Singers from Beyoncé to Lizzo have mastered it—the “mean mug.” You bring the edges of your top and bottom teeth together and lift your lips away from your gums. You must fully commit to the pose (bonus points for a mean squint). It’s the only way to show off a bejeweled mouthpiece: “grillz,” “mouth bling,” “golds,” “fronts,” “bouche bijoux.” Whatever you call them, they’re symbols of bold, unapologetic style, not to mention boss stature. Black women in music, since the blues age of Koko Taylor, have been wearing gold teeth to flaunt their wealth and chart their ascendance to the pinnacle of fame, earning queen—or even king—status. And now, in the age of social media, grillz are both a reclamation of power and a fashion statement.
In the pre-Instagram era, male rappers like Slick Rick, Big Daddy Kane, Pimp C, and Lil Wayne helped mythologize grillz as the accessory of choice for stylish drug kingpins and ladies’ men. In this narrative, women were simply the sexy consorts of the men with money. But grillz represented something different for black women. Growing up in Mount Vernon, New York, in the early ’80s, stylist Misa Hylton remembers the Fly Girls, who accessorized their Lee and Jordache jeans with Pumas and Adidas—and lots of gold: grillz, nameplate necklaces and pinkie rings, bamboo earrings, Nefertiti medallions, and wrists full of bangles. The jewelry “made us feel like queens and goddesses,” Hylton recalls. Today Beyoncé and her generation of women artists are blending the boss narrative—once only the province of men—with the carefree “around the way girl” energy Hylton remembers from her youth.
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Beyoncé chose to partner with French grillz designer-to-the-stars Dolly Cohen—who has made pieces for Balmain, Balenciaga, Givenchy, and Hood By Air—to create a gold grill for her 2020 Ivy Park x Adidas campaign. An image of Bey mugging in her Ivy Park gem, posted to her Instagram account in late 2019, went viral. The flashy mouthpiece roots Beyoncé in Houston’s black culture while also representing the power moves she’s made since establishing her Parkwood Entertainment company a decade ago, announcing herself as a mogul and global tastemaker. Rihanna’s AK-47 grill and her BDSM-inspired lip ring grill—both designed by Cohen—showed that grillz can be sexy, too. British singer Jorja Smith wore a dainty open-face piece on the cover of ELLE UK. Nicki Minaj, Remy Ma, Cardi B, Megan Thee Stallion, Young M.A, and Rico Nasty have all flexed on social media in bedazzled grillz. And perhaps no one is better at stretching the imaginative possibilities of the style than R&B legend Erykah Badu. The singer, who got her first grill in 1999, frequently collaborates with jewelry designer Lillian Shalom to create whimsical pieces, including a tribute to Egyptian goddess Ma’at and a full set of open-face grillz made from raw Australian opals.
Hylton isn’t at all surprised to see grillz go high fashion. “You usually see street style and things that come from African American culture and hip-hop culture translate into mainstream fashion,” she says. The hood fashionistas of her day didn’t see their looks in popular fashion magazines, but “the streets were a runway,” she says. When Hylton became one of the first hip-hop stylists in the mid-’90s, she brought her dripped-in-gold Fly Girl vibe to an industry that understood very little about black fashion culture. Hylton, who was dating rapper and mogul Sean “Diddy” Combs at the time, dressed his Bad Boy artists—from Biggie to Faith Evans. She interpreted the culture of the streets as a luxe lifestyle that made music-video viewers want to cop the CD—and the clothes. A jersey was no longer just a jersey, a grill no longer just a grill. It was iconography that gave texture to what was becoming known as “streetwear” or “gangsta wear.”
Now Hylton looks back with pride at the style she helped create in the ’90s and the ways it’s being remixed today by women asserting their power and prowess. “Grillz are here to stay,” she says. And not because they’ve made it to the runways, but because of the people who keep the spirit of hip-hop culture alive. “I still go to the hood to get mine,” Hylton says, referring to the grillz she sports on Instagram. “I love what Dolly [Cohen] does as well. I think she’s amazing.” But Hylton prefers going to her beloved spot on Harlem’s 125th Street to “keep that authenticity,” she says. “There’s nothing like getting them done in the hood.”
This article originally appeared in the Summer 2020 issue of ELLE.
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