Origins of Dreadlocks: Who Started the Trend?

The idea and appearance of dreadlocks evoke a variety of feelings, including, but not limited to fear, fascination, and the age old stigma attached to it. There is also the weed smoking connotation, some negative pagan symbolism and the Rastafarian movement. Most recently in popular culture, there was the infamous Guillani Ranci comment regarding Zendaya as well as the San Francisco State University incident involving a black student confronting a white student wearing dreadlocks, claiming culture appropriation. So what are dreadlocks and how did we get here?

Bob Marley. Source:www.artcreationforever.com

Dreadlocks are basically thick or light ropes of hair, sometimes matted naturally to form “clumps” of hair, other times guided by twisting bits of hair together until they “lock” and look like, again, thick or light ropes, quite different from strands of regular hair that are combed or brushed regularly. Research shows that dreadlocks date back to 2,500 BC and this hairstyle has been worn by very many ethnicities and religious even if they were not called dreadlocks at the time. According to Dr. Bert Ashe in his book “Twisted: My Dreadlocks Chronicles”, the first recorded evidence of dreadlocks in script is in the present day India’s Vedic scriptures. Therein, the deity Shiva is wearing the style. Ashe argues that the word JaTaa which is used in Vedic scriptures means “twisted lock of hair”. Shiva’s followers thus began to wear JaTaa and it spread to other Indian Sages and Yogis. These holymen wore JaTaa and shunned all worldly possessions to the extent that they did not regard their appearance or the maintenance of hair as a priority. As a result, their hair matted naturally and formed dreadlocks.

In addition to Vedic scripture, there is archeological proof that ancient Egyptians also wore dreadlocks. This is evidenced by mummies which have been recovered with their dreadlocks in tact and untouched.  The style is also linked to indentured workers of East Indian origin who were sent to work on sugar plantations in British and French colonies in the Caribbean after the abolition of slavery. Louise Hardwick in the piece “Creolizing the Caribbean Coolie” explains that from 1838 to 1917, over half a million Indians were taken to 13 mainland and Island Caribbean nations as indentured workers to address the demand for labour on sugar can plantations. Some of these indentured workers may have worn dreadlocks as a part and parcel of their culture and spirituality and this may have accounted for the introduction of the hairstyle into the Caribbean.

Accounts have it that in the beginning of the Industrial revolution in the 1930s, the Rastafarian movement began among the black Jamaican population. Rastafarian movement is said to be founded on the teachings of Marcus Garvey who founded the Universal Negro Improvement Association in 1914 and insisted that all black people should return to the motherland. He encouraged Jamaicans to look towards the African continent to find themselves and be liberated. Although he never practised Rastafarian, he is believed to be one of the prophets of the movement. Garvey spoke of a King who would spring up from the African continent and liberate black people. Thus when the self proclaimed King of Kings, Lord of Lords, Lion of the Tribe of Judah Ras Tafari (Haile Selassi I) became Emperor of Ethiopia, Rastafarians named the movement after him and believed this was indeed a fulfilment of Garvey’s prophecy and prophecies in the Bible. They revered Haile Selassi I as the son of God.

The Rastafarians called themselves dreads, to signify their dread and utmost respect for God, whom they refer to as Jah. God is referenced as Jahweh and Jehovah in some parts of the Old Testament of the Bible. Thus the hairstyle became known as dreadlocks. This movement and the hairstyle garnered tremendous international attention with the explosion of award winning musician Bob Marley on the world stage. Marley was a pro-marijuana Rastafarian as were many members in the movement, believing that marijuana facilitated clear thinking. It is important to note that some Rastafarian sects are purists who believe that any mind altering substance is impure and must not be used or ingested.

There is a second school of thought regarding the root of the Rastafarian movement; said to be an Abrahamic belief founded on three sources; the Old Testament, African cultures and Hindu culture. One thing both accounts agree on is that it is named after the Ethiopian Emperor Ras Tafari (Haile Selassie I) who Rastas believe is God based on the second coming recorded in the Bible. Ashe argues that the followers of the movement tried to model their attitudes and appearance including hairstyle, after the Hindu Holymen who were settled among them as a result of the indentured labour movement of the British Government, and thus began to wear their hair in matted styles, although there may not be an agreement to this among researchers.

Following the popularity of Marley, dreadlocks have become increasingly popular in mainstream particularly among hippies, vegans, New Age thinkers and within the music, art and literary scenes. In researching this piece, it is evident that almost every culture has worn dreadlocks at some point or the other. In some African cultures, wearers of dreadlocks are known as Dada and traditionally wear their hair in locks as a mark of belonging to the goddess or god of the land. Children who are marked as Dada can only have their hair cut when they reach a certain age, with the approval of the chief priest alongside some rites and rituals.

There are accounts that Celts wore their hair like snakes. One is reminded of Medusa in Greek mythology “with snakes for hair”. The Germanic tribes and Vikings were known to wear their hair in twisted locks. Dreadlocks have also been worn by the Monks of Ethiopian Orthodox Tewahedo church, the Maori tribe of New Zealand, the Dervishes of Islam, and many early Nazarites, most notably Samson in the Bible where seven locks of hair were said to have given him extraordinary strength until Delilah chopped them off. In many cultures, the religious priests wore dreadlocks because energy and one’s Chi is present in their hair and wearing it in large knots or not cutting it essentially keeps the energy in and keeps one in touch with his or her Chi.

Many people nowadays wear dreadlocks for different reasons; because they like the style, because it is unique, because its natural form gives hair the capacity to grow and thrive. Some are based on spiritual purposes around the Rasta movement, one’s Chi or even religion. I grew my dreadlocks because they are natural and I was tired of putting chemicals in my hair. But more than anything else, because I like the style and the look. Why do you have dreadlocks? Why do you think people have dreadlocks? Is there another group in history that wore their hair in twisted locks besides the cultures and religions articulated?