For little Black girls, hair serves as an early impetus for self-discovery — sculpting our kinks, curls, and coils is an emotional journey through how we see ourselves and the world. This was no different for a young Tinisha Meeks. Before staking her claim as a celebrity hairstylist, her first paid gig was born out of frustration with the bald spots on her Cabbage Patch doll. A store owner caught wind of her solution — cornrowing the doll's hair — and Meeks was hired to do the same on other dolls. When Meeks turned on the television, hairstyles on shows like Martin and Moesha were her North Star. She re-created the now-classic looks on her own hair, astonishing her classmates week to week. "I always wanted to give people that feeling," she said. "We don't see our daily lives, our day-to-day hairstyles on the screen. So I was like, 'Man, one day, that's what I want to do.' I wanted a little girl to turn on the TV and be like, 'Oh, I wonder, can my hair do that? I'm gonna emulate it and make it happen.'"
Since those days in the store, Meeks has been instrumental in bringing another form of Black hair to the forefront: locs, a natural style that had been slower to permeate pop culture. Getting it there, however, didn't happen overnight.
While the 1990s were ripe with inspiration on screen, Black hair was nowhere near getting its just due in Hollywood. A far cry from the celebration we see today, locs were barely on the brink of acceptance. Bertice Berry emerged as the first American TV personality with locs in 1993 and was followed by only a handful of celebrities for years to come: Lenny Kravitz, Whoopi Goldberg, Lauryn Hill, and Lisa Bonet. Into the 2000s, a lack of Black hairstylists in the industry left Black actors suffering the horrors of their hair being mismanaged on set. Gabrielle Union's hair fell out in chunks after a stylist combined Aqua Net hairspray with a heating tool. Shalita Grant was left with a bald spot after her hair was constantly exposed to chlorine while shooting NCIS: New Orleans. To mitigate the damage to both their hair and their psyche, Black actors began seeking out local stylists and paying them out of pocket."Even back in '98, when I was working in North Hollywood, a sea of actors, singers, and dancers, men included, would come to me before they went to set, because they didn't have anyone to do their hair," hairstylist Araxi Lindsey said. It took sheer determination, years of taking the back door, and the help of friends like Jada Pinkett Smith — who recommended Lindsey style her Bantu knots for The Matrix Reloaded — before Black stylists began a natural hair revolution with shows like Black-ish.
Meeks was fresh off of rubbing elbows with veteran hairstylist Linda Villalobos on the set of Scandal by the time she was recruited as a key hairstylist for Black-ish. Lindsey was leading the team from a deeply personal place, resulting in Emmy-winning episodes like "Hair Day." Meeks was brought into a special fold, one that would set the stage for viral Black hair moments — like Zoe Johnson (Yara Shahidi) wearing a durag to bed — on Grown-ish, where she now leads the hair department.
Parallel to her work on screen, Meeks has been crafting imaginative looks for stars like Chloe and Halle Bailey (who also star on Grown-ish), placing locs smack dab on the Hollywood main stage. "When they met me, they weren't sure," Meeks said of Beyoncé's protégés. "I reassured them and their parents that I couldn't wait to show them what I could do. After the first week, they were sold. They trust me to do creative things that they never probably would've thought of."
Because locs have only recently become as popular as, say, braids, Meeks's boundless approach to styling them continues to send shockwaves through social media. Thanks to 23-year-old Chloe and 21-year-old Halle, young Black women have a more recent reference for locs inspo than their now-classic predecessors.
Tracing the history of locs in American popular culture calls for tracing the history of locs themselves. Locking the hair — allowing sections to mat into rope-like strands — began as a spiritual practice in African and Asian civilizations. According to Lori L. Tharps, hair historian and author of Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America, a threatening connotation was given to the term "dreadlocks" after Kenyan warriors used their matted hair to signify their readiness to go to war with British colonizers. For generations to come, Black hair continued to be used as a symbol of activism and reclamation.
"Black people have consistently, wherever they are in the diaspora, used their hair to demonstrate or to showcase who they are, what they're feeling, their identity," she said. Tharps also fiercely notes that it stands to reason that Black folks wearing natural hair on purpose would strike fear in white people: the act is a direct antithesis of racist ideals.
