As hip-hop celebrates its 50th anniversary, it would be a mistake not to recognize the impact that the culture has had on the beauty space. From the resurgence of grillz to Lil' Kim's iconic colored wigs, and even the haircut mishap that resulted in Salt-N-Pepa's legendary hairstyle: hip-hop and beauty have gone hand-in-hand since the beginning.
There is one sector of the beauty space that many would argue is most influenced by hip-hop: nails. Manicures have always been at the forefront of self-expression and used to help create the larger-than-life personas it takes to be a superstar. In the process manicure masters like Saccia Livingston and Dawn Sterling have earned their stripes, allowing music and beauty fans alike to delight in their work over the years. Whether it's Megan Thee Stallions's incredible anime-themed nails, Saweetie's extra-long "Kawaii" sets, or even Latto's themed claws, these statement manicures have always been a part of women's hip-hop history.
"Nails are an accessory that gives that extra confidence that I think artists need in order to feel special and, therefore, make other people feel special in their presence," celebrity manicurist Coca Michelle tells POPSUGAR. "They are definitely a huge part of a performer's image, but they also allow them to encompass a certain undeniable energy."
The manicures worn by our favorite femcees don't paint themselves, though, so we asked the brains behind them to tell us what it's really like to be a nail artist to the biggest names in hip-hop. Read on for a behind-the-scenes look at music's celebrity manicurists.
For Michelle, nails have always been a way to express her individuality. "Going to school and growing up in East London, I was always in uniform," she says. "I felt like I always had so much creativity to give but was not necessarily able to express it." As a result of her parents taking on roles as nail technicians when they moved to America, Michelle was entrenched in the space from a very young age. "They started doing nails to raise my brother and me, so I was always around the environment," she adds. "I always saw it as an art form versus a service-based industry . . . I also loved the idea of a client coming in and just feeling better about themselves."
Michelle broke into the celebrity arena through word of mouth. She explains, "One of the first salons I worked at was Laq Lab and two of my first celebrities were Kelly Rowland and Latoya Jackson," adding, "My first independent celebrity client was for someone who worked on 'America's Best Dance Crew.'" She got the referral from another beauty expert that she had been trading services with at the time. After creating a set that could have easily lasted the average person a month, Michelle's new A-lister client asked her to come back just one week later to create an entirely new one — that's when Michelle realized that working with celebrities was a different arena.
She says, "It hit me that there were various avenues that artists could explore that were a bit different than just working in the salon."
Michelle's most recognizable designs can often be spotted on a familiar face: Megan Thee Stallion. She says this relationship allows her creativity to really flourish. "Meg loves to be in all different spaces, so I think the challenges of navigating different projects and environments definitely keep me inspired," Michelle says. "It could be easy to just work in a salon where I don't have to deal with hair or makeup, but I think the fact that we have a team where everybody is so close in it and we all genuinely vibe together helps us approach it with a more collaborative attitude."
No two days are the same for the manicurist, who says the nails that she does can change based on everything from the rapper's mood to the location where they're shooting. "We were in Vegas once and the bar had this Golden Cage. It was super cool and I knew [Megan] was wearing gold, so I incorporated it into her design last minute." For Michelle, the best part about working with the "Body" rapper is the trust that she places in her. "It's been great just having somebody that's like, 'OK, I can't see the vision right now, but when it's done, I'm sure it's gonna be great.'"
From the legendary sets the duo have managed to come up with, we'd say they're a match made in heaven.
Nails aren't Bianca Williams's first foray into beauty entrepreneurship. "I'm actually a fully-licensed cosmetologist who started off as a hairstylist," she tells POPSUGAR. After a car accident left her with a back injury, making it painful to stand for long periods of time, she decided to pivot. "My instructor at the time encouraged me to spend more time in the nail room where we practiced pedicures and manicures. I've always been into art, so that's when I decided to make manicures my focus."
Williams was always set for stardom, as her first celebrity client was none other than Solange Knowles. "I was still in cosmetology school when I was recommended by makeup artist Javetta White, who was working on a shoot with her for ASOS magazine," Williams says. "I had never even met Javetta, but she had seen my work and referred me — a testament to the power of not only showing your work but also building relationships in the beauty industry."
Though Williams never intentionally set out to enter the hip-hop space, once she worked with the industry legend, it snowballed from there, leading her to eventually work with icon Missy Elliott. "I had been doing Keon Foley-Griffin's nails for months and came to find out that she was Elliott's assistant," Williams says. After asking Foley-Griffin who did her nails, the rapper booked Williams for Essence Fest. "I did her nails for the first time then and for the next six years it was me and her."
Williams says this relationship continues to highlight the importance of nails in the creation of a star. "Manicures are a huge part of an artist's glam — especially if they love to pay attention to the details and actual art included in the practice," she explains. "From crystal stones to charms or even just bold polish colors — these are all noticeable little facets that contribute to the overall makeup of the artist and the persona that everyone sees." In the hip-hop space, in particular, Williams says manicures have always made a statement. "The girls have always been wearing long, colorful, blinged-out designs on their nails," she adds. "I can remember seeing Coko from SWV with the long curvy nails and just wishing I could design them once."
Williams wants to take all that she's learned and continue to teach the next generation of nail masters. "In addition to my one-on-one classes, I'm starting to work on my own line of quality products to create something I can stand fully behind and know without a doubt, works on everyone." The impeccable designs she's created over the years act as proof of her mastery.
Jackson never wanted to be a nail artist but she ended up working with global superstar Saweetie anyway. "I wanted to be a nurse," she tells POPSUGAR. "I was working in the medical field and doing nails was a hobby."
It was a pastime that she says she grew to love. After getting her nail certification in her native state of Connecticut, Jackson got her first taste of virality when she created a particularly eye-catching set of nails. "I did my first set of the Barack Obama nails when he became president in 2008, and that really sparked me to say, 'Wow, you really can do great things,'" she says. That design ended up getting a shout-out on CNN. "That's when I really started to take doing nails seriously."
After working with legislators to make Connecticut a licensing state, Jackson moved to Los Angeles where her career ended up on the fast track. "The salon that I worked at already had a few celebrity clients and the first one that I worked with was Vanessa Simmons," Jackson shares. "I did a house call for her and from there, I built my clientele from word of mouth." This led her to work with people like Lil Nas X and Saweetie.
"With Saweetie, when I first met her, she would opt for super simple nails," Jackson says. "As her career has evolved, she's started to learn different things that she likes about herself, and in turn, she challenged me quite a bit." Now, Saweetie wears everything from nail charms to intricate, hand-drawn designs, and the duo have become a true team. Jackson says, "It's become really collaborative."
Manicures and hip-hop go hand-in-hand for Jackson, too, who has also worked with people like Mary J. Blige and Yung Miami of City Girls. "Women have always had long, gorgeous nails in the hip-hop world," Jackson notes. "If you think about Lil' Kim, SWV, Missy Elliott — Black women, in particular, have always had nails that were then referred to as ghetto, but were actually art. Hip-hop is what started this trend — that is what laid the groundwork for these styles of nails to be as popular as they are today."