Braiders Are Turning a Black Hair Tradition Into an Artform

Lil Nas X and Beyoncé are incorporating wired hair into their aesthetic. We talked to braider Widny Bazile about the significance of Black hair as artistic expression.
KC
Queens, US
August 26, 2021, 1:00pm
widny bazile hairbraiding
Photo: Widny Bazile 

For Black girls, braids are a rite of passage. You spend hours in a salon chair or between the legs of an experienced braider to protect your natural kinks and coils. In the end, you leave with a head full of intricate parts and—if you like drama—hair down to your ass. 

Black culture is no stranger to the magic braids possess, and it’s no wonder why your problematic faves have been wearing them, no matter how many times we’ve asked them to stop. During enslavement, braids were a tool for survival, used to relay messages or transport seeds to harvest. And despite the laws that have tried to police Black hair over the years (The Crown Act was passed by the House of Representatives last year banning hair discrimination), a new crop of braiders are making sure the style is more visible than ever. In fact, one might even say that elaborate wired braids are 2021’s biggest style trend—especially among Black musicians.

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In the past year, album covers, music videos, and photo shoots featuring wired braids have functioned as their own version of the Wearable Art Gala. In 2020, East Londoner Tora-i released a music video for “Vein,” which featured a striking visual of the singer stuck in a web of braids. When Shelley, formerly known as DRAM, released his self-titled project in April, he used wired hair to spell out his new namesake, which also served as the album’s title. A month later, the folksy-R&B singer Mereba’s braids defied gravity on the cover of her new EP, AZEB, which was filled with her quarantine reflections.

Elsewhere, wired braids have been showing up in editorial spaces, as they did in July, in a New York Times Magazine piece about Lil Nas X’s pop success, and later in Harper’s Bazaar’s September issue, about Beyonce’s constant self-reinvention. And as if that weren’t enough, Chloe Bailey revealed her new FLAUNT cover last week, with wired braids adorning her signature locs. 

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To celebrate the trend and its origins, VICE called up Widny Bazile, the stylist behind Lil Nas X’s New York Times Magazine crown and the founder of the creative agency Widny Studios. The Haitian-born artist, who got her start as a model, phoned in from Los Angeles despite the weight she’s carrying about being seperated from her father, who still lives in Port-au-Prince. Two days before we spoke, Haiti had experienced a 7.2 magnitude earthquake, with her hometown at its epicenter. A month before that, the country’s leader, President Jovenel Moïses, was assassinated

Mainstream media often paints an image of Haiti that renders its natives helpless and vulnerable, and Bazile is hoping that her braided art, which has evolved from a DIY project to styling fashion editorials for publications like The New York Times and working with some of music’s biggest names, helps change that narrative. “When was the last time you heard something good about Haiti?” she asks me over the phone. She says that her art—along with her upcoming furniture line, which is also constructed out of braids—is an homage to Haiti, the place where she learned to braid. “I always say, I’m not a model, I’m an artist,” she says. “I do it all.” And alongside artists like Laetitia Ky, Fesa Nu, and Bazile, she’s emphasizing what many of us already knew: Braids are art.

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VICE: You lived in Haiti until you were 12. Can you tell us more about your immigrant experience? 
Widny Bazile: My father came to get me when I was three months old, because my mother was in the middle of the process to travel to America. I lived in Port-au-Prince when I was 12 and then I moved to Boston, where I went to middle school and high school, and that’s where I learned English. When I was 15, exactly the same time when I went to a foster home, I started creating to escape the things I was going through. 

What art were you creating then? 
Hair wasn’t a part of my art—it was a job that I did. I did hair for money in middle school and high school. I was good at it, so my friends always convinced me to do their hair. So then I was like, I’ll start charging y’all $50 every time. I was just something I always had to do for myself. 

Growing up in Haiti, my dad used to do my hair. Once you get to a certain age, you don’t want your parents touching your hair. You don’t want them to buy your clothes anymore. We had a conversation about this in Haiti where I told him I wanted to do my own hair, so that’s how I learned. Hair didn’t become a very important subject of my work until modeling started picking up for me. 

When did you begin modeling? 
Modeling was something I wanted to do since Haiti. Everybody in Haiti called me “the mannequin” because I was so skinny and always on my modeling shit.

[On my first day with my foster mom,] I asked her if she could drop me off and pick me up from school because I didn’t know the neighborhood. She was able to drop me off, but after school I found a friend who was going around the same area. But when my friend took the shortcut, I was lost. 

