Hairstylist Nikki Nelms has worked with some of the coolest women in the entertainment industry—Zoë Kravitz, Solange, Serena Williams, LaLa, the list goes on and on. Recently, Nelms did singer and actress Janelle Monáe’s sleek coif for W’s cover story, as well as for the videos shot for her forthcoming album Dirty Computer. Now, she finds herself at the crossroads between appreciation for the mainstream’s embrace of black hair and apprehension about the industries and societal structures that has kept this from happening for so long.
Typically, her clients—Nelms, or the “Hair MacGyver” as she refers to herself on her Instagram, is back and forth between Paris Fashion Week and the Oscars this week—discover her work via word of mouth, and she tends to cultivate a personal relationship with them before deciding on any particular looks. “I never really had an agent, so I didn’t follow the normal or typical protocol on how to get a client,” she explained. “When they find me it’s because they were looking for me or it was organic through a mutual relationship.”
Nelms and Monáe, for example, had a few run-ins before embarking on a client-stylist relationship. Although she first spotted Monáe from a distance at Solange’s wedding, Nelms didn’t speak to the pop star and actress until she traveled to the Essence Festival—the annual New Orleans-based music fest founded by Essence magazine, also known as “America’s biggest celebration of black women”—with Kelly Rowland for what she described as “purely social reasons.” There, she finally met Monáe backstage before her performance and then saw her at Beyonce’s birthday party later that year, but the two didn’t work together until they collaborated on Monáe’s appearance at the Toronto International Film Festival in 2016. “We just clicked. It feels like I’ve known her way longer than I’ve known her,” Nelms said.
When Nelms works with her clients, and particularly when she works with Monáe, collaboration is key to their success. “When Janelle and I first worked together we were feeling each other out, of course. She wanted a new look. She’s just so creative that I’m blessed she allowed me a window of time to figure it out with her and get into our groove,” Nelms said. “She’s super creative, she’s super sweet, she’s open to other ideas! She enjoys the process of getting to a look, not just having the look.” Nelms continued, “I’m lucky to work with her because I feel free and I feel most creative when I’m not just doing what someone asked me to do, but when they appreciate my opinion, point of views, ideas.”
For Monáe’s W cover, shot by Get Out director Jordan Peele, she and Nelms teamed up to find some middle ground between Monáe's boyish-looking private investigator character and Monáe’s natural beauty. “We decided on a deep side part, like a combover. But it’s still soft and sleek,” Nelms said of the shorter, tighter hairstyle that matched the wardrobe’s noirish tone. “It was a compromise finding a happy medium between the wardrobe and keeping her beauty and softness, which isn’t hard to do because she’s so beautiful."
“Jordan Peele was there for my corny Get Out jokes and puns all day,” Nelms added, laughing. “I had never met him before, but when we were shooting on the rooftop, I was standing off to the side and Jordan was like, ‘You do amazing work. Thank you so much.’ That’s always good when you can make the director happy and the last thing they have to do is worry about my job or [someone’s] hair.”
With clients like Monáe, Kravitz, and Solange, Nelms's work helps to further drive home the point that black people and black culture are not a monolith—their protean talents and looks contain multitudes. Still, Nelms admitted that while she is seeing more visibility, widespread discourse, and a growing acceptance of natural hair styles—from Zoë Kravitz’s blonde locks or short pixie to Monáe's cropped coif or her textured bouffant embedded with pearls at the 2018 Golden Globes—the conversation about what it means to fully accept one’s appearance as a black individual shouldn’t end there.
“I’m kind of annoyed at the shock, you know?" Nelms said. "Like, why is it shocking? I’ve been surrounded by a lot of black women with amazing textures and styles my whole life. People are so hype over Solange’s beads, and I’m glad you like that she wore that style in her music video, but that’s also the style that Venus and Serena [Williams] wore when they played tennis and were laughed at. So now I have to wait for your approval?”
In the past, Nelms has had the experience of holding herself back from wearing her natural hair and trying to make her style appear more palatable to an employer during a job interview, only to later on see the same hairstyles that were once the basis for discrimination in an editorial spread, suddenly validated. She still takes a skeptical stance on a subject as fraught and politicized as the hairstyles worn by black women: “I don’t want to come across as this ‘radical.’ They ask what message were you trying to send with the natural hair on the carpet and I’m like, ‘Message? It went with the dress! Simple as that.’”
"There are black girls that just do nice hair and it’s not ‘a message’, or they’re not trying to save the world with their hairstyle, you know," she went on. "I want the freedom that others have when they 'just do hair’ and that’s it, they’re not trying to save a culture with an updo. I don’t wanna save my race with an updo. If I could, I would, but that’s not what I’m thinking about—I just thought it went nice with the dress.”
“We’ve always been versatile and can do anything,” Nelms declared. “Sometimes I get a little frustrated with us at trying to prove how amazing we are or getting excited when our diversity is accepted because we know it’s accepted. It’s accepted when it’s imitated! We have proof of that. I hate how things are considered ‘ghetto’ or ‘ratchet’ until it’s on the runway and now it’s ‘fashion.’ That’s the most offensive thing ever,” she added.
Recently, Nelms walked into a store in Paris and saw mannequins with blonde straight hair twisted into bantu knots—a hairstyle that originates from Zulu tribes in southern Africa dating back centuries, which, Nelms pointed out, has been deemed “ratchet” when worn by black women in the past. It was another damning example of the siphoning of black culture on a global scale. “I just don’t want to get caught up in feeling blessed to be appreciated,” she admitted. “We never had a reason to not be appreciated, you know what I’m saying? I can’t love me until I see me on you?" Nelms asked softly. "That’s some secondhand love. We don’t need to be approved to feel good about ourselves," she declared. Nelms has a point—in this case, she strives to make sure that with her work and her clients, approval or validation can come from within. Those beautiful hairstyles Nelms creates in collaboration with clients like Monáe and Kravitz just prove that hair can be more than just a trend, and can speak for her as she takes the stance that self-love, a characteristic deemed vital for the development of progressive attitudes in all communities, should always come first.