Story by Anna Mudd; Photographs by Lucas Pruitt; Graphics by Stephanie Mayer
The sound of the clippers reverberated in the air—buzzing along as part of the soundtrack of Imperial Barbershop.
As he shaved, snipped and cut, owner Derick Cagle listened to the chatter in the background. It was a back-to-school event five years ago, but he clearly remembers the dialogue he heard that day.
A group of teenagers sat in the metal chairs lining the wall by the front door. They were waiting for their turn in Cagle’s swiveling chair.
“Oh, you ain’t got no girls,” one quipped.
“Why I need girls?” the other retorted “See that’s your problem—you chasin’ the girls and that’s why you got a baby on the way.”
“So? You think you goin’ to college because you’re an athlete, but you ain’t even that good,” the first shot back.
“Well at least I ain’t out there sellin’ bro, you here hurting other people’s families just to help your own” the other replied.
On the other side of the room some of the other guys were joking around—talking about how tough they were—boasting of getting in fights and beating people up.
Cagle felt like he was watching a playground Double Dutch contest, standing on the sidelines, waiting for the perfect moment to jump in.
Then a voice boomed over the others, turning the heads of Cagle and the teenagers.
“You want to know something about killing then ask me. I thought I was bad, but the moment after I did it, I was at the police department, they slid over the autopsy and I cried. I didn’t care about being a gangster or being a thug. Y’all young boys sitting around here talking about how you’re bad…well for 14 years I was scared to go to sleep in case the man I killed visited me in my dreams.”
Everyone fell silent.
The middle-aged man’s story was raw, unabridged. And, the teenagers listened. In that moment Cagle realized how powerful the barbershop, with its assortment of people and experiences, could be, especially for young men.
He thought, “what if I created a space where boys could get this kind of advice and where they will all teach one another by giving each other different diameters of their lifestyles.”
A few years later, he sold Imperial Barbershop, and in 2019, Cagle started Gentlemen Quarters Barbershop Academy, a nonprofit organization dedicated to creating a safe space for teenage boys talk about everyday challenges.
The idea was to formalize what he experienced every day in the barbershop over the years—men from different walks of life connecting, sharing advice, and teaching one another. The academy is donation-based, raising money for their events from contributions they receive.
GQ Barbershop organizes events for teens between the ages of 13-18 to get free haircuts and free mentoring. As the young men are physically transformed by the barbers behind them, they talk through everything from gun violence, peer pressure, drug use, and basics for navigating life.
Cagle invites others—athletes, sheriffs, former prisoners—to visit and share their experiences with the teenagers
“We aren’t classified as therapists,” says Will Cagle, Derick’s cousin who helped start GQ Barbershop. But, he laughs a bit to himself, looking down at the client whose hair he’s cutting, making it clear he feels their role in these guys’ lives is similar.
At the events, the barbers drape a silky, black cape over each teen’s shoulders and begin to cut their hair. Usually, there’s a list of topics to serve as conversation starters. But, for the most part the barbers just let the dialogue flow, giving the young men space to speak freely.
They switch up locations—one thing Cagle loves is the fact that he can bring that barbershop environment pretty much anywhere. Their first event was in the gym at Hillside High School.
“Anybody can cut hair, but a barber does everything,” Cagle says. “You have to be able to give people good advicebecause the barbershop is neutral grounds for everybody—pimps, punks, prostitutes and police all come in—maybe even at one time.”
Roderick Brandon is a senior at Hillside High School. He’s been going to Cagle for haircuts for years.
“Advice coming from somebody outside your family helps a lot,” he says as he waits for Cagle to finish with another client. “He does give me great tips on how to be a better man, D’s the best.”
Cagle smiles under the ring light hanging above his head, like a halo. But he keeps his eyes focused on the razor in his hand as he makes intricate designs into the client’s hair.
“The barber shop is where men are usually most vulnerable, because we talk to and understand one another,” Durham Councilman Leonardo Williams says. “Conversations happen there—especially in the black community, that’s our golf course.”
