Dreadlocks vs Locs, an intense debate about the origin & meaning

Locs vs Dreadlocks

Locs vs Dreads : Hello there, I have been wearing my hair in natural styles for many, many years.  I am 72 now.  One reference to the style of wearing LOCS always feels insulting.  My hair is not DREADful, so why do WE continue to call it so?  DREAD LOCS was originally referring to black hair  worn “locked” and the people who called the style so believed the hair was dirty, unkempt and dreadful!!!!!!!!!


As far as I’m concerned the D word is akin to the N word…it’s time to change that, don’t you think?


The message was sent to me by one of our members after my last newsletter about the dreadlocks going to the supreme court. As with all feedback, I am very thankful for people taking the time to voice their opinion, sending feedback or correct me if I make mistakes. In this case I couldn’t immediately respond though because I read about this  theory a long time ago but I didn’t subscribe to it because I have learned a different history.

First I want to say that if you’ve been following me, even for a little minute, you know that the last thing I ever want is to disrespect another natural opinion let alone our hair. Of course I realize that that doesn’t mean that I can’t be wrong or still might hurt someone’s feelings and for that I sincerely apologize. Although I am not a professor on this subject, I did do my diligence and research so I hope that people who disagree will at least take a look at where I come from.

Starting with etymonline:

1960, from dread + locks (see lock (n.2)). The style supposedly based on that of East African warriors. So called from the dread they presumably aroused in beholders, but Rastafarian dread (1974) also has a sense of “fear of the Lord,” expressed in part as alienation from contemporary society.

I’ve also been on and around natural hair board long enough to know about this side of history which I subscribe to from BlackNaps:

I was curious about this feeling, when I had dreadlocks or locs I had no problem calling them either or and I wonder about the negativity behind the term. So I decided to ask my father who was born and raised in Jamaica. Through this conversation I discovered Jamaicans use the term “dread” as a term of respect, just like you would use “Sir” to address someone you are not familiar with and would like to show respect to.

Jamaican Patois Definitions of Dread

  • A person who has dreadlocks
  • Greeting to friend
  • Expression of a good idea
  • Awe or astonishment

She continues and explains:

Now here is where the confusion sets in?

dreadful power of the holy”

Now this Jamaican Patois definition is derived from the religious roots that dreadlocks have. People feared and respected those who wore dreadlocks. Those who were associated with dreadlocks were thought of as holy and powerful.

They were thought to have this spiritual connectedness with the divine that separated them from the others. If you were to even speak with a present day Yogi they would tell you that their journey separates them from the world around them.

This is what I have learned so to me there is indeed nothing dreadful about dreadlocks. Still it seems that the idea that dread in dreadlocks signifies dreadful is everywhere so I asked around. Nina Leverne who has locs herself and manages the page and website Men with locs said

Locs vs Dreadlocks

Historian, teacher and photographer Solwazi Afi Olusola however, is extremely passionate about the term and tried to convince me to see it differently.

He took his time to explain nearly the whole history of the Rastafari movement to me, how it started, when it started, why it started. Though I knew about it in general, he helped me get a much better understanding of it all.

What I did know and totally understand is that the Western world, considered everything about Rastafari movement dreadful. The hair, the lifestyle was looked down upon also by people in Jamaica, especially at the time it started.

So Solwazi’s explanation is that like Black people often do, they flipped the word “dread” giving it a positive spin as we have seen Micheal Jackson did with “Bad” and even with the N-word. Now here is where I disagree.

As much as I respect the historian’s vision, knowledge and insights, I can’t agree with him on the fact that the Rastafarians flipped the word. Here is why.

The N-word is American made. It stems from an extreme violent history and culture of which all of you decided that as Oprah mentioned, there is too much pain connected to that word, so much so that it is banned as a racist slur. More than just respecting this, I am in total agreement with it. There is a difference when it comes to the word dreadlocks though.

The main argument that I hear against the word is that it can’t be used because it was invented by the Western world to derogate Rastafarians. Also, mind you this is from an American perspective.

All though we have a history in common with the same roots, Jamaica is still a different nation. Not only do the same words have a different meaning, it is also an island where Black people are a majority.

As a woman growing up in a more or less similar society where Black people are a majority, I know for a fact that we see and experience things differently.

The way I see it the word dread is not flipped it does has a different meaning as BlackNaps explained.

Lifestyle vs Hairstyle

When you ask Rastafarians about this, many will tell you that the difference between locs and dreadlocks is that one is a hairstyle and the other one is a lifestyle. The hairstyle is cultivated, dreads are not. They are free-formed to make a statement. That I do understand and respect.

Still today Rastafarians use and see the word “dread” as separating themselves from society for a greater cause.

Since I am not a Rastafarian and my locs are cultivated, my hair would be just locs. So in theory, if people would ask me if I had dreadlocks I would explain to them well I am not a Rastafarian but I do have locs yet I would still not be offended by the term dreadlocks.

