Arts + Culture

African Creature On How Radical Self-Confidence Made Her the Hairstylist For Beyoncé, Solange and More

Brooklyn-based, Nigerian hairdresser, Susy Oludele shares her journey to success, and tells us why self-confidence is key to everything she does.

Five years ago the hairdresser also known as African Creature, Susy Oludele, was in her living room watching the video for Beyoncé’s song, “Party,” which features her sister, Solange, with a head of standout braids.

“Whoa, she got braids and she’s in Brooklyn. Why didn’t I do those braids?” Oludele thought to herself. “I’m going to do her braids one day, and I'm going to do them better.” And then like most thoughts, she let it slip away. Two months later, around Thanksgiving, Oludele got an email, that read “Hey, Solange wants you to do her hair.”

Oludule ignored it out of disbelief.

“I wake up in the morning,” she remembers, “and there’s another email that says ‘Hey, so, do you want to do it or not."’ I was like wow, this person is really serious. So, I started doing her hair. Then, I did Zoe Kravitz’s hair, then Lala Anthony’s, and then Beyoncé’s.”

The fact that Oludele’s clientele list consists of top celebrities becomes unsurprising after seeing her work. From neon-laced box-braids, to meticulously seamed faux locs, Oludele’s skills are their own best promoter. Take a scroll through her Instagram feed and irrepressible hair envy will likely ensue.

But, despite being emphatically confident in her abilities from an early age, her path still bore its fair share of bends. Knowing her desired destination, didn’t necessarily translate to knowing exactly how to get there.

It's Monday morning when we meet, but Oludele doesn't appear to have even a slight case of the “start of the week blues.” She’s clad in “all black everything” but her energy colors our hour-long meeting inside her Brooklyn-based hair salon, Hair By Susy. I get the sense that there aren’t many moments in the day when Susy isn’t contagiously high-spirited. She’s been this way for most of her life, she tells me.

“When I was nine years old, I thought to myself, ‘I'm gonna be famous, but, I don’t want to be famous for just anything, she quips. “I want to give the world something that the world doesn't have already. I want people to see me and know that, ‘Oh, that's that girl that made a difference in our generation.’ So, I always wanted to be famous with meaning.”

The 27-year-old hair guru was born in the Bronx to Nigerian parents and lived in four different boroughs growing up. Her cross-cultural upbringing, equipped her with a go-getter mentality. “I'm telling you, being African, honestly, I'm glad. I'm actually glad I had that strength and that strictness in my family because that pushed me to want to do more,” she says.

While a strict upbringing can keep some children sheltered and obedient, for Oludele it had the opposite effect. “It really made me lash out,” she says. “I was a lash out kid. My parents were just like, ‘what are we going to do with you?’”

At age 17 Oludele’s parents decided to move to Wisconsin. She told them she was staying put. “I was like, “I got a plan, I don't know how it's gonna work, but I know it's going to be heavy,” she remembers. Her solo journey began at McDonald's.

“It was my first job” she says. “I really wanted to work a nine to five position. I felt like, for our generation, having a career or being able to make money, meant having a nine to five, so that's what I aimed for. I knew I wanted something bigger, but I still strived for that nine to five. I ended up working there for not even week, a couple of days. I didn't even get my check.”

Next, was a more fulfilling but equally difficult gig as a home health aid. “I was the youngest employee” Oludele says about the job which lasted two years. “Most people hated that job, because they paid us like eight dollars an hour, but I was so proud of the job because I loved helping people. I loved being around people. I learned a lot from the older people.”

When she was eventually laid off, Oludele took that as a sign to go with what she knew. “I cried for like five minutes,” she remembers. “I was like, ‘Oh my god, what am I gonna do?’ Then I was like, ‘bing, bing, bing, bing: hair.’ I know how to do that naturally.”

Her journey towards notability in the hair industry took detours at times, and she speaks openly about the overwhelming sacrifice it required, but one thing that’s remained unswerving throughout is her intense drive. She’s motivated by both a desire to relate to others, and to maintain an acute sense of self.

“I feel like the most important thing that you have to have is confidence, like being confident in your work. I know that I'm the best. I know because I love people. Some people blow you off and make you wonder why you’re doing what you do. But, I love people. I love what I do. Even if you're not a good person, I'm still gonna make sure your hair looks good. You know what I mean? This is what I love to do, at the end of the day. I'm not just doing it to be famous. This is love thing.”

“If you're coming in to do box braids, it's not just gonna be any box braids. It's gonna be box braids that fit you. It's gonna be box braids for you. It's gonna be neat. It's gonna be clean. It's gonna be the best box braids you've ever had 'cause my energy, what I'm putting into your hair, I'm speaking life into what you're doing. I want you to leave thinking, "whoa, this is the best experience I've ever had. You really care about my hair. You have a great personality." I build a bond with anybody that comes in here.”

As our conversation comes to an end, I ask her if she’d like to share any advice for others on the entrepreneurial come-up. But, it’s not simply her advice that she thinks others should take. She implies, that much like her bright eyed, 9-year-old self, all the motivational insight you really need, is already bubbling within.

“Just know yourself, your intuition, and speak what you want into existence. Speak life on yourself, speak life around yourself, speak life into others, create inspiration for yourself. This is all work you have to do for yourself.”

Image courtesy of African Creature.

Photo: courtesy of Natsai Audrey Chieza

100 Women: Natsai Audrey Chieza is Changing the World One Petri Dish at a Time

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textile manufacturing.

