Is KC social scene for whites only? Young blacks say they’re ‘tolerated,’ not welcomed

They came to Kansas City — young, talented and ambitious — ready to experience a city described as a hotbed of millennial upswing and Midwestern hospitality. They’re leaving disappointed, underwhelmed and unwelcomed.

In 2014, Melanie Guthrie, a black 28-year-old social media whiz from Chicago, thought Kansas City, the “Silicon Prairie,” could be a cool place to plant her roots.

She changed her mind. Last year, she and her fiance, a D.C. native and former Ford engineer, packed their bags and headed for Dallas, where they are now planning marriage, home ownership and a family.

Last November, Brian Oluwole, a 26-year-old systems engineer from Atlanta, thought he’d settle in Kansas City for a while, too. Now? “Not planning on staying here too long,” he says.

Pamela Awe, a 21-year-old recent college grad and pharmacy consultant, moved here from Chicago last year. Now she’s planning her exit: “End of this year,” she predicts.

The reason these young, black professionals are leaving? Kansas City’s social scene.

“It’s not a large variety,” Oluwole says. Awe puts it more bluntly: “All you see in KC are white people.”

“KC didn’t really have many scenes where I could meet other young black professionals like myself,” Guthrie says. “It was difficult finding spaces that felt diverse and truly welcoming to people who looked like me. … It made me want to move elsewhere.”

One bright spot was the monthly “Recovery Sundays” party at Californos in Westport, which started modestly in May and grew to hundreds as the summer went on. But after the August party’s fatal shooting of an innocent bystander, an off-duty Lee’s Summit policeman, many black millennials are wondering whether a social scene they say had already made little effort to truly include them will ever bother trying to do so again.

“The people at Recovery were nice, they looked good, were from different ages and backgrounds and careers,” said RaShaun Garlington, a Kansas City native and event planner who was at Californos when tragedy struck. “The people who were there know that. We know it’s not right to blame any one type of person. But we also know people will try to paint black people with a broad brush. We know it’s a stigma.

“But generally blaming black people for shooting up hip-hop parties makes as much sense as generally blaming white people for shooting up schools and churches.”

The tap and the talk

Over the past six years, Maxwell “DJ Maxx Gruv” Woods built his resume — from top nightclubs like Aura in Westport and Empire Room in Martini Corner to downtown bars like the Dubliner in Power & Light and Ruins Pub in the Crossroads. Earlier this month, he was the DJ at the Riot Room for hip-hop recording artists the Ying Yang Twins.

Yet despite his vast experience, Woods says he and other black DJs in Kansas City are at a disadvantage when they want to work new venues west of Troost Avenue.

“Black DJs have two strikes against them when they walk into a gig,” Woods says. “Before we plug in our turntables or spin a record, we’re already being given boundaries and told what we can and cannot do or play.”

He remembers a time at the Firefly Lounge in Westport when the venue’s manager, Kent Shultz Jr., told him he didn’t want to “hear any hood music or hip-hop.” The warning puzzled Woods. “I’m not even a huge hip-hop head,” he says. “I know the culture. But honestly, I’ll play R&B and reggae before I go into a deep hip-hop set.” His puzzlement was compounded when he noticed Firefly’s crowd: “I look out and 75 percent of his patrons that night were black.” A crowd he knew would want hip-hop.

Still, Woods says he reined in his set, choosing rap songs that were Top 40 hits, such as Chris Brown’s “Loyal.” “Everybody loved the song at the time,” Woods says. But not long after the song began, a Firefly worker tapped Woods, leaned in and gave him a message: “The manager says he doesn’t like that song. Play something else.”

Throughout the night, Woods says, whenever he ventured to rap, regardless how innocuous or omnipresent the song, Firefly was “constantly in his ear.”

He decided that night to never play there again. “It still doesn’t make sense to me,” Woods says. “Hip-hop music has transcended to where it’s pop culture; it’s a part of everyday life. I see 40-year-old white women dancing to Migos. So when you’re blatantly telling me not to play hip-hop, I have to wonder where that comes from.”

Clarence “DJ Sun-Up” Jones, a black DJ from St. Louis who worked in Kansas City from 2006 to 2016, says Shultz and security at Firefly cautioned him against playing hip-hop “plenty of times.”

Schultz could not be reached for a statement. Firefly Lounge declined to comment.

“My impression of KC is there’s a lot of white people who want to stay away from a lot of black people and the perceived problems,” he says. “In Kansas City, people weren’t trying to address issues across color lines.”

Bonny says once while DJing at Firefly in 2011, longtime Westport landlord and business owner Bill Nigro, who was serving as a temporary manager, approached him in the middle of his set and whispered, “it’s getting a little dark in here,” in reference, Bonny says, to the lounge’s steadily growing black crowd that night.

Disgusted, Bonny immediately stopped DJing and ended the party. “I was appalled that I was making that place money,” he says.

Says Nigro: “I don’t even remember the incident, to be honest with you.”

“It’s about safety”

Nigro sounds weary and frustrated hearing Bonny’s allegations. “You’re trying to blow this into a race thing, and it’s just not,” he says. “It’s not about racism, it’s about safety. It’s about guns. That’s all it’s about.”

