Last weekend A$AP Ferg announced the pre-order for his upcoming mixtape Still Striving, a follow up to his sophomore album. That 14-track project comes replete with songs like “Plain Jane” and the “East Coast” remix featuring Busta Rhymes, Rocky, Dave East and others.
But for the imagery, the Harlem rapper went simple with a shot of himself donning what some followers have dubbed the “black man’s superhero cape:” a durag. And though the piece of nylon or polyester may seem meaningless to some, it’s imbued with quite a bit of meaning as a part of black culture.
First things first, a durag serves a function. For men of color, durags are a preservation tool. To put it simply: after you brush your hair you can mess it up as it rubs on your pillowcase when you sleep.
A durag not only preserves the brushing but through consistent wearing, gives the effect of “waves” wherein your hair creates a radial effect from the crown. Durags can be worn with cornrows too, keeping them friction and frizz free for at least a while. So at its core, a durag is a hair maintenance device that had early beginnings in women’s hair wraps. But somewhere along the way it became known as a hell of a lot more.
For quite a while, durags weren’t really worn out in public. They were ostensibly the same sort of thing as house slippers; you wore them for a very specific reason within the confines of your own home.
It would have been been unseemly to do otherwise. But after the black liberation movement in the ’60s and ’70s, and as black entertainers rose to prominence in the 90s, that changed.
The heyday of public durags as a “trending” item was in the ’90s and early 2000s. Rappers like Chamillionaire, Cam’ron, 50 Cent and Nelly wore them everywhere.
They wore them under fitted caps as Memphis Black did in the late 90s as well as by themselves. In fact it was because of this outsized wearing of the piece that durags began to be manufactured in a variety of colors, sometimes even printed. Allen Iverson was once spotted in one printed with an American flag while Cam’ron went pink, as was his habit.
At first, the durag became a testament to and marker of blackness. It was simply a symbol of a somewhat shared experience, a mutual understanding.
Similar to a scene enacted when President Obama was in office and allowed a small black boy to feel his hair to know that the leader of the free world’s hair was just like his, the durag was an acknowledgement of our similarity. But as is custom in American culture, that association got durags effectively criminalized.
As GQ points out, in 2001 and 2005, durags were banned from both the NFL and NBA. Journalists from the Washington Post and others began to debate whether or not it was appropriate, respectable even to wear a durag.
Black men wearing them became “those types” and black parents began to forbid their children from wearing them outside of the house to ward off those stereotypes.
The instances emboldened some entertainers, adding to the street credibility of the piece. So much so that the likes of Eminem donned it, hoping to translate not only the blackness but a bit of gritty street mentality through the visual representation.
The popular young artist Spooky Black also paired a durag with FUBU jerseys and simple gold chains back in 2014, in a likely attempt to make himself resemble other R&B crooners that he hoped to call his contemporaries. For many, Eminem’s wearing of the rag was acceptable. The jury is still out on Spooky.
But before long, the durag as a public statement fell out of favor for a variety of reasons. Amongst them: long haired styles like fades and locs rose in prominence. In fashion, trends just die out. But recently, in a bit of a slow burn, the durag is coming back, mined for the significance it carries and experience it makes evident.
Most gloriously, Rihanna wore one at the 2016 VMAs channelling a certain type of black cool. The net cap swooped low, instantly recognizable to her fans. It was that same version of cool that Rick Owens and Kylie Jenner tried to cash in on when they utilized the piece.
Photographer John Edmonds too investigated the piece in a recent series entitled “Hoods.” In compositions almost identical to Ferg’s mixtape cover, Edmond poses faceless black men against backdrops wearing durags. “I look at them always as crowns,” he told the New Yorker about the pieces. And that is the status that durags carry today.
In a world of identity politics, the durag has become not only a signifier of a shared experience but also a badge. It stands as not only a symbol of a possibly gritty, street mentality but evidences a pride in it.
As respectability politics and ideas of assimilating into a homogenized culture in order to progress dissipate, the durag stands in as a designation of a different type of authentic black excellence.
Next-up, here’s what the reaction to “thicc” Rihanna tells us about body shaming in 2017.
- Words: Mikelle Street
- Lead image: @asapferg / Instagram