Episode 5: Harlem Barber

Kamal Nuru is one of New York City’s leading barbers, having gotten his start over 20 years ago. He is the owner and operator of four Levels Barbershop locations in the Big Apple–three in Harlem and one in Brooklyn. Additionally, he has his own barber product line, The Antique Barber, featuring a range of shaving creams, capes, and other barber supplies. He also serves as host of the widely popular NYC Barber Battle competitions. For more on that and Nuru’s hair culture webseries, check out BarberWorldTV.

What does a regular day look like for you as a barber and business owner?
Nuru: Since I don’t cut hair every day, I’m working on my other entities, or I’m at hair shows. I have my own apparel and product line for barbers called The Antique Barber, so I’m always working on that. But when I am in town, I cut hair at my shop in Brooklyn.

How did you get involved in this line of work?
Nuru: Like a lot of barbers, I started at home. I was always good with my hands, and with a lot of practice, I was trusted by friends and family to cut their hair. Eventually I got the opportunity to work under a master barber in 1988–this apprenticeship lasted two years. I then moved on to another shop as I was simultaneously doing some recording and dancing in music videos. I had a recording contract, too. When I got a break in entertainment, I went back to barbering around 1992. And in 1996, I opened up my first shop.

What do you love most about your profession?
Nuru: The people. You get to meet so many people from different walks of life. Some become your extended family and friends, and I think that is the most rewarding thing. You have 15-20 minutes to an hour or more to get to know someone on a monthly, bi-weekly or weekly basis, so that’s a lot of time to build a relationship.

What would you say is the biggest challenge?
Nuru: The challenge with being a barber is actually controlling your personal life with your professional life. No matter what’s going on in your life, you can’t put that energy on the client that sits in your chair. And you have to be patient, calm and understanding because you’re dealing with all kinds of personalities. Plus, as a business owner, you’re trying to get your staff to share in your vision. You tend to play mediator, motivator, teacher and father figure, but you also have to protect the brand.

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Episode 5: Harlem Barber