West African Hair Braiders in Harlem bring back the craze of the Twist and Box Braids

(AP Photo/George Widman)

by Ntshepeng Motema, Malian Beat Reporter

As the Autumn sun poured through the windows of a hair salon in Central Harlem, small clusters of hair braiders stood over customers and pulled their hair in all  directions. All this energy and pain was in the service of creating one of the latest African hair braiding styles, such as the Twist and the Box Braid.  This was the scene at African Hair Braiding Salon on 126th Street and Morningside Avenue on a recent Saturday. The two styles were once popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s but were considered out of touch just a few years ago. The craze of Box Braids and The Twist has returned, more popular than before and has now being perfected at the Malian-owned salon.

The establishment was small, but every inch was used. Mirrors lined both walls, three pillars provided some semblance of structure and knots of hair carpeted the floor. On that recent day, around 15 customers were being braided, tended by at least two hair stylists, keeping up a steady flow of chatter in French, the main language of Mali, and calling out numbers to each other. “These numbers represent the color of the hair piece that people choose, one is black, four is brown and 30 is ginger,” Fidelle Koyta, one of the braiders explained. Koyta’s own braids combine burgundy, black and gold color. Her client, a Harlem resident named Jacqueline, wanted the same style, a process that could take most of the working day. But Koyta does not work alone, with two more women they gathered over Jacqueline’s head and furiously twisted.  “If I work on my own it takes maybe six hours,” said Koyta. “We help each other, so that we cut the time down, if you help others, they will also help you when you have a lot of clients.”

Jacqueline has been getting her hair braided here since last year. She said she preferred being braided by West Africans. “I went to a Jamaican lady one time but it didn’t come out the same so I prefer the African braiders,” Jacqueline said. The women from West Africa are practicing a craft thought to date back more than 5,500 years in ancient Egypt. “Years later each region of Africa had its own traditional styles,” said Carolyn Brown, a Nigerian Historian at Rutgers The State University of New Jersey. “In the 1990s, women began wearing box braids, and famous singers and actresses like Janet Jackson made them popular,” she said.  “Styles have come and gone but braids keep coming back and seem to be the popular alternative to other hairstyles that require higher maintenance,” Brown added.

The styles have now been developed further to make them attractive in modern day. “We have added the use of different colors, we combine two or three colors at a time now,” said Koyta, 26. The two styles use synthetic hair rather than natural hair. Box Braids are braided with four pieces of hair instead of three. The Twist uses two pieces and both strands of hair are twisted in the same direction and cross over in the opposite direction. The styles can last up to three months when they are properly maintained and cost about $140 for short ones and $160 for long ones. “We make under $5,000 in profit every month,” Ma Doussou, also from Mali and one of the three managers said.

But staying ahead in the trade has become difficult. The Hair braiding market is intensely competitive in Harlem. Names such as Maliba African Hair Braiding, Mali African Hair Braiding and African Family Hair Braiding could be all over the neighborhood. In all these places the Twist and the Box Braid were the most requested braiding patterns. Every one of the salons had posters with pictures of different styles outside their stores. They all claim to offer the best braids in town thus making the fight for clients that much harder.

But back at 126th the women have a simple business model, but it works. They take turns  sitting outside in the street, spotting and then charming potential customers. Inside Koyta who has been working at the beauty place for about two years had just finished braiding her client’s hair. It took her two and a half hours and on that busy day she could barely stretch her fingers, already another customer had been pulled off the streets and she had to attend to her.

 

 

 

 

8 Responses to “West African Hair Braiders in Harlem bring back the craze of the Twist and Box Braids”

  1. Kristen says:

    I found this piece very colorful and well written. I could picture you sitting in the salon taking it all in!

  2. Lauren Price says:

    Good article. Think I’ll make a visit…

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