The African King fixing others’ crowns – Award-winning Teesside barbershop is a haven for men to talk

 

Fixing people’s crowns so they walk out of his barbershop a head taller and feeling lighter is Martins Ushie’s vision.

Martins Ushie (image by Sass Media)

Afro Kings Barbershop in Middlesbrough is not only a stylish and relaxing venue to have a haircut and a head and shoulder massage, but also a safe haven for men to talk about their mental health struggles.

This is of paramount importance to Martins, who left the Army three years ago having witnessed the mental health struggles of his comrades.

The pivotal moment in Martins’ life was one night towards the end of a six-month tour in Iraq in blistering heat and in constant danger of attack when he overheard a member of his British-American coalition team “yelling on his phone”.

“It was 4pm, it was 48-49 degrees, we were wearing full armour and 30kg on our backs, often sleeping with it,” explains Martins, who was in the Army for 12 years.

“We shared an office with the Americans and one of them was yelling on the phone. I thought he’s not my problem.

“That was the last time I saw him. That night he took his own life.

“That was when reality hit me. What if I had said something or suggested a coffee, would he still be here?”

Martins had already been considering leaving the Army but this was the tipping point for the father-of-two.

He was a Corporal and was about to be promoted to Sergeant having been awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Valuable Service for his work as an environmental health practitioner. He had been looking forward to attending a special ceremony at Buckingham Palace with his family to receive his award from the Queen but the national lockdown in March 2020 meant his medal was posted to him instead.

He took a job in Sunderland on his return to the UK in 2021 but deep down he knew he needed to do something more meaningful to him.

Having learnt the barber trade when he was just 16 and having kept up his craft throughout his career, he knew what his next step would be.

In 2022, he opened Afro Kings Barbershop on Hartington Road before moving to larger premises on Newport Road last October. Martins and his business partner, Oscar Imomoh, who has a flair for interior design, renovated the building to turn it from a letting agents to a barbershop.

With comfy sofas and art adorning the walls, the salon looks more like a stylish apartment than a barbers and tucked away in the corner is a glass-fronted room, a private space for people to talk – The Mental Health Hub.

It is now officially The Best Barber Shop in Middlesbrough, having recently been awarded the accolade by the 2024 Quality Business Awards for an overall score exceeding 95%, making them the top ranked barbers in the town.

“I’ve been a barber since I was 16; I started because my Dad had passed away,” says Martins, who lives in Stockton with his wife Alyson and their children Micah, eight, and Avah, five.

“It was either carve a niche for me or society would decide for me. I wanted a craft. I’m a very creative person and I wanted to make an impact that lives on in people. You are walking around with my creativity on your head. It could be your new passport picture or your wedding photo, it’s a moment in history.

“I also want to talk to people and get to know them. You can only do that if you’re connected physically or spiritually.”

Martins was one of the first members of the Black Creatives and Arts Network (BCAN), established in 2022 to be a community for black creatives to network, connect and collaborate in the North-east.

BCAN, which is part of Taste of Africa Northeast, includes musicians, writers, designers, filmmakers, content creators, chefs, and more. The inaugural BCAN Showcase was held at Teesside University last year which was a celebration of artistic expression and entrepreneurship.

Martins continued as a barber throughout his degree in environmental health at Leeds Beckett University and his Army career.

“The Army broadened my horizons and perspectives,” says Martins.

“And I couldn’t have done it without my Auntie Maria who sponsored me to come to the UK from Nigeria when I was 26. She was a second Mum to me and took good care of me and gave me somewhere to live before I joined the Army.

“It was a brilliant time. I went to places around the world people would pay a fortune to go.”

But his experience in Iraq in 2019 was a “game changer”.

And two weeks after he returned to the UK, a medic who was working for his replacement died when shrapnel from indirect fire hit her.

“That could have been me,” he says. “I believe that I left the Army before that happened because I was supposed to do this.”

An incident at the barbershop cemented his belief that the Mental Health Hub was instrumental to the future of Afro Kings Barbershop.

“Six months into having Afro Kings, a guy came in and we spoke at length,” he says.

“Nobody walked through the door, it was just me and him. He talked and he cried and I cried with him. Why did he open up to me? I don’t know but that day changed us both. He came back to tell me if it wasn’t for our chat he would have ended his life that day and I thought, I’ve just saved a soul. I went from not knowing how to react in Iraq to helping someone on a dark path. The tears we shed together saved me and I kept doing it. I get it. Men find it hard to talk, I was an alpha male in the Army, I thought I was OK but now I know it’s OK not to be OK. It awakened in me an understanding that it was a powerful tool to sit down and talk in a safe space. That’s when the penny dropped.”

Boaz Adewunmi and Martins Ushie (Image by Sass Media)

And so the Mental Health Hub was born. A 30-minute haircut and a 10-minute chat. An inclusive space for men to talk about anything and everything, to offload worries and bond with others. Martins has recently launched a Thursday morning coffee morning, from 10am to noon, where a Middlesbrough Council representative attends to advise on any housing or financial concerns and there are plans to have volunteer mental health practitioners attend to provide support and signpost for further help.

Another of the father-of-two’s passions is inspiring the younger generation to become more creative.

“BCAN is where we share ideas,” he says.

“I want people, especially the younger generation, to be inspired. If you do something you love and have a passion for, then you will never go hungry and you will never work a day in your life. Carve a niche for yourself whether it’s as a barber, painting, woodwork, find something creative. I want to sow the seed that will germinate to bring about societal change.”

Martins, who already employs another barber, Boaz Adewunmi, is about to take on a female barber too.

 

Boaz Adewunmi And Martins Ushie (image by Sass Media)

“I want girls to grow up knowing they can do whatever they want to do; there is no reason why they can’t become a barber. I would like to work with local colleges to train young people into how to cut Afro hair as well as Caucasian hair too.

“The name comes from me being an African King but I want Afro Kings to be a diverse, inclusive place for the whole community – not only the black community. It is open to Queens too, we do creative haircuts for women too.”

For more information about BCAN, which meets twice a month at Studio 109 in Middlesbrough, visit https://blackcreativesandartsnetwork.com or email BCAN@tasteofafricanortheast.co.uk

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