Tune into a Minnesota Timberwolves game, and you’ve seen his work. Or maybe if you’ve spotted certain Minnesota Vikings along the sidelines, or an opposing professional athlete in town. If you watched the 2019 Final Four held in Minneapolis, you definitely saw it. A few famous musicians have sported his look as well.
Playing at the highest level is serious business. So is looking sharp.
That’s where Akeem Akway comes in.
Once the kid cutting hair for his high school basketball teammates, the 2009 Fridley graduate has cut out a role as the go-to barber for some of the biggest names in sports and entertainment coming through Minnesota as the owner of Akway’s Sports Barbershop in Mounds View.
The path to the dream job began when Akway was growing up and his family moved from Ethiopia to Northeast Minneapolis. Soon after, he fell in love with basketball and the NBA.
“I have a lot of love for basketball,” Akway said. “When you’re young, everybody got that NBA dream. My friends and all that, we would play, and I spent a lot of time inside watching a lot of NBA, especially when I was living in Northeast Minneapolis, I couldn’t play outside much because it was pretty dangerous.”
In 2003, Akway’s family moved to Fridley. Used to getting his hair cut by family members, Akway tried his hand at his first haircut on one of his cousins in the bathroom at home.
“One of my cousins used to cut my hair,” Akway said. “In my family, we come from an artistic background. Art is in our nature. Cutting hair is basically art, so we’re kind of naturally good at it. I was always intrigued with giving a nice shape up. That was already kind of in me.”
Not long after, he was playing on the Fridley varsity boys basketball team. And turning into the team’s unofficial barber.
“That really brought our team chemistry,” Akway said. “That would be the hangout spot after practice. We’d hang out, line them up and I’d shave a couple guys’ hair.”
The team got off to a fast start one year, drawing media attention. When a reporter arrived, though, the biggest buzz wasn’t about the success on the court, but the team’s hair game.
“One day after practice the Star Tribune came to do an article on our basketball team,” Akway said. “We had a great start to our season, so they came to do a story and they ended up doing a story about me and how I was able to bring chemistry to the team. Normally after practice kids go off, sometimes do bad stuff after school. Me being a barber kind of helped with our team chemistry. Once the Star Trib wrote the article, I read the comments on it and people were saying, ‘Oh, you’re really good, you should pursue it.’ When I saw that I started to think, hmmm, maybe I am good at it, I should take it seriously. That kind of gave me the green light, if they think that and I’m not even licensed yet. I just took their word for it. The Star Trib exposure helped me make that decision.”
After graduating from Fridley High School, Akway went to Moler Barber School in Northeast Minneapolis, a school that has since moved to Fridley.
After barber school, Akway got his first job in the Maplewood Mall. The job didn’t last long, but provided some long-lasting lessons.
“I was there maybe four months, six months,” Akway said. “I got fired because I showed up late. I didn’t understand the barber industry. I thought you could show up when you feel like, that if you’re self-employed you do what you want. I was just 19, 20, I didn’t take life serious like that. On Friday night, I’d go party with my friends at the University of Minnesota and not wake up on time for work. The owner had enough of me and fired me. That put my back against the wall.”
Another opportunity came shortly after. This time, Akway was prepared to make the most of it.
“My next gig I worked at Northtown Mall in Blaine at Damien’s Sports Barbershop,” Akway said. “Damien (Perry), he gave me that chance and I worked there for 3 ½, 4 years. He helped me see how I could get my own shop one day.”
Having set aside some money while working at Damien’s, Akway was able to open Akway’s Sports Barbershop in Spring Lake Park in 2015, later making the move to Mounds View.
“I saved up my money over there and ended up opening across the street from where I was working at,” Akway said. “I told a couple of my friends to go to barber school, and by the time they’re done, I would have a chair ready for them. That was always kind of a dream, like high school, cutting hair with my friends.”
Akway’s work ethic was on display from the start in getting the barbershop up and running, and developing an early loyal following.
“The first year was good, but it was hard,” Akway said. “When you open a business, you can’t depend on a lot of people. I made sure I saved up enough and I was always booked out two weeks in advance, I made sure I was able to afford the rent on my own.
“I worked for two months straight, no days off. I started in May and didn’t have a day off until July 4. So that was pretty hard, probably the hardest time, being up working every day. Once I started getting going I got a couple barbers to come work with me. It got to where, I can’t cut everybody. I brought one of my cousins in and a couple friends.”
Things continued to go well at the shop. But the biggest break was yet to come.
Jerick McKinnon, then the Minnesota Vikings backup running back to Adrian Peterson, had a mutual friend. Needing a haircut, McKinnon asked her if she knew anyone.
Akway was about to have an opportunity to reach an entire new range of clients.