In the midst of being lost, I’m walking around wearing my own outfit—if I couldn’t afford it, I’d just make it. This girl, Tessy, stops me in the middle of the road and she’s like, “I like your outfit. I’m starting a brand, I’d love for you to model for me.” As soon as I got to my foster mom, I asked to use her phone and I called Tessy. Two days later, she had a photoshoot and ever since then I was like, Yeah, this is me

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This [year] is the first time I’ve gone eight months without taking personal pictures. Since [I was] 15 until January of this year, I’ve been modeling nonstop. I’ve been taking a break and working on Widny Studios. 

Widny Studios

Model: Jimi Samuels Hair and Makeup: Widny Bazile

What does Widny Studios represent to you? 
Modeling and Widny Studios came together because I got tired of the nonsense. I got to see how much I didn’t like the way a lot of photographers move. I don’t like the way hair stylists move. I wanted to make a difference. I wasn’t seeing men in hair. I’ll go to a shoot and the hair stylist or the makeup artist would tell me, “You’re good.” I’m like, Ma’am, we’re going in front of cameras; we’re not good

When I moved to LA, people hired me, which was nice, but I used to feel like all of the jobs I used to get were based on my hair. I used to have a big afro and I felt like I was a token. I hated that—that’s why I’m bald now. 

Widny Studios really came full circle because I wanted to create opportunities, I wanted to create jobs, I wanted to open doors. When I see my friends, sometimes I don’t see them as what the shoots represent. When I work with any photographer, I do everything. I do the hair, I do the makeup, I do the styling, I do fucking everything. I do everything and not once does anybody ever say, “Widny directed this, Widny did hair, Widny did makeup.” They just take it and run with it. Models don’t speak up because you think maybe you won’t get the next job or this person’s not going to fuck with me. I always say, I’m not a model, I’m an artist. I do it all.

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How did Widny Studios go from being an idea to being sought out by people like Lil Nas X? 
As an artist I’m able to understand what a model goes through. But also, now understanding what a photographer and a hair stylist goes through, I’m able to really make people understand when you sell prints of a model, it hurts. Or when you don’t do this model’s hair, it hurts. It’s causing me to really step out and say, What do you want to do? What’s the whole package? 

You know how Joey Bada$$ is a rapper, but he’s never gotten a Grammy. But he’s an actor now and he’s got an Oscar. Sometimes, you need to switch and take another lane. Some people will say, stay in your lane, but even when you’re driving, you need to switch lanes. You’re not going to get to your destination by staying in one lane.

I’m such a Libra and Pisces moon. I’m very emotional. I’ve always wanted to be a part of their families and I’ve asked so many photographers, makeup artists, and hair stylists, Can I join you on set? No one has said yes. They will use me for my face, but when it came to assisting them, that’s a different story. I just started my own [business] and every door that wasn’t open to me, now I’m coming to buy the whole building. 

So I wasn’t surprised when I got asked to do the Lil Nas shoot for The New York Times. I tell myself all the time: My blessings already have my name on it.

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Can you talk us through the creative direction for the Lil Nas X shoot? 
The idea came from my chandelier hair piece. So we’re on this call with The New York Times, and his team and they ended up not choosing any of the pieces I built for him, but I had to build that piece for him on the set. That piece, for me, it’s not even about Lil Nas. For me, it represents power. My work is still in The New York Times

There have been countless album covers and magazine spreads this year that use braids as art, in a similar style to yours. I saw some backlash when Shelley, formerly known as DRAM, released his self-titled album this year. There was criticism that you weren’t being credited for your influence. 
Don’t get me wrong, African hair, Black hair, wired hair, is something that our ancestors used to do. Hair used to be a hiding source for food. I didn’t start wiring hair, but I know my style—especially hair on men–is my style.

I’m just grateful to be able to make men feel comfortable. It’s not easy to tell a man, Let me do your hair. It’s been so beautiful being able to educate them that hair is just hair. There’s a lot of things that our brothers and sisters don’t know because we’ve never been taught them.

We lost a lot of remedies and a lot of secrets to our hair. It comes down to the styling. There’s so many things you can do with hair, especially our hair texture. You can make shapes. You can literally leave your natural hair out, and it’ll do what it wants. Whoever has a little knowledge, whoever can give something, should.

It’s so crazy to see the impact—people come here and they cry. They’re like Widny, “I feel special. You make me feel like me.” Widny Studios is about creating opportunities and opening doors that feel like they’re just not open or can never be fucking open.

Kristin Corry is a Senior Staff Writer for VICE.
Model: Deaven Booker
Hair and Makeup: Widny Bazile