Quality Care Hair is usually closed on Mondays. But on this Monday in mid-February, the shop’s owner, Richard Montique, shows up at 6:45 p.m., unlocks the front door and flips on the lights.
In an instant, the place is as bright as day. Fluorescent light bounces off the black-and-white checkerboard floor, the ten hair-cutting stations with swivel chairs and arrays of photographs and hair products — the personalized touches of the stylists and barbers who occupy these spaces.
Guests begin trickling in, greeting each other with hugs and cracking jokes above the salsa music that’s leaking over from a neighboring store. As the clock ticks closer to 7 p.m., they gather up extra chairs and arrange them in a circle. There’s a reason the shop is open tonight: Quality Care Hair is about to become a salon in the classic French sense of the word — a place for intellectual discussion. The focus of this evening’s symposium sit down in adjacent swivel chairs: U.S. Army veteran Lacy McDonald and Ari Noorzai, a Muslim American.
Two weeks after President Donald Trump issued his controversial “Muslim ban,” these two men are set to discuss the human costs of the United States’ foreign policy and its military interventions in the Middle East.
“Hey, we all ready?” booms a voice, suddenly demanding everyone’s attention.
The facilitator of the event strides into the middle of the circle. He’s a commanding presence: barrel-chested, muscular and bald, with a carefully manicured mustache and a goatee and soul patch that form an hourglass beneath his lower lip.
With nods from around the room, he pulls a smartphone from his pocket, taps the screen and begins shooting a video.
“Everybody, how you doing? This is your main man Theo EJ Wilson, and this is Shop Talk Live.”
Theo Wilson is executive director of Shop Talk Live, an organization founded by Chaka Lindsey with chapters based in Colorado and Virginia. In Colorado, it hosts bi-monthly gatherings in select barbershops and beauty salons around Aurora. They’re open to anyone, and frequently focus on issues affecting the African-American community. (The title of the December 7 session was “Armed, Ready, and Black: Firearms Forum.”)
Wilson is a multi-talented artist as well as an activist, switching between music, writing, acting, poetry and drawing. The same week as this Shop Talk Live event, he’ll also perform with a band on Valentine’s Day and host a poetry night at the Kasbah Nightclub. At these events and online, he’s promoting a book that he released in January: The Law of Action, which is part memoir, part distillation of the personal philosophy that informs his life and activism. All of these pursuits tie into Wilson’s core mission of consciousness-raising, particularly in metro Denver’s African-American community, where he rallies people against the oppressive forces of police brutality, discrimination and gentrification.
He considers all politics interrelated, but this Shop Talk Live has added intrigue because Lacy McDonald, an African-American, was sent to Ari Noorzai’s ancestral home to fight a war on behalf of America.
“Ari is rooted in a country that Lacy was fighting in: Afghanistan,” says Wilson, then turns to face both men. He asks them to identify any misconceptions they think Americans hold about Muslim-Americans and soldiers.
“The Taliban is not synonymous with us,” says Noorzai, referencing U.S. citizens who have family ties to Afghanistan.
“The biggest misconception is that [U.S. soldiers] don’t value life,” McDonald responds.
Wilson glances at his phone and cracks a smile when he sees all of the comments and questions streaming in from Facebook. “I’m going to open this conversation up,” he announces.
While there are only a dozen people or so in the salon, many more are watching the event live on Wilson’s Facebook page; eventually, the video will generate over 2,000 views.
But that number is peanuts compared to the views generated by most of Wilson’s videos, the majority of which he films at his apartment during his spare time and outside of Shop Talk Live. Over the past eighteen months, the 35-year-old Denver native has become a minor Internet star, and his fame and impact are growing. Using Facebook videos, some of which garner 300,000-plus views, he addresses sensitive issues like reparations, racism and the violence affecting African-American communities. As Wilson’s book reveals, there have been plenty of bumps along the way — but as his longtime friends will tell you, he’s not about to slow down anytime soon.
“On first impression, he seemed kind of cocky, a very strong-headed individual,” recalls Heru with a chuckle. “But we had more in common — drawing, writing, ambitions in the arts — than not, so we eventually became friends. We used to talk about everything, from anthropology to religion to the civil-rights era.”
