News & Politics

A Radical Twist

In the movement to preserve African cultural heritage and beauty standards, dreadlocks can be a political battleground.
About six years ago, beauty chemist Lloyd Bell took a good long look at Whoopi Goldberg's dreads and said to his wife Kathy: "That's gonna be big." What? asked Kathy, half-listening, half not.

"Dreads," said Lloyd, "braids, twists, hair extensions, natural styles -- kinks and all."

Kathy, a human resources specialist in the telecommunications industry, had heard her husband ponder and speculate before, but this time, she says, it was different. She knew her husband was brilliant, more than just "a pair of hands," and she'd never seen him so dreamy, so creative.

"I had an idea," Lloyd Bell says decisively, sipping hot coffee from a bright blue cup. "A good one."

At the time, Bell was working for Image Labs in Oxnard, a few miles from his home on the Channel Islands coast of Southern California. Bell, possibly the only black chemist working in the $4 billion African-American hair-care industry, was responsible for Let's Jam, a group of gels, silicone sprays and relaxers for black hair that was very popular and made Image, a white-owned company, lots of black dollars. "So I went to this white guy, Michael Blair, known in the industry as the father of Let's Jam and president of Image, and I said let's do a braid spray." Blair, says Bell, showed absolutely no interest.

It wasn't surprising, says Kathy Bell, somberly. "All of Lloyd's career, companies were telling him not to put expensive chemicals into products because," she stresses, " Œthey won't know the difference. As long as it smells good Lloyd,‚ they'd say, Œyou people like sweet fragrances.‚ " And, says Lloyd, why would a company be interested in a rebel style of African-American hair that most white people hoped was trendy, destined to go the same way as the Afro.

"I was listening to Bob Marley and I was watching hip-hop explode," says Lloyd, adjusting his tie. "It was spreading to fashion, to sports, even to rock. There were legal cases about braiding licenses. And all the products available on the market," he says, "were about straightening and relaxing hair, how to change it, not how to keep it natural. I wanted to create a shampoo and conditioner, using all the best, highest-grade products, for tribal, Afrocentric hair." To clean it, he says, keep it healthy. And nobody, not the hair-care industry, not the banks, not even his close circle of friends, would hear of it. Nobody, that is, except Kathy.

About the same time as Lloyd Bell began to conceive of Nubian Secrets, Marietta Carter-Narcisse, a Barbados national, was the head makeup artist on Malcolm X , filming in Egypt. "I looked at my straightened hair and suddenly," she says, "I saw it as a contradiction. In August 1991, I decided to take all the chemicals out of my hair, so I shaved my head and started my locks." Fashion locks, she carefully explains, cultural, practical, not religious Rasta dreads that begin with sand and aloe and dirty, matted hair. "My mother cursed me, told me it wasn't accepted in respectable West Indian families. I told her I didn't want to look like a white person. Straight is right because white is right," she says, defiantly, tossing her honey-colored locks behind her shoulder. To wash her dreads, she admits, took hours, and a night to dry. And when it was "Pine-Sol clean," she tells me, "my scalp would itch."

Madrid Johnson is considered a damaged hair expert, a man who takes the few little broken strands that some people of color "hold onto" and renders it healthier, shinier, fuller and softer. From his salon in Oakland, California, Madrid's Exclusive Hair Design, he and his staff serve some 200 patrons in a week. He trains, teaches and travels the world for Luster Products, an all-around system for black hair care that includes relaxers, conditioners, shampoos, lotions, gels, sprays, spritzers and glossifiers. He stayed in touch with Lloyd Bell because, despite companies that catered to black hair care, there wasn't one line of product to keep hair healthy and natural. "The relaxer market," Johnson says, "has been astronomical" and has dominated the entire black hair-care industry. Relaxers are, he says, one of the most damaging things a person can do to his or her hair. Dreads, knots, twists, loops are chemical-free, innovative and alternative, not retro styles, he points out, and not one company was exploiting the trend that was putting people of color in touch with their heritage. "I thought that Lloyd Bell might formulate a product that could be revolutionary."

Without interest from his company, Lloyd Bell began working at night in a small lab he'd set up in his kitchen, sending products that he was developing to his brother Bruce Bell, a beautician in Bakersfield who was still pressing, straightening and relaxing hair, but who was noticing a change. Ultra-conservative young black men started asking for braids and dreads. Professional people, over 30, who'd once considered braided hair ghettoish, were going natural, moving away from the Euro-look that has dominated beauty in this country for most of this century, and the last. "I had to subcontract, hire girls from the community to twist and braid and add extensions. But clients couldn't wash their hair," says the younger Bell. "They'd come to me looking raggedy, smelling all the way up the block. If God wanted us to look this way, then why didn't he make it easier to wash our hair? There were no products that cleaned right, or smelled right, nothing that would lather up without too much agitation."

