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He was expelled after he refused to cut his afro. 57 years later, he got his degree

Otis Taylor at his belated graduation in May, 2023.
Evan Semón
Otis Taylor at his belated graduation in May, 2023.

It took almost 60 years, but Otis Taylor was finally able to take the stage.

Who is he? The 74-year-old acclaimed blues musician and multi-instrumentalist has had made a career of crooning, strumming and rebelling against the status quo.

  • He's been nominated for awards, scored films, and even took a long hiatus from music before coming back swinging.
  • His music has experimented with different genres and themes, and has focused heavily on the struggle of being Black in America.
  • In 1966, Taylor was denied his high school diploma from Manual High School in Denver, Colo., for refusing to cut off his afro at the administration's request.
  • What's the big deal? Well, that haircut rule isn't required any longer. Taylor was finally able to receive his diploma in May, and walked the stage in a ceremony held by the Denver public school district.

  • While much of the conversation that followed his graduation has been framed around Taylor's afro, he doesn't think that is the singular reason why he didn't get to walk all those years ago, and instead says it came at a time of schools cracking down on rebellious students in general.
  • "Other students in college in Denver did [get asked to cut their hair], like the surfer kids. It was sort of like it was the beginning of the counterculture, where The Beatles came out there growing their hair. But the schools [had] a real big counterculture battle with these kids growing their hair," he told NPR.
  • Despite achieving his goal of becoming a professional musician, Taylor says that he never felt like his father forgave him for not receiving his diploma.
  • Otis Taylor at his graduation ceremony.
    / Evan Semón
    /
    Evan Semón
    Otis Taylor at his graduation ceremony.

    What's he saying? Taylor spoke with NPR about the experience.

    On his decision to refuse the haircut and follow his dream:

    People have asked, "Would you do it if you had the chance to do it over again?" Hell yes I'd do it over again. You know, when you want to play music, you want to play music.

    And his feelings at the graduation ceremony:

    I was embarrassed, because there was other people graduating, but they focused on me.

    They did a proclamation. So each person on the school board with the robes came up and read two paragraphs about who I was. It was kind of embarrassing. I just felt silly, because there's other people in there.

    And I think there was a woman graduating with a year-and-a-half-year-old little boy in her arms. To me, she must have had to work really hard to get there. I don't know if I can explain how I felt.


    Want more on famous musicians? Listen to Consider This reflect on the life of Rock n Roll icon, Tina Turner.


    On his feelings all these years later:

    You can't dwell on all the bad things that happened to you, especially as a Black person. You know, you just have those moments and I had a choice.

    On his advice to young people who want to challenge norms:

    It doesn't matter if you conform or don't conform. But I think people, you need to learn how to do something. It doesn't matter how you get the education. Just learn how to do something, whether you're a car mechanic or a computer person, or artist. You have to find a way to learn, whatever that takes.

    A photo of a young Otis Taylor.
    / The Otis Taylor Collection
    /
    The Otis Taylor Collection
    A photo of a young Otis Taylor.

    So, what now?

  • Taylor has continued to make and release music, with his latest album Banjo... released earlier this year.
  • Learn more:

  • A Korean American connects her past and future through photography
  • Flooded with online hate, the musician corook decided to keep swimming
  • An exhibition of Keith Haring's art and activism makes clear: 'Art is for everybody'
  • Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Manuela López Restrepo
    Manuela López Restrepo is a producer and writer at All Things Considered. She's been at NPR since graduating from The University of Maryland, and has worked at shows like Morning Edition and It's Been A Minute. She lives in Brooklyn with her cat Martin.