Pic by Paul Tonge
I’ve written about my fascination with the barbershop on my blog before, but I finally got the chance to find out what happens after my hair hits the floor and I leave with a fresh trim and a smart shape-up.
Taken from my Journalism Practice module, this is the working life of barber Vincent Ogunbiyi.
A row of well dressed men are watching Vincent Ogunbiyi perform his craft. As he tilts his customer’s freshly shorn head towards the light, he reaches for a blade.
He takes a step closer and makes slow, sweeping hand movements with the blade, taking extra care to follow the talcum powder line that acts as a guide on his customer’s forehead.
In between strokes, Ogunbiyi reaches towards his organised workstation, wiping away excess talcum powder, switching between his clippers and the blade and applying a succession of sweet smelling sheen sprays.
“The shape-up is the most important part of the haircut; it brings out your facial features. A good barber is known by the level of his shape-up; it’s part of his reputation and you have to get it right every time.”
“A man without a shape-up is plain, just like a woman without make-up,” says Ogunbiyi, as he sprays alcohol on his customer’s head and removes the protective cape.”
It’s just gone 8.30am on a bright but autumnal Tuesday morning at Slick Kutz, an Afro barbershop on the southern tip of Balham High Road, south London, and Ogunbiyi has cut the first of nearly 40 heads for the day.
As he sweeps the floor, a soundtrack of upbeat gospel and Christian rap sings out of the speakers, and a succession of customers walk into the barbershop.
Ogunbiyi flops in his chair, and reaches for his watch. “I opened the shop at 8am and I’ll be here until at least 10pm.”
As a barber in an inner-London area, Ogunbiyi’s customers have varying degrees of tastes and styles.
He finds himself constantly switching between styles; from Mohicans to low fades, close crops to simple shape-ups and beard trims to 90s-style high tops.
“A British-born African will have tighter curls hair to that of a British-born West Indian. Some will want unusual cuts or textured Afros, so you need to know the know the hair falls before turning the clippers on.”
The 54-year-old father of four notes the change in Balham’s ethnic make-up in the 12 years since he moved to the area and picked up clippers for the first time.
A cluster of chic cafes, bohemian bars and off-beat stores have sprung up along Balham High Road to cater to the affluent and well-heeled set who live in the area. But has this impacted on his customer base?
“The area has gone from black to white and Balham has become an offshoot of Chelsea and Battersea.
“There are just two black shops in [Hildreth Street] market and look at all the cafes and eateries; I mean, how many black people go to cafes?”
“We have to work hard to maintain our customer base and it’s all about the detail, the customer service.”
And the service he offers goes beyond just a simple cut and shape-up. “The key is the follow-up,” says Ogunbiyi. “If a customer has children, you send them a card on their birthday, give them sweets and keep them entertained when they come to the shop, and you recommend products to use on their hair.
“Finding a way of knowing them personally without overstepping the mark is imperative. If you make them feel comfortable and appreciated, they will always come back to you.”
“Being observant is important too. You must know when to talk and when to shut up, especially if his football team has lost.”
At Slick Kutz, the barbers each have their own customer base and take care not to step on the toes of their colleagues. Ogunbiyi works on commission so it’s frowned upon to cut the hair of a colleague’s customer.
Being discreet is a requirement of the job, and Ogunbiyi will only hint at some of his high-profile customers: a Sierra Leonean doctor who travels from Brooklyn to Balham for a close crop, a silver screen actor based in the US and a radio DJ, “I haven’t cut his hair for a while, but he still calls and invites me to his parties.”
As Ogunbiyi tops up his spray bottle with water, he notes the misconception many outsiders have with the perception of the barbershop.
Unlike Channel 4 sitcom “Desmond’s” in the early 1990s and US film “Barbershop”, Slick Kutz isn’t a place for people to kick back and relax, buy counterfeit DVDs and discuss the matters of the day.
“This is no joke, in fact we take our jobs seriously. It sends out the impression to a potential customer that we’re full and it drives them away. Everything – from the music we play to the videos we screen – is planned and well thought-out.”