The bold jewel tones of OkayAfrica 100 Women honoree Natsai Audrey Chieza's silk scarves aren't the product of hazardous chemicals or silkscreen printing. Instead, they are the product of bacteria. Specifically coelicolor, a strain of bacteria found in soil that happens to excellently synthesize organic chemical compounds. Working in the trade for six years, the Zimbabwean materials designer quickly came to understand why the textile industry is one of the most polluting industries in the world. Knowing that the most harm occurs during the process of dyeing fabrics, she decided to take action.

Chieza has worked with leading brands such as Microsoft, Nissan, and Unilever to usher in a new approach to science and design. Through her creative R&D; studio Faber Futures, the design innovator uses the process of creating with bacteria to assist in moving mankind away from our fossil fuel dependency. As the biopigment expert put it [last year during her TED talk "Fashion has a pollution problem—can biology fix it?"], in the future we must make sure that we are not "mirroring the destructive legacies of the oil age."

Her interdisciplinary approach to biology and fashion has sparked spirited conversation about the future of sustainability and pollution in textiles. Here, Chieza expounds on her start, the pros and cons of creating something new and the urgency of change.

The following has been edited for length and clarity

Akinyi Ochieng for OkayAfrica: STEM and the arts are often conceptualized as separate worlds. However, in your career, you've managed to find the overlap. How did you, a materials designer, end up dabbling in biotechnology?

Natsai Audrey Chieza: I've always really wanted to work within the creative field. I used to work in architecture where I really enjoyed my education in a systems approach to designs and designing for multiple contexts. But I wanted to explore a different side of the design world, so I began exploring the skill and context of material flows, and how technology and futures fits within this framework of how we design.

For my own work and my practice, not having a scientific background made me try things based on what I understood about materials and what I understood about the interactions in which those materials existed in society. I'm interested in a political lens, an economic lens, and how textiles perform in reality. That's not necessarily the approach that a scientist would have taken. Now that's not to say that science isn't important—it's vital. But innovation can occur in that intersection.

Did you go into this thinking, "Oh, I'll figure it out. There must be a path to make this work"?

To be honest, when I started off, the field was not defined. I think I found something really interesting, which was about how biology was becoming a realm of design, and I just explored that as best as I knew how as a designer and non-scientist. It just so happened that around me there was a context that was imagined but enabled me six years later to say, "That's the industry where this work belongs" and stakeholders who give me a space to further my work in a creative and experimental. The path was never anything clear at all. I learned as I grew.

There's a phrase that is often repeated today: "You can't be what you can't see." But you have really created a niche for yourself. What are the benefits of entering an emerging space?

I think what's amazing is not having anyone or anything telling you that what you think is impossible. If you're carving a new territory then you must trust in your instinct and vision to effectively push where the work can be and where it exists. You're not asking permission to do anything. Of course the flip side of that is you have to bring people with you, and so part of you being able to do the work is convincing people that your vision has legitimacy and it's worth exploring, worth taking a risk to look outside of that box.

It's often quite challenging to figure out how to find the strength to push something that hasn't been done before. There's no precedent or rulebook to my work, but sometimes it's really nice to have a rulebook. [Laughs] However, I think it's made me a person who doesn't see challenges as obstacles that are in the way, but more as problems that can be solved. And I think that's the good thing.

Much of your work is about biopigments. What color excites you?

It's not really the colors that excite me. It's color as a cultural context that really fascinates me. I'm really interested in if a microbe is almost like this living factory that produces this pigment, and the technology can be shared and deployed with people as to how you work with it across the world, then what are the cultural interventions that can happen in South Africa versus in Argentina versus in the United Kingdom, based on this common microbe. I think that's always been what interests me the most, the context in which our materials exist. I think a really good example is indigo, and how from Japan to West Africa, indigo is just this really, really rich material, and the process and the craftsmanship that goes into it. I'm interested to see how the future ecology of making arises in response to biotechnologies across the world.

Where do you see yourself and your work evolving in the near or long term?

I'm sort of going through that growth moment where you've been working toward something and then you've arrived at that and you're like, "Right, what's next?" I think I'm fundamentally somebody that wants to use design as a discursive tool to understand how our technologies proliferate. My focus is really on the imagined life sciences and how they're going to become very much a part of all of our lived experiences, and particularly in the context of really urgent changes that are happening from a local level to a global level. From global warming and climate change to resource scarcity across regions, our response to what I think being able to design with living systems, can afford us in the future. So my work really is about understanding how to engage stakeholders across different sectors to grow a consensus around how we're going to leverage these sorts of technologies so that they can be technologies for good. That's really where this is going.

This article appears as part of OkayAfrica's 100 Women 2018—a project highlighting the impactful work done by African women across the globe. Throughout March, we will be publishing a series of profiles, videos, interviews and feature stories on these inspirational women.

Click here to see the entire list of 2018 honorees.

Maia & The Big Sky LP cover.

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Photo: Mídia NINJA

The Assassination of Marielle Franco and the Dawn of Brazil's New Civil Rights Movement

Marielle Franco was one of a new generation of black activists trying to overturn Brazil's entrenched and violent racism

The violence in Rio de Janeiro right now is akin to a war zone, with per capita death tolls resembling those from Afghanistan and Syria. Two weeks ago I traveled there for business and stayed in the relatively safe and trendy neighborhood of Santa Teresa. Each night of my stay, was abruptly awaken by long streams of gunshots and also fireworks from the nearby favela of Falett. The fireworks—as I learned from my local friends—were not a result of any celebration, rather a signal that either drugs, guns, or the police have arrived. This is the norm for many of the 763 favelas in Rio which houses nearly 25 percent of the city's population.

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