Despite their fierce debates, which Heru describes as “mental martial arts,” their friendship grew. “Theo’s an orator. As long as I’ve known him, he’s never been afraid to get before a crowd,” says Heru.
That was on full display during a trip the two took to an NAACP conference in Atlanta in 1998; among other things, Heru jokes, it was a chance “to show people from other places that there are actually black people in Denver.”
Wilson’s father, Sid, was “an original gangsta” who used to fight turf wars as a young man living in New York, his son says. Then his dad found spirituality, was drafted into the military and was stationed in Colorado, where he met Claudia, Wilson’s mother, in Denver on an R&R trip from his base in Colorado Springs.
The two became a couple, and after Sid left the military, they decided to raise Theo and his sister, Cyndie, in Denver, where Sid eventually found success running a tour-guide company. He was insistent that his son avoid the same mistakes he’d made as a young man, and urged him to pursue the arts. In fact, he made sure of it: His parents had him playing piano at age four.
“I was forced to grow up in two worlds, between Chopin and Snoop,” says Wilson. “At school I’m hearing MC Eiht — all these gangsta-ass rappers — and then I’d go home and have to play piano for an hour. I was forced to be culturally competent in both worlds at the same time.”
At the time, the family lived in Park Hill, near Martin Luther King Boulevard and Newport Street, a neighborhood where gangs were strong. “Growing up in that area, fear marked our decisions,” Wilson recalls. “I could not wear blue, I could not wear red. My bullies was gangstas. The first time I saw crack was in the locker room at Place Middle School.”
One of the main bullies was associated with the Bloods, and he took any opportunity to pick on Wilson for his church clothes and bookish demeanor. One day Wilson got into a fight with the bully in a school bathroom and managed to push him into a toilet in front of his friends. “Here I was Urkel and he was Snoop,” Wilson remembers. “I was afraid he was going to kill me. Later, I found out he had a snub-nose .38 in his locker.”
But Wilson had another reason to stay away from gangs. “My father scared me more than all of them,” he says.
By the time the Wilson family moved to south Denver and he began attending George Washington, Wilson had became remarkably adept at compartmentalizing his life among his many pursuits and social circles. That skill came in handy at Florida A&M University, where he earned a performing-arts degree.
His most indelible lesson, though, was delivered outside of school, after he’d returned to Denver.
In August 2003, Wilson went with a friend, David Boyd, to Bash, a nightclub at 19th and Blake streets in lower downtown. After the show, a fight erupted on the sidewalk between some belligerent concert-goers and the venue’s bouncers. Wilson had become separated from Boyd, and as he passed the scene of the scuffle, looking for his friend, the Denver Police Department arrived. Wilson was ordered to move, but before he could reply, one of the officers grabbed him. He responded by throwing his sunglasses in the officer’s face, he remembers.
With a single blow, he was knocked to the ground, at which point three other officers piled on top of him and put him in handcuffs.
“POLICE BRUTALITY! POLICE BRUTALITY! POLICE BRUTALITY!” Wilson yelled as loudly as he could, trying to draw witnesses.
Wilson says the officers quickly ushered him through a door and up a staircase to one of the venue’s offices. There he was handcuffed to a chair, “and a cop just started whupping my ass,” he says.
There were blows to his stomach. Punches to his ribs. Wilson felt helpless and began crying. “I thought I was going to die,” he says. “I remember thinking, ‘What are they going to tell my mama?’”
Wilson recalls one of the officers grabbing him by the shirt and shouting, “Motherfucker, you don’t know my name, you don’t know my badge number. But if I see you again tonight, you’re going to jail. So are you going home, or what?’”
“Yeah, I’m going home!” Wilson says he responded.
The officer then uncuffed him and threw him down the staircase leading to Blake Street. The first thing Wilson saw outside the door was a newspaper stand. It was the week of the blackout that had cut power to New York and much of the Eastern Seaboard. Wilson focused on one word in the newspaper’s headline: “Powerless.”
“I’ll never forget that,” he says. “It’s burned into my brain.”
The DPD has no record of the incident, and Wilson was not arrested. But he says the experience underscored his vulnerability as a black man in America and left him traumatized. It also inspired him to get more involved.