Nigro is a staunch proponent of Westport privatization, which would allow police to use metal detectors and wands to keep weapons out of the entertainment district on crowded weekend nights. He believes there is a correlation between gun violence and certain crowds, “gang crowds.”

“I don’t believe in playing hip-hop and rap music and drawing a specific crowd. I’m not looking for that,” Nigro says. “I’ve owned a few country nightclubs, and I’ve had fewer problems out of that crowd. If that makes me racist, fine. If somebody’s offended by that, fine.

“People get afraid to talk about race, but you have to talk about it when you’re in the nightlife business. Security, too. They go hand-in-hand. And if you don’t talk about those two things, it’ll put you out of business.”

Nigro called it “ridiculous” to suggest there’s racism in Westport. “Everyone’s welcome everywhere. If the percentage of bars playing rap and hip-hop isn’t to your liking, I’m sorry about that.”

The Power & Light District has faced accusations of racism. Just in July, a federal appeals court reinstated a lawsuit alleging that the district’s owners had policies and practices aimed at excluding African-Americans.

“There hasn’t been one file against Westport of any racial complaints,” Nigro claims. “I think our record speaks for itself on Westport. We welcome everybody.”

Franklin Kimbrough, executive director of the Westport Regional Business League, also points to Westport’s diverse weekend crowds as proof that the district is inclusive.

“There are a lot of opportunities for people that have different tastes and different wants,” Kimbrough says. “This is the place where people can cross over any type of stereotype and interact. At least that’s what we see. Maybe division is here, maybe it’s not here, but our understanding is that Westport is a welcoming place.”

The compromise

For some black millennials, however, “welcoming” is too generous a word.

“There’s a difference between being welcomed and being tolerated,” says Alexis Holifield, a 25-year-old freelance photographer.

Carrington Harrison, a 28-year-old host on 610 Sports Radio, says black millennials are forced to make a decision whenever they want to be social. “If you’re like me — young and black — you have to compromise. Either you’re going to the nicer areas in the city and not hearing the music you want to hear, or you’re going to a part of town that you might not prefer to go to.”

For the last two years Harrison has thrown occasional hip-hop and R&B themed brunches, daytime parties and nightlife events in clubs and lounges around town (including Firefly Lounge and the Riot Room, both of which Harrison says have treated him well). They have become popular draws with the city’s young, black professional crowd.

“Try to name a nice place in the city’s top areas that plays up-to-date rap music on the regular?” he challenges. “You can’t, because it doesn’t exist.”

Harper denies that specific wording: “I told him our DJs adhere to a specific format, and it sounded like he wanted a different format,” he says. “We have an incredibly diverse crowd at Sol Cantina on a nightly basis, and I invite anyone to come in at any time to witness for themselves.” Harper did not comment on what the required format entailed.

Back in 2015, Woods says, he and Ashton Martin, a popular white DJ, were hired for the bar’s “taco Tuesday” happy hours. They played a mix of rap, old-school R&B, funk and soul to a predominantly black crowd. “People really loved going to Sol on Tuesdays. It was one of the most popular taco Tuesday spots in the city,” he said. Then, one day, Woods was notified that Sol no longer wanted that music. “They wanted yacht rock,” he says.

“I know Rod Stewart. I love Rod Stewart. But come on, how many black 25 year olds you know are trying to hear Rod Stewart at happy hour?”

Bonny and other DJs say that among the popular nightlife districts, Westport is the best of a bad situation for young black professionals: “Westport is actually the most diverse nightlife district in Kansas City. … Which, you know, is saying something.”

But businesses will only go so far to promote a diverse nightlife scene, Bonny says; they are still looking after their bottom line.

In fact, one Westport bar manager, a young white man who spoke on the condition of anonymity, says he supports diversity in Westport but is wary of vocalizing that support too brazenly after the “negative light” the Californos shooting brought to the district. “There’s a lot of big money at play,” the manager says. “I don’t know who I would be upsetting exactly. But as a business owner I just know there are people with deeper pockets than what I have out there that I’d rather not risk it.”

“There isn’t a comprehensive addressing of the issues,” Bonny says. “When you have this racial divide in the city, how is anything supposed to get better if you’re avoiding it on all sides because it’s convenient for profit?

“There’s no first-class city in the world that isn’t diverse. If KC wants to be that, they can’t continue to segregate themselves and fool themselves in the process.”

Creating an atmosphere

Joshua Lewis, 25, moved here five years ago and quickly recognized a nightlife void. Coming from Dallas, a city with a vibrant and varied black professional social scene, Lewis recognized what KC lacked, and began contemplating ways to make his mark.

He began throwing events targeting other local college kids (Lewis had a basketball scholarship to Park University), new grads, business professionals and creatives. But still a transplant with limited connections in the city, he began collaborating with an established, local name to amplify his reach, Quintin “DJ Q” Randle. (Disclosure: Randle is a cousin of this reporter.)

