Oftentimes when I first meet people and they find out that I was born in New York they say things like “Wow! You’re a real New Yorker!" And when they find out that not one, but both of my parents are artists they usually ask “What was it like growing up downtown in the 80's?” or “What was it like having Henry Threadgill as your father?...” Well, I can tell you that when I was young my father was often on the road creating a name for his trio AIR. My mom was working with other downtown dancers/choreographers and handling the many responsibilities of mother, chef and homemaker. In order to get some of this done she would sit a tape recorder on the floor for me (age 4) to make up songs with. One of my big hits was entitled “Drums Are Here To Save You Now!” The exclamation point really deserves to be there because that's how I would sing it. “Drums are here to save you now Oh Oh Ooooooooh!”
My mother was and still is all about dreams. Anyone who has met her knows this to be true. She was the original fan to my creative flame and improvisation was my second language. But it wasn’t just my second language it was the language my parents and their friends spoke fluently. Clearly this is the case since even my name was made up. But not only did my dad make up my name, my mother was right there with him choosing it’s meaning“of the air." So you see from a young age my parents taught me that creating ourselves was possible and even necessary.
For instance I learned that you can rename yourself as an adult. During my childhood my mother changed her name from Christine to “Rrata”inspired by Ra, the Egyptian God of the sun. My father invented an instrument made from hubcaps called the “Hubcaphone” in which he colored his body paint and would play a standing structure of various mounted hubcaps. So that the playing of the instrument along with the body art and movement all became part of a larger performance experience. I think all artists but especially Black artists, especially women and disenfranchised peoples have realized that recreating ourselves is of the utmost importance to our reclamation, self love and renewal.
In researching traditions around natural hair/hairstyles in general as well as adornment throughout the African Diaspora I have noticed how this idea of self creation through decoration becomes spiritual/political. From the masks of Benin to Sun Ra to Fela, from Billie Holiday to Grace Jones and Erykah Badu costume goes deeper than make up, it's about making a space for personal and collective transformation. For young women and girls of African descent there is an overwhelming "whisper" to look like as close to a White, thin, blond, straight hair version of oneself as possible. It is afterall what has been historically most rewarded both onscreen and offscreen...even if it isn’t a European American woman modeling the look. Head Full of Hair is my way of exploring and carving a larger space to celebrate inner and outer African beauty and the wisdom therein. Micheala Davis refers to this celebration of Afrocentered images as "image activism." It should go without saying that all features and forms are beautiful but how often do we see African features celebrated instead of exploited? Alicia Keys "no make up" movement feels like a natural outcry/response to this inner confusion.
Who can we make ourselves into if we use natural ingredients such as our hair, color, make up (if we want to), objects from nature, permanent or temporary tattoos and most importantly our imagination? How do we get to own ourselves in a different way when we name our ancestors and their stories? My hope is that more young women will feel more beautiful more of the time. Why? Because I think that will make more women of African descent want to be seen and heard for who they really are. I hope more young women will value being vulnerable as much as being strong. I hope that they will value their own achievements as well as their personal characteristics as well as their looks. In essence I want young women to remember that part of themselves that feels glorious. That same place inside of me that belted “Drums are here to save you now!” with complete gusto and joy.