Although locs weren’t invented by Jamaicans, it is because of this little island’s Bob Marley that today’s world know them as dreadlocks.

For me, not to use the word because the Western world used it against you, your values and everything you stand for, is giving the Western world too much power.  That to me is oppression.

The way I see it the Jamaican interpretation has always been on point still I realize that I am a minority here.

Inspired by my member’s email I used my trip to BAM to ask people with locs how they refer to their hair. You can see the results.

From this little example you can see the difference in response from people from the islands. I don’t think this one post will allow us to get consensus but hopefully we get a sense of where both parties are coming from. Of course I look forward to your opinion as well.

dreads vs locs
Photo was taken at Afropunk 2014 for necklaces and accessories check WhatNaturalsLove.com


6 thoughts on “Dreadlocks vs Locs, an intense debate about the origin & meaning”

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this article with us.

    Loved your explanation on locs vs dreadlocs. Also you couldn’t have said this any better!!

    ‘For me, not to use the word because the Western world used it against you, your values and everything you stand for, is giving the Western world too much power. That to me is oppression.’

  2. A woman’s hair is her Glory I love my locks and I call them dreadlocks,this us the hair we were born with,I got tire of wigs an now im all natural,think of SOLOMON, MOSES AND JESUS THEIR HAIR WAS AS WOOL AN OTHERS IN THE BIBLESo yea I love my natural hair

  3. I first started dreding in 1971. I call my style dred/dreadlocks, dreds or locks/locs. For me there is no offense or denigration in any of those terms. I do distinguish dredlocks from sista locs and plaitlocks.
    Locks were/are also worn in Ghana distinguishing those studying for traditional priesthood among the Akan and marking children born with spiritual gifts. I started mine without ever having heard of Rastas or the Philadelphia naturalists group known as MOVE. As one African drummer told me then, it was spirit compelling me to lock. White and other folks opinion of my hair or the label they decide to affix to our hair is their business and not influential on my psyche.
    I’m not sure that Rasta women wear their locs freeform as we have our vanity wherever we are 😌.

  4. So is it bad for white people to wear locs? I’m white and would love to get some loc extensions. I’ve heard from several people that they help protect your hair and allow it to grow longer and thicker, something I’ve always struggled with. However, I’ve hear mixed opinions on whether this is considered appropriation or not. Anyway, I would love your opinion on the subject!

  5. It’s frustrating when those of us white people in our 40’s and 50’s who grew up in mixed communities. My high school was 93% black, 3% white, <1% Latino, and lower from there. Anyways, as a good intentioned white guy that doesn’t wear a history lesson on my shirt, I have been accused of cultural misappropriation as well as other things that teeter the subject of race with zero negative intent, malice, or even knowledge. I never knew the term “dreadlocks” (funny how spellcheck just fixed my spelling) came from a place of humility. As you (the author) yourself pointed out in your 4th paragraph, “the last thing I ever want is to disrespect…”, so why can’t we all be given that same sentiment? I (like I assume most) don’t want to intentionally disrespect anyone, ever, yet a single word I may use in an otherwise positive dialogue can turn ugly REAL quick before I/we even know what happened. Lately it’s become more and more uncomfortable to even have a conversation because so many are waiting for someone to say the wrong thing; (not “someone” as in race, but all backgrounds to be clear… UHG see?). I’m not looking for a pass, just some of the same understanding everyone expects when words are given new/different meanings before I got the memo. It’s not just cultural, black, white, etc. it’s in almost ever facet of life. I guess I could go on and on with examples but not like I can change the minds of everyone on my own. My point is simple and this topic specifically is just a single example of a huge problem with so many being angry all the time. It’s 2022, I own a fairly large business and am on the frontlines with several ethnicities, races, genders, political positions, LGBTQIA+++, etc. and have learned so much just by having an open dialogue with everyone. I came of age in the late 80’s and back then they weren’t “dreadlocks”, they were actually called “dreads”, not because us white people were being disrespectful (regardless of where it originated in the 40’s, 50’s or 60’s), but because that’s what the guys and girls that were wearing them called them. It’s not a learned behavior, it’s a learned WORD to describe the style. Now that I’ve read your opinion and that it is almost equivalent to the “n word” to some, you can bet I will always remember that, and never use the word in a real-world conversation again. Not because I think it’s bad, but because it may hurt someone else whether that’s truly the case or not. My issue with all these words I just knew as words (not insults or derogatory) is that they keep changing and in another 5-10 years it may turn right back the other way. Talk about confusing!! Maybe if we judge people more on their character and maybe even tone and/or demeanor instead of picking out the negative after re-defining words all the time, we’d all get along so much better. I’m willing to bet that even the ones getting offended 90+ % of the time KNOW there is no bad intentions, but actually turn the conversation negative just to be confrontational, which makes the one picking everything a part the one with the ill intentions, there-by making an otherwise normal conversation awkward and unpleasant.

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