“Growing up, I saw a lot of Black women wearing dark liner and gloss, bamboo earrings, long nails, and sometimes red hair,” the photographer Jada Imani M tells me. “I always loved colorful hair on Black women. I have early memories of Janet Jackson in The Velvet Rope era and Kelis in the ‘Caught Out There’ music video.” 

At the same time, however, M also grew up aware of systemic racism, natural hair discrimination, and the pressures placed on Black women at work. She never saw long nails, bamboo earrings, or red hair in the workplace. “It was seen as unprofessional and/or ghetto to wear big hoops to work and church,” the photographer says. “Even in some schools, you could not wear hoop earrings larger than a quarter, if at all.” 

In 1999, the same year Kelis’s iconic Hype Williams-directed “Caught Out There” video was released, employees at Federal Express were fired for wearing locs. This kind of discrimination is still pervasive today. In 2010, when a company in Alabama rescinded a job offer to a woman who would not cut her locs, a district court ruled that the company was not in violation of federal law. In April of this year, a Texas school’s ban on twisted and braided hair prevented a student from attending. 

But people are speaking up, and changes are coming. Just this March, The Crown Act, a bill providing legal protection against hair-based discrimination, passed the US House of Representatives. First passed in California in 2019, that law helped inspire M when she was in the process of creating DEATH TO ASSIMILATION, a photo series in celebration of Black women. 

When approaching my stylist friend, Liyah, I came ready with an entire pitch desk full of inspiration, the ideal cast, and project description,” she remembers. “I knew I wanted Black femmes to be dressed in blazers, blouses, etc. to play off the idea of professionalism. I already knew the makeup artist I wanted and that I needed a nail tech. Liyah suggested we reach out to Amber to make press ons for the models.” 

The photographs remind me of Hype Williams and the iconic music videos he made for Missy Elliott, TLC, Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson, and, of course, Kelis. M says the influence was not deliberate, though she’s always found inspiration in Williams’s work. “I think I’m subconsciously inspired by Hype Williams all the time,” she says. “His work is so timeless, and it is embedded into my brain at this point. Using a fisheye and building a colorful set was probably that subconscious inspiration kicking in.”

The shoot itself took place at The Dojo Studios in Capitol Heights, Maryland, with the photographer and production team building the set. Then everyone else joined them.  “I just remember all the models dancing and taking selfies together,” M tells me. “One of the best parts of doing a group shoot is the comradery throughout. It’s something I look forward to every time.” 

Cover image for please say the M

One of the photographs from the project, featuring Nia the model, appears on the cover of M’s photobook, please say the M. “Nia absolutely killed it,” the photographer tells me. “Part of me saw myself in her. At the time, I had locs myself, and we are close in skin complexion. That representation is so valuable to me. I have decided to live my life under the mentality of DEATH TO ASSIMILATION. I can and will wear my natural hair, show my tattoos, and piercings in any environment. It does not take away from who I am as a person, especially in the workplace.”

Order your copy of please say the M by Jada Imani M here. Jada Imani M is a member of Black Women Photographers, a global community bringing together Black women and non-binary photographers. To learn more about Black Women Photographers, visit their website, and follow along on Instagram at @blackwomenphotographers.

The DEATH TO ASSIMILATION cast includes Sedna (@sednahhh), Marti (@misfit.marti), Edna (@eddiebugatti), Nia (@dangerdoom), Syd (@hiimsydthekid), and Mahogany (@oddmojo). Creative Director/Photographer: Jada (@jadaimanim) Wardrobe Stylist: Liyah (@justamiri). Hair Stylist: Agnes (@aggie_hair). MUA: Chi (@melanated_martian). Nail Artist: Amber (@ajnailedthat). Production Assistants: Muhteyoh (@populroutcast), Chynna (@madenchynna), and Kyri (@sidvivid). 

All images © Jada Imani M