A Brotherhood of Barber Shops
One Stanford student set up his own pop-up barber shop and, in doing so, created a community.
By Ryan Davis
Olatunde Sobomehin (Class of ’03) grew up the oldest of four boys in a low-income family in Portland, Oregon, where he went to a five-dollar barber college to get a haircut. When he came to Stanford, he had a tough time finding an affordable barber to cut his hair. So he did what any Stanford student would do: solve the problem. He learned to cut his own, and soon began cutting hair for roommates and friends. He became the go-to guy for black students to tighten up a fade or to get fresh edges. During his junior year, demand became so overwhelming that he instituted regular “office hours” each week when his classmates could come to his dorm at Ujamaa, take a seat, and let him work magic with clippers. What Tunde and students long after him would call “Thump Off Thursdays” was born.
What began as a weekly chore became an event of black community coming together. The pop-up barber shop offered a space where African, Caribbean, and African American students could get a cut and look sharp, but also convene and celebrate what distinguishes communities of African diaspora and organize change—from establishing Black Hair Appreciation Day, to planning an affirmative action rally in Washington D.C., and designing apparel to fundraise for the Obama campaign.
Today, the pop-up barbershop events are put on by the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity. As brother Sheck Mulbah (Class of ’20), who this year takes over running them, puts it, the barber shop is an “essential service,” but also plays an important symbolic role. “The barber shop represents a safe-haven within the black community where you can go when you’re personally or academically stressed and recharge.”
A set of clippers and a community spirit became a distinctly Stanford institution, but that institution is part of a global context. Stanford Live brings to campus acclaimed Nigerian poet/playwright Inua Ellams as one of the inaugural Presidential Residency Artists and his play Barber Shop Chronicles, which explores the barber shop’s integral community significance. Thump Off Thursdays and their offshoots are a testament to the sense of security, enterprising spirit, service to others, and enduring bonds that the barbershop incubates everywhere from Johannesburg to London, from Harare and Kampala to right here in Silicon Valley.
Related Event: Nov 8–10
Roble Studio Theater
Barber Shop Chronicles