During his 25-year career as a chemist for Redken, Pro-Line, Max Factor and World of Curls, among others, Lloyd Bell received notices of specialty products developed by various chemical vendors that had properties he admired. For the most part, though, the products were expensive, botanicals that had never seemed indulgent for whites were considered unaffordable within the more budget-minded black hair-care market. But he stockpiled those notices, tucked them safely away in a folder that would one day open up a whole new way of life to a whole lot of people. African Shea Butter, also known as Karite Butter, from the Karite Tree found in Central Africa, is an amazing natural conditioner which helps ease skin irritations, protects from sun damage, counteracts any increased dehydration, enhances shine and far exceeds cocoa butter in superfatting qualities without the apparent greasiness. Panthenol nourishes hair and scalp, moisturizes and strengthens hair. "I wanted to use the best ingredients," he tells me, pushing up his gold-rim glasses, " the ones that get results, that promote scalp wellness."

From A Special Touch Salon, Bruce Bell kept his records up-to-date, and evaluated the data so that when the right moment came, he and Lloyd would push full steam ahead. Bruce took notes on scalp conditions, on smell, on sheen, and Lloyd fiddled with the formulas, devising a way to get the shampoo to penetrate tight braids, until, says Bruce, "the product was really working." Dreaded hair became "soft, touchable, sensual," says Bruce, "the way it's supposed to feel."

The time came in early '96. Lloyd Bell was walking down the hall from his lab, feeling very good because a product he had just finished was about to be marketed, and he overheard the finance people talking about "boosting our N line. It was so hurtful," says Lloyd, "that I had to go home." His wife told him not to go back. "I'm from the old school," says Lloyd, "Louisiana, the last state to integrate. My father was a civil rights lawyer; my mom a teacher. The African-American brands made these companies the bulk of their money, but they weren't valued. I wasn't valued."

Lloyd went back, but only to settle things up. Kathy took an early retirement from Packard Bell in July 1998, to finance Lloyd's operation, which was about to take off. Their friends were shocked, seeing little to respect in this home-based business. After all, says Kathy, "very few people get excited about shampoo that had yet to make it into a bottle." And the banks, they weren't biting either. It seemed that black chemists with small-business ventures were not viable investments. Still, Bruce Bell and Madrid Johnson were in the rooting section and Kathy could get her hands on some $300,000 of her retirement income. But how to get the rich liquid concoction deep into the dread, that was still the question?

It was the valve that was so radical, says Madrid Johnson. It took the product from liquid to foam, so it could be applied to knots or dreads or twisted hair, penetrating without having to lather vigorously so as not to disturb the style. It is also great for added extensions, eliminating the hair loss that inevitably occurs with agitation. FoamBurst Shampoo, they named it, to be used with a conditioner and lock lotion that, yes, smells lovely, but also works inside the hair, beneath the surface of the cuticle, without glycerin gels or oils that leave a buildup, especially on dreads. And was cost a factor? I ask as I pour more coffee. Lloyd Bell laughs: "I took out all the thickeners, and the salt that deceives the consumer. I saved where I could, on marketing," he says, "not on product." The first bottles were shipped in February 1999. The Bells, friends were impressed, but it was not until the company recently moved into a 2,000-square-foot building that they finally saw what Lloyd had been doing at home for all those years .

Marietta Carter-Narcisse has used Nubian Secrets for over three months. Her dreads have not felt cleaner or softer, or looked shinier, she says, since her hair locked up nearly 10 years ago, long before Trisha Yearwood and Reba McEntire started wearing braids. "It doesn't strip too much, or coat too much." The products can be used on synthetic or human hair and are available on-line, or by mail order, as well as in a number of beauty supply outlets nationwide. The system sells for $24.95 and comes in a sweet little plastic drawstring pouch, for traveling to such places as the gym, where you might have never before thought of washing your hair. In fact, in the gym where I exercise, there's this beautiful young black woman who doesn't want to sweat because she doesn't want to have to wash her hair. Says Carter-Narcisse, laughing, from the gut, her dreads covered with FoamBurst: "Black women will do anything for their hair." Yes, says Kathy Bell, running fingers through her own wavy tresses, "I think that's true."

Nubian Secrets, 3844 Channel Islands Blvd., 138, Channel Islands, CA 93035 (805) 289-9988, fax (805) 289-3539, www.braids-dreds.com

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