What’s hair got to do with it?

You can’t talk about the growth and development of the black population in Brazil, about social and economic solutions, about inclusive strategies and empowerment initiatives, without recognizing the important role hair plays in all of it. More specifically, cabelo crespo. Kinky/curly hair. Natural hair.

In a city like Salvador, home to the highest percentage of Afro-descendants of any city in Brazil, hair is key.

Take Maria Júlia Coutinho, for instance. Maju, as she is affectionately called, broke through major barriers to become the first black anchorperson on TV Globo, Brazil’s largest media conglomerate. Even more groundbreaking is that she chooses to wear her cabelo crespo proudly for all the world to see. But not without repercussions. She has been the target of a multitude of vicious racial attacks and slurs via Facebook and other social media channels, turning the national spotlight on Brazil’s ongoing struggle with race and beauty standards.

And in Salvador these days, cabelo crespo is a movement. A revolution of sorts. A charge to shed oppressive and expensive standards of beauty, and instead embrace a different, God-given esthetic: own the hair you were born with, display it with fierce pride, let its natural texture and shape inspire you to hold your head up high. For Mukunã Dreadlocks, this revolution is the first step towards strengthening and building up a community long held to the margins of society and culture.

What’s hair got to do with it? More than you think.

 

Cláudio and Ana Vitória, founders of Mukunã Dreadlocks, understand this sentiment well. They recognize their role as changemakers, cheerleaders, representatives on the frontlines of an ongoing battle of beauty standards. It is not an easy decision for an Afro-Brazilian woman to allow her hair to return to its natural state. By making that choice, she risks turning away opportunities for career advancement, romantic love, recognition. She risks rejection, exclusion, even contempt from Brazilian society at large.

“Black women, in particular,” Ana Vitória points out, “suffer daily oppression with regard to our look. We are duty-bound to strive for a “white” look, to straighten our hair, to use curling irons and hot combs. So the minute we choose to accept and embrace—and return to our natural hair, this in itself becomes a tool for self-empowerment and affirmation.” For Cláudio and Ana Vitória, Mukunã (which means “hair” in the African Yoruba language) exists to cushion this “reentry,” to soften the edges of this often rocky transition with support, encouragement, and hair length—via dreadlocks.

Once a clean-cut, smooth-jawed young man, Cláudio himself followed the rules of the status quo for years. His brother Vitor remembers him embodying the “look of a restaurant manager.” Working in various retail, construction, and even military positions, he soon realized, however, that despite a very standard, acceptable look, society still viewed him as a black man, with all the assumptions and prejudices and expectations that come with the title.

“I might cut my hair short, the way I’ve always been taught, because society tells me my hair is ugly, it’s uncool, so it looks better when it’s cut short. I might try to mold my appearance into what others expect of me. But even so, I would still be treated as a black man.”

All the more so after he began to sport a beard and dreadlocks.

The same person existed beneath the new growth of hair, the same hardworking, thoughtful, diligent man striving to help support his young family while fighting for a life of dignity and purpose. The same person, now with an extra layer of confidence.

But the slamming doors that immediately ensued told a different story.

Suddenly—though not surprisingly—employment opportunities disappeared. Where he had been able to find work with relative ease as a clean-cut individual, a new beard and dreadlocks transformed his reality and rendered him nearly invisible. With bills mounting and a new baby on the way, Cláudio knew he had a choice to make: cut off his dreadlocks and return to life in the status quo, or find another way to make ends meet.

“Ana Vitória and I decided at that moment not to bow our heads in defeat and just give up. Rather than cutting off our dreadlocks, we resolved to ‘dreadlock the world,’ instead. And that is our mission to this day.”

The road to that mission has not been a walk in the park. As many will attest, being an entrepreneur in Salvador is not easy. Being a black entrepreneur in Salvador even more fraught with challenges. For one thing, there are often far more people pushing for the status quo: stay in the lane you’ve been assigned; just get a “regular” job and be done with it; you’ll never be able to make your business idea work; forget “purpose” and “mission” and “self-actualization,” and worst of all, forget entrepreneurship—that stuff’s for white people, not for you. When these messages come from people within your own circles, the effect is even more debilitating.

But Cláudio and Ana Vitória found a way to deflect the powerful force of these negative messages. They used them as incentives, as extra motivation to press on, to carve out a path of their own, to show that success is possible, even for young, black, dreadlocked professionals. Two fellow entrepreneurs also offered valuable support, showing them the way and providing encouragement and guidance at crucial moments.  The importance of this support cannot be emphasized enough, Cláudio admits. Without it, they would never have made it this far.

“We’re determined to show that we’re black, we’re capable, and we’re resilient,” he says. “We’ve resisted the negative messages so far, and we’ll continue to resist them. This is who Mukunã is.”

And for Ana Vitória, one of the key messages passed on to them by their mentors is one of identity: “We have to learn to recognize ourselves as entrepreneurs, to stand up and say, ‘I am a business-man or woman, I am an entrepreneur.’ It’s really important that we embrace this as part of our identity, because the system tries to make us feel inferior to other entrepreneurs.”

The next step for them now, on a practical level, is acquiring their own space. With the birth of their daughter, Adah Makena, now three months old, it was no longer practical or safe to continue to work in the homes of their clients. The increase in demand for their services also necessitated a dedicated space. Finding the financial capital to make this a reality, however, is a singular challenge in itself. Their grit and determination, and their belief in Mukunã’s mission, keep them pressing forward.

In the meantime, they continue to do their part to strengthen the Afro-Brazilian community, to demonstrate through their own example as well as those of their clients, that beauty and success belong to black people too.