The Streets Barber on why he started a global movementA reformed drug addict who started his journey in Canada, ‘The Streets Barber’, aka Nasir (Nas) Sobhani, is a Melbourne based barber who skateboards around the city giving free cuts to homeless people and spending time talking to them with the hopes of inspiring them to start fresh as a part of his ‘Clean Cut Clean Start’ movement. Earlier this year the Aware Project caught up with Nas, and talked about how he became the figurehead in the Street Barber movement and why he’s changing the lives of the homeless, one haircut at a time.
Aware: What was happening in your life before you began your career as a barber?
Nas: I came to Australia about three and a half years ago, before that I was in Vancouver Canada. During high school I was always cutting friends hair, shaping their beards, sideburns and all that. They were always like ‘man you should become a hairdresser. You should be a barber!’ and I would say ‘nah man I wanna do something that’s going to be respected in society’, thinking that I’d have to be an academic. When I graduated I went to the University of Toronto for a year and dropped out deciding that I was going to do a year of volunteer work. I went to Vanuatu which is in the Melanesian Islands and there I worked with kids when I was about 19 years old and realised that maybe I wanted to be a teacher because I thought that was going to be respected and I loved helping people and working with kids, so I came back with the notion and motivation that I wanted to be a teacher. I did three and a half years of uni studying history, and in those three and a half years I got heavily involved with drugs which kind of took my life in a different direction. But during those three and a half years that I was attending uni I was still cutting hair for my friends and for my family and they were still adamant about me pursuing this career as a barber or hairdresser. It wasn’t until right before rehab that my family just sat me down and said ‘this is a career that we could definitely see you doing – it’s a passion that you’re going to be good at – just do it.’ I don’t know what happened, I don’t know why it took me so long, but that conversation kind of just woke me up and I was like ‘this is what I’ve got to be doing.’
Ever since then I decided it was the career I wanted to get into, and after going to rehab I learned how important it is to do me because I was so busy trying to be someone else, or live the way I thought people wanted me to live. It was all about insecurities and being comfortable wanting to be me, so this is me now man.
Aware: How and why did you begin to start ‘Clean Cut Clean Start’?
Nas: My family comes from a Bahá’í background and the Bahá’í faith really emphasises service to humanity. The way to be a true Bahá’í, it says in the writings, is by helping society. It’s not just saying ‘I believe in god and I’m a Bahá’í’. In fact, it says that a true Bahá’í isn’t even someone who believes in God or believe in the Bahá’í writings but does more for humanity than the average man – service to humanity is service to god. I grew up in that lifestyle. Since my parents were kids they were travelling the world doing stuff for communities around the world. Not as missionaries, but simply helping out and doing whatever they could. My mum was in the jungles of the Philippines helping the indigenous when she could, so it was pretty cool. Basically, that was something in my mindset all my life and when I came to Australia and sobered up, I realised I wanted to start giving my life back because I finally got my life and I wanted to help others get their life back because I guess I lost my life for six years. When I sobered up my mum said ‘after six years I finally see someone behind those eyes.’ When I got to Australia I went to help out at drug and alcohol centres and I remember in the first ten minutes the nurse asked me to get some needles, and I felt my blood boil and just couldn’t do it. It took a year and a half to settle in and get used to being sober, and I took up barbering. I was working at a cafe and I just worked really hard at learning to cut hair – going to barber shops and watching them cut, doing whatever I could do to learn some stuff. Some barbers let me do a clients hair once a week and gave me tips, and I started to do that more and more, and as a career as a barber I figured that I tended to neglect serving society. I realised that I was addicted to cutting hair, it was like a drug. I was high off that – I couldn’t stop cutting hair. I’d do a full eight hour day then come home and do haircuts for four or five hours with my homies, I just couldn’t get enough of it. And then I talked to my friend, like ‘yo man I’m starting to neglect serving mankind, what should I do?’, and we sort of thought about it. There is this really cool Bahá’í quote and it’s ‘you should use your talents and your crafts to help society’. You don’t necessarily have to be a doctor or a dentist, you can use anything – if you’re an artist, if you’re a chef – you can be creative and use your skills to help anyone. I thought ‘why don’t people come get their haircut from me.’ They come into my chairs with zero and they leave like a hero – they get so happy. Everyone feels so good. When you take a shower when you feel dirty, after that shower you just feel good even though it’s just a shower. When I looked at myself in the mirror when I was a junky, I used to just break down and cry. I hated myself, I felt so ugly and felt so gross. I just thought to myself, if people are in a similar situation to that, the way I used to be, and the people I give haircuts to – how confident and happy they look afterwards, imagine giving that confidence to someone who felt as ugly as I did.
