AFROPUNK BLKTOPIA At ESSENCE FEST | Nail’lore Chronicles: Shaping the Future of Nail Art

July 8, 2024

“When was the last time you went to a Black nail tech to get your nails done?” It was the last question ESSENCE editor Shelby Stewart asked in her moderated panel on the Black origins of nail art and its futures in a currently $12 billion industry. Speakers Morgan A. Dixon, Bernadette Thompson, and Rah Digga represent distinct ends of the nail world, from artistry to enterprise, and have watched nail trends fluctuate over the years. During the conversation, Stewart steers the conversation toward each panelist’s view on the popularization of the cosmetic field, and its ethnographic meanings to African-American women. In many ways, the parabola veers in a similar upward tick as other exports of Black culture, such as the music and entertainment industries. 

Bernadette Thompson, a lifelong cosmetologist and multimodal artist, began doing nails as a teenager, first on friends—other Black girls—before eventually enfranchising her talent to larger, more diverse clients. To this day, the renowned manicurist is celebrated for her creative designs and her ability to elevate nail art to a better-respected form of artistic expression. In the 1990s,  she quickly became a sought-after nail artist for celebrities and fashion icons, developing designs still referenced for their ingenuity. Today, she is vocal about the unsung narratives of Black women and their frequent erasure from the chronology of nail trends and beauty at large. Similarly, rapper, actress, and writer Rah Digga has a keen memory of some of the more fruitful years of Black American cultural materiality. Born Rashia Tashan Fisher, she also reached fame in the 1990s, becoming renowned for her sharp lyricism and powerful presence in the hip-hop community. She spent some of her most popular years in the 1990s and 2000s rap scene as a member of Busta Rhymes’ Flipmode Squad, before her 2000 solo debut album, Dirty Harriet, launched her into a solidified legacy in the rap music canon for its critically acclaimed raw style. Both Fisher and Thompson were instrumental in shaping trends and pushing the boundaries of nail art—and they want to make sure that legacy is preserved. Thompson shared the adage with the audience, “Hype doesn’t pay the bills,” encouraging Black artists across disciplines not to allow flattery to distract from the larger mission of attaining the capital to preserve their legacy in the craft they develop.

Representing the contemporary voice in entertainment and nail art’s overlap was Morgan A. Dixon, a Hollywood nail tech operating in simultaneous silos of the editorial, commercial, and television industries. Over the years, she has gained recognition for her ability to merge art with nail care, creating intricate and visually stunning nail art that pushes the boundaries of traditional nail aesthetics. Over the years, she’s learned about streamlining prices and utilizing industry knowledge to ensure that she is paid market rate and in proportion to her skill.