The afro is back. Naomi Campbell has a perfect 'fro in the new issue of Vogue, Beyoncé sports one for her acting debut in the new Austin Powers movie and model Caroline B wore an afro for the Dior couture show this week. No R&B or rap video is complete without an impossibly beautiful black woman skimping around in an immaculately defined afro. Even the men, from Lenny Kravitz to Audley Harrison, are getting in on the act.
"The afro has definitely become more popular over the last year or so," says Irene Shelly, editor of Black Hair and Beauty, the country's biggest selling black hair magazine. "Before that it was more of a club thing, but now you see people wearing it as part of their everyday life. You also see more guys wearing it. People have embraced it more - it's no longer seen as such an 'out there' style."
But the return of the afro is about more than just fashion. In its 70s heyday, at a time when the personal was very much the political, the afro was a radical style. No disrespect to Naomi or Beyoncé but I somehow doubt if their afros have anything to do with identity politics, let alone black power. For a start, neither afro looks particularly real and, secondly, they both have the kind of afro which can only be maintained with a stylist close to hand. Besides, as you can see from the Vogue cover shot, Campbell's commitment to the afro was very shortlived.
The whole point of the afro is that it is a celebration of afro hair in its natural state because for so long black people have been ashamed of their looks. We are constantly told we are not good enough by the beauty industry - our skin is too dark, our shape too curvy and our hair too curly. So even though the afro is not as radical as it once was, it's still something of a statement. It says you are happy with your hair and, more importantly, yourself. "Wearing an afro is a way of proudly defining your heritage, giving yourself a distinct identity that not everyone can have," says Errol Douglas, twice winner of afro hairdresser of the year. "It says 'non-conformist' loud and clear, it says, 'I'll do what I want'."
Seeing the normally bone-straight Naomi let it all hang out in Vogue is fantastic. I can't look at the pictures without smiling. She always looks good, but the straight-haired image we see on the cover is the one we've come to expect. The pictures inside are a revelation - the afro frames her face beautifully and softens her whole look. I understand why so many black women like Naomi usually straighten their hair, but I don't know a single one who wishes they didn't have to bother.
"Once upon a time there was no way I'd have worn my hair kinky," says Nana Addow, 32, who has had an afro for nearly two years. "When I was 14 it was important for me to have the same styles as my white friends. Flicks, bobs, partings - you have to have white hair for those.
"I'm not saying people with relaxed hair aren't proud," she says, "but since I have embraced my natural hair, I just feel more like me. It's not really a black power thing, but that I don't want to spend time and money making my hair do what it's not supposed to do. But you are embracing your roots, so it is political but politics lite, not full fat."
It's not just the context of today's afro that has changed, the style is also different. Most noticeably, afro-wearers are experimenting with colour in a new way. Browns, reds and blues give the afro a modern look. They also add depth so it becomes less of a solid block. There are also two very different types of afro. There's the perfect afro as worn by Naomi and Beyoncé, and, well, the other one. "The perfect afro is immaculate but very high maintenance," says Shelly. "You have to pat it down, make sure you have the right comb on you at all times. It has to look perfect."
Then there is the more modern, messier look. "It's the Macy Gray way," says Shelly. "Sort of chunky, not so neat, not such a bubble - it's a very funky look."
But as with all "just got out of bed" hairstyles this messier, wilder afro takes time to perfect. You could always opt for an afro wig, but that kind of misses the point of a haircut that has such a fine heritage.
· The August issue of Vogue is on sale Monday 15 July.