Ogunbiyi moved to London from Nigeria in1999 after spending 20 years working as a crewmember for Nigerian Airways. At night, he moonlighted as a security guard, and during the day, he picked up the clippers and learned the trade.
“I shadowed two young guys – a Jamaican and a Ghanaian – and when I walked in, dressed in a suit, I told them that I wanted to learn and they laughed. They didn’t think I could handle it,” he chuckles.
His first customer insulted him constantly for three days. “He came in and said he wanted short back and sides and I didn’t know what he meant, so I went straight in the clippers and he jumped from his seat.”
“The same thing happened with my second customer and I spoiled his hair, but I had to be steadfast and learn quickly. Even though I have been doing this for a long time, I am still learning.”
The door swings open and an older, spectacled gentleman, dressed in a floor-length camel-coloured overcoat, sweeps in and greets Ogunbiyi. He removes his coat and porkpie hat to reveal a baldhead.
As he takes his place in the chair, Ogunbiyi turns to me, winks and says: “He’s here for his weekly beard trim.”
And with that, Ogunbiyi whips out the protective cape, and resumes his countdown from 40, as a row a well-dressed men get ready to watch him perform his craft.
♫ Jay-Z – ‘Roc Boys’
In the three months since I published my last post, so much has happened.
I’ve moved back to London, started an MA at a revered journalism school; reminded myself why I should never leave all the work till the last minute and procrastinated far too much when I should have been pounding the pavements of Holborn and Covent Garden in hot pursuit of a story.
In addition to the many late nights and early mornings, I’ve written more articles in 10 weeks than I have done in 10 months.
It’s deadline week and stress and sarcasm levels are at an all-time high but having said that, I’ve got a minor reprieve before I launch into a month of work experience and endure a Black Christmas™ in the sticks, so I’ll be posting photos and prose like no-ones business.
I’ve been to photo exhibitions, protest marches, gigs (Jill Scott anyone?), inspiring talks and seminars, out on the piss and generally running my mouth and snapping away with my trusted DSLR.
Sorry blog, you know DW loves ya
Television Journalism – unlike its newspaper counterpart – continues to go from strength-to-strength. From the recent coverage of the Royal nuptials, to the devastating Japanese earthquake to the phone hacking saga at the News of the World, journalists and production staff have worked around the clock to make news bulletins and clips as fascinating and compelling as possible.
The best news items are the ones that catch the mood of the audience - be it short features or breaking news, the objective of news is to be something that’s new, exciting, outstanding and provoking.
But sadly, the strongest news items are made from the most sensitive and depressing subject matters.
Now, much is made of media theories and for years, sociologists have claimed that a constant media diet of violence and activity that goes against the norm has created passive audiences.
Apply this to Generation Y and the theory could be proved right. But try to apply this when images of famine and starvation are flashed up on a television screen and this theory gets turned on its head.
Yesterday evening, Channel 4 News’ lead news story was the severe food shortages and the deepening crisis in Somalia.
The United Nations has declared famine in two parts of southern Somalia, the result of one the of the worst droughts in over 50 years. An estimated 10 million people have been affected in East Africa.
As anchor Jon Snow read the headlines, he introduced a clip in which audiences witnessed malnourished and dying children, children who should be running around with abandon.
We saw pain etched on the faces of children under the age of three - their bones protruding, stomachs swollen and skin, sallow. Pain that we didn’t know children of such a young age were capable of feeling.
One of the main issues is the al-Qaeda-affiliated Al-Shabab, which control large parts of the central and southern region. Since 2009, the armed rebel group has blocked foreign aid from reaching the affected areas.
Pictures showed tens of thousands of Somalis desperately fleeing across the border into either Kenya or Ethiopia, some walking for days, with some not reaching the end of their journey.
The former President of Ghana, Jerry Rawlings, who is now the African Union envoy to Somalia, broke down when he was asked by Jon Snow about what the situation was like.
Choking back tears, Rawlings painted a picture of mass graves and widespread devastation if aid failed to reach the country by the weekend.
News: it’s supposed to shape our thinking and inform our opinions, but do we really care?
