HJ Men In Conversation With… An Afro Barber Consultant For A Critically Acclaimed Play
Barber Shop Chronicles, a play set in six barbershops (one in London and five in Africa,) recently went on a worldwide tour and HJ Men was lucky enough to see it in London.
Afterwards we spoke to the play’s barber consultant Peter Atakpo to find out just how crucial men’s hair salons are within the black community and what it was like being a consultant on a critically-acclaimed play.
Put simply, what do barbershops mean for black men?
On one level, the barbershop is a place they go to get their haircut. But lots of other things happen there. Where I work [Emmanuel’s Hair and Beauty], people also exchange ideas and stories. It is a place where people are willing to listen to their stories. Even after people have had their haircut done, they will just stay, hang out and chill.
Is it the same for all generations of black men?
Young people can learn more about their culture. For a lot of older people a trip to the barbershop is the only time they get out. It’s like a treat for them. I don’t want to paint a picture of a utopian world that is all hunky dory though. There are some downsides. People think [the barbershop] is a free place they can hang out. We have some characters, some gangster types.
How do you deal with that?
You try to diffuse the situation. I’ve been threatened with knives or guns once or twice, but thankfully that’s rare. You try and be a bigger person, ask them what they want or say ‘it’s ok’.
Where I work people also exchange ideas and stories. It is a place where people are willing to listen to their stories. Even after people have had their haircut done, they will just stay, hang out and chill.
In the play Barber Shop Chronicles a London barbershop is connected with multiple barbershops in Africa, do you think it’s the case that men in barbershops around the world discuss the same issues – namely football, politics and their family life!
Yeah, it is. I am from Nigeria and I used to go to barbershops as a kid, and these were the things that were discussed. It was the same when I worked in South Africa too.
Do you think it is because it’s a male-only space, men feel freer to chat about things that maybe they wouldn’t around their families, wives or girlfriends?
Yeah. However, slowly but surely that is changing because we have more women that have their hair cut at Emmanuel’s now. But it is still a more male-dominated environment.
It’s a personal mission of mine to own a barbershop that is diverse, open and equal.
What happens when a woman walks in the barbershop? Does the mood change?
It really does. Men become gentler. Especially if the women are easy on the eye! Most people are respectful though, I think.
What do you think about the masculine energy in barbershops?
In my opinion there is a kind of toxic masculinity that has been growing in barbershops over the years. I think previously gay men have felt nervous coming into a black barbershop. I am trying to change the tone of conversation and the derogatory words that have previously been used to describe gay people. Gay people always come to my chair because their lifestyle and the choices they have made do not make a difference to me. It’s a personal mission of mine to own a barbershop that is diverse, open and equal.
Do you think Afro barbershops are under threat? What do you see their future looking like?I’ve been approached by entrepreneurs who suggest delivering ‘haircuts on wheels’. I think that is where the industry is going, but I don’t think that it is sustainable. Traffic will be a problem and we will lose the social aspect of the barbershop. The community spirit of the black barbershop is under threat. Because people’s time is limited they want to make appointments [rather than wait for one]. Barbershops are going to have to adapt. Young professionals don’t have time to sit down and wait.
The community spirit of the black barbershop is under threat. People’s time is limited they want to make appointments [rather than wait for one]. So barbershops are going to have to adapt.
How did you get involved with Barber Shop Chronicles?
Inua Ellams [the play’s writer] walked into the shop one day and said he was writing a play about a barbershop and asked if he would be able to hang out. He shadowed me for about a month, twice a week – Fridays and Sundays when it was really busy. He came with a little recorder, a notebook and a pen. So whatever conversation was going on he recorded, under everyone’s permission of course. A month later he left to do the same thing in Africa and a couple of months later he came back and asked me whether I wanted to see the final project at The National Theatre [on London’s Southbank]. Each and every line from the play is authentic – the lines are all from real life. He then asked me to be a consultant on the play. I helped the original cast to act as realistic barbers, I showed them how to hold the equipment and put on a gown.
Where did you start your career?
I started barbering as a boy. It was so easy for me to teach the actors how to cut hair because black people always learn how to do their own hair. If the barbershop is closed for example you might get your cousin to do it. But I took it to another level, I started with a comb and a razor after school. I went to a university in Nigeria and did the same thing. I had a friend who was working at a salon in South Africa, I went there, I liked the atmosphere and I said to myself: “yeah, I can do this professionally”. I do not have any formal training, but I am one of the best out there.
I love the type of clients that I meet on a daily basis. On one day I could have a 21-year-old released from prison, then a bishop, after that a bricklayer, a pilot, then a consultant.
Do you still love doing what you do?
Yes, I do! I love the type of clients that I meet on a daily basis. On one day I could have a 21-year-old released from prison, then a bishop, after that a bricklayer, a pilot, then a consultant. I have at least 25 minutes with each and every one of them. Whatever the subject is we talk about, they will give you an expert opinion about. I always wanted to meet someone in rocket science – and that came true. I still want to get a Rabbi and a Sikh in my chair though.
There’s always something new going on in the barbershop. In the last couple of years I have worked with some great charity initiatives. We had a blood pressure charity set up with a monitor encouraging men to check their blood pressure in store with us because black men are at risk of having high blood pressure, but are not likely to get it checked. I’ve also recently worked with another charity called Live Life Give Life. One of the men in my chair needed a new kidney and he told me there’s a lack of black men who are organ donors. This inspired me to start working with a charity that aims to raise awareness of organ donation. Now I’m trying to encourage black men to sign up to become organ donors.