I was like man, it’s inevitable, this is what I’ve got to do. So I decided to walk around, I saved my money for a bit, and I bought a complete set of tools for the streets. After two months while I was saving up and had been accumulating all these different tools and products and various things to hit the streets with I became friends with the homeless dudes at Parliament station on the way to work. Every day I’d be like ‘Hey man, how you doing – do you want a haircut one day?’ They did, and we became friends from there. Once I’d saved up I went looking for the guys but they weren’t there on the day, and I was thinking ‘man, for two months we were talking and building it up’ and then I just sat there and said a prayer, walked across the street and there was this guy who looks at me and goes ‘you look lost’. He looked raggedy too, and I was like ‘yeah I’m fine, I’m just looking for the homeless guys who are usually here squatting to give them a haircut’. And he’s like ‘why would you give them that’, I said ‘I decided I would give free haircuts to people on the streets’, and he goes ‘wow man, I could definitely use a haircut and a shave. You see, I’m going to detox tomorrow and I want to look clean before I go, and I’ve been too depressed recently do clean myself up or get groomed, I haven’t even shaved or anything.’ So I did the full nine yards man. To me, he was like a guardian angel – I’d never seen him, heard of him, and I’ve never done anything that has involved me seeing him again, it was just a one time thing but it ignited a desire in my heart to be like ‘this is what I’ve got to be doing now, 100%’.
Aware: One of the core principles of Bahá’í is equality of humanity and unity, which contributed to starting Clean Cut Clean Start – have you always had the Bahá’í faith from when you were young?
Nas: When I say it’s from my family, it’s from my family because the Bahá’í faith is a pillar of the philosophies within my family. The cool thing about the Bahá’í faith that I love so much is that unlike any other faiths and religions, philosophies and ideologies, it is not forced upon anyone. If you want to identify yourself as a Bahá’í, it’s through your own individual investigation. No one can put the Bahá’í faith on you, it has to come from yourself. All my family did was lead by example, they never forced me to do anything. All they did was just show through their own ways, and you know, that shits contagious. When you see your mum be a maternal figure to all the kids in the neighbourhood, that’s cool as hell. It’s contagious. In my mind it was inevitable that this was what I wanted to be doing for the rest of my life. Equality between man and woman, equality between all races is the main pillar of the Bahá’í faith – oneness. I have that tattooed on my face actually. That stands for basically that everything comes from one source, like the oneness of god, oneness of religion, oneness of mankind – whatever walk of life you come from, whether you’re gay, straight, black or yellow, we’re all one at the end of the day. Everything is one despite what you might think.
Aware: It’s incredible, I saw the video by PLGRM, how you said that some people come with scripture from the bible and some people come with Tupac lyrics for instance, and it’s essentially what you find resonates with you which calls you to do things?
Nas: Absolutely. My spirituality is subjective to every single person, who the hell is to tell you what’s right or wrong? The only rule we have which we talk about during devotionals is that you respect everyone, so if you feel like you’re going to go bible bashing that’s not really respectful. But if that makes you spiritual then by all means but just don’t bring it into this house, as simple as that.
