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STYLE

Hip-hop barbers break down race barrier Add to ...

The black and white tiles are dusted with hair of all descriptions. Some coil in tight curls, some lie straight and thin.

A half-dozen barbers poke at scalps in various states of undress. Beyond the shop floor, an astounding 44 customers wait patiently for a turn in the chair, lured by the promise of Tuesday's special $7 price.

At first glance, Onyx looks like a traditional black barbershop. The posters on the walls are of Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X and Barack Obama. Raphael Saadiq's old-school soul infused with hip-hop swagger pours from the sound system. But the clientele - white, black, East Asian and South Asian, and even a few Bay Street bankers - is far from mono-cultural.

The barbershop is, paradoxically, a place to congregate and to remain separate. It's a spot where men hang out and shoot the breeze, but they often do it in narrowly defined groups. Hair cutting and race intersect in complex ways, which has meant that black barbershops in Toronto have catered almost exclusively to clients with an Afro-Caribbean background. But for a generation raised with hip hop as its mainstream culture, those barriers are collapsing.

More than 150 years ago, black barbers set up successful shops in Toronto's downtown catering primarily to wealthy white customers. In a paper on early black history in the city, Daniel Hill describes a barber named W.H. Edwards who owned two shops on King Street. His advertisements boasted that he used "Vegetable Extract, for Renovating and Beautifying the Hair, cleansing it from all Dandruff, dust, etc. and giving it a beautiful appearance without the slightest injury to the Hair or skin."

Over time, black barbers left the downtown and opened new shops in suburban neighbourhoods with established Afro-Caribbean communities. That mirrored a trend in the United States, described by Vassar historian Quincy T. Mills, where German immigrant barbers gained control of much of the downtown trade by the early 20th century, pushing black barbers, who had dominated the trade, into primarily black neighbourhoods.

"With barbershops, like churches, there are certain cultural elements that people gravitate to. And there's an assumption about who knows how to cut one's type of hair. And who's willing to cut different types of hair," Prof. Mills said.

When co-owners Kirk Tulloch and Lowell Stephens opened the shop near the Eaton Centre, their goal was to create a different kind of space. In the polyglot downtown, they wouldn't be able to rely on an established neighbourhood clientele, so they had to appeal to the cosmopolitan core.

Kyler Tse, a 14-year-old high-school student, made an hour-long trek from Scarborough and has been waiting nearly two hours to be served. His parents are Chinese, and although he grew up going to Chinese barbers, Kyler is a convert to black barbershops.

"They just do the style of hair I want better. I want a 'line-up,' but they don't do that at a Chinese barbershop," he said, shyly lifting his baseball cap to reveal a slightly crazed mop with blunted bangs.

Kyler sits next to his friend, Theiviyan Maheswaran, whose parents are from Sri Lanka. Theiviyan says his father goes to an Italian barber, but he's a hip-hop fan and he wants to get his hair cut in the "blowout" style popularized by the TV show Jersey Shore.

Neither of them thinks much about the significance of going to a black barbershop. For them, it's hip-hop culture that dictates how they want their hair styled.

As he glances around at the shop he's built over the last eight years, Mr. Stephens grins with pride. Look at all these people willing to wait in line for more than two hours to get a haircut, he says. Some even hang around after their haircut, debating the day's hot question - whether the collapse of the Cleveland Cavaliers was the result of a player sleeping with a teammate's mother. There's a ping-pong table in the back, which sits idle, movies playing on the big screen and lots of loud, deadly serious arguments about who will win the NBA championship.

"Look around, you see different ages, different ethnic groups, different styles. Not one person is the same," said Mr. Stephens, 32.

"We're black, so we call it a black barbershop. ... We [also]wanted an environment that didn't have any limitations. We wanted people to feel comfortable, enjoy themselves and get a good service."

His partner, Mr. Tulloch, said they chose the name Onyx because it suggests, like their tiled floor, the juxtaposition of black and white, but also because onyx crystals can contain every colour in between.

Blake Carrington, the shop's receptionist and hospitality specialist, walks through the crowd to provide five minutes of freestyle rapping. He's a two-time winner of amateur night at the Apollo Theatre in Harlem, and the appreciative crowd oohs and ahhs as he rhymes his way through topics that range from light-skinned ladies to Kobe Bryant's brilliance.

Back at work, Mr. Tulloch combs and shapes 13-year-old Gregory Caesar's hair, ploughing an ever-shorter furrow with his clippers. His hair is taking the shape of a shark's fin.

If there's anything that unites the cultures, Mr. Tulloch said, it's this hairstyle. Call it the mohawk, the faux-hawk or, as Mr. Caesar does, the "fro-hawk," everyone wants it.

"Black, white, Asian - all ages. Everybody gets that haircut," Mr. Tulloch said.

 

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