Mind your language

The tangled story of dreadlocks, from Milton to YouTube

Of course the wearing of dreadlocks has a meaning, even if few can agree on it

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

9 April 2016

9:00 AM

‘Why are you filming this?’

‘For everyone’s safety.’

Those are the last words in a 46-second video that was watched by more than three million people on YouTube last week. The question was asked of the unseen cameraman by a black woman who had been haranguing a white youth at San Francisco State University for wearing dreadlocks (or the best he could manage with his weedy hair).

I’ve written about being safe in universities before, but this incident focused on cultural appropriation, which is a new crime discovered by people who think it in fact misappropriation to adopt the cultural expression of another ethnic group. Search me.

Of course the wearing of dreadlocks has a meaning, even if few can agree on it. The haranguee, one Cory Goldstein, went on about Egyptians, ancient ones presumably. Lord Scarman once insisted that Rastafarians were inspired by Masai warriors. Today, dreadlocks are the must-have accessory. In South Africa people wearing them are mugged in Johannesburg by dreaded dread thieves with knives and scissors, who sell the locks to hairdressers who weave them on to eager customers’ bonces.

But what does the word dreadlocks mean? The Oxford English Dictionary, not immediately helpfully, quotes the two-word Natty Dread, the name of a song by Bob Marley from 1974 . The lyrics go: ‘Dread, Natty Dread now, (Natty Dread)/ Dreadlock Congo Bongo I. (Natty Dread)/ Natty Dreadlock in a Babylon: (Natty Dread)/ A dreadlock Congo Bongo I.’

Obviously dreadlock refers to hair. Natty dread has been interpreted by some as natural dread — hair untouched by the wicked Babylonish triad of razor, scissors and comb. In reality natty is the word knotty. But later in the song, Mr Marley says: ‘I talk to some Dread on fourth street.’ Here, dread means ‘dreadlocked people’. The term has been used contemptuously by outsiders, but for Rastafarians it has been a badge of those who fear the Lord. (The Anglo-Saxons had a word ofdread, ‘to terrify’.) Rastafarians would agree with Milton, who wrote of shorn Samson, mocked by the Philistines ‘Shouting to behold their once great dread, captive, and blind before them.’

Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.

You might disagree with half of it, but you’ll enjoy reading all of it. Try your first 10 weeks for just $10

Show comments
  • StormInaDcup

    This article seems to finish mid stream.

    • Vinnie

      you need to subscribe to read the rest. Sucks I know

      • mr humphreys

        No its because Rupert Murdoch owns half.

    • #toryscum
      • MC

        Or you could pay a few quid are read / download the whole thing. Cheapskate, you must be a tory.

        • #toryscum

          No manners, you must be a labour voter.

  • Ron Todd

    Dreadlocks are not so much a hair style as what happens when somebody is too drugged up or just to bone idle to cut or comb their hair. If any cultural groups wants to put forward an unique claim to these attributes I won’t argue with them.

  • Minstrel Boy

    Ever experienced ‘trench fever’ or suffered from lice infestation? Africans are not immune. Have you ever seen a Sub-Saharan African army actually fight and win a field war? The Germans probably lost more men to trench fever than to explosives between 1939 – 45, and they kept their hair relatively short. Dread locks are just fashion. In war of any protracted sort, it is the equivalent of a SIW. Oddly, Sub-Saharan Africans, apart from panicking at the drop of a bodily motion, are wonderful at SIWs.

  • Sean L

    In Mombasa it’s a hairstyle associated with what we’d call rent boys. In effect, an advertisement aimed at the mzungu tourist with that predilection.

  • Ras Anbassa

    Mr. Boy & Mr. Todd, dreadlocks are not a fashion of idle people! Dreadlocks were worn by Ethiopian Patriots who (assisted by Brits, Free Belgians and others) evicted the Italians from Ethiopia, after a five year war – in 1941. Dreads had been worn by Rastas even before that time, though, and the inspiration for that is Leviticus and religious devotion. Indeed, Rastas would instill a fair share of dread in weakhearts and baldheads, like the two of you, who disparge at what they fail to grasp!