Aware: When you started the Street Barbers Facebook and Instagram pages, was it your intention to share your client’s stories with others so that more people would empathise with people on the streets?
Nas: Haha, it’s funny how it started. I was off social media for ages, and then when I tried to be a barber my friend showed me this article of this one barber who had actually set up an Instagram and showed haircuts and he was able to land a job through his Instagram. I was desperate to get a job as a barber so that’s how it started. Once I was on Instagram I eventually got used to it and was like I might as well do a before and after, and after three or four months where we just posted haircuts, I finally decided to do Clean Cut Clean Start. My name on Instagram was Junior Line for a long time, and what happened was I just posted that before and after of the very first dude – his name was Frank, and I shared his story too and kept everything as raw and authentic as possible. It was cool, I got some cool feedback and I think people were touched and inspired by it, it was very organic. But I can promise you this right now – it’s not even about likes. It’s not about Instafame or whatever people want to call it. At the end of the day, X amount of followers are following me. Right now I’m talking to two dudes and there’s a dog in the room, it’s all that really matters – whoever is with you at the present time. Sometimes just to avoid that mentality of ‘I’m trying to get likes’, I actually go out one on one without a camera or anything else to keep it authentic as possible. And like, yesterday my homies were with me kicking it, and I was like, what are we going to do today? And we’re like, let’s go serve. We went and got some food, went to Footscray, blasted some music and no photos were taken – we were like fuck it, no photos today. And it’s cool because it keeps me grounded. It’s like, what the hell is the point in trying to exploit and go out? I have homeboys on Instagram who are doing the same thing, and I’m not sure what their intentions are but at the end of the day who gives a crap? Whether it be just, whether it be sincere or all fake, I don’t really care, I’m not going to judge that. At the end of the day if they’re going to make one person inspired or happy, then so be it. It’s on them. This isn’t my movement, this is a world movement – everybody’s doing it. I just for some reason have been recognised.
Aware: Again in that video shot by PLGRM, you said people on the streets are ashamed of who they are. So what is society’s role in helping these people become confident in who they are, and in turn start to get themselves off the ground?
Nas: I think this is the most controversial thing that I always say but it’s fucked. Don’t give them money man, that’s just nonsense. You’re giving them something so meaningless, it’s a material thing. Thinking you’ve done your freaking quarter for the day. When people do that shit it pisses me off. What are you doing? You’re not empowering anyone. Going off and saying ‘what’s up man, how are you doing? I hope you have a good day,’ can do ten times better and more for that person than a fucking dollar. I’ve even done that myself, I’ve tested it out. I’ve given food, I’ve given money thinking ‘that’s how you help a homeless person’. But then the other day I went up to a guy and said ‘Yo, what’s up man,’ and he looks at me all dazed, and I was like ‘I have no money, I’m sorry but I want you to know I really hope you have a good day.’ And the guys eyes opened up and he’s like ‘whoa thanks man, you too.’ I walk away, and I’m not joking he yells to me and puts thumbs up as I’m walking away and yells ‘You too man!’. Are you kidding me? Have you ever got that reaction from giving someone a dollar? Do they even look up sometimes? You’re not empowering anyone man, fuck a gold coin. That’s all I’ve got to say, you can do so much more than monetary bullshit. And it’s the one thing in my life I will never do because I’m doing so much trying to empower them, the last thing I want to do is disempower them and give them something that makes them feel like they’re constantly taking from society. So every time I give them a haircut I’m always like ‘I really want to thank you for letting me give you a haircut, what you’re doing for me is a huge favour and I love what I do and I get high off this, so you’re basically my new drug. Thank you so much.’ Constantly saying thank you and making them believe, because it’s a fact, that they’re doing something back for someone else instead of constantly taking from people, taking from families, taking from anyone they can, what can they get back? Of course, they’re going to feel disempowered if that’s the case. You want to help empower and change this? You’ve got to do something other than just give them a dollar.