How Celebrity Hairstylist Jawara Is Elevating Hair As Art
Celebrity hairstylist Jawara is elevating hair as art while simultaneously breaking stigmas in the fashion world.
Over the past decade, there has been a rise of Black hairstylists who have shaken the fashion industry by authentically amplifying their culture. Jawara (@jawaraw) is among the leaders of the pack. Born in Brooklyn and raised in Kingston, Jamaica, he is more of an artist than a standard hairstylist. With a clientele that includes FKA Twigs, Solange Knowles, Alicia Keys, and Beyoncé (he most recently worked on Tiffany & Co.’s “About Love” campaign), he fuses their unique worldview with his artistic mindset to highlight Black women’s strength.
As his legacy grows, Jawara has plans to release a book accompanied by an exhibit in 2022 and a hair product line, assuring the culture remains at the forefront.
We’re both first-generation Jamaican Americans from NYC. In Jamaica, hair and clothing are all tied to who we are as people.
I was born into a family with a lot of reggae entertainers. My mother is Sister Carol. My aunts are Sister Nancy, who is also a legend, and Judy Mowatt, who was part of the I-Threes that sang with Bob Marley. So I went to a lot of concerts, stage shows, and recording studios. I saw my parents, aunts, and uncles travel a lot. Music inspired my life first, with seeing people get dressed to go on stage and for their daily image as an artist. So that made me fall in love with clothing, fashion, and hairstyles. Not to mention growing up in Jamaica during the height of the dancehall era in the early ’90s. That fashion movement definitely shaped the way I see beauty and the world.
I had an aunt that was a hairstylist. She had a salon in Jamaica and in Brooklyn. I would spend a lot of time with her when my parents would travel for shows. I think I fell in love with hair in her salon when I was about 6, 7 years old. Her clientele were the ladies that would be going to the dancehall every night.
They were very expressive with their clothing and hair, which were so loud and colorful. It was so forward-thinking at the time to be so avant-garde in a way that I didn’t really see anywhere else [with Black women] on TV. So that to me was the first real introduction to style and fashion.
Photograph from Jawara and Nadine Ijewere’s Tallawah exhibition at London’s Cob Gallery in 2020. PHOTO BY NADINE IJEWERE/COURTESY OF JAWARA
Black women are always told to be silent and water down our personality. You help amplify that fire within your clients. We can be powerful, outspoken, and aggressive, and there’s nothing wrong with that.
I have a real issue with Black women being silenced just because of me having so much respect for and being raised by such powerful women. They’ve definitely given me confidence as a Black man to be able to stand in my strength. That’s something that I’m hoping to eradicate or at least try to definitely give as much as I can to reinstill how I see the Black woman. I would like to say that I do art because Black hair is art. So I always give a nod to the creativity of a Black woman and where it started from. And that has a lot to do with how I grew up living in Jamaica.
“BLACK HAIR CULTURE IS LIGHT YEARS AHEAD IN A LOT OF WAYS. THAT DEFINITELY NEEDS TO BE SHOWN A LOT MORE.”–JAWARA
Model Julian Trowe poses for Fantastic Man’s autumn/winter 2020/2021 issue. JULIAN TROWE PHOTO BY PHILIP DUCASSE/COURTESY OF JAWARA
I know you went to FIT and were mentored by Sam McKnight, but take me through your journey.
I had an amazing time at FIT, and when I graduated I went into fashion buying and merchandising. I started working in the fashion world a little bit and realized, ‘This is not for me. I’m going to go back to my first calling.’ So I fused fashion and hair together and started working in hairstyling. I assisted other stylists like Sam McKnight, Guido Palau, and Luigi Murenu while I was working in a salon in Harlem called Salon 804. I was also going to beauty school at night and finishing up my other degree.
When I worked for these people, they thought that my skills were a bit more advanced. When you come from the Black hair world, we do so much to hair and it’s so sophisticated. The techniques are really a science that you have to kind of live it to really understand. When you go into these other cultures, there’s like seven people on one head to the ponytail. [Laughs] It was just surreal to me: ‘This is what you guys are doing backstage?’ But anyway, I started working fast because I come from a place where we did 20-something people’s heads a day on our own with no assistant.
musician Ian Isiah poses for i-D magazine in July 2021. IAN ISIAH PHOTO BY TYLER KOHLHOFF/COURTESY OF JAWARA
Then I went on this team with people having millions of assistants and taking a long time to do everything. That’s when I realized that Black hair culture is light years ahead in a lot of ways. That definitely needs to be shown a lot more. That’s why I decided to dedicate my art to show people how much ingenuity is in Black culture. If you take everything away from us, we’ll still come out fly and give you some intricate sh-t that you’ll never see in your life. I love the fact that I was practicing on Black hair first because it helped shape the way I view the world.
Model Binta Diop poses for W magazine in Oct. 2021. TOBIAS FELTON PHOTO BY PHILIP DUCASSE/COURTESY OF JAWARA
What was your ‘light bulb’ career moment?
I struggle with that ‘I made it’ phrase because there’s so much more that I want to do. I don’t think I’ve made it yet, but a lot of people tell me that I have. But if I had to choose one experience, it was being able to do [the Tallawah] exhibit [with London-born fashion photographer Nadine Ijewere] in London’s Cob Gallery that was based on how artistically beautiful hair in Jamaica is. Standing in that gallery on opening night and seeing people look at the work, I said to myself, ‘OK, this is something that you’ve set out to do.’
Model Tobias Felton poses for Fantastic Man’s autumn/winter 2020/2021 issue. TK PHOTO BY RAFAEL PAVAROTTI/COURTESY OF JAWARA
In this white-dominant society, we’re always targeted for our hair—whether it be people getting kicked out of school for having locs or people wanting to touch our braids or not understanding why we change wigs every day. That’s just our self-expression, but it’s often deemed ‘weird’ or ‘ghetto.’ You’ve helped flip that around.
That’s something that I want to eradicate. I also did an online virtual exhibit during the pandemic, which felt like the smartest and the best way to show my work. The name of it was COARSE: The Edges of Black Ingenuity, which is basically highlighting the techniques of Black hair and how certain things that are used to pigeonhole us are the same things that are beautiful art. These sculptures and rendering these images with hair are things we’ve been doing for years.
A model poses for JW Anderson x Persol’s spring/ summer 2022 sunglasses collaboration campaign. PHOTO BY TYLER MITCHELL/COURTESY OF JAWARA
I have to step out of myself sometimes and say, ‘Wait a minute, we know how to do so much for hair and nobody has been able to really highlight that.’ So I want to change that narrative. We have to stop for a second and look at how we have really created a whole other science about hair in a world that tried to make us feel crazy about ourselves. I just want to have us look at ourselves with pride and understand that we are insanely amazing.