While the events were successful, the organization fell apart when Gamu left Denver in 2005 to join the Air Force. “Then, seven years later out of the blue, Olajide reached out to me,” Wilson’s account continues.
“He had moved to Washington, D.C., for the armed services, and there he had been rebuilding the organization, unbeknownst to me. He had a whole new crew of brothers and...he wanted me to be chief facilitator and mentor for a now national organization. My immediate task: rebuild Barber Shop Talk in Denver. The echo had returned.”
He soon had even more reason to get the conversation going. On July 18, 2011, another childhood friend, Alonzo Ashley, died following a confrontation with Denver police officers.
Ashley was at the Denver Zoo when Denver police officers were called in to restrain him; zoo employees had reported that Ashley was acting erratically. There are different accounts of what happened next.
Ashley’s girlfriend said that he was simply dehydrated and delirious; the DPD and other witnesses claim that he attacked a zoo employee, and then police officers. In any case, Ashley was subdued by officers with a taser and subsequently stopped breathing.
The Denver Office of the Medical Examiner ruled the death a homicide, with the cause of death being cardio-respiratory arrest. Ashley’s autopsy report also cited cocaine use during the 24 hours before the struggle.
In response, then-Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey cleared two DPD officers who’d been accused of criminal wrongdoing in the case. But the family of Ashley pressed charges, and in April 2016, Denver announced that it would pay $295,000 as a settlement.
“That was a major loss for Theo,” Heru says of Ashley’s death. “I think it did two things: It made him sad and reflective, but it also pushed him to another level in terms of creating a legacy. It put things into perspective as far as stepping out into the world: There’s no time like now. His book. His acting. His music. His poetry. Everything cannot wait until tomorrow. It’s the power of doing it now and putting it out there instead of waiting, because we don’t know when we’re going to expire.”
As Wilson sees it, his own encounter with the DPD and Ashley’s death taught him about the nature of power and violence. “Violence is a blind force, like a tornado,” he says. “When you have state actors, it exposes that you only have as much democracy as power will allow you to have.”
Shop Talk Live helped increase that power. It holds regular discussions at Montbello Barbers in Green Valley Ranch and other hair salons around Aurora, including Quality Care Hair. The group now has six organizers in Colorado, who meet regularly to plan events. One is Jice Johnson, who jokingly refers to Wilson as her “work husband” because of their close collaboration. She moderates a women-only Shop Talk Live at Selva J’s Beauty Salon each month that explores gender-specific topics; the other events that Wilson moderates at Montbello Barbers and Quality Care Hair are coed.
There’s an easy explanation for hosting the events in barbershops and beauty salons. “Historically, they’ve been places where we talk about important topics in a very informal and safe-feeling setting,” Johnson says. “Women are getting their hair done, and men are getting their hair cut or beard shaved, and there’s a lot of natural-flowing conversation.”
According to Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, a book by Melissa Victoria Harris-Lacewell, the proliferation of black barbershops dates back to the 1890s, when a new generation of post-Civil War African-American entrepreneurs opened shops catering exclusively to the African-American community. This development paralleled the expansion of Jim Crow laws in the American South. As public spaces grew more segregated and restrictive to African-Americans, black barbershops became important outlets; like black churches, they were places where community members could talk and organize without fear of being censored.
Shop Talk Live tries to keep that tradition of open, engaged dialogue alive. “We’re keeping in line with that history of having a community-based organization where everyone in the black community goes to the barbershop and is liable to see anyone there and can have a conversation that doesn’t feel forced,” Johnson says. “It’s a safe space for people to feel comfortable having a conversation.”
Still, they’ve struggled to dispel the notion that their events are “radical” in nature. “At one point there was this stigma about Shop Talk being this radical, black group of angry men,” she says. “That’s not what the organization is about. It’s about bringing conversation to the community so we can discuss it as a community and talk about resources for solutions.”
Johnson thinks some of the image problems stem from professionals in the African-American community who are fearful that participating in Shop Talk Live events will “pit them against a politician that they don’t want to be on the wrong side of the fence with.”
That perception may be reinforced because some people associated with Shop Talk Live have been vocal about political issues at other community events, such as protests and rallies. People like Wilson.
