Retro-tinged fro-hawk cuts a path all its own

The fro-hawk has been in, and out, and in again, but right now, it's enjoying a certain renaissance.

You'll find it in the explosion of dreadlocks fanning out from the otherwise shaved head of a doorman at trendy Marvin in Washington. See it doing a more subdued low-rise fade on Redman as he bounces onstage with the Wu-Tang Clan at the “Rock the Bells” rap tour. Or check it out, in all its glamour-girl glory, on Jack Davey, from the Los Angeles electronica duo J*Davey.

To be black and Mohawked – or fro-hawked – is to rage against both the machine and one's own community, a double dose of in-your-face outsiderism, rendering a life lived on the outskirts of the outskirts.

“I wanted to be the ultimate rebel,” says New York artist/musician/indie label owner M.J. Zilla, who cut her waist-length dreads a couple of years back in favor of a flat-top/fro-hawk hybrid. “What better way to do it than to do the Mohawk? Socially, I'm making that statement: I'm definitely not going to conform any more. It's a symbol, a visual reference. They can say, ‘Oh yeah, we knew she's trouble.'”

Consider the Mohawk, circa 1979, straight tresses shellacked into submission and directed upward, standing out against an expanse of shaved scalp. It provided instant identification with outrage and rebel status, with punk music and the culture that sprang up around it.

Then consider today's fro-hawk, kinked out or dreadlocked tresses directed upward, marching across the shorn pates of those of African descent. Think about Fishbone, rocking it out in the late '80s, blending punk, funk, ska, rap and metal. (But please, don't think about Mr. T.)

It's just hair, some folks like to say. No, it's not – it's never just hair, certainly when you are African and American. It's got the power to provoke, to inspire, to outrage, to designate 21st-century tribal affiliations: The “average hockey mom” up-do. The Angela Davis 'fro on the cover of the New Yorker. We're never going to let hair be just hair.

Why now? Part of it is the inevitable swing back to the '80s – the preoccupation with skinny jeans and leather jackets, stiletto booties and neon brights. Perhaps it's a response to hard economic times, to widespread layoffs and the fear that accompanies them, a giant nose-thumb to the idea that to work in corporate America, you've got to look a certain way.

“It's like, ‘You don't have a job, do you?'” says Melvin Collins, a 34-year-old stylist, laughing. “A drunk guy at a party told me, ‘You must just sit around the house all day.'”

Says his buddy Tim Slayton, 26, a visual artist who rocks a locked Mohawk, “Just because I'm a black guy with a Mohawk doesn't mean that it should be called ‘fro-hawk.'”

“It's a little racist,” Collins says.

There are others who embrace the word. Fro-hawk, they say, is specific to a hair texture, a people, an attitude.

“I think it's descriptive,” says Zilla, for whom the hairstyle is at once a homage to her Afro/Sioux/Blackfoot roots and a sign of affiliation with the 21st Century Maroon Colony, a black arts collective.

And then there are those – like Damon Locks, a 39-year-old veteran of the punk scene – who draw a distinction between the fro-hawk and the Mohawk's '80s-era punk roots. And not in a good way.

“I'm not a fan of the fro-hawk,” says Locks, who first Mohawked his hair in 1983 as a teenager. The Mohawk, he says, always had an agitating element. On the other hand, the fro-hawk, he says, “is not only soft and fluffy, it's kind of trendy and not agitating, really – it's more like a popular haircut.” Even toddlers and tweens can be spotted sporting it.

“It's strange, (nearly) 30 years later, to see it as a fashion statement,” says Locks. “I see it taken on by black kids that want to express themselves and show that they're different. …

“It has almost nothing to do with punk today,” continues Locks, who now alternates between a curly afro and hacked off. “It's clearly a stylistic choice and devoid of any potency, and that's kind of upsetting. Now it's lost its vigor. Its objective from the get-go was to make a point.”

Don't even get him started on the faux-hawk: Ricky Martin. “American Idol's” Sanjaya Malakar. Patti LaBelle. Celebs who sport full heads of hair gelled and manhandled until it reaches skyward, toe-dipping in the waters of rebellion. A good strong shampoo, and it's gone.

“If you're gonna do it, just do it right,” says filmmaker James Spooner, whose 2003 documentary “Afropunk” spawned an online community of the same name. Spooner abandoned the Mohawk/fro-hawk years ago. “When you see somebody who has 2 inches of hair and they've only shaved 2 inches off the side, it looks so lame. …

“If you're going to do it, do it. Otherwise, you just look like a poser.”