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Afro hair celebration weaves community with identity in Finland

Helsinki collective helps consumers and professionals create fellowship based on the appreciation and care of Afro hair.

"My fabulous 'fro". A Good Hair Day participant shows off her well-coiffed curls. Image: Yle News / Denise Wall

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon and there’s a palpable buzz of excitement in the air as animated children and smiling adults -- some with freshly-finessed locks -- walk around admiring hair professionals’ handiwork and exchanging compliments on trendy dos.

The place is Caisa multicultural centre and the occasion is Helsinki’s fourth annual Good Hair Day event (GHD), where Afro hair-focused styling demonstrations and competitions, workshops, lectures, panel discussions, DIY hair product sessions and Afro blooming are all on offer.

Afroblooming pro adorning a young customer's hair with fresh flowers. Image: Yle News / Denise Wall

The grassroots event put on by a collective of Afro-Finnish women draws a wide cross-section of the community to roll up their sleeves and get their fingers into Afro hair trends.

"It’s my first time here. I came with my daughter. I thought it would be nice for her to see the event and to see lots of people with hair like hers and maybe get some ideas how to do her hair -- sort of to get inspired," said Carina, a white Finnish mother of an adopted youngster sporting neatly-pinned micro dreadlocks.

"I’m not very good with Afro hair. I don’t really know what to do. Sometimes I try something and I maybe watch YouTube to learn but it has been really difficult for me. I try and sometimes I make mistakes and I don’t know much about the products," added Meri, who is at the event with a boisterous adopted son.

Oils, coils and conditioners

Afro hair care isn’t as easy as it may seem to the uninitiated -- the more tightly hair is coiled, the more difficult it is for natural oils from the scalp to reach the ends of the hair shaft. The result is that coiled or curly hair is more vulnerable to dryness than straight hair. In some cases, this can also make the hair brittle and prone to breakage. Hence the reason moisture, oils and conditioners are essential to black hair care. Afro hair that has been processed by straighteners also needs extra attention and care as the chemicals break down curls and may weaken hair.

For mothers like Carina and Meri and the many Afro-haired families who have bookmarked the annual outing in their calendars, GHD is perhaps the only event where they can gather to share ideas and experiences and get first-hand information about Afro hair care and hairstyles. It’s also one of the most important hubs for tracking down Afro hair products that cannot easily be found at conventional retail stores.

SukiMilayi plant-based hair products are available online and via partners. Image: Yle News / Denise Wall

If GHD Helsinki is anything to go by, there is intense interest in Afro hair care products. Small local merchants exhibiting at the event are receiving a great deal of attention. Hendrina Nsumbu of SukiMilayi cosmetics is one of the micro entrepreneurs showing off products for curly, wavy and "coily" hair. Established in 2017, the Helsinki-based business is still fairly new on the block and therefore doesn’t have its own brick and mortar outlet.

"We sell mainly online and also reach our customers through partners," Hendrina explained, noting that events like Good Hair Day are an important fixture to help move their products.

More established vendors on the Helsinki Afro hair scene include well-known names like the Natural Beauty Shop, located on Hämeentie, Helsinki’s epicentre for ethnic offerings. Among the city's Afro community, it’s the go-to location for cosmetics and hair products, especially for younger consumers who prefer items manufactured from natural ingredients and which conform to fair trade practices.

A space for fellowship and collaboration

A growing part of the Afro hair scene is the styling element, and Afro Akatemia is a new force helping to shape styles, skills, and attitudes to curly and coiled hair types.

"We provide training for our clients and for hair professionals in how to care for and style curly and Afro hair," a spokeswoman said, as her colleagues offer a live on-stage demo on how to ensure that curls remain glossy and bouncy.

"Next we will be looking to get into schools to reach young people and help get them started early with Afro hair care," she added.

The GHD collective provides an opportunity for the small firms involved in providing Afro hair care expertise to network and create a kind of specialist ecosystem -- Afro Akatemia also promotes the SukiMilayi product line to its customers.