As an activist, Wilson is particularly critical of Mayor Michael Hancock, whom he’s criticized at protests of Denver’s urban-camping ban. Wilson is also critical of rapid development and excessive use of force by police officers who go unpunished; he notes that Hancock had just taken office when Ashley was killed.
“Hancock didn’t do shit about it, which is why I have no forgiveness for him,” says Wilson. “Hancock’s from the ’hood, but he can’t really come back. But because white folks don’t know his history, they’ll vote for him again.”
One of Wilson’s personal goals is to rally what he calls the “displaced black community.” This includes inspiring African-Americans to keep money within the community by supporting independent African-American business owners and by pressuring local politicians to be responsive to their constituents. “My goal is to create what they call a ‘black Wall Street,’ where we get to own and control our community so we don’t have to deal with displacement again,” says Wilson.
When he’s moderating a Shop Talk Live event, though, Wilson tries to keep his opinions to himself, and instead focuses on facilitating the discussion and keeping the conversation civil.
Johnson calls Wilson a “sponge” when it comes to exploring issues. “He is instrumental in doing research and bringing factual information into a conversation, as well as making a safe space for people to talk,” she says. “When there are things that come up that aren’t factually true, he’s also able to correct that in a manner that still feels respectful.”
Not only does Wilson shine at moderating conversations, but “he’s truly a wordsmith,” she says.
Wilson’s interest in poetry adds force and flair to his deliveries at Shop Talk Live discussions as well as his speeches at events around town. MonieJonezy, a comedian and radio personality who helps Wilson run the bimonthly Renaissance poetry night at the Kasbah Nightclub in Aurora, believes that poetry may be Wilson’s strongest suit.
“Because of everything he does, he may be a Renaissance man,” says the comic. “But poetry may be the best thing he does.”
In fact, in 2011 Wilson was ranked the best slam poet in the country.
“He’d write these devilishly clever battle raps,” Wilson remembers. “They were violent and misogynist, but they were amazing.”
After getting some pointers from his roommate on how to form rhymes, Wilson had the idea that he could utilize the same bar structure and perform slowed-down rap lyrics as slam poetry, combining poetry with acting — another one of his hobbies.
He debuted his brand of “’hood poetry” at a regular open-mic event at the Kasbah in the mid-2000s that used to draw as many as 400 people each week, and specialized in what he describes as “cuss out” and “erotic” poems. “At the time, it was like the Harlem Renaissance Cotton Club, but for hip-hop poetry,” says Wilson, who adopted the stage name Lucifury. “Mine were mostly extreme black-liberation poems or erotic poems. But I took the most leaps when I did erotic poems. I would write these fucking sexual-ass poems.”
They worked on and off stage. “It was always a love fest afterwards,” he claims. “It would be a task to go home alone. It was head in the parking lot, all that shit.”
But success did not follow Wilson into other slam-poetry circles. “I remember taking it to the Mercury Cafe — and I remember losing epically,” he says.
At the Merc, no one made him feel more inadequate than another black poet, Panama Soweto. “I remember the night he tore my kingdom down in one poem, called ‘Magnificent,’” recalls Wilson. “It was something different. It was a love poem. The way he wrote it was vivid. He was the cat I wanted to be better than, but I couldn’t do it. You could not out-Soweto Soweto.”
The two slam poets had very different styles. Soweto used to dress like a skater: skinny jeans, bright ball caps, sneakers. His poems were clever, introspective and emotional.
As Lucifury, Wilson wore earrings, choker necklaces and button-up shirts with the sleeves rolled up. “I had one channel, and it was fury — rage and sex,” says Wilson. “You could feel angry or you could feel horny after listening to my poems.”
In 2007, Soweto invited Wilson to join an organization of superstar poets he’d co-founded called Slam Nuba, which held competitions in Denver and also sent teams to compete on national circuits. The group included such luminaries as Bobby Lefebre, Ken Arkind and Ashara Ekundayo. Wilson says his rivalry with Soweto was friendly at first, then got “very ugly.”
The two had a bitter disagreement over the lineup of Denver poets who’d compete during the group’s first invitation to the National Poetry Slam competition. Later, when Wilson started to score more points than Soweto at competitions, “that’s when shit got weird,” he says.
