Jawara Wauchope on the Magic of Hair

“I always felt like hair was a part of the language of how you take care of yourself and you show up in the world — especially in Jamaican culture, in Black culture,” said Jawara Wauchope. “It’s like a real reflection of the people themselves.”

The Brooklyn-born hairstylist, who is known professionally as Jawara, had an inkling he wanted to work with hair at the age of six or seven, while living in Jamaica.

“Sometimes when my mom was traveling, I would stay with my aunt, and she would have me in the salon with her,” he said. “I found the salon to be such a place of community, of exchange, of culture — of everything. The whole ecosystem of society was there.

“I used to see women come into the salon not so happy, and I would see them leave the salon happy,” he continued. “At a young age, I thought hairstylists were like magicians, in a sense: They turned your emotions from down to up.”

Jawara wanted to wield such magic, too, so he started mimicking his aunt, doing roller sets.

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“That was at the height of the dancehall era in Jamaica,” the hairstylist said. “There was a lot of parties, music and love. I was surrounded by a community of entertainment and music, partying and food.”

He stems from a family of reggae entertainers, including his mother, Sister Carol.

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“I grew up around people dressing themselves for stage, doing their hair and makeup, wearing elaborate clothing and being really into the way they present themselves,” Jawara said.

Jawara became a mini-apprentice in his aunt’s salon, allowing him to be hands-on. He next moved to New York for middle school and practiced his craft on his sisters and their friends.

“I started to get so creative,” he said. “When I was about 17, I’m, like, doing everyone’s hair in my community.”

A sister sporting one of his coifs was stopped by a salon owner, who asked who’d done her hair and offered Jawara an apprenticeship, which he did after school.

“That’s when I really decided to take this seriously,” he said.

Then, for a reason Jawara still cannot recall, he started to think negatively about hair and opted to attend FIT to study international fashion merchandising. But a career in buying wasn’t for him, and his heart led him back to hair.

Jawara worked in salons again, but on days off, began assisting top session hairstylists, such as Guido Palau, Sam McKnight and Paul Hanlon. That then became his full-time career, and he went solo in 2013.

Everything inspires him.

“I can sit at a restaurant and watch people walk by for hours,” said Jawara, adding he’s also stimulated by travel, old films and other cultures’ hair creations. Today’s youth, including his 13 nieces and nephews, make a big impression.

“In the craft, at this point, I’m inspired by the new generation of hairstylists,” he continued. “I’m inspired by inclusivity, representation and how this industry has changed from when I was assisting. I look at the people who assist me as collaborators. There was a hierarchy when I was assisting. I believe that everyone is equal.”

McKnight has been influential on how Jawara deals with people and views hair, and — especially in his younger years — he’s followed the careers of Chuck Amos and Oscar James, particularly their work on textured hair.

Jawara listens to music while creating. He’s got eclectic taste, with favorites running from Sister Carol to Solange Knowles, Beyoncé, Anita Baker, Diana Ross, ’90s R&B, Amy Winehouse and Nirvana.

“I learned how to do hair, as well, by replicating everything I saw in music videos,” he said. Those could be from the likes of Lil’ Kim, Mary J. Blige, Madonna, Grace Jones and Diana Ross.

Jawara is an avowed art junkie.

“Hair is art, as well,” he said. “I grew up with seeing structural hair and things done in an intricate way. Looking at art, shapes, colors, silhouettes — it always inspires my hair creations. I’m a sponge; I soak up everything, and just allow myself to grow in this industry.”

His highly organic creative process runs countercurrent.

“I have to feel what I’m going to do, and I can’t feel it until I am in front of the person,” he said. “My assistants are always like: ‘What are we doing today?’ And I’ll be like: ‘I don’t know.’” (He laughed.)

That is, unless there’s a clear directive given at the outset.

Years ago, Knowles was among the first to give Jawara total creative license. So he got a feel for the clothes and the mood of the project, and collaborated with her on something “really beautiful.”

Often, the hairstylist sits and talks with the talent to get a sense of the person. Sometimes the hairstyle idea appears immediately, or it emerges on the way to a job or even in a dream.

“The latest it’ll happen is as I’m about to touch the person’s hair,” he said.

Jawara has loved many a project in his career, with some of the standouts having worked with Beyoncé and the exhibition “Tallawah,” which he conceived for London’s Cob Gallery in early 2020. There, he teamed with photographer Nadine Ijewere to capture the heritage of Jamaican dancehall style.

“I tried to mimic some of the things that I saw growing up, and that I thought were very prominent in Jamaican culture that reminded me of sculptures,” he said. The show had a dose of nostalgia and was a meta moment.

“It was a full-circle situation, where I’m back in the place that inspired me to do hair, and what I thought was art and beauty — and now I’m doing an exhibition on this,” Jawara said. “That to me was really amazing.”

Inside the mind

Favorite objects: Lip balm. I live between New York and London, and on my dressers are probably 40 different lip balms in each city. The one that I love right now is Palmer’s Coconut Oil Formula. I always have to have a Bluetooth speaker — Bose or Bang & Olufsen — everywhere I go.

Favorite podcasts: My new favorite now is called “Earn Your Leisure.” It’s talking about entrepreneurship and investments. There are some other ones that are gossipy that I love, like “The Breakfast Club.”

Favorite books: “Just as I Am: A Memoir” [by Cicely Tyson]. I love that she is speaking so freely about her experience moving through this world as an artist, a woman and an actor. It’s so amazing. I’m also into “Hair Story: Untangling the Roots of Black Hair in America,” by Ayana D. Byrd and Lori L. Tharps. It’s really good.


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