A DIY leave-in conditioner station proved to be a hit with patrons looking for reliable curl care. Image: Yle News / Denise Wall

One of the most popular attractions at GHD is the DIY leave-in conditioner station, where attendees are provided with a simple set of instructions, a small spray bottle and basic ingredients for concocting personalised batches of Afro hair gold.

As one group of amateur chemists exits the “lab” clutching customised phials of hair conditioner, another settles in swapping ingredients, tips and chatter. According to GHD organiser Michaela Moua, this is the kind of community that GHD aims to foster.

"The number one thing is to bring the community together because many of us don’t know about each other, and also to celebrate Afro-Finnishness and Afro hair."

Big Finnish retailers: "No demand" for Afro hair care products

London-based market research firm Mintel estimated last year that black consumers in the US (siirryt toiseen palveluun) would spend 2.5 billion US dollars on hair care products in 2018. It noted that this consumer group had pumped up spending on conditioners and shampoos as the popularity of natural hair takes root globally, leaving behind styles that require chemical straightening of curly tresses.

However according to major retail groups in Finland, the natural Afro hairstyle wave and related demand for specific hair care products do not seem to have washed into Finland.

"At the moment K Group does not have any products specifically for Afro hair. K Group has not received any feedback or requests from customers about afro products so it is difficult to estimate the demand for such products," K Group product manager Virve Pusa told Yle News via email.

"K Group has a wide range of products (shampoos, conditioners, hair masks and oils) available for curly hair. These products moisturize dry hair. In addition to these K Group has styling products that reduce the frizziness of curly hair," she added.

Meanwhile Outi Hohti, communications vice president at Finland’s other leading retailer S Group, told Yle News that its S and Prisma grocery chains do not sell products specially formulated for Afro hair, nor do its specialty chains Sokos and Sokos Emotion.

"When there is enough demand, this will certainly change," she added.

GHD challenged the view that there is no demand for Afro hair care products in Finland. Image: Yle News / Denise Wall

Organiser Moua dismissed the retailers’ premise that there is no demand for Afro hair products.

"I think that’s not true at all. There’s a large Afro-Finnish community in Finland. There are ethnic stores in the Hakaniemi area that are doing extremely well. Many times I go in and the products are finished. I don’t think the big companies are really in touch with the reality of Finnish society today and how diverse it has become," she declared.

"Also we are not seen as a potential consumer base, which is ridiculous. Like any other woman, if I find a good product for my hair I will buy it so it’s just ignorant to not see us as a potential consumer base," she continued.

Hair as celebration of identity

The sense of belonging woven around hair is reminiscent of the affinity and kinship that people of the African diaspora recreate in hair care establishments the world over. Barber shops and hairdressers don’t just provide hair care services, they are also safe spaces where patrons and service providers swap news, views and life-changing advice.

According to Moua, GHD is an important arena for young Afro-Finns to affirm and celebrate identity. "There is a whole second and third generation of black and brown kids who have the possibility to come here at least once a year to see people who look like them, professionals that look like them, touch hair like their hair and learn how to do a few things with their hair," she told Yle News.

Afro hair care is not just about taming tangled tresses, it's also about celebrating identity and building community. Image: Yle News / Denise Wall

And although the primary target of the event is Afro Finns, GHD is not exclusive, Moua added. "I think for many white mothers of brown children, this is a place for them to learn to see people that look like them. They want their children to see others like them because representation is a very important part of growing up. If you don’t see anyone that looks like you doing anything, it can limit how you see yourself in the future," she added.

It’s a sentiment with which mothers Meri and Carina agree.

"We also really want Vanessa to see a place where there are lots of beautiful women with hair like hers,” said Carina.

"I think for my son it’s good to see other people with African hair and the atmosphere is really nice," Meri concurred.

Edit: Updated at 6.10pm to indicate that the location of the event was Caisa multicultural centre, rather that Kaiku nightclub as previously reported.