The Travis Kelce haircut and the importance of cultural context

The fade was a staple in Black America long before the athlete wore it
Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) puts on his helmet during warm-ups before Super Bowl LVIII, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024, at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. (Nick Wagner/The Kansas City Star/TNS)

Credit: TNS

Credit: TNS

Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce (87) puts on his helmet during warm-ups before Super Bowl LVIII, Sunday, Feb. 11, 2024, at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. (Nick Wagner/The Kansas City Star/TNS)

You can give Travis Kelce credit for many things.

He helped the Kansas City Chiefs win another Super Bowl over the weekend. He seemingly keeps a smile on Taylor Swift’s face. He might’ve even reignited your love for the Beastie Boys’ “(You Gotta) Fight for Your Right (To Party!).”

But one thing he won’t take ownership for is the fade.

Raefus Cox cuts his customer Chris Anthony’s hair at Vintage Hair Gallery in downtown Atlanta on Friday, August 12, 2016. The most decorated Olympian of all time, Michael Phelps, visits an Atlanta barber shop and then shares his new haircut with the world via a selfie. That’s when Raefus Cox, the barber who cut his Phelps’ hair, first felt the Phelps’ effect. HYOSUB SHIN / HSHIN@AJC.COM

Credit: Hyosub Shin

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Credit: Hyosub Shin

Mainstream media recently credited the tight end for popularizing the hairstyle. Although he’s been rocking the look for years, along with so many others (particularly of course, Black men), barbershop clients across the world have apparently been requesting “the Travis Kelce” more frequently lately, according to one report.

Sure, more folks may be asking for the fade, but some articles have failed to offer the necessary cultural context to understand its true history.

According to Ebony magazine, the hairdo has been around since the 1940s, thanks to the U.S. military’s strict grooming rules. By the 1980s, Black barbers had revamped it and hip-hop heads couldn’t get enough of its newfound versatility.

Dwight Buckner cuts hair at Vision’s Barber Shop in Decatur on Friday, Aug. 2, 2019. (MARLON A. WALKER / marlon.walker@ajc.com)

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Whether worn high or low, with a part or incorporating other fancy designs, the fade has been a staple in the Black community for decades.

The look is not new, and Kelce knows this.

“Stop telling people I invented the fade. I didn’t,” he said during an episode of his New Heights podcast, which he co-hosts with his brother and Philadelphia Eagles center Jason Kelce.

His big brother cosigned the sentiment and couldn’t help but note that “the Travis Kelce” craze coincidentally began during Black History Month.

“What better month to credit a white man for inventing the fade than February,” Jason said.

This isn’t the first time mainstream media has been late to trends originated or popularized by Black culture, and failed to give proper credit or context. Here are three other similar situations of Black culture origin-story-remixing.

Taylor Swift’s “Swag Surf”

Clark Atlanta University cheerleaders do the “swag surf” dance during a homecoming pep rally on Friday, October 14, 2022. (Natrice Miller/natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

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Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Just last month, one publication updated its explainer on “Swag Surfin,’” to include additional context about the 2006 song and its Atlanta roots, after Taylor Swift did the dance at a Chiefs game.

Ohio State University’s marching band

Members of the Ohio State Marching Band form "Script Ohio" before an NCAA football game between the Ohio State Buckeyes and the Oregon Ducks on Sept. 11, 2021, at Ohio Stadium in Columbus, Ohio. (Barbara J. Perenic/Columbus Dispatch/TNS)

Credit: TNS

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Credit: TNS

Remember when the news highlighted this PWI’s (Primarily White Institution’s) “inventive” field formations and dance routines — without acknowledging the HBCUs that initially made halftime shows the main attraction at football games?

Jalaiah Harmon

In this photo released by Warner Bros., talk show host Ellen DeGeneres is seen during a taping of "The Ellen DeGeneres Show" at the Warner Bros. lot in Burbank, Calif. (Photo by Michael Rozman/Warner Bros.)

Credit: Michael Rozman

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Credit: Michael Rozman

It was indeed a young Black girl from Fayetteville, Georgia, who created the viral “Renegade” dance to K. Camp’s “Lottery,” although it was first associated with her white TikTok peers.

Unfortunately, the list goes on and isn’t likely to stop getting longer in the future. Black erasure is real, and mainstream media has played a part.

If we’re going to ensure the next big cultural phenomenon isn’t just a whitewashed version of something Black people already made, and made cool, we’ll have to keep calling out cultural colonization, even when those who are given credit aren’t necessarily at fault.

Otherwise we could find that our brilliant creativity and its collective impact on society will, as recent history has proven, fade away.