It may not be a therapist’s office, but Cagle, with his clean-cut beard and easy laugh, quickly puts people at ease. For a lot of these guys, Cagle, 46, and the other barbers are the only male figure in their lives giving this kind of advice.
Shekema Crawford is the mother of two teenage boys.
“I’m a divorced single mother, and my boys’ father is not a part of their life,” she says. “But the barbershop was my boys’ way of having that connection with males being able to see positive male role models. Mr. Cagle was one that really took that interest in my sons.”
Shekema’s son, Da’Shaun James, says what he learns with Cagle helps him think about how to approach difficulties he may face in the future. Hearing advice from a male perspective is something he doesn’t get at his house.
One topic GQ Barbershop has focused on is gun violence.
It’s a personal subject for Cagle, whose nephew was shot and killed a few days before his 21st birthday.
And, Cagle knows many of his clients have been touched by it too.
“In a shop I was working at about 15 years back I had one guy come in and get his haircut and no more than five minutes after walking out my door he was shot and killed,” Cagle says. “I didn’t realize he was taking the last steps of his life as he walked out the door.”
Gun violence in Durham is on the rise. In 2020, 318 people were shot in Durham compared to 189 in 2019. This is a record number of shootings in the area since 2016, and police say it’s still increasing.
For Lavern Lucier, this pattern became brutally real in August when her son, Syncere Burrell, was shot five times and killed around the corner from their home.
She was in Roxboro that day, celebrating her mother’s birthday.
When she closes her eyes, Lucier can hear the frantic call from her daughter telling her she heard gunshots back at their home in Durham.
“Momma, it’s him,” her daughter said into the phone.
Lucier can feel the tight grip of her hands on her steering wheel as she sped back to Durham. The lump in her throat made it hard to breathe, like she was choking.
“Over 95 percent of Durham’s gun violence victims and perpetrators are young black men,” Leonardo Williams says. He founded a similar group for young men called One Thousand Black Men, working against gun violence in Durham.
“You layer this with the fact that Durham public schools discipline data specifically for black young men is at the lowest percentage of grade level proficiency or college and career readiness—we are at the top of the totem pole for crime and at the bottom for academic proficiency which tells me our system isn’t working.”
At its core, GQ Barbershop is male bonding.
“A lot of these kids are going to school hungry because they don’t have food, or they are a victim of a domestic violence household,” Cagle says. “They have to grow up faster than they should because their parents aren’t around.”
Cagle’s influence was especially apparent to Shekema Crawford a few years ago.
Her older son, Da’Mon was at a law camp. He was one of the only African American males there, and several other campers made racially charged comments, making him uncomfortable.
“He didn’t want to talk to me about it,” Crawford said.
“Momma, I wanna talk to D,” Da’Mon said.
When the camp ended, she and Da’Mon drove to Cagle’s barbershop. He was there cutting someone’s hair, but as soon as he saw Da’Mon he knew something was wrong.
“D took a few moments to talk to my son, I didn’t ask any questions but whatever he said gave my son the confidence to continue his drive to be in law and politics and to know who he is,” Crawford says.
That was when Da’Mon was in eighth grade. Today, he is a sophomore at North Carolina Central University studying political science and law and that conversation still holds strong for him.
Gia Peebles, a stylist who works with Cagle and helped start the nonprofit, says he is the perfect man to lead conversations like these with the teens. She goes to every event and can see his authenticity when talking to them.
“Passion really fuels him and he’s from the Durham community and knows exactly what takes place here,” she says. “This couples with his love for building up young men. When he’s speaking and engaging with these young men you can see he’s making an impact and doing exactly what he’s supposed to be doing.”
Cagle grew up without his father around.
His biggest inspiration came from his instructor and mentor at Harris Barber College, Tobias McLean.
“When I went to barbering school, I was arrogant. He literally broke me down and put me back together,” Cagle says.
McLean taught him the difference between being a hair-cutter and becoming a barber—someone who helps the customers beyond just their hairstyle.
“You can’t be in this community and not be part of this community,” he told Cagle.
It’s clear that Cagle is part of the community. For the guys in this neighborhood, community starts in the barbershop chair.