"Even to this day, we are still fighting for the embracing of our natural hair and embracing of hair in a tangled locked, matted state that doesn't slick back and lay down and defies gravity," said Jocelyn Reneé, a licensed cosmetologist known as The Digital Loctitican. In 2019, legislators motioned for the end of hair discrimination after a study found that Black women were 1.5 times more likely to be sent home from the workplace because of their hair. In the same study, 80 percent of Black women agreed with the notion that they had to change their hair from their natural state in order to fit in at the workplace. What is now known as the CROWN (Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair) Act has still only been signed by 14 states. With this in mind, turning the Bailey sisters' locs into art could be viewed as an act of resistance, but Meeks simply sees it as an act of love.
"I don't look at locs like it's something different than any texture of hair," Meeks said. "I love straight textures, I love curly textures, I love locs. To me, it's all the same." Meeks is especially motivated by the challenge of sculpting locs into styles that one might doubt they can achieve. Take Chloe Bailey's "loctail" in the "Ungodly Hour" music video, for example — not only are her locs in a floor-length ponytail with extensions, but the ponytail is also made up of three separate parts, each attached by a metal link. This innovation is also what allowed the "Have Mercy" singer to rock red locs one week and blond locs the next, by wrapping colored hair around each of them. "No matter what the texture is, I feel like you can manipulate it to look like whatever another style is. I enjoy doing that with locs," Meeks said.
Another signature move Meeks likes to employ is the use of hair accessories. When it came time for Halle Bailey to go full glam for a Bulgari party at New York Fashion Week last fall, adorning the Little Mermaid star's locs with a blinged-out headpiece was a choice fit for a princess. "Some people probably know it's my hairstyle because it has accessories," she said. "I definitely think that depending on what the style is, an accessory can set the mood of it. It can say, 'We're partying right now.' Or it'll elevate the style. Or sometimes, it can tame down the style, but it basically lets you know that I took this extra care, or I took this extra moment." Meeks doesn't believe there's such a thing as "too much" when it comes to accessories and suggests people use their personal style and the events they attend to decide which jewels, shells, or strings work best.
Amid all the glitz and glamour, Meeks also prides herself on actual hair care. She guarantees each of her clients that they will see hair growth as she continues to work with them. For locked hair, her secret is periodical detoxing. Similar to curls that need clarification after oil buildup, Meeks stresses that locs have the same needs. "People don't realize that even though you have locs, you could have those same things: too much buildup of product, or if you don't wear a bonnet at night, you might get lint, or debris just from everyday use. And if you don't detox them, it can stunt your growth, leave the buildup in there, and cause acne," she said. Meeks also shared that she will be launching her own hair detox bomb, which was inspired by her son, who had no idea how to detox his own locs. The bomb contains apple cider vinegar, baking soda, and a host of herbs like rosemary and sage — which, of course, were ground by hand. Spend any amount of time with Meeks, and her deep devotion to hair takes no time at all to reveal itself. Ask her what she loves about a particular texture or style, and her spiel will be akin to a masterful artist describing the importance of a singular color. Scroll through her phone, and you'll find the thousands of photos from which she excavates inspiration. For her, now is the perfect time to release locs from perceived restrictions, simply because there are more ways to learn how.
"Our hair is like that crown we wear on our heads, and we should be able to wear our crown however we want," she said. "Now is the time that we should do that. And it's so easy in this age, so many tutorials, so many hair products. Do your research, and you can do whatever."
Black hair — locked or otherwise — is limitless.
Photographer: Grace Bukunmi Hair: Tinisha Meeks Makeup: Christiana Cassell Stylist: Emma Sousa Model: Kareen Brown Production: Hannah Lee, Aisha Rae
Editors: Iyana Robertson, Kelsey Castañon, Sade Strehlke Copy Editor: Mary White
Look 1: Dress: Marques Almeida, Earrings: Maison Irem, Bracelet: H&M, Necklace: Vintage; Look 2: Top: Eloquii, Shirt Jacket: Donni, Hoop: H&M; Look 3: Top: Jonathan Simkhai, Ear Cuffs: Demarson, Earrings: Cloverpost