When you think of natural hair care, several brands and product lines, including the Taliah Waajid Brand, come to mind. Her journey as a natural hair enthusiast, stylist and entrepreneur began when she was young. Because her mother refused to allow her to perm her hair, she spent her adolescence learning to manage her kinks and coils. By the age of 14, she began her first start-up business, leading to years of styling and the eventual launch of her product line. Since starting her company in 1996, Waajid has five major product lines available at retailers such as Target and Walmart, as well as beauty stores throughout the country and online. Her empire continues to expand. Outside of her products, she founded the World Natural Hair Health & Beauty Show, which is currently in its 24th year.

This year’s show will be held from April 25-28 at the Atlanta Convention Center, featuring over 300 vendors, free beauty consultations, panel discussions, health screenings and more. It’s the first show of its kind. And while she’s inspired others to create similar events, hers is the only one of such a large scale. Ahead of the event, Waajid spoke with Blavity about her journey, natural hair and her plans for the 25th anniversary.

ATLANTA, GA – APRIL 12: Taliah Waajid attends a private screening of Centric “We Are The Joneses” at The B-Loft on April 12, 2017 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Marcus Ingram/Getty Images)

The World Natural Hair Expo has been around for over 20 years, and it’s the first of its kind and such a massive magnitude. When you first started, was it a hard selling point for sponsors and other potential vendors to participate?

Taliah Waajid: Yes, it was a hard selling point period because we started it 24 years ago. This is our 24th year of the World Natural Hair & Beauty Show. And yes, it was very difficult because we were at a time when natural hair wasn’t popular at all. Hardly anybody wanted it. And I was in Atlanta. I just moved from New York City. I was struggling, just trying to find clients. 

Years later, when I started the show, we were still at a time when people were not that interested. I would get compliments all the time on my natural hair. There was a small community of people that were very Afrocentric, and that was my audience for some years. And so I guess social media came along later, and that’s what helped push it forward even more. 

And what initially prompted the spike for me, personally, was Janet Jackson in Poetic Justice. That was really the spark in my career in Atlanta as far as doing hair. Everyone wanted their hair like Janet’s in the movie. Customers came to the show, and I spent a lot of time educating people on the benefits of natural hair and just kept at it. Anything that you continue to do with passion and from your heart is eventually going to catch on. And that’s what happened with the show.

How did your background as a stylist help you with marketing the show and your product line? As you mentioned, this was foreign to most women in Atlanta.

TW: I looked at the whole beauty industry, as it was just something missing because when you went into the stores back then, there were aisles and aisles of relaxers, hair coloring and conditioner. But there were no products there for natural hair. I knew that creating a product that would tap into what was missing in the industry — that along with education. Just educating people, continuing to show people the benefits of wearing your natural hair. 

Back then, they had magazines. Hype Hair was still out. I used to advertise in Hype Hair. I went to a lot of trade shows even though I was the only person there doing natural hair; I would still go and just educate people on the benefits of it. And so that was my marketing.

Your show started as a 1,600-square-foot exhibit. So now you have the entire convention center in Atlanta. How rewarding has it been for you to go from this idea and struggling in the beginning to it now being the premiere expo of its kind?

TW: It’s very, very rewarding. And when I think about it, I think about the times when we would do the show, and I would spend all this money and time and energy and hardly anyone would show up. Even when we got to the convention center, we had one hall. I would always raise the bar to say, ‘OK, well we built this, finally filled the one room, so let’s do a convention center hall.’ So we did that. But the numbers were very low at first. There were plenty of crying nights. And so to be where we are now with it is very, very rewarding.

Something that sticks out to me is after years of doing the show and not getting a good response, one day, I was rushing to the show, and I was running late, and I had to be there. I was on Camp Creek, and it was so many cars and just traffic was everywhere. There was frustration and attitudes. And I start looking at the people in the cars. I’m like, ‘Oh, OK, well, she has natural hair. That’s good. I wish I could give her a flier.’ I am looking at the next car and the next car; they all had natural hair. And I realized they were all going to the show. So, I finally had some happy tears.

Where we are now, just seeing women going from a time where I would see like five or six women, and none of them were natural; they were all relaxed. Now you see five or six women, and they’re all-natural, even if they’re wearing a wig or protective style. A lot of women wear wigs and protective styles and are natural underneath. So, I just think it’s great because there are benefits of not using chemicals in your hair and because it can impact your overall health. And natural hair is now more accepted in society and actually craved. 

I am returning to something you said about Atlanta because you mentioned moving from New York to Atlanta. And I always thought Atlanta was an interesting place for you to do this show. Atlanta is your home now, and you’ve built this amazing brand and business there. But when I think about Atlanta, it is the pulse of Black culture and beauty. But many still don’t equate Atlanta with natural hair. They see it as a land of wigs and weaves. But what do you feel makes it the ideal place to continue to have the expo? 

