Words by Cassidy Blackwell
Photography by Nolis Anderson
In 2008, America elected its first black president. A black man who, we have all learned, shares very similar interests and tastes to many other black men. President Obama shoots hoops, dotes on his daughters, fist bumps his wife, speaks with swagger and has unwavering loyalty to the same barber when it comes to his line ups.
As a celebrator of all barbershop everything, the Bevel Code team traveled to Chicago to meet the First Barber, or should we say The FBOTUS?
In 1998, a young Illinois Senator walked into the local barbershop of his Hyde Park neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago, only to find that the barber that had been cutting his hair was no longer there. Instead he sat down in the chair another barber for the first of what would become almost two decades of cuts and line ups. As history has shown, this charismatic senator would eventually become President of the United States, and this lucky barber named Zariff would come to make regular trips to the White House while maintaining his regular clients at Hyde Park Hair Salon.
In the front of the shop on the style menu, you can order “The Obama Cut” for $21
The shop is located on a quiet street, but inside the door are the vibrant sounds, sights and scents of your typical barbershop. March Madness games play on huge screens around the shop. People in chairs are shouting across the aisle to each other making bets on their brackets while others sit quietly, a hot towel wrapped around their face in anticipation of a fresh shave. Someone, somewhere (and you never really know where), is playing their new mixtape on their phone speakers for all to [kind of] hear. A dude rolls in with a tray of incense, cologne and DVD’s for sale. We’re greeted by Ishmael, one of the owners, who is filling the Skittles dispenser in the waiting area.
It’s impossible to not notice the massive glass case that contains an autographed barber chair. Photos, paintings and newspaper clippings all featuring the President line the walls. In the front of the shop on the style menu, you can order “The Obama Cut” for $21. What is this Obama cut exactly? “A medium to low cut with a light taper around the sides and back,” Zariff recalls with a smile. “He used to wear his hair longer, more rounded, but right before the DNC we took it low and into the current style. It was the first time America was introduced to him. He needed to look sharp.”
The culture of celebrity barber is on the rise, as evidenced by massive Instagram followings, apparel deals, jetsetting lifestyles and product lines. On the other end of the spectrum is Zariff, who retains a refined humility despite working with one of the most powerful men in the world. “The fame? Well there’s a lot of people who have been coming here for years who still don’t know what I do,” he says. “It’s been smooth and it hasn’t changed me because I control it.”
Around us, the shop vibrates with the singular energy of a Friday night. “Barack was always involved in the shop talk, quick to jump in,” Zariff says gesturing around him. “I think he misses it.” Due to matters of National Security, the President is no longer able to make his regular trips to the shop and instead Zariff travels to the President. Also due to matters of National Security, Zariff cannot say how frequently he makes the trip nor if the President still pays the $21 for the Obama Cut listed on the service menu.
Through the years, Zariff has seen lots of changes in trends and celebrities coming through the door. “Muhammed Ali,” he reminisces, “I could never really finish cutting his hair because he would always stop to sign autographs.” Despite the popular names who have sat in the shop, he still fondly remembers Obama’s first election as being one of the most exciting periods of the shop. “It was electric in here. People were coming from all over the world to meet us,” he says.
When it comes to keeping one of the most famous faces on point, Zariff recommends the same bit of advice for all: “Use a hot towel. It works wonders. It’s the foundation of everything.”