Issa Rae: Securing The Black Hair Culture Through “Insecure”

I’m sure I was not alone in keeping up with  Issa Rae’s hairstyles on the HBO hit series Insecure. Ever since the show debuted in 2016 on HBO, I make sure not to miss a single episode of this “30 minutes Bible of true African-American hair culture.” With its 5th season now underway, the show develops Issa’s character without leaving her Type 4C Afro hair behind.

As the director, writer, and lead character in this HBO series, Issa Rae made herself a focal point. Showcasing various natural hairstyles, Issa serves as a powerful role model for Black women with natural hair. Keep reading to learn more about her message, and how she and other producers communicate it.. 

A Show For The Culture

If you were a late bloomer when it comes to watching Insecure, it is probably because you do not understand how important this show was for the culture. Once I started watching,, I quickly understood why people (Black people, particularly) couldn’t get enough of the series.

Black women get the rare experience of really feeling seen when watching Insecure. If you follow this series, you’ll understand why these aspects are so powerful for me:

  • The fascinating journeys of powerful friendships between Black women
  • African-American fashion and designers 
  • Issa Rae’s (show director and writer) hairstyles
  • Lawrence (Jay Ellis) and Issa Dee’s (Rae) complicated and intertwined love life

These features faultlessly embody the “situationships” that we Black people often find ourselves in. As a black woman dealing with life in the U.S of A, I have every reason to love this show.

Issa Rae “GOATs” The Black Hair Culture 

For me, one of the show’s most important facets is how Issa Rae embraces the Black hair culture. Yes, she had those multiple breakups with Lawrence, Daniel (Y’lan Noel), and Nathan (Kendrick Sampson), along with frequent job-hopping. Yet, one constant for Issa Rae, regardless of how difficult or frantic her situation is, has been her versatile Black hairstyles. 

Issa’s natural hairstyles represent the concerns of every Black woman out there, and contributed to the show’s success as Black women with natural hair like myself got obsessed. Issa wasn’t alone. She achieved this with the help of the show’s hair department and her longtime, professional, and experienced hairstylist, Felicia Leatherwood. 

The hair department head, Yvette Sheltonm, had a straightforward vision. In an interview with PopSugar, she said, “We followed a formula of a lot of great natural hairstyles that could enhance everybody’s beauty without adding extra layers of heat.”

Yvette Shelton reveals the overall goal: “Our goal [with each episode] was to make a 30-minute Bible to look at for different hairstyles.” 

Putting In The Work In Grand Styles

A lot of work went into the show’s understated journey of hair growth and styles. From one season to another, we see Rae sport different hairstyles, and what started as Teeny Weeny Afro (TWA) soon became a vast array of different looks.. Here are a few of the hairstyles Issa Rae sported across the last four seasons of this show:

  • Teeny Weeny Afro (TWA)
  • Straight back braids
  • Crown braids
  • A faux hawk with cornrows on the side
  • Twist-outs, and much more. 

According to Shelton, this variety of natural hairstyles tried out on Rae’s type 4C hair reflects Issa and the Black hair culture. In her own words, “With our show, we were under pressure being the first to try out these natural styles as complementary components to our actors, especially Issa Rae.”

Shelton and the hairstyling team succeeded by reading and understanding the script. Then, they met with the wardrobe team, as well as friends and family in the Black hair community, opening conversations about whether to completely create new styles or bring back old styles in new ways. 

“The challenge was to be creative every season without repetition, season five being the hardest of them,” Shelton explained. Felicia Leatherwood, the lead stylist, would consult with Issa Rae and other actors separately to confirm chosen styles, always verifying whether they would sport each look in real life.

Securing Black Hair Culture Through Insecure

Shelton explains that, before Insecure, most women of color wore extensions in TV and film. She explains that “People that had natural hair would come to the trailer and not really have people say their hair looked beautiful, or even know how to style the natural hair.” 

However, thanks to Issa’s direction, this show sends a different message, especially in season five.. With the help of Shelton and Leatherwood, Rae ensures each actor’s coils and curls perfectly complement their overall look.

Shelton explained the entire process, saying, “We (Issa Rae, Felicia Leatherwood, Shelton and others in the hair department) had to pick styles that actually complemented our actors because it might look good in our mind, but then when you start to apply it, you might have to tweak it to be more complementary.” 

Providing Easy-To-Do Style Inspos For Natural Black Hair

Issa and the other cast members wanted to ensure that their audience could effortlessly imitate every style they wore, without professional training.