It’s astonishing to think that in the 21st Century, scores of children are dying from starvation as a result of famine.
But it begs the questions of why haven’t we rushed to curate concerts to raise money? Released special compilation CDs with the profits going to the DEC? Or designed wristbands to raise awareness? Let’s not forget that all these examples happened when the earthquake shook Japan and the tsunami devastated Haiti last year.
The US has pledged $28m in emergency aid to counter the famine, which adds to the some-$400m already issued this year to the Horn of Africa.
When the West rejected an opportunity to back the country’s Islamic government, it instead supported a futile invasion by Ethiopia – which brought the Al-Shabab to power, with devastating consequences.
Have we as an international community failed the famine-struck people of Somalia? Surely it’s time to put the politics to one side, because if we can’t show remorse, we should at least show some pity?
♫ Q-Tip Feat. Kanye West & Consequence – ‘We Fight/We Love Remix’
Better late than never right? Happy New Year and all that jazz, here’s to a January of conveniently forgetting about those ambitious resolutions and Heat magazine-inspired detox plans – dreamt up in earnest of course – and to a year full of renewed rewards and adventures.
My previous blog post should have been my final one… no more psycopathic rantings about the inability to grasp why all the rich, posh white kids (WITH ZERO TALENT) snatch all the journo jobs.
I got a job, on a newspaper off ’endz’, but it didn’t work out. I didn’t get sacked, but I left. It was the best thing. It would have only been an uphill struggle. Life is too short to burden yourself with stress and anxiety.
There were a few ‘recruitment issues’ before I even stepped foot into the building, so it never felt right. Got a front page though, so I was Token-Black-Man-of-the-Highest for a few days. Well good for the ego.
I’m now, what you’d call *lowers voice* unemployed. Sad times. Though no job seekers for me. Nah, gotta pick myself up outta this dark, but strangely amusing time. Like Aaliyah once said: “Dust yourself off and try again.”
So, where were we?
It’s finally happened.
I have a job as a reporter on a newspaper!
In the two-and-a-half-years since graduation, I have wanted to purse and disband my career in equal measures.
I’ve had great work placements where I’ve produced work which I’m proud of; trodden the path of the ‘workie’ far too many times, wondering if my eagerness and enthusiasm will make the editor want to snap me up; wrote shorts which never seem to make it into the paper…
But I can safely say it’s been worth it. Rewind the clock 10 years and my precocious, pre-teen self would have imagined myself, feet up on my desk at the New York Times, waiting to be dispatched to the scene of a devastating natural disaster.
Though the reality is I’ve had to struggle like the rest of my journalistic peers; the recession made it one of the hardest and most frustrating times to ever secure employment within the media.
My previous posts have detailed the constant need to carry out internships and placements in the hope that another line on one’s CV leads to employment.
I’m just grateful that I didn’t give it up.
My trip to NYC proved to be the cornerstone of my career. Sat bolt up right and feeling the effects of jet lag, I started to re-design my CV. Coincidentally; one of my good friends sent me a job advert with the subject: “This is your job hun!”
Sceptical, I applied for said job – a trainee reporter on a south London title – not expecting to hear anything. Then, upon arrival in London, I was surprised to find out that I had made the shortlist. The assistant editor wanted to know when I was available to come for an interview.
The interview itself was straight forward. Though it felt anti-climatic; they didn’t give anything away and when I left – after completing numerous tasks and tests – I felt deflated.
So imagine my surprise when, one week later, the assistant editor called to offer me the job.
And in that moment, I felt an intense happiness that I’ve never felt before, and I quit my PTJ almost immediately!
Now on the eve of starting my career, I am glad that I’ve endured the haters who told me I’d be shit and never make it…
…you’re just fucking jealous.
So now, after knocking on countless doors and wanting to show what I’m made of, someone has seen something in me and has given me a chance. I only hope that I can make it easier for people like me to get their foot on this middle-class and unashamedly nepotistic ladder.
I suppose that phrase is true….good things DO happen to those who wait.
♫ Brand New Heavies – ‘Dream Come True’