Bilal’s calling

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Listen to Bilal’s story

Tyreek Bilal has gone through many transformations in his life. He’s been a confidant to powerful celebrities, a husband to six wives, father to 20 children and a celibate religious scholar. But throughout it all there has been one constant: He’s always cut hair.

His father was a barber; and at 12 years old Bilal got his first job at a barbershop in Beverly Hills, which was frequented by a number of celebrities including Ray Charles, Ronald Reagan and the Kennedys. As an adult he had his own salon in Inglewood and eventually became the in-house barber for Death Row Records.

Today Bilal, 71, cuts hair in the 28-foot long 1979 Winnebago RV he lives in on Jefferson Ave. in South LA. The story of how he went from flying around the world cutting celebrities’ hair to living in an RV is complicated.

In many ways, it starts on February 1, 1969. Back then Bilal’s name was Ronald Walker. He was 22 years old and at a party when his siblings decided to play a joke on him. They put LSD in his beer without telling him. Three days later, Walker was walking into the side door of his mother’s house when he was arrested for the murder of his uncle’s girlfriend Shirley Ann Williams. “They had to tell me what I did,” said Walker. “The only part that I remember was when I went into this euphoria. That was the last thing that I remember. So I confessed to something that I didn’t even know I did.”

In prison, Walker converted to Islam. He changed his name to Tyreek Bilal and, after he was released, he went back to cutting hair.

Before he moved into the RV in 2015, Bilal lived inside a small storefront mosque on Jefferson Ave. He was the caretaker of the building, the Adnan or prayer caller and when the Imam couldn’t make it he would even fill in and give the sermon.

But in 2007, the imam’s son, Jihad Saafir, took over as imam and decided to close the mosque, remodel it and turn it into a thrift store. The idea was to capitalize on the gentrification happening in the neighborhood. Instead of being pushed out, the congregation could profit from the new money pouring into the area and use those profits to fund an ambitious plan to expand the mosque. The congregation purchased an old middle school building a couple miles to the south and opened a private school.

In protest, Bilal parked his RV directly in front of the thrift store and refused to move.

There is a fine line between taking a principled stand and being stubborn. When I first met Bilal I wasn’t sure which side of that line he was on. Over the last year and a half, I’ve spent a lot of time with him in his RV, trying to understand this feud between him and the imam. It is in part a divide between an older generation who was content with their small storefront mosque and a younger generation who has a much broader vision for their congregation. And for Bilal, it’s also personal. This is the story of that feud and of Bilal’s extraordinary life.

Listen to Bilal’s story.