Walk into NAPPS hair salon on any given Friday or Saturday, and you'll find the usual scene. Customers perusing stylebooks. Water running. Hair dryers whirring. Women chatting, with their hair in various stages of disarray. The shop has baked clay walls dotted with Afrocentric art, the music is silky Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Zhane and there are flowers everywhere: gerbera daisies on a coffee table, birds of paradise in a ceramic vase. It's slightly darker inside than most hair salons, illuminated in part by the blue glow of a fish tank and a generous sprinkling of candles.
African American hair salons have always been a world unto themselves. Traditionally, that world had women in salon chairs, gossiping, sorting through the bits and pieces of everyday life for hours and hours, with the smell of burnt hair and harsh chemicals in their nostrils.
For many years, and just as many reasons social pressure, personal choice, the tangled myth of "good hair" scores of African American women have been fighting an uphill battle to tame our naturally kinky hair into straight submission.
"One thing you won't see," says the salon's receptionist Deserae Dobbins, "is any press and curl styles." That's because NAPPS or Natural African Peoples Professional Styles focuses solely on the care of natural textured hair. No chemical relaxers. No heat-coerced straight hair.
Hair stylist and NAPPS owner Mekhat Bettis says the salon's creation stemmed, in part, from her own decision to "go natural"; after she stopped putting chemicals in her own hair, she was resistant to use them on her clients. However, in the shop where she worked, folks were often less than supportive. "I was working at a salon, and was doing just natural hair at the time. I would get so many people in the shop trying to talk my clients into getting relaxers or having their hair straightened when they already had dreadlocks or natural hair," Besitt explains. "I felt like there needed to be a place to cater to people who just wanted natural styles, a place [where they would be] respected and a shop that would specialize in [those styles]."
After styling hair in various cities around the country (including her own salon in Washington, D.C.), the St. Louis native decided to re-plant roots in her hometown, opening NAPPS in the University City Loop in 1992.
NAPPS emphasizes natural hair health at all levels, from client consultations on how to properly maintain hair to selling an original recipe of hair and scalp oil. "NAPPS set the trend in St. Louis," says Dobbins. "It was the first shop of its kind." Unlike most braid shops, NAPPS does every type of natural style from short kinky crops and twists to braids, locks and everything in between. Although in recent years several similar shops have emerged in the St. Louis area, the vast majority of African American hair salons still make their trade from altering hair.
The trend towards natural hairstyles is more prominent lately, with a crop of popular, new African American music artists Macy Gray, Jill Scott, Angie Stone, and Alicia Keys, among others sporting ethnic styles. Possibly as a result, NAPPS' business has picked up, but the trend isn't exactly new. "This isn't really a fad," says Bettis. "Some people are just now coming around to it, some people are just now finding out about it or wanting to do it. [It's] a growing trend. But, the whole time I've been in business, I've done nothing but braids, locks, twists."
As for the influence of music celebrities, she continues, "trends change, but a lot of people are wearing their hair in twists, and [thanks to Alicia Keys], cornrows of course." Something, she believes, that is positive for all African American women: "We need know that it is ok to be ourselves. We don't have to wear straight hair to be accepted; we don't have to wear straight hair to look good."
According to Bettis, part of the process of changing old attitudes about the natural texture of African American hair including the notion of "good hair" relies on education: "The average black person does not know how to take care of their hair without a relaxer in it. It's like 'ok, [I've straightened my hair], I don't know what to do now'."
NAPPS is more than hair care. It's a space where African American women feel supported in their decision to go natural and wear natural styles. For many, wearing their hair natural isn't simply a personal decision about hairstyle; it's an expression of culture and a celebration of ancestral heritage.
The salon has cultivated quite a crop of regulars over the years, and they aren't only women. Men like Jared Hennings, who's been getting his dreads re-twisted at NAPPS for almost two years, appreciate the subtle differences between this salon and the usual barbershop. "I like the vibe here [and] being around community."
Ultimately, however, it's newer clients like Dametria Thomas who came from out of town to get cornrows or Washington University student Ruth White who's getting her micro-braids done here at the recommendation of friends, that speak to the shop's status. The word's out.
Hair fads come and go and the popularity of natural hair just like the salon is not new. NAPPS is a meeting place for an ever-growing but transient community that extends well beyond shop walls: it is for all African Americans who find that liberation from relaxers and a Saturday afternoon spent celebrating their natural hair texture is time well spent.
NAPPS, located at 6267 Delmar Blvd. in the University City Loop, is open 9 to 5 Tuesday through Saturday. (314) 727-0312