Interview: Gavin Godfrey
Graffitis SWAG (Shave Wash and Groom) Shop sits off of Atlanta’s Roosevelt Highway in a small shopping center. It’s after business hours, dark out, and inside the owner, Killer Mike, is sitting on a nice comfy chair in the back on the phone. On the line is T.I., and he signals for me to sit tight while they wrap their chat. There’s no certainty as to what their conversation is about, but it ends with mike telling his peer…
“I’m proud of you. I’m just happy to be a part of it,” the sincerity in his voice so genuine you’d hope he was actually talking to you. The man has a way with words, even when he’s just streaming together simple sentences of gratitude.
Naturally a blunt is lit because Mike’s been ready to talk about something more pertinent to his legacy than music, which is this shop, a longtime dream investment of his, he tells me. This will be one of 150 shops he hopes to one day lay claim to, building up the Black community in the process.
Every Black man can remember their first experience in the barber shop. What was yours?
My first experience in an Atlanta barber shop was the West Side famous Dell and Wilder. Dell and Wilder were right there in Dixie Hills for over 20-30 years. My first experience was going there and spazzing the fuck out because I was a little nappyhead Black boy and I didn’t like getting my hair cut. This was before my little brother and rich kids made it popular just to get a temp fade and let that shit nap out. You know, if you had a fro your shit had to be picked. But if you didn’t, you had to get that shit cut off. My grandma wasn’t with that shit. So she took me, I tried to spazz out. Mr. Dell, I’ll never forget, he picked up the sharpening strap...They used those old barber chairs. Beautiful barber chairs. They were iron, almost like a cast. They were polished. They had those huge hydraulic systems. I remember how beautiful those chairs were. He pulled that strap and he said, “Now you want me to whoop you with this?!” And I was like “No!” And he was like, “You don’t be still, I’m going to whoop you.” I was terrified about getting whooped...
Would you say you grew up in that shop?
I had a lot of memories in that shop. I learned how to talk to girls from listening to those old men. I learned what the deacons talk about when they not at church, learned how to save money, got a lot of manly lessons. I loved going to the barber shop, not just for getting haircuts. But I learned to love the culture of being a Black man. I can tell you my first inklings of real Black pride came from looking around that shop and looking at pictures of the Budweiser Kings of Africa posters, looking at old Ebony and Jet magazines that was from 15 years before I was born. I was looking at old articles and stuff and it gave me a real sense of pride and structure. It was a place where a Black man wasn’t talked down to, he was uplifted and I liked it, I enjoyed it. And I always anticipated growing to be an adult and sitting in those big chairs and talking that talk.
The problem is the barber shop somewhere between my childhood and adulthood became just like traps. These places with white walls, dirty, with dope deals going on behind your back. It just became something that didn’t feel clean or sanitary or about manhood, it just was hustle. And I didn’t like that. So I said, when I get some money, I am going to open up a shop. When you look around my shop, it’s red, black and yellow for a reason. These paintings are here for a reason. Everything has an intended purpose. For me, I just wanted the culture of Black masculinity to be celebrated.
And when you were growing up and coming in the shop, what was the city of Atlanta like around you and how was it seen through the eyes of those in the shop?
The American dream had long started to be over in the ‘70s with inflation and shortages. It was bad, man. But the feel of the community was still there. There were still nights we could sleep in Collier Heights and the door would be open. But if you lived on Simpson you couldn’t sleep, because you know crack was hittin’ it hard. But the barber shops were a safe haven because the barber shops were still ran by men. They ain’t afraid of no crack dealers, they cut their hair!
So in the city there was this real sense of community and you could sense danger coming. It was the crack era, but men played it down. Men let us know it ain’t nothing to celebrate. The reason it never went to my head was because I was in the barber shops weekly. These old men were just like, “This shit you doing ain’t nothing going lead to nowhere.” I remember when boys would die. The men in that barber shop would talk about death much differently. Like all the girls in school, when they partners got killed they would come to school crying and what not. The barber shop was the first place you heard from a man to a young man you know? So you couldn’t be sad in the same way because you had to accept the accountability for your own life. They were the first people who were honest enough to say that.
So are you trying to bring that sense of community back, with your own shop in Atlanta?
It was important for me to bring that to Atlanta because I am from here. I want to give a young man in this community the same feeling that Mr. Dell and Mr. Wilder gave me. I would like to provide that inspiration. That Steve Jones who had Boys in the Hood, the shop on Bankhead...I saw Steve, who was a dope boy. I saw him take that money from the street and put it back into the community. Well you say, “Yeah, he bought a barber shop,” but it employed fifteen people. All these people couldn’t work the same shift on the same day. So you got to think about, that is creating the culture of commerce right there in the community. That is creating an alternative economy for Black men, who already were the most unemployed. So for me, man, this creates some social change that provides jobs, it creates a cultural change because it treats each market in a way they deserve to be treated. I want to treat brothers like kings, businessmen, and presidents.
How does Atlanta influence you in that business way and influence you as a person?
If I do this right in 10 years,you are going to look back on this shit like, “Damn, I thought this was just a barber shop”...For me, this is how I have to change my life. This gave me something to dedicate myself to that was tangible, that was responsible and accountable for the people. I have to pay my bills on time, I have to make sure stuff is on time because I am accountable to these men. It had me thinking about the longevity of my life. I want to be here to develop it. So now I hit the gym in the morning, I do my little walk and jumping jacks. I want to grow it into an empire.
What’s the biggest thing standing between you and achieving that goal?
My biggest challenge is just balance; balancing being a man to my woman, a father to my children, Killer Mike to people who support me and a business owner. I have to figure out a place of peace for our men and not abuse myself or hurt myself. I’ve stayed up so many nights. I got sick, I just ran myself too hard. I got to take care of myself. That’s what ultimately I am learning, that this is possible to have anything you want to. But you have to make sure you’re here to enjoy it.
As a business owner, where would you want to see yourself within the city and what are your hopes for the city itself?
Where do I see the city? I see the city as possibly going two ways. I see the city as the Black elite, business elite, social elite, politically elite, getting their shit together and having a real agenda and keeping this city on the projector of being the crown jewel of Black cities in the world. Because, and the reason I say that is not because we have Black Hollywood and that bullshit or bullshit music, but because Black business has endured and thrived and Black culture has endured and thrived. Imagine if the Harlem renaissance worked for 50 years, instead of what felt like a minute. That is Atlanta, every day! I have not known living under white rule my whole life. So that is a unique feeling for an African-American male to be able to say. There is a symbiotic relationship in Atlanta where we have been empowered because we empower ourselves. We don’t ask people to empower us. There was business, land and ownership there before rappers and before Hollywood. I wish the city of Atlanta to continue to be that. I wish to see 10 more Herman Russell’s for every one more Tyler Perry. Understand? I wish to see more Andrew Young’s and Maynard Jackson’s. I wish to see more Maynard’s especially.
I think Atlanta and Black Atlanta needs to become politically motivated in a way that shows them leading the nation, and not just being a part of any political thing that Blacks are supposed to be. I think we are at the grand tragedy of the city. Even having Dr. King as a symbolic demagogue of sorts for civil right leadership, we are not on the forefront of those things. We still take our cues from people who are fifteen hundred miles north and people thousands miles away. I don’t think we should be doing that. I think we should be deciding on what is good for Black America. I would like to see the city take the lead and not sit on the side, behind these funky preachers. •
Graffittis SWAG Shop
2660 Godby Rd
College Park, GA 30349