Social club, soapbox, advice bureau: London’s Afro-Caribbean barbershops are amazing community hubs. As a play celebrating them opens at the NT, Jimi Famurewa talks to five barbers. Photography: Scott Chasserot.
The sound of buzzing beard trimmers mingling with noisy arguments, a balding man who’s apparently only here to watch the football and sip stout, an arcane queuing system only understood by the guy wielding the clippers – a visit to one of the capital’s countless black barbershops comes with its own rules and traditions. But while these brightly lit havens may be baffling to many, to Afro-Caribbean men in London they are both community hub and cultural sanctuary, advice bureau and unofficial social club.
‘I think what makes them really critical is that, traditionally in the UK, a lot of places where other men have gathered could be hostile to black people,’ says Inua Ellams, the playwright behind ‘Barber Shop Chronicles’, the National Theatre’s imminent exploration of this world. ‘Football stadiums, certain pubs: historically, these were places where it wasn’t safe to be black. So barbershops provided a space where black men could gather and embrace our own culture without prying, critical or insulting eyes.’ While times have changed, the amorphous codes of the barbershop have endured.
SliderCuts, SliderCuts Studios, 176 Hackney Road, E2 7QL
‘The barbershop is the place, especially in the black community, where you can get problems resolved. If you come in and you’re struggling at school, I’ll say, “Do you know what? I know a tutor.” Problem resolved. It’s such a connector for black people. If you come into a barbershop and stay for half an hour you can’t help but get involved in a conversation. You may come in for a haircut but you’ll leave with a new associate or even a friend for life.’
60, Unique Hair Technique, New Cross
‘I came from Trinidad and opened the shop more than 40 years ago so maybe I was among the first in London. When I studied at barbering college here in 1968 it was all Turks and Greeks, no other black men. The shop has always been neat and tidy because I like things that way and I never wanted a television in here because, when you’re trying to cut, customers are always moving their head to look at the TV. People who have been coming to me since they were babies are having children now. They call me uncle, so that’s what I go by.’
29, RXB London, Oval
‘We’ve added things – a receptionist, drinks, free wi-fi – to try and do something contemporary with the standard Afro-Caribbean barbershop. Also, it’s a lot more chilled and not as noisy as a typical barbers. Will others follow us? I’m not too sure. In other shops the barber is more independent but we make sure everyone is part of a team. Uniform, being on time, a great standard of hair cutting. We care about the environment and the image we present because every barber doesn’t just represent themselves: they represent our brand in the community.’
34, Hair Force One, Ilford and Romford
‘Earlier this year, we approached the job centre and local YMCA to offer free haircuts to young men going for interviews. It caught the attention of a lot of people and came from a personal understanding that these youngsters go through real hardships. There’s definitely a sense of openness and freeness in the salon. I’ve had discussions with people about mental health issues and how they’re feeling in a relationship. It’s important. You hear people say things they might not necessarily feel comfortable saying in too many places.’
34, F4fade, Ealing
‘Black barbershops are all about culture. What are the latest tunes to listen to? What are the hottest trainers? What’s new? People come here to see what’s out there. I’ve been a barber since I was 16 and this is one of the places where you can talk to people about things and get inspired, too. Jamal Edwards from SB.TV is one of my clients and the other day I was up early with him because he was going to see Bill Gates. That’s an inspiration for me. I’ve known that guy since before
he was famous and now he’s going to sit with kings.’
‘Barber Shop Chronicles’ opens at the National Theatre on May 30.
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