TW: Because I still see the growth. I still see an opportunity to continue to educate people on natural hair. We’re women. We like to change up often. We sometimes wear a straight weave, a wig or whatever. The whole thing about this show is to promote not putting chemicals in your hair. I just think that Atlanta’s a great place to continue to do this event. And not to say that we wouldn’t go to another city or expand to another city or another market. I was still always wanting to keep it in Atlanta because there’s so much history for me here. There’s so much of a transition that I went through on a personal level to get to this point. So, I can’t give up on Atlanta. I can’t give up on it. And I think it’s going to continue to grow.

Do you plan to make pop-up shows in other cities available to those who want to attend but can’t travel to Atlanta?

TW: Yes. Next year is our 25th year of this event. We’re starting to take it on the road and do small pop-up events by leading with the Taliah Waajid Brand and the Uncle Jimmy products and spreading the word about the show and the benefits of natural hair. I remember when we first got to the convention center with the show; there was a lady there who had super long hair. She would look at us like we were crazy because we had African drummers; people had locs and afros and natural hair, and she just could not understand what was going on. And she had her nose up at us. And now, she has locs down her back. She’s wearing Afrocentric stuff every now and then. So it’s just a process of people taking in the education. 

When someone has information, they can make the best decision for themselves. When they don’t have the information, and they’re not exposed to it, they don’t understand that there is another choice. And so that also has always been my goal since my mother told me I could not get a relaxer to spread that same message. Growing up, I had to struggle with my 4C hair and learn how to do it myself because she couldn’t even do hair. So, I had to learn how to do my own hair. And I fell in love with my hair. I fell in love with the coils and the curls. But of course, when I became old enough, I wanted to do what my mother said I couldn’t do, and I went out and got a relaxer. I absolutely did not like it because I had the chance to learn my natural hair and really fall in love with it. 

With the relaxer, my hair didn’t have texture. So, I had to go back through that process of knowing my hair in its natural state. And it was refreshing. When you learn how to manage it and are confident with it, it’s a beautiful thing.

You spoke about your mother not allowing you to perm your hair. Nowadays, I see many instances on social media where mothers are trying to manipulate their infant daughter’s hair or manipulating young girls’ hair with tough styling, a lot of products very early, silk presses, and even extensions with things like braids. How do you feel about that and doing too much to a young girl’s hair that can have lasting damage? 

TW: It’s not only traumatic for the child, but it sends them negative signals. The mothers may not know that they’re giving their daughters a negative view of themselves, but they are. The child will feel scared every time they have to get their hair done. It’s a problem. I see so many videos of little girls screaming and crying while getting their hair done. They associate that with being really a bad thing. It’s a bad experience for them. 

I remember when Beyoncé refused to do too much to Blue’s hair when she was a baby, and there was so much backlash with women saying things like, ‘She needs to slick Blue’s hair into a ponytail,’ and she didn’t. And I love that because it’s freedom for the baby. First of all, where is the baby going? Who is the baby trying to impress? Let the baby be a baby. Moisturize the baby’s hair, put a bow on it if you want, and let her hair be free.

Oftentimes, we don’t even understand the negativity that we put on our children and how it stays with them. There would be women in my chair crying because their parents didn’t understand why they were going natural. One lady told me her grandmother was on her dying bed, and she went to see her grandmother, and her grandmother said something about her hair being nappy. It’s crazy.

I read online that you invested in a children’s hair product line. Does your brand offer products specifically for children?

TW: We do. Our children’s line is called Kinky Wavy Natural. It’s been available for quite some time, about 10 years. 

Tell us about your upcoming loc line. Plenty of natural hair products exist, but you can only find a few at major retailers. Most people I know with locs use their stylist’s products or make their own.

TW: We have always had products for locs. We have a Black Earth Collection. That’s the first collection that I came out with back in 1996. And our loc it up gel is a regular loc hold product. It’s a very light loc gel. The thing about locs is that you really don’t need to put anything on them because your hair is going to loc, no matter the texture, if you never run a comb through it or run your fingers through it. But our products add moisture, conditioning and nutrients to keep your locs and scalp healthy.

Who is representing the natural hair community right now? 

TW: I love Chloe and Halle Bailey. Issa Rae kills it with her styles. I like Ice Spice’s fro. And Lupita Nyong’o.

What are your hopes for the 25th anniversary of the show? How do you plan to continue to expand and celebrate the milestone year? 

TW: I have high hopes for making that the biggest thing ever. And that’s why we’re taking it on the road and just telling everybody about this event. A lot of spinoff events have been inspired by my show that others have done. But there’s none like ours. 

At our show, it’s not just about hair. We celebrate natural beauty overall. It’s just a vibe. There is a vibe. It has spanned generations. People have come to people who have met, got married, had children, and their children have children. So we have those kinds of stories to go on. It’s a connection because it’s been going on for so long. And to be able to do something this long and keep people’s interest shows that it’s deeper than the event. 

You leave with something that has added to your life. And that’s always been my goal with this event. And we’ve been able to do that. Sometimes, I run into people, and they tell me how the event has changed their life. It has changed the way they eat, and now they eat healthier. You learn about womb wellness at the event. There are different health screenings. It’s not just about hair. It’s overall wellness.