The renowned hair artist Mo G has styled some of Chicago’s most promising musical artists. Musicians like R&B singer-songwriter Ravyn Lenae and acclaimed singer and poet Jamila Woods have both been graced by her craft. Without question, Mo’s works accentuate the most captivating physical qualities of Black women— rooted in African traditions, she deliberately highlights the beauty of Black ingenuity and pays homage to the glory of the modern Black woman.
When we spoke, Mo stood behind her styling chair, while her hands swiftly moved through her client’s dreadlocks. As she tentatively twisted each lock, she began to reminisce about the days she first began doing hair. “I was just so determined. I begged my aunt to do my cousin’s hair. My cousin was natural and my aunt wanted to keep her that way. She would struggle everyday with [my cousin’s] hair, but I was like, Auntie I can do it!” Mo laughed about the first time she was able to practice with her cousin’s curls. “I remember, I put black and white beads in her cornrows and I didn’t use any products because I just didn’t know, you know?” From there, Mo’s clientele began to grow. “I was a kid, but shortly after that people kind of just started asking me to do their hair. It really chose me.”
Mo now styles for some of the biggest names in Chicago, and as a successful entrepreneur she has garnered the attention of thousands through social media with appearances on her Instagram from some of Chicago’s most notable artists, designers, and musicians.
Before pursuing hair styling, Mo got her degree in dance, with a minor in psychology, and wanted to be an art teacher. It was when she found herself working at a department store, doing hair on the side, that she realized she wanted to make a change. “I was working at Bloomingdale’s, serving all these rich people and I [thought to myself], I’m never gonna get there, if I keep being on this side, I’ll never get to where they are.” She realized that doing hair was the only thing she continually pursued and enjoyed. “I never thought I could make a living off of it. I used to say, I wish I could just like live off of my art, and it wasn’t until other people started telling me that hair is art.” After receiving some compelling encouragement from her coworker, she knew it was time to dedicate herself to her craft.
Shortly after, Mo’s friend and the founder of AMFM gallery Ciera Mckissick took notice of the growing collection of leftover braided pieces Mo used to decorate her living room. “I would say I’m like a hair hoarder because I like to keep all my old hairstyles.” Mo was shocked when Ciera asked to show her leftover works in an installation at the Chicago Art Department. “It was just something that I just threw up to be cute, [but] we displayed it, and it was there for like two months. People would constantly take pictures. It was everybody’s favorite at the show.” Today, Mo refers to herself as an artist without hesitation—she has a vision that is shaped by the traditions of the past and her unique perspective of modern beauty.
Mo recognizes the historic and symbolic importance of braiding culture dating back to ancient Egypt, where hair was used to indicate social status and to represent individual style.
“I get a lot of my inspiration from my ancestors,” Mo said. But she also tries to modernize the original styles to create new looks for the women she styles today. “I try to keep [my styling methods] as traditional and as tribal as I can…but I try to like do it in an American 2018 way.” The traditional techniques she uses as the inspiration for her work would often take several hours to complete— sometimes even days. Mo learned many of the braiding techniques at the Amazon Natural Look Academy, a beauty school in Washington Park emphasizing the cultural roots of hair styles. “[They taught us about] the different [African] tribes, and different hairstyles for different times in your life.”
Black hairstyles have historical roots linked to expression and repression, going as far back as the transatlantic slave trade when slave traders used egregious tactics to forcefully strip African men and women of their individuality. One such tactic was the violent shaving of their elaborate crowns of hair. For centuries, female slaves were dehumanized, defeminized and sexually exploited by their captors, resulting in a degradation of Black womanhood that has carried well into the present day, therefore making the emboldening of Black female culture and representation imperative. “For me [representation] is the biggest thing, it is what we need. It should be normal to not focus on or be shocked by the fact that someone has an afro,” Mo said. “I want people to focus on how many ways can you wear a fro, how many different ways you can [wear] braids, how many ways you can decorate natural Black hair and still it being looked at as classy, elegant, and the shit!”
Black hair continues to carry deep personal and symbolic meaning, and Mo and other natural hair stylists work to integrate these long-established symbols into their modern practice.
Hair braiding, crocheting, and locking has undeniable significance in the Black community, not only because of its symbolic nature and beauty, but also for its protective quality.
With more information about the dangers of toxic hair relaxers or perms— a method that has been used since the early 1900’s to straighten the natural kinks and twists of Black hair —more people have turned to natural hair artists like Mo G. Mo uses braiding and hair extension techniques to achieve styles that are not only beautiful, but are also protective. Social media influencers, white and Black alike, are taking advantage of trending protective hairstyles like box braids, twists, and dreadlocks.
Mo emphasized how when the white community appropriates Black hairstyles, they often fail to recognize the true purpose, significance, and most of all, the necessity of the hairstyles to the Black community. “What bothers me is that people don’t understand…for us [braids] are very functional.” She continued, noting how braids are used to protect hair, especially in harsh environments like Chicago, and that the upkeep of afros is time-consuming.“We’re not just doing it for a look. It’s the fact that we have to do it, and still we make it look good.”
Mo has had her hair pieces featured in Paper Magazine, in a recent nationwide Nike campaign and in the Chicago Art Department. Her goal is to install her pieces in as many local museums as she can. “Art was always at the forefront of my mind and my life. But I never thought I could make a living off of it. It wasn’t until other people started telling me that hair is art that I realized [my potential] and ran with it.” She urges hopeful artist to follow their passion as she has, and feels that Chicago is a perfect place for young artists to take advantage of creative movement many refer to as the Chicago Renaissance.“I love this city. I couldn’t imagine being from somewhere else where they don’t have [the same resources].” Her advice to other artists like herself is to focus on what they love doing. “Never do anything for the money. Do it for your passion because if you’re passionate about it, you will make money from it.”