‘The salon is my happy place’: Black hair stylists fill gap in Dubuque market

When Shanta Long moved to Dubuque in 2019, she would drive all the way to Chicago to have her hair done.

Long, who is Black, had trouble tracking down appointments locally with stylists who understood how to correctly care for her hair and provide the services for which she was looking. Some friends told her there would be closer options in Davenport, Iowa, but having grown up in Chicago, she felt more comfortable making the three-hour drive until she found somewhere closer to her new home.

“That way was more money with, you know, gas prices and going over and turning around and coming all the way back and doing it all over again (when I needed another appointment),” she said. “… (But) it felt like there was nobody out here.”

A friend later referred Long to local stylist Tanisha Frazier, whom Long has been going to for hair care ever since. She also will buy hair care products that can be difficult to find in local beauty aisles from Frazier.

“It always gives me a boost of confidence, and it’s just comfortable. I always feel comfortable in her chair,” Long said. “The salon is my happy place.”

Like Long, many Black people nationwide face difficulties finding providers who offer quality and accessible Black hair care. Several stylists in Dubuque have started salons to help fill this gap, though they noted a need for more industry-wide education.

“The problem, both as a client and as a salon owner, is that there aren’t a lot of licensed cosmetologists in the area that are servicing textured hair,” said Frazier, who owns STP Luxe Hair Studio, which recently rebranded and moved into a new location at 233 Main St.

Frazier said when she attended cosmetology school, she would have other students crowding around her clients to watch her work or asking her frequent questions about curly or coily hair textures. It was an uncomfortable feeling.

“I do think it’s getting better, but when you attend a beauty school and there’s no one that looks like you or teachers that know about your hair type, … it can be really discouraging,” she said.

Around 11% of hair stylists nationwide are Black, with many licensed Black providers located in larger cities. In addition, many stylists — especially White stylists — do not receive or seek out formal training on how to best care for natural or textured hair or on how to do protective styles such as locs or braids.

Rayshaun Watson is a local loctician who specializes in loc maintenance, repair and styling under the name Ray Swervoo. Locs are a popular protective style created by coiling, braiding, twisting or palm-rolling hair. He started providing styling services soon after learning how to loc his hair three to four years ago.

Watson said his favorite part of the job has been the clients he has met and the different techniques he has learned along the way. While he is not the only loctician in the area, he said his clients appreciate his professionalism and attention to detail.

“I’m usually open, and I’m quick with it,” he said. “… I’ll also give them knowledge on how to maintain their hair properly because there’s a lot that goes into it.”

Shamika Rainer opened Luxurious Hair Spa at 1464 Central Ave. in 2015 after realizing while job hunting that there weren’t many options for Black hair stylists in Dubuque. The salon caters to all hair types, including services for extensions, locs and braids.

“I do it first for the people and for the freedom,” she said. “… It’s about people and being able to welcome people into the community because when I moved here and there was no one to do my hair, I thought ‘This is not cool.’”

Whether it is for an important job interview or just for day-to-day life, Rainer said there is a certain confidence boost that comes with looking and feeling your best. By catering to all hair types, she said she is providing an equal opportunity for people to achieve that feeling.

“If I’m trying to better myself, why wouldn’t I want to look the best version of myself?,” Rainer said.

Frazier echoed that sentiment, comparing finding the right stylist to “meeting the love of your life.” She also provides services for all hair types, but her favorite service is a silk press — a straightening service that is done without the use of harmful chemicals.

“I love to see the looks on their faces (at the end of a session),” Frazier said, adding, “It’s an indescribable feeling … to know you’ve made someone’s day like that.”