Master braider, hair sculptor and filmmaker Yvette “Kinyozi” Smalls died Monday, April 16 after a brief struggle with cancer. Smalls was a pioneer in the movement of African-American women rejecting definitions of “bad” and “good” hair based on European standards, and reclaiming African traditions of beauty. The lifelong West Philadelphian was 52.
Smalls was the youngest of three daughters born to Samuel and Emma Smalls. “She was the apple of her daddy’s eye cause she was the baby,” recalled family friend Margaret Peterkin. The Carrol Park resident attended Heston Elementary, Shoemaker Jr. High school and graduated with honors from Overbrook High School magnet program. While studying at Harcum Junior College, Smalls began braiding, dressing and sculpting African-American women’s hair in the late 1970s, to put herself through school.
“Hair is my artistic medium and became my mission,” Smalls once told an interviewer. “My hairstyles are always on the edge of avant-garde with an acknowledgment of the roots of my culture. I love to ‘dress’ hair with all kinds of complex techniques as well as to explore creative and artistic aspects of natural hair. In my sanctuary we have a spiritual experience that’s difficult to explain; you come in looking one way and you leave another way.”
Smalls’ journey of self-discovery began as a quest to reverse the negative self-image she saw in the women she encountered. She went on to educate herself in intricate and varied hair braiding, wrapping, coiling and weaving traditions used in her own extended family across the American South, and across the African world, from Egypt to South Africa, Senegal to Kenya as an important form of creative expression representing both the individuality and social status or role of the wearer. In her own work, she drew on a wide range of styles and techniques, approaching each person’s hair as the ultimate wearable art. In 1998, she completed a documentary “Hair Stories,” broadcast on WYBE-TV and screened in festivals internationally. She has been a featured artist at ODUNDE and appeared at hundreds of schools and community events annually.
“I was so happy to see her do ‘Hair Stories,’” noted Philadelphia Poet Laureate Sonia Sanchez, who first taught Smalls at Temple University and became a client and friend. “She was able to tell her story about people she had come in contact with and how she help spread the whole idea of one’s identity and how to be proud of one’s self and how you looked and how you are on this earth. She did it in such a non-invasive fashion — she wasn’t ever rude with it; she was never aggressive with it. She would just present it in a very kind and gentle fashion that I saw people just look up and listen because she did do it in that fashion. It was who she was: a very kind and gentle woman. She moved on this earth with knowledge of how we, as women, quite often did not look at ourselves as beautiful women, and one of the reason why was because sometimes with (skin) color, and with the accompanying thing: the hair.”
The home, or sanctuary, where Smalls honed her craft was a central meeting place for many in the creative and performing arts. When the neo-soul music movement first took off in Philadelphia in the mid-’90s, Smalls was the go-to person for natural hair care and tended the coifs of dozens of young music notables including Erykah Badu, Ursula Rucker, Jill Scott and The Roots, whose drummer credits her for his signature hairstyle.
“(Smalls was the) first person who taught me about the bohemian lifestyle that I would soon capitalize off of and build a movement,” said Ahmir Khalib “QuestLove” Thompson via Facebook. “She taught me about oils, frankincense and myrrh incense, teaching me how to care for my hair (‘oiling and wha treatment?’), the one who encouraged my Afro when damn near EVERYONE fell out laughing at the sight of it in 1994 and made me stick to it when I felt insecure and just wanted to blend in with everyone and just plait or twist it up cause the laughs were unbearable ... you will be missed. Hope I did you proud. I listened to all those talks when you [thought] I wasn’t.”
Smalls’ work has been consistently featured in the press around the globe, and in March the Philadelphia the Folklore Project (PFP) screened her “Hair Stories” documentary and presented her with an award of appreciation honoring her years of vanguard work in folk arts and social change. The event marked the last public apperance Smalls would make.
“In life people pursue happiness and comfortabily, lavish and fine living,” said her only child, Amiri Russam Nichols, 28. “My mother did not need to pursue these things because her love and caring for others outweighed all her desires of materiel goods. She just enjoyed life. She was happy.”
In addition to her son, Smalls is survived by her older siblings: Harriet Smalls and Joyce Smalls-Jones; her former husband, Richard Nichols and her longtime companion Estan Wilsonus-El. A celebration of life memorial is scheduled for June. For more information, visit https://www.facebook.com/YvetteKinyoziSmalls.