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How One Instagram Account is Creating a Celebratory Space for Black Men Online

All I ask when I die, dress me fly and neatly / And brush my waves so I’m handsome when the bitches greet me.

Credit: topwavers via Instagram

Black hair is inherently communicative. It connects to a lineage of creativity that has evolved and adapted with time, aligning dispersed people through a shared, unique aesthetic. From William J. Powell Jr.’s slicked-back fade in the 1920s, to the ubiquitous Afro of the 1970s, to the electrifying color sported by stars like Lil Uzi Vert today, black hair is modular, distinct, and almost always political. As such, it’s not surprising that communities have sprouted online celebrating the unique ways that black hair can uplift and unite.

On Instagram, TopWavers — an account started by 29-year-old New York native Jeremy Capasso — encourages black and brown men to flaunt their meticulously developed waves. “360 Waves,” as they are commonly known, is a black hairstyle characterized by a rippling “wave” effect in the hair, popularized in the mid-80s, and defined by persistence. To achieve the look, wavers must invest time and energy into almost constant upkeep. The durag, which as an accessory carries its own connotations, is a principle tool of maintaining and developing waves; wavers use it to matt curly hair down in a way that, in conjunction with constant brushing, can turn a man’s head into high tide. As with any task involving determination and skill, there’s a long history of men competing to see who can develop the most prominent waves.

Indeed, hip-hop is replete with playful brags about the style. “All I ask when I die, dress me fly and neatly / And brush my waves so I’m handsome when the bitches greet me,” Ma$e rapped on the 1997 track, “Take What’s Yours.” In 2014, Maclean Jackson and Stephen K. Schuster released a coffee table book celebrating the distinct culture that has developed around waves. In the video accompanying the release, a vernacular around the style becomes clear: waves can be “on swim,” they also spin, and they have to be laid perfectly. The book points out how everyone from Meek Mill to former president Barack Obama has sported the style.

Now, social media has brought the trend online. Capasso started out as a YouTuber, around 2013, creating wave tutorial videos. The platform was already home to a number of similar accounts, like 360 Jeezy, Sir Cruse, 360 Wave Process, Young Wavy 4eva, Poppy Blasted, Nick Wavy and Exxclusive, all pioneers in the online wave tutorial world. Capasso honed his craft by watching those videos and, in April of 2014, decided to migrate to Instagram where he’d “create a platform that would feature all the best wavers from around the world.” Three years later, TopWavers is a “full time grind.” The account boasts over 180,000 followers and, according to Capasso, generates over 5 million impressions each week.

“For as long as I can remember people have always been comparing waves,” Capasso says. “So here I’ve provided a platform for [them] to showcase what they got.”

TopWavers offers a space for young men to commune in a way that young men of color have for decades, jousting with one another over their hairstyles, while celebrating themselves in the process. There are contests and giveaways, tutorials, and product recommendations, all centered around developing the perfect waves. Barbers advertise their services on the page, as do budding rappers and comedians. Capasso says he sees TopWavers as a digital magazine speaking to a particular demographic. “TopWavers has become a popular platform for the community. To make it here is a sense of joy and accomplishment,” he explained.

The community that has developed around TopWavers isn’t unlike other online communities of color that gather around various specifics of the black experience. In fact, Capasso’s is a familiar trajectory, as more and more black creators are able to find success online by speaking to their unique expertise. There are the upstart media networks like The Shaderoom, which is something like the Associated Press for fans of urban culture, and there are creators on platforms like Vine and Twitter who traffic in culturally specific jokes and memes. The meme itself harkens to black modes of communication, as Aria Dean writes in Real Life:

“…given how formations like Black Twitter now foster connections and offer opportunities for intense moments of identification, we might say that, at this point in time, the most concrete location we can find for this collective being of blackness is the digital…”

Still, the exposure of social media means the community is inherently public. Capasso says he often fields questions from people of all ethnicities hoping to develop waves. While there is certainly an argument to made about the sanctity of keeping waves — and the communities they represent — close to the chest, Capasso sees things with a more open perspective: “I believe the more we bring this particular hairstyle to mainstream, you will start to see more and more other ethnicities…partake in the culture.”

But for now, the account is a space for black men to celebrate exactly who they are. One recent post features a side-by-side photo titled “From Wolf to Waves.” On the right, a young man with long, unkempt hair. On the left, the same man with his hair on swim — an expression of determined, and persistent, self presentation.