“He asked her if she knew a barber and she gave him my number,” Akway said. “I always knew, if I could get one ballplayer, I could get them all. I just needed that one chance and she granted me that chance.”
Any nerves at what the haircut might lead to quickly went away once Akway and McKinnon began to talk.
“It was so cool because he was around my age and we connected right away,” Akway said. “We became really close friends. We had the same interests, liked the same music, women, stuff like that. I always had this confidence in myself, if they’re reaching out to me, I’m a professional at what I do, I can’t be nervous. I had that confidence in myself.
“He really liked his haircut and I started getting random texts from all the other Vikings.”
Akway was also cutting the hair of then high schoolers and future Duke stars Tre Jones and Gary Trent Jr. Akway joked that if they could get Tre’s older brother Tyus Jones – then with the Timberwolves – on board that they’d have free haircuts.
Tyus became the first of many Timberwolves in line at Akway’s.
“Karl-Anthony Towns said Tyus Jones was trying to hog me to himself,” Akway laughed. “KAT said, ‘Man, I’ve been looking for a barber all around and this whole time you’ve been cutting Tyus and he didn’t tell me!’ Then the other Timberwolves started coming along.”
His reputation now precedes him, to the point NBA players passing through town for a game call him up. Several members of the Virginia men’s basketball team were cut by Akway before their 2019 championship at U.S. Bank Stadium, too, while rappers like Fabolous and Mac Miller have also found their way to Akway.
“Rappers when they come to town, they hit me up on Instagram,” Akway said. “Jamal Crawford or other NBA players when they come to town hit me up on Instagram or they find me on social media. Mac Miller came to town and he tweeted out ‘Anyone know a barber in Minneapolis?’ and all of my friends tagged me in the tweet, and his people reached out to me. I actually introduced him and KAT to each other. When I cut Mac Miller, I told him one of the Timberwolves players loved him, and he and KAT ended up becoming best friends.”
Akway’s list of clients has grown and his relationships have deepened, offering top styling, but also friendships and bonds.
“The majority of them trust me to do whatever,” Akway said. “Some guys want to experiment. I’m just down for whatever they ask for. I’ve got an idea depending on the head shape, how your hair lays what looks good. Certain haircuts look good on certain people based on the shape of their head.”
Another one of the NBA players he has grown closest to is two-time Chicago Bulls All-Star and former Timberwolf Luol Deng, who has helped Akway expand his reach.
“About a year ago, almost two years, I became really close friends with Luol Deng,” Akway said. “He opened my eyes a little bit that I could do more with my career, about going back to Africa, working in the community here and stuff like that. I sometimes forget I have kids that look up to me too.
“He said, ‘Yo, you can do more, you have a lot of potential.’ He took me to Africa; he goes to Africa every summer and has camps. Last summer, I went with to South Sudan, Ethiopia, Kenya. He was just showing me, you can do more to help out other people.”
Akway has taken that to heart, providing help to fellow barbers and the Twin Cities community. The barbershop has provided free haircuts, held a charity event for the family of George Floyd, has delivered donations and helped with area youth.
“I always wanted if I was in a position to, I want to help my friends,” Akway said. “I’m at a point I can share my knowledge and help out the community more. I started going to high schools and telling kids, you can go to barber school, helping others find barber school. When I was a senior, I didn’t know how to apply, I had to find it on my own. Now I’m in a position I can help. Not just taking from the community, but giving back.
“One of my best friends, he was able to work under me for two years. I was kind of able to show him the lay and get his own barbershop, Meleyen Tengben in Brooklyn Park.”
Akway’s Sports Barbershop is back up and running after being closed for three months due to the coronavirus, with hopes of opening a second location soon.
“The shop is going pretty good,” Akway said. “Covid slowed us down. It was hard. For us as barbers, that’s like our therapy, cutting hair is therapy for us. It was a little depressing. I like being in the shop.”
As enjoyable as it is to cut some of the top athletes around, working with kids and helping out friends is the biggest thrill of the job. And good for creativity.
“One thing I’ve realized is my clientele base is younger kids,” Akway said. “They know what’s hot. They’ve opened my eyes. It’s cool to help people that age.”
Akway was also recently named one of the Top 100 Leading Black Men in Minnesota by Black Bloggers and Creatives. As his influence grows, he hopes to continue working in the community, open a second shop and maybe someday start a barber school.
And continue staying around the sport he loves most of all.
“It still means a lot to me,” Akway said. “I have a lot of love for basketball. I remember my brother told me junior or senior year – we had dreams of being NBA players one day – he said, ‘You weigh like 130, you’re 5’9”, you’re not going to the NBA.’ That was kind of a wake-up call to me that, man, if I could make it part of my everyday life still, like when I was in high school and cut the players there.
“I feel like that’s super cool that I’m still connected with basketball. Our first love was playing basketball. It was a meant to be type thing.”