More Than A Haircut: Why Black Salons Are Needed More Than Ever After Lockdown

The hair salon is a safe space for many Black people. Here, owners discuss the importance of their role in the community.

People have been celebrating the reopening of salons and barbershops after being closed during the COVID-19 lockdown – but for Black people, their return wi about more than just getting a haircut.

Yes, Black women rejoiced as their kinks and coils finally got some much-needed TLC, yes people could stop pining for a press and curl – and yes Black men rushed to link up with their barber for a shape up.

But Black barbershops and salons have also long been revered as safe spaces for people to convene and really be seen in more ways than one.

It’s deeply transactional. So, typically, you have your locks seen to by a professional and get given carte blanche to express your innermost thoughts about the topic of the day without fear or favor.

These are spaces where Black people who are far too often ostracized can either laugh or cry, or both, and their lived experiences resonate with those around them in a way that isn’t often guaranteed across wider society.

Marlene Abuah, owner of Natural Gloe hair salon in west London, says she has been inundated with gifts since reopening by clients who missed popping in for their regular appointments.

“Everyone has come with a gift for me – and some for my kids, even! It’s so nice. Obviously we know that we’re appreciated as stylists but the love has been wonderful,” she told HuffPost UK.

Natural Gloe Hair
Natural Gloe Hair

Natural Gloe opened in 2016 and stylists are trained in attending to curly tresses – from Afro to European hair. Their clientele is multicultural and the topic of race, the Black Lives Matter movement and George Floyd’s killing by U.S. police officers has been a topic of discussion.

“For some of my white clients, I’m probably the only Black person that they have contact with,” said Abuah. “For instance, since they’ve now been able to come back and see me, Black Lives Matter has come up and they’ve asked questions that they haven’t asked before and it’s major for them.

“I’m like the first and only Black person that they get to speak to on a personal level because we have this thing that connects us which is curls. Our motto is curls don’t have a race, no background. Curls are curls.

“They’ve asked questions like: ‘Tell me your experiences’, ‘how have you dealt with what’s been happening?’, ‘let me apologise if I’ve ever been insensitive’. It gives me goosebumps every time I’m able to share something on this topic without having to apologise for being ‘controversial’.

“The salon means so much to our community and they mean so much to us too.”

“The salon means so much to our community and they mean so much to us too.”

- Marlene Abuah, Natural Gloe hair salon

For the past 24 years, Garfield Fatal has managed Duell hair salon in Streatham, south London. The lockdown has been difficult for a lot his customers, many of whom relied on the social interactions their visits offered.

One of his clients who lives with mental health issues had a relapse while the shop was closed – something a family member directly attributed to the absence of the salon’s space.

“Being shut was put a spanner in the works; the first couple of weeks were okay but after a month it became more challenging,” Fatal told HuffPost UK.

“Obviously they did not have that interaction with us. This time has badly impacted the local community because they could usually come to socialise; Black people are different, our hair is different, we interact differently.”

“There’s a lot of things that Black people face that can impact our quality of life and mental health, so we need one another – and hair salons and barbers are key places where we can talk.”

- Garfield Fatal, Duell hair salon

Local residents rejoiced at Duell’s reopening.

Fatal continued: “We always have people from different walks of life coming into the shop. So the conversation is always interesting. People like coming to my salon because they can talk about anything they want to.

“There’s a lot of things that Black people face that can impact our quality of life and mental health, so we need one another – and hair salons and barbers are key places where we can talk. It’s the only place we can talk, really and truly.”

Fatal bemoaned the lack of Black representation in the government and prioritisation of issues that these communities face. A solution, he says, is for decision makers to visit hair salons, barbershops, and take stock of the no-holds-barred discussions.

Garfield Fatal
Garfield Fatal

“If politicians – like Boris Johnson, Priti Patel – visit Black hair salons - they’d get an education!” he said. “They’ll see a different side, how people really think; at the moment they don’t engage with our community. And the few Black people they do engage with are the ones who want, or need, to take money, line their pocket and conform.

“In the salon, these are safe spaces where Black people can express themselves without fear of repercussions or losing their jobs.”