Shelton says, “Ultimately, we were more concerned about creating styles that people could wear every day. Our goal [with each episode] was to make a 30-minute Bible to look at for different hairstyles. We wanted people to come back to these styles, and we wanted to teach people the importance of protecting their hair.”

Hair Products You Can Easily Access

As a Black woman with natural hair, you can replicate the actors’ hairstyle, but you can also access their styling products. For Rae and Natasha Rothwell’s (Kelli) hair, products used include:

  • Sienna Naturals 
  • Eden BodyWorks
  • Alikay Naturals
  • Melanin Hair Care
  • Carol’s Daughter

Amanda Seales (Tiffany) favors products like Cantu Thermal Shield and Got2B spray. The hair department also wanted to incorporate a lot of kinky hair, Afro hair, and rasta-free hair on-screen, embracing and inspiring as much diversity as possible.

Issa Rae Making An Impact On The Black Hair Culture

We’ve already witnessed some powerful natural hair moments on screen. In the past, shows like “A Different World,” “Girlfriends,” “Living Single,” and “How to Get Away With Murder” made bold statements. Today, shows like “Our Kind of People,” “Black-Ish,” and “Grown-ish,” with stars like Yara Shadidi, continue to create these powerful connections.

Still, “Insecure” remains a pioneer, breaking down negative cultural stereotypes about Black hair. Black women have endured this unfair messaging about natural hair for years, and an end now appears to be within reach. 

Yvette Shelton says that “Even though Insecure is a Black show, it is an inclusive show. And I feel like we were already on the page [natural hair movement] that Hollywood is going to now. We were already there.”

Issa Rae’s multiple chic natural hairstyles sent a message that resounded through the hearts of many Black viewers.. Issa freely rocked her natural Type 4C Black hair, and all Black women should be able to do the same.. 

The Message Is Beyond Issa Rae, She Only Made Herself The Channel

Did you watch the trailer for season five that premiered on Sunday, Oct. 24, 2021? Then, you probably noticed the hair transformation that shook everyone, including Black Twitter. In case you missed it, it was Molly’s (Yvonne Orji) big chop. We saw Orji’s hair styled with sleek, sophisticated weaves and wigs in the first four seasons, but she stunned everyone with a chopped, tapered TWA in Season Five.

Clearly, Issa Rae’s message extends beyond herself, and it’s not about her, but about all Black women. Yvonne Orji has become yet another ally to share this message. 

What Exactly Is The Message?

According to Shelton, “We wanted to show the audience that even if you are a fly attorney, you don’t need a certain type of hair to obtain professionalism. You can be professional with any type of hairstyle.” 

This message is crucial partly because straight hair is stereotyped as more “professional.”. This misconception unfairly removes curls and natural hair from the conversation.

Very recently, the CROWN Act, a law banning race-based hair discrimination, proved that women of color can enact powerful change when they raise their voices in the  fight. Societalnorms surrounding professional hair in the workplace, schools, and other social settings are beginning to change. 

Sadly, we Black women can rock our hair natural, with a weave, or a wig, but we still endure society’s unwanted focus on our appearance. This misplaced focus creates barriers to our achievement and affects how others treat us.

Regaining The Black Culture With Sleek Natural Hairstyles 

Changing the stigma around natural hair is important. Beyond that, the whole show invites the audience into the Black culture, partly through Issa Rae’s hairstyles.

Our expert, Yvette Shelton explains that “To me, this is one of the first shows where the Black women were able to highlight their natural hair. Of course, everyone is not into natural hair. It’s definitely an individual choice, but it’s the first show where a lot of people wanted that individual choice.”

When you watch Issa Rae in Insecure,  you don’t find her or other characters overly concerned with shrinkage. The show doesn’t spotlight dramatic and life-changing haircuts following a breakup, and Issa Rae also doesn’t fuss over whether to straighten her hair before any job interview. 

Instead, the show lets us enjoy the sight of modern, professional women, whose hair does not define their existence. We get to see the Black hair culture reflected honestly and appropriately..

Shelton couldn’t give us details on how the rest of the season would go, but she confirmed that Issa will model a whole new variety of fresh and easy-to-make natural hairstyles in upcoming episodes. 

In Insecure, Issa Rae reflects the Black hair culture in a fresh and different way.. Shelton confirms this when she said, “I’ve never seen so many braids and twists and Afros on TV. No one is doing that, fully — not like how we did it.” Thank you, Issa Rae (or Issa Dee) for leading the way. Of course, we will continue to follow that lead!

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