Picture a vibrant city where hundreds of thousands come together in the downtown core for one of the richest, most authentic celebrations of Black culture and the Black experience. A city where you could be sitting alone at a tasty French-Italian meets Creole-Caribbean fusion restaurant, and the random sister next to you strikes up a friendly conversation (she was admiring your coily hairdo), and the two of you hit it off immediately. She even asks if you’d like to taste some of the appetizers she just ordered, passing you her plate. You do. This is New Orleans. This is Essence Fest.
One of the busiest parts of the festival, which is now in its 25th year (and has been immortalized in the iconic 2017 film, Girls Trip), is the beauty carnival. Women eagerly line up at beauty booths for everything from consultations to free swag. The best part of it all might just be the people watching; between the colourful braids and dreads, glorious Afros and defined twist-outs, it’s like the ultimate bazaar of #BlackGirlMagic and natural hair inspo.
I had the opportunity to experience Essence Fest for the very first this year with hair care brand Maui Moisture, which, as a Black woman who rocks a pretty big mass of natural coils, was totally a rejuvenating, comforting space. I felt so seen, so heard.
Below, four Black hairstylists I spoke to at the event reflect on the current state of curl culture, maintaining the health of natural hair and their go-to products.
Works with: Zoë Kravitz, Solange Knowles, Beyoncé, Janelle Monáe, Yara Shahidi, Serena Williams
“For people who are just getting into this world of curls, it can be challenging. But that’s with anything you don’t know. When I see curly, natural hair, I just think fun and beautiful.
I’m big with hydration for all curls. It’s very important that you’re focusing on hair health before you get to the styling part. Sometimes we focus on the style so much that we could be damaging the hair because you’re not taking care of core issues.
Yara [Shahidi] is fun and open. She never says no [to trying new hairstyles]. Janelle [Monáe] is super creative. Her whole brand is about being your most unique self and embracing that. She’s always open to coming up with new ideas and embracing whatever crazy ideas I have, whether for the Met Gala or just regular red carpets. And Zoë [Kravitz] stands out in her own way. Her aesthetic is so chic, and I love getting creative within that chicness, whether we’re doing cornrows for the cover of British Vogue or a sleek bun on the red carpet.
I love a light shine. If your hair is already healthy and hydrated, it will have natural shine. If it doesn’t, then before we get into trying to create a shine, we deal with making sure it has its own. But for just that little pop, I love Maui Moisture’s weightless oil. It’s light and doesn’t weigh you down. It’s like a highlighter for the hair.”
Works with: Keshia Chanté, Kreesha Turner, Rita Ora, Iman
“[Curl culture] has changed drastically. It’s being embraced. It’s being glorified. And the fact that we’re embracing natural texture, especially for women of colour, is not only beautiful, it’s great, because natural texture equals healthy hair. The more we try and manipulate [our hair] and change it, the more we have damaged hair. We still have far to go, but the fact that you can now Google ‘hair chart’ and actually see something online is amazing.
What I would love to see in Canada is more companies embracing and promoting natural texture. There needs to be more education, especially for up-and-coming hairstylists, because if they’re not receiving the right information, than they have nothing to pass onto their clients.
With type 3 curls, if you use a product that’s too heavy, like a gel, it will end up weighing down the hair and you’ll loose curl pattern. Curl creams work amazing. They give you just enough definition and moisture. Plus, depending on what range you are in type 3, you can basically build that product onto the hair to get more definition.
Type 4 hair tends to get very dry very easily, so don’t over shampoo your hair. You want to minimize your washing to like once a week, or if you can push it to every two weeks, that’s even better. If you’re someone who works out, then you can definitely co-wash in between. If you do have to wet your hair, try using a water bottle and misting it rather than going in the shower and dowsing it because using too much water can dry your hair out. I like adding a couple drops of hair oil into a water misting bottle. That softens the water a bit.”
View this post on Instagram
Works with: Winnie Harlow, Tiffany Haddish, Skai Jackson, Naomi Campbell, Aja King
“When it comes to volume: the bigger the better. At one time, big hair was considered old school. Now, it’s everything. It’s a statement. You can wear it, own it and have it be your established look.”
I’ve definitely seen more people care about healthy, natural hair. Even clients of mine who have extensions, wigs and weaves, it’s about educating them. Even if you don’t feel like you’re a natural hair girl, you still are, because we need to make sure we’re using the right products for your braid down, making sure your hair underneath is hydrated and healthy. It’s about incorporating products that show people that texture is in, and it’s here to stay.
Use a product that has anti-humidity properties, especially in the summertime or if you go somewhere humid. Basically, when your hair frizzes up, it’s searching for moisture. But if you have moisture already infused into your hair, you’re going to keep your hair integrity and your curl pattern.”
Maui Moisture’s Curl Quench is like my go-to, point blank period. I use it in my hair if I just want to pull it back. I use it in twist outs. It gives shine without looking greasy, and provides the perfect amount of moisture without leaving residue and all of that.”
View this post on Instagram
Works with: Issa Rae, Lenny Kravitz, Ava Duvernay, Skai Jackson, Nicole Ari Parker
“I call Issa Rae my Black Barbie. She sits there and lets me do whatever I want, so I have a flow of creativity with her constantly. We spend a lot of time together doing movies and it’s never a dull moment with her. She’s been the joy of my life. I also work with Lenny Kravitz now. I have fun styling his locks.
A lot of times with natural hair, we don’t exfoliate properly; we don’t get all the toxins and all the oils that we use out of the scalp and off the hair. I really love the Volcanic Ash line for that a lot.
It’s not just about looking cute; it’s also about the health of the hair. There are women who contact me all the time who don’t want to use relaxers anymore. They don’t want to do anything that hurts, makes them feel mad or makes them feel not worthy of accepting who they are. That is going to continue and I’m really happy about that. Also, I think with all the political things in the world, the natural hair community has given women a safe zone to go and feel accepted.
People still look at dreadlocks as dirty or not acceptable. I just did a panel discussion in South America and [people] told me that they’re not able to get jobs with locks. I just have to keep busting through: I used to work with Ava DuVernay and I felt good about that, because when I did interviews, people would say that I’m setting this whole other trend for locks. That I was making them look more acceptable and beautiful from working on Ava. I never thought about it like that.
We need more people in the media to have these styles to bust out these misconceptions. That’s why I love my work with celebrities. I’m able to use that platform to bring the natural hair community to its highest place and show the world that we look great with afros, braids and locks. There’s nothing wrong.”
For the latest in fashion, beauty and culture, sign up to receive ELLE's daily newsletter.