Barbara Gayle has been running Ella hair salon in Brixton for over 15 years. She counts many local council workers and media practitioners among her clientele.

“It’s a small business but it has a community spirit where people come in and talk about what’s going on with them; it’s a safety net. They feel safe within this environment,” she told HuffPost UK.

“I’ve got two clients from Reading who kept asking when they could come. Finally, on July 4, they came and it was such a big thing. They were making orgasmic sounds as their hair was being washed, they were excited.

“One of them said: ‘I didn’t realise how important my hairdresser is’ because this has got everything do with her feelings, her emotions.

“It gives me pleasure to know I’m not just a hairdresser. People need counselling and especially at this time, after being locked away for a long time; they want to sit and talk about their life – and all you have to do is just listen.”

Barbara Gayle, Ella
Barbara Gayle, Ella

Despite the obvious importance of this space, Gayle said many people across wider society don’t understand the importance of hair salons for Black people specifically and how detrimental the Covid-19 pandemic has been to these businesses.

“The lockdown has thrown our lives upside down,” she added. “It’s exhausting and I’m concerned about whether or not things will ever get back to normal.”

She is calling for the government to ramp up its support of hair salons, lest stylists be forced to give up their shops and “operate underground” while clients remain fearful of venturing outdoors.

“You’ll soon find that people, including those who are not qualified, will start doing people’s hair from their homes and then the tax man won’t get their money! Will that make economic sense? The government should give salons more funding, give more free training and not just treat this as a second-rate job.”

Experienced stylist Lavern Marshall echoed Gayle’s view on how Black salons are seen by those who deem these spaces as alien.

The 48-year-old, who has spent the last six years running her own salon after moving to the UK from Jamaica aged 26, said salons frequented by Black people are too-often judged negatively because of the ethnicity of their clientele.

“These shops are convenient for people to convene but it can be bad for business when it comes to Black communities because we’re judged when too many of us congregate,” she told HuffPost UK.

“It’s often viewed as a negative thing by wider society when too many Black people are seen to be spending time with friends, enjoying themselves.

“But it’s a place of meeting up and getting to air our views on what’s going on around us; it is an important aspect of our socialising experience.”

La Bella hair salon
Jordan Walters
La Bella hair salon

Put simply: Black grooming shops are often microcosms of family households.

Karl Williams – owner of Chic Unique hair salon in Brixton, south London – knows this well.

The 57-year-old has been in the hair industry for over 30 years. Alongside his parents and older brother, Williams set up a salon in 1982 following the Brixton Uprising, or “riots”, of 1981 before setting up base in Acre Lane 10 years ago.

“One of the things that makes Chic Unique so different is that it’s a family run business so, ultimately, we brought a family vibe to that working environment. We tried to make it a home from home experience – the only difference is you’re getting your hair done,” he told HuffPost UK.

“The Black hair salon is a social hub. You can get an intellectual response to a topic, as opposed to just letting off steam; and nine times out of ten, most people in the shop will get involved in a discussion.”

Karl card, welcome back card from a 5 year old supporter.
Karl card, welcome back card from a 5 year old supporter.

On July 4, Williams enjoyed seeing different people from the community – of all ethnicities – pass by his shop and say how happy they were to see it reopen.

“A five-year-old came in and bought me a card she had made me; it’s the best welcome back you could ever want. For me, that’s what it’s all about: community,” he said.

Two years ago, the salon owner served five generations of one family in the salon: a great, great grandmother; a great grandmother, grand mother, a daughter and her children.

He added: “It was crazy, being able to touch all of those generations in one family. I think people like the fact that there’s longevity in the service provided at salons – people know and trust you.

“I really enjoy what I do, I enjoy the people that I serve. It’s more about relationships than just a salon – client situation. That’s what I pride myself on as far as what we offer.”

Karl Williams
HuffPost UK
Karl Williams

Anderson Boyce runs Hair Force 1 – a chain of successful barbershops across east London.

“There is an unquantifiable amount of value to be taken from your local Black barbershop,” he told HuffPost UK.