For his part, Soweto says he never saw himself as being a rival of Wilson’s. If there was competition, it was “in the same way that Drake sees Meek Mill as someone on his radar,” he adds. “As far as him chasing me and rivalry, I guess I’ve never taken slam poetry that seriously. I’ve always tried to write the best poems and connect with as many people as possible. I’ve been successful with that, but I guess it’s been a reaction, not a result I was looking for.”
Soweto remembers Wilson asking him for advice once, when they were Deadly Pens teammates. In Houston for a competition, Soweto says that he and Wilson sat in a hotel room and shared their poems before taking the stage. At the time, Wilson was still using the ABAB rhyme style he’d adopted from battle rapping. After Soweto performed his poem, Wilson asked, “Yo, how do you spit like that?”
“I told him I’m more concerned about telling a story. His eyes lit up. And if I ever noticed a moment where I influenced [Wilson] in his writing, that would be the moment,” says Soweto.
As for Wilson’s competitive nature, Soweto says, “From time to time, I’d see him poking shots at me. I wouldn’t respond, because it’s not a competition for me.... I know that people don’t want to hear about their heroes being imperfect and fallible, but I try to be as low-drama as possible.”
There’s no denying that competition pushed Wilson to improve his craft, honing his slam poetry into a distinct and forceful brand.
The poem that earned him the top ranking at the 2011 National Poetry Slam was a searing piece called “Dark Jester.” In it, Wilson assumes the character of a black minstrel performer. Captivating and discomforting, the piece dares the audience to laugh at the type of spectacle that white, slave-owning audiences once regarded as prime entertainment. Today, Wilson’s poem comes across as horrifying and deeply unsettling.
Wilson first unveiled “Dark Jester” at a Slam Nuba showcase in Denver. “I’ll never forget that when I came out of character, the audience parted,” he remembers. “No one wanted to sit directly in front of me, because ‘Dark Jester’ was so morbid, ghastly and effective that it did its job.
“I don’t perform it anymore,” he adds. “It takes me to a place I don’t like to go. It was such a catastrophic spiritual experience that on the finals stage, I don’t remember performing it.”
But perform it he did, and after that National Poetry Slam in Boston, Scott Woods, the former president of Poetry Slam Inc., wrote a lengthy piece on how Wilson’s poem had “destroyed” him:
“Theo ‘Lucifury’ Wilson’s poem ‘Dark Jester’ was my favorite poem of not only Finals, but possibly all of NPS this year,” he said. “It does what all of my favorite slam poems do: it speaks truth to power almost literally, is supremely performed, and its message is tied to the performer so intrinsically that to see it in any situation other than live is almost pointless. It’s [sic] deepest effect comes from the sly duality of its message — being guiltily entertained by a poem about the eradication of another’s humanity. It makes you feel dirty for liking it, aiming for your sensibilities in a way that a lot of slam work tries to but fails.... It is a discomforting work of art, and it knows it.”
Following the win in Boston, Wilson toured the country for a brief period, doing paid gigs at universities and conferences. “I was big in the slam world, but it doesn’t necessarily translate outside of that,” Wilson says. Eventually, as the novelty wore off and dollar amounts diminished, Wilson yearned to return to the community work that could produce focused action and change in Denver. He supports that mission by working in the finance industry.
What he did not anticipate was that the tipping point might be found in Facebook videos.
He took note of strategies that personalities like Gazi Kodzo used to fire up their audiences, such as choosing controversial titles for their videos and referencing recent news that was trending on mainstream media outlets. Wilson wanted to do something similar. “I desired to make viral videos that would get my message out to the world in a way that would make substantial change,” he writes in his book. “Instead of being all content-based, I started making videos with a lot of controversy and emotionally charged rhetoric in the first minute of the video. Then I calculated the reaction and laid out the facts in an order that would slowly calm the storm I had stirred up.”
In November 2014, Wilson began producing videos; they received marginal attention. That changed on April 4, 2015, when he published what he calls his “quantum leap video.”
The topic was reparations, and was inspired by Ta-Nehisi Coates’s cover story for The Atlantic in which he laid out a historical argument for reparations owed to African-Americans, citing ongoing injustices in the twentieth century, including housing discrimination and redlining in Chicago. Wilson agreed with Coates, and added his own research to back up the case for reparations.
