Black barbershops have been a central part of Philadelphia native Antonio Johnson’s life. From childhood to adulthood, they’ve always been intertwined in his journey. He has vivid memories of his early experiences in the barbershop. As a child he would arrive there at 6:00 a.m. to get his haircut by his uncle—who at the time was DJ Jazzy Jeff’s barber. There were hats on the coat hooks that marked your place in line. He remembers the scent of the alcohol going across his forehead when his haircut was completed and the feeling of invincibility when he left the barber chair. It was in a Philly barbershop owned by a local named Mr. Leon where Johnson—a Morgan State University graduate—picked up a magazine as a teen and learned about the cultural importance of historically Black colleges and universities. While traveling abroad to places like Cuba he learned firsthand that the impact of barbershops transcended geographically and culturally. The culmination of those experiences led to the creation of Johnson’s “You Next” project.
For Johnson, Black-owned barbershops nestled in neighborhoods across America have far more value than simply being places where you can get a cut. Barbershops are embedded in the fabric of Black culture. They’ve become safe spaces for crucial conversations and have evolved into establishments for Black wellness. Through his photo project, You Next, Johnson visually captured the influence and impact that these businesses have on the lives of Black men and women. Bringing this project to fruition was no easy feat for Johnson. He came up with the concept for You Next two years ago and made the brave decision to leave his corporate job behind to pursue this project. He knew that You Next was something bigger than himself and wholeheartedly believed that it would be an important contribution to Black culture.
“It was really tough. There were a lot of long nights where I thought about whether what I was doing was smart. It took a lot of faith to step out on that limb,” he told NewsOne. “I found inspiration in the journeys of barbers. When you start barbering you have to be confident and trusting of the process. You have to have faith that the community you’re servicing will support you. That’s what pushed me to move forward with the project. The project went through a few iterations. I wanted to create something that was new and reflective of the time that we’re in.” With the help of a Kickstarter campaign that he launched, he was able to move forward with making You Next a reality.
Johnson has had many memorable experiences along his journey. He’s witnessed toddlers get their first haircut—which he calls a rite of passage—and has been present for some heated barbershop debates about everything from sports to politics. He also got the opportunity to meet Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s former barber. Through the project, he’s been to 16 cities—including New York, Atlanta, Chicago, Washington, D.C., and Oakland—and has highlighted over 100 barbershops.
Johnson has transformed his photo project into a coffee table book that will feature 250 black and white images that he’s captured and poignant essays from individuals in the barber community, cultural critics, and leading voices in the literary world. The written pieces will cover entrepreneurship, gentrification, faith, and sexuality. It will be published by the Chicago Review Press and is slated to be released in September 2020.
At a time where there is a lot at stake for Black folks socially and politically Johnson says that barbershops are needed now more than ever; especially with the 2020 presidential election approaching. He wants them to be utilized as tools to increase votership among the Black community. Going beyond politics he hopes that discussions about ownership, economic empowerment and wellness practices are brought to more barbershops. Barbershops are often a key to economic freedom for individuals who have been incarcerated. “Barbershops have cultivated a sense of community,” he said. “They are the most important small businesses in our country and when we invest in them the return is strong. The You Next project stands on the shoulders of Black barbers that started their own businesses and have allowed us to look fresh for important life milestones like birthdays, weddings, and even job interviews. You Next celebrates the most important business in our community.”