“The barbershop is a place where my clients feel a lot more at ease talking to me than they do a doctor, a wife, a mum, a dad – there’s a sense of comfortability, community and it’s almost can almost touch it and feel it.

“The relationship is that strong – where even taboo issues can be discussed. People discuss health issues, their feelings, people can offload. These can be moments that change and shape people’s lives for a very long time to come. There’s a wealth of value from the barbershop – a lot more than your haircut.”

Hair Force 1 is transformative to its very core, hosting a training academy in association with Job Centre Plus and the YMCA which equips young people with the experience required to enter the profession.

“It’s way more than you see on the surface; these are life changing places. I’ve lived it, I’ve seen it via the training and education we’ve delivered over the years and I’m watching younger versions of myself gain value, gain a skillset that could possibly change their lives.”

This is something that Boyce can personally attest to.

“I haven’t always been the person you’re talking to now,” he said. “I’ve been misguided, I had a lack of drive and ambition, I’ve been a young Black male going through the struggles of growing up in London – but barbering changed that for me.”

“Barbershops are a fantastic hub, cornerstone of the neighbourhood and they’re worth a lot more than I think they’re given credit for.”

Hair Force 1
Hair Force 1

Elite is a Black hair salon based in Lewisham, south London. Manager Keely Giscombe-Williams calls herself a “psychologist with scissors” – thus is the importance of her business to the local community.

″A lot of people come for the hair, and also come for that chat, and they know that they’ll get confidentiality, they can release emotions and it’s not gonna go anywhere else,” she told HuffPost UK.

“There’s not much of that which goes on as it’s not a private world anymore.”

“I really enjoy what I do, I enjoy the people that I serve. It's more about relationships than just a salon - client situation. That's what I pride myself on as far as what we offer.”

- Karl Williams, Chic Unique salon

Giscombe-Williams has been doing hair for the past 33 years and she said the Black hair salon has always been an institution; at one point, people would even bring their Sunday dinner along to visits in anticipation of a day well spent.

“When I first started out people used to come to the salon and see people they haven’t seen for years,” she said.

“They used to bring their rice and peas and chicken, because back then you stayed all day basically. It was more like a community centre more than anything.”

For Elite’s clientele, the emotional expense of not being able to enter these spaces has been profound – particularly for Black women against the backdrop of a pandemic and racial tension.

“Black women have needed this definitely to release tension especially at a time with Covid-19 and the Black Lives protests, mixed into one. It has been a very testing time,” the salon manager said.

“It’s been great for them to come in and be able to release that tension and talk about current affairs. I have had a few clients who you could see the weight lifted off of their shoulders just by being able to discuss with people who understand.”

Ose Ehi, La Bella hair salon
Jordan Walters
Ose Ehi, La Bella hair salon

Ose Ehi, owner La Bella hair salon in Thornton Heath, echoed the devastation that Covid-19 has wreaked upon her predominantly Black clientele. The impact has been so profound that many have been scared to leave their homes.

″Black people are dying more from Covid-19; some were scared to come back to the shop and many were enquiring about whether we’re wearing masks and have the correct PPE,” she told HuffPost UK.

“Some are still scared to leave their house, despite the shop being open again. I don’t blame them – I am scared too.”

“For years, my salon has been an important part of people’s daily life; it’s like a community within the shop – most clients are Black but people from all walks of life, different backgrounds, come and exchange views, talk, compliment each other and not having the space to do that has had a big impact on my customers.

“People know that they are free to express themselves and even be emotional if they need to, they can get a hug and offload their stress. And our key rule across Black salons is: ‘Everything discussed in the shop stays in the shop’. Given the pandemic, we can’t even hug each other at the moment which is tough.”

Evelyn Nakigudde, co-founder of product company Ms Hair, described Black hair salons and barbershops as strong community pillars.

“They are a great place to get guidance directly from hairdressers and other customers who can share advice and tips on hair care by drawing from their own experiences, such as those who experience thinning edges or breakage.

“We are extremely excited to see these Black-owned businesses re-open on our streets again!”

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