Triad City Beat | ‘Straw Into Gold’ highlights work of Rosa “Malikia” Johnson who braided Stevie Wonder and other greats
Featured Photo: Rosa Malikia Johnson has been braiding hair for more than five decades (Photo by Katie Hall)
If Stevie Wonder’s hair appointment was at 5 p.m., Rosa “Malikia” Johnson wouldn’t see him until midnight.
“He was always late; bless his heart,” Johnson says while fondly recalling Wonder’s quirky habits.
He also had a keyboard in tow and was constantly working on new music while Johnson braided his hair.
Her work can be seen on the cover of Wonder’s 1980 album Hotter than Julywhere he wears collarbone-length braids, the ends of which are adorned with variously shaped beads in many shades of red and yellow, reminiscent of the summer heat.
“You’ve seen her work, now you know her name,” says Matema Hadi of her mother, known as the “Queen Mother of Braids.”
Johnson is hosting in partnership with Hadi’s events company, Forever Nubian Productions straw to gold, an exhibit currently on view at the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts in Winston-Salem, featuring more than 100 photographs, artifacts, and three-dimensional objects created or collected during Johnson’s career from the 1970s through the early 2000s. Despite the gorgeous braided designs seen in the photos, Johnson couldn’t pull off these elaborate twists at first.
“I didn’t grow up with it [braids],” she says. “My family did my hair until I was about 14.”
Fast forward to the 1970s when Johnson and her four children lived in Hollywood with singer Abbey Lincoln. Superstars, including comedian Redd Foxx, flocked in and out, and Johnson braided his hair to pass the time when they visited. She would travel to Oakland to show her friends her improving work. Eventually, her braids got smaller, her style got neater, and her parts got edgier. With some encouragement from Lincoln, Johnson turned her passion into a paycheck.
“Braiding became a way of raising my kids,” says Johnson.
Her star-studded social circle included actress Beah Richards, who convinced her to teach braiding classes for even more income. The exhibit features hand-drawn diagrams from her days as a teacher at the Los Angeles Inner City Cultural Center, where Johnson shows her students how to plan a design on paper before physically practicing it. She preferred balance and shape in hairstyles.
“If they could draw a design, they could share it. If they could share it, they could braid it,” Johnson says.
Johnson perfected her craft, drawing inspiration from African art to create hairstyles. Realizing that the checkerboard patterns and other patterns seen in the hair of ancient African art paralleled braids, she attempted to duplicate the patterns she saw. Miriam Makeba, a South African singer, showed her how to elevate her designs by adding extensions made from human hair, fibers and other materials. Johnson is known for her detailed beadwork, which can be seen on Cicely Tyson and Nina Simone, but there was one singer who was dying to style her.
“If anyone knows Stevie Wonder, tell them Malikia will braid his hair for free,” she told anyone who would listen.
Word spread to Milton Hardaway, Wonder’s older brother, who called Johnson. Wonder was looking for a weaver whose work would outlast the travel, the sweat on stage, and other factors important to him. After an initial consultation, Wonder returned for an appointment the following Saturday.
According to Johnson, Wonder would spend almost $400 on the beads for his hair alone.
“We used the most valuable pearls for Stevie, of course,” Johnson blushes.
Delighted with her work, Wonder invited Johnson to join his traveling crew and attend the 1983 Grammy Awards, Wonder’s 1984 European tour, and other events. These passports can also be seen in the exhibition. She traveled to live with him in New Jersey, where she met his daughter Aisha Morris, the inspiration for his single Is’t She Lovely, and also braided her hair.
According to Hadi, one of Johnson’s standout pieces is “Skyed Boat to Freedom,” which juxtaposes parts of African and Black American cultures. The basis of the piece is the Golden Stool used by Ashanti royalty and is a symbol of power. A boat rests on the stool, representative of the vehicles used during the transatlantic slave trade. In the center is the Adrinkra symbol Gye Nyame, meaning ‘Omnipotence and Supremacy of God’. Chains of beautiful crystal beads and jewels such as raw jade and amber dangle from each end of the boat, serving as the spirits of those who resisted enslavement by jumping or died in transit. On top of the boat are four jars, the outside of which are decorated with black faces from the antebellum era. However, protruding from each cup is an extravagantly dressed black Barbie doll with an elaborate, twisted hairstyle adorned with colorful threads. The dolls represent symbols of perseverance, literally standing upright despite the sordid history from which they emerge.
“These dolls represent the resilience of black women by wearing our hair and embracing our beauty and our will to survive,” says Hadi.
Hadi recalls growing up spending time with her mother at the hair salons she owned, including the Pickaninny Cornrowing Company in LA. Johnson deliberately chose the name to combat negative stereotypes associated with the word pickaninny, a racial slur aimed at black children. Regardless of how they arrived, every customer left the store with beads, braided and beautiful. Laughter filled the air as customers and stylists shared stories. Local artisans brought fabrics, jewelry and food for sale. Pine scented incense wafted through the air while blues and soul music played on the radio.
“It was definitely a whole vibe,” says Hadi.
Johnson moved to Winston-Salem almost 20 years ago at the request of her aunt, poet Maya Angelou. Hadi joined her a decade later. Together, the pair work to host what Hadi calls “Afro-chic events that highlight Black people from the African diaspora in film, music and art,” and explain how African history has inspired and continues to inspire Black American culture . Johnson is proud of her collection and especially grateful that she can tell her own story and share it with the public.
“I’m happy to share photos, charts, and slides of my work from the ’70s to the present day,” says Johnson.
view Straw becomes gold: A photographic journey with Rosa “Malikia” Johnson at the Milton Rhodes Center for the Arts through March 11. There will be a reception to mark the opening of the exhibition on February 3 at 5 p.m. For more information, see intothearts.org/strawintogold.
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