But Wilson had a trick up his sleeve: He wouldn’t acknowledge his support for reparations until he’d first espoused the opposing argument. “I found all the anti- viewpoints and spewed them the first minute,” he explains. He titled the video, “Are Black People REALLY Owed REPARATIONS?” Here’s what he said during that first minute:
“Y’all negroes want what? Reparations for slavery? For slavery! You want payment for a crime that was over 150 years ago? You want a check for being black? That’s a sweet hustle — let me know how that works out! The ’hood don’t have the mindset to maintain those kind of resources.”
Then, at 58 seconds, Wilson turned the conversation on its head by asking a rhetorical question: “But then you sit down and you ask yourself, Well, where did all the money go? If that money can be found, if it is in someone’s hands, then we’ve got a problem.”
In his book, Wilson describes the response: “Some viewers didn’t make it past the first minute. Others stayed and were so blown away that they shared. Even with that strategy, it only got so far. With momentum slowing, a friend of mine who was part of a multi-level marketing company messaged me. Her advice was simple: Change the damn privacy setting to public and start sharing it in your groups! I obeyed, and the video took off.
“Going viral for the first time was a dizzying quantum leap into cyberfame. It is amazing watching the action you take end up taking on a life of its own. Literally overnight, I was a public figure.
“The comment section was full of praise and critique, profound insight and outright racism...but it was hot. The video seemed to multiply upon itself exponentially.... It was viewed over 160,000 times…. That would not be my most successful viral video by a long shot.”
Since the reparations video first aired, Wilson has amassed over 40,000 followers on his Facebook page. Many of his videos, which he puts up in response to news events or when he feels inspired, go on to generate 300,000 or more views. At times, the responses have been overwhelming, and Wilson has had to adjust to the constant stream of feedback. “I get everything from death threats to pussy pics,” he says.
One of the sexual solicitations actually produced a real relationship; for a while, he dated a woman in Atlanta who’d responded to a video. On the other side of the coin, he’s had people threaten to lynch him, and it’s not uncommon for alt-right types to throw out the N-word.
Even so, Facebook videos have become an important platform for everything Wilson does, from streaming Shop Talk Live events to spreading presentations that he delivers for organizations like Warm Cookies of the Revolution — the popular Denver “civics health club” that hosts events blending civics-related discussions with fun activities at the McNichols Building and other locations around town. Evan Weissman, the founder of Warm Cookies, has featured Wilson at multiple events.
“Theo is power. He is a force, intellectually and creatively,” says Weissman. “You can trust what he’s saying because he’s done the research and thought it out — and you have to trust what he’s saying because of his energy! We need more Theos in our community to tell it like it is, to push the envelope and to care deeply about others.”
Besides, with so many irons in the fire — playing in bands, running Shop Talk Live and poetry nights, acting, organizing, promoting his book, even putting together a graphic novel with his friend Heru — Wilson has his hands full. So if he can inspire local African-American communities to strengthen and support themselves in the face of racial and economic pressures, he considers that a job well done.
“He’s one of the most talented and intellectual guys I know,” says friend MonieJonezy. “He’s all about the community, but whenever it really breaks for him, he’s going to be around for a while, you know?”
During fifty minutes of discussion at Quality Care Hair with vet McDonald and Muslim American Noorzai, the conversation covers a wide range of topics — everything from the military industrial complex to divisions in America caused by the Trump administration.
Not everyone agrees on all points, but the conversation is respectful and thoughtful. Just before 8 p.m., Wilson turns his smart phone camera upon himself.
“Ladies and gentlemen, this has been Shop Talk Live.... What we do is connect the dots; we bridge the gaps between people who have like minds and hearts to do good.... I’m your boy Theo EJ Wilson. Be sure you’re live in attendance next time we do this. Peace out. Thank you.”
He taps his phone, and the live video ends.
Everyone in the salon immediately relaxes, complimenting each other on their great questions and contributions. Then, just as they did when they entered the shop, they exchange a round of jokes and hugs.
Wilson is one of the last out the door, and within minutes the shop is locked up and as dark and empty as it had been just an hour and a half earlier.
The salsa music is still blaring from a nearby store.