coverage—something that was a little bit broad and that focused on Black beauty and culture as well.”
Yursik was on to something. Since launching Afrobella she has been ranked as one of the 50 Most Influential People in the Multicultural Market by WWD; has been featured in advertising brands including, Cream of Nature, Urban Decay, P&G, Microsoft, SheaMoisture, and more; and in 2011, she was part of M.A.C. Cosmetics’ first-ever Bloggers’ Obsessions Collection, where she created her own lip color that sold out within a week—and then three more times after that. In other words, a digital influencer was born.
According to Grin, the rise of influencer marketing on social media began to take off in 2010. In the natural hair community, that time period was a time when more everyday women began taking control of their narratives by creating their own platforms, which led to lucrative opportunities. By 2011, YouTube pages like Kimmaytube, and CharyJay replaced message boards as the premier tool for the natural hair community because it was a way to add faces to the tips, tricks, and tutorials previously hidden behind still images.
“You could talk directly to the consumer and we weren't hearing about our own hair through the eyes of brands that were trying to market those products [on message boards], or just not hearing ourselves at all because brands weren't trying to market us products back then,” says Trudy Susan, creator of 4C Hair Chick. Susan created her online hub to incorporate YouTube tutorials and videos about self-esteem for women with tightly-coiled natural hair referred to as 4C, an Andre Walker term. “It was this conversation, direct by other women that look like you, and not just one or two, but many. There's a plethora. Any flavor you wanted, YouTube started to have that.”
Eventually, YouTuber vloggers began to go from just doing tutorials to doing their hair while talking about various facets of life from bad boyfriends to getting a new apartment, and it helped with community building and trust.
Susan says about the now saturated niche platform, “It became a sisterhood and it opened up a dialogue, which allowed us to heal ourselves and connect with tribes and that was the magic of the movement and that’s why when I think about where it is now and where it’s going, that’s part of why 4C Hair Chick is not active anymore.”
Currently a business strategist, Susan admits that she wasn’t comfortable with the lack of anonymity from being on Youtube, but she is satisfied with the digital imprint she created to build momentum around an underrepresented community. The hashtag she trademarked, #4CHairChick, started out with about 400 users—today, there are over a million women using the hashtag between Twitter and Instagram combined, and it’s become part of the lexicon used to describe a specific type of girl with a specific type of hair texture.
“We made it. I’m totally OK with people hijacking the shit, it’s fine. Because it was just about giving people confidence. It was about giving underrepresented beauty confidence,” she maintains.
After years in the digital space, the natural hair community has influenced product creation and more visibility for women with kinky hair. Unilever even has a think tank of natural hair influencers who test their products before they hit the market in order to ensure that they are authentic and effective. But after a while, there’s only so many twist-out tutorials one can post before it’s time to figure out what’s next. Susan helps other businesses grow and achieve the same type of success she did online. Yursik is still focusing on her website, other writing projects, and brand opportunities.
Top natural hair influencers like MsVaughnTV and Naptural85, who have been in the game for several years, are expanding beyond tutorials and incorporating more video diary content, travel features, and selling products and merchandise. Expansion and change are par for the course for any business, especially in a space that has become a lot more crowded.
“After a while you can only create so many two-strand-twist tutorials, you can only do so many product reviews before you start feeling a burnout; before you start feeling like you’re only a head of hair,” Yursik says. “It’s important to keep your creative spark alive. Keep your interests still strong in the work that you have. Sometimes you have to diversify your content.”
And no matter what, above all else, keep authenticity alive.
“Nobody can fire me,” Yursik asserts. “That's the most beautiful thing I can say. I created a platform from which I can never be fired and it can live as long as I give it life. So I am eternally satisfied and grateful for that.”
Even some message boards of yore are still around and have adapted to their community’s ever-changing needs. But amid constant fast-paced shifts in social media and new algorithms throwing everyone off, ownership is the only constant.
“We’ve all seen YouTube shut down and everyone runs to Twitter to panic, or the algorithm changes and all of a sudden your likes go from 800 to 50," Yursik continues. "It’s not your fault, but if you have your own platform that’s consistent, that is like your online resume. The opportunities are always going to come back to you as long as you keep putting that good light out into the world.”