Hair Identity: Shingai Shoniwa

Shingai Shoniwa, singer, talks about her hair and identity, ahead of a new Channel 4 programme, and explains why hair and identity are inextricably woven together for people of colour. The Guardian. October 2020.

I would describe myself as a Brit of Bantu heritage. Due to the colonial borders that were put in place in sub-Saharan Africa, a lot of Bantu people were separated into different nations. My grandmother is from Malawi, previously called Nyasaland. They made a sharp border with Northern Rhodesia, now Zimbabwe, and the east Portuguese protectorate, now Mozambique, which is where my grandfather is from. 

My parents were born in Zimbabwe, but I grew up in Lewisham, south London. I was lucky that as a child I was encouraged by my family and community to wear my hair in its natural state – my friends and I wore styles such as Bantu knots and cane rows with pride. Even my white friends would get the odd braid or two. Getting your hair done as a little black girl felt like an expression of love and nourishment. It would be styled by my gogo – my grandmother – or my mum, or an auntie, or anyone in the community, really; there was a support network for women of colour who cared for the hair of the children around them. The reaction from other kids towards my hair was positive – they thought it looked really cool, like an alien. But when it came to adults, and certain institutions, there was a more negative reaction.At secondary school, that negativity increased. We were bombarded with chemical products from America, and teachers questioning whether our natural styles fitted the “hair code”. Things got more pointed once I entered the workplace. I worked at a posh department store in Kensington as a teenager – a very old, respected establishment. I had cut off all the hair damaged by those toxic chemicals, and put it into plaits. 

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