For white millennials in town, they say, social hangouts, such as Up Down Arcade, Boulevardia, the Crossroads and Q39, are abundant. “You look at the Plaza, Crossroads, Power & Light, Westport, how many of those bars, boutiques, restaurants or clubs are owned or operated by people of color?” Randle asks. “Barely any. The scene and the feel of those areas reflect that.”

It was that social monotony that Guthrie says stood out as an early red flag when she relocated here from D.C. “It was definitely a challenge finding that consistent, weekly basis atmosphere,” she says by phone from her new home in Dallas.

Randle and Lewis wanted to build that community, targeting white-collar black millennials. Their event fliers mention “like-minded individuals” and “elevated atmosphere” to communicate an air of sophistication.

Randle and Lewis throw events on typical “off” nights: Wednesday Whiskey, Wine and Wings happy hours at Dempsey’s Burger Pub in Westport and Thursday Sip Happens happy hours at Qudos Cigar Bar in Power & Light.

“People that have disposable income are able to go out on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday nights,” Randle says. “The inspiration with these events was to catch a different crowd than what you might be used to encountering on a Friday or Saturday night.”

These are all deliberate tactics aimed both at attracting a certain crowd and at keeping another out: “It’s not about class. It’s about attitude,” Randle says. “Worry-free” is the term he uses for the ideal party goer.

Their Recovery Sundays brunch and day party at Californos, promoted largely through social media and word of mouth, quickly became the premier event for much of Kansas City’s young, black professional scene — lawyers, Cerner engineers, media personalities.

“It was good to see people like myself in abundance really enjoying themselves and their environment,” says Holifield, the Kansas City, Kan., freelance photographer. “It was just a different vibe.”

“Recovery felt like an escape,” Lewis said. “The style at the event, the people, the family setting, vibes. You felt very comfortable. It was the one day out of the month where you didn’t feel like you were in KC.”

After the July Recovery event, attended by more than 400 people, Randle and Lewis grew leery of the easy access and relaxed atmosphere. Despite never witnessing so much as an argument at the three prior events, they implemented a $5 cover charge and door check for bottles of liquor and weapons — ultimately not enough to prevent the first and worst calamity.

“Blame and blowback”

At the August Recovery Sunday, gunfire struck and killed innocent bystander Thomas Orr, 30, and wounded a woman in her 20s. The shots, believed to have resulted from a scuffle among a group of men at the party, rang out around 8:30 p.m., a half-hour before the event was scheduled to end. Police have reported receiving dozens of tips but have yet to name a suspect.

Orr, an off duty Lee’s Summit police officer, was a frequent guest at Recovery Sundays, oftentimes using the event to hone his budding skills as a photographer. Orr’s death, at an event many considered a safe haven, sent a shock through the young, black professional crowd.

“I think what gets lost in all this is how people looking from the outside in don’t realize how much an event like that affects so many people,” says Garlington, who for years has thrown an array of nightlife events on the East Side, in South Kansas City and on 18th and Vine.

“We’re devastated,” Garlington said two days after the shooting. “We’ve had a hell of a week trying to deal with that. It’s like we have PTSD.

“It affects the family. The people who had to witness the trauma. The promoters and venue owners who have to deal with the blame and blowback.”

Those who frequented Recovery Sunday say they never thought crime would touch that event.

“It was a DAY party. Just black millennials trying to kick it,” Kansas City native Krystal Coppage wrote on Facebook the night of the shooting. “Come on, man. No one had to shoot. No one had to die.”

“I hate this,” Kansas Citian Angela Roulette wrote on Facebook. “(Expletive) will literally destroy something good for the culture because they don’t know the true meaning of CULTURE.”

“In 15 years I’ve never had an incident like this, not even close,” Randle says. “The well-behaved crowd has been my push point when getting my foot in the door.”

Californos owner Terry Burns told The Star the day after the shooting that he had received a number of hate messages from Westport patrons blaming him for allowing a black crowd into Westport. But later, Burns declined comment on this story.

Kimbrough says he saw a noticeable drop in Westport’s August attendance numbers when compared to last year and earlier in the summer.

“We won’t know how substantial the economic impact of that tragic occurrence is until sometime in October,” Kimbrough says. He adds that the last time someone was slain in Westport (in 2008), revenue for the year fell nearly 30 percent.

Randle and Lewis say that in the weeks since the shooting, they have not gained new gigs, but they have not lost any business either, other than Recovery Sundays.

“Those guys, they’ve just got to keep pushing and keep their chin up,” says Sam Hagan, general manager of Dempsey’s, a bar next to Californos where Randle and Lewis continue to host parties.

If anything, Randle says, the Californos tragedy illustrates why Kansas City needs more options for diverse, inclusive events, not less: “Who knows, maybe if there’s more than one option that day for that guy to party, maybe he sees the guy he’s beefing with and decides to go there. Maybe a gun never gets fired.”

Guthrie, a Chicago native like Orr, says she was dismayed to hear of Orr’s death but warns against using the tragedy as an excuse to further exclude black crowds.

“It will probably hinder many young black people from wanting to move to Kansas City,” Guthrie says. “The nightlife scene was already imperfect.

“But if the city lets that incident be a reason to discontinue events like Recovery Sundays, they’ll suffer for it.”

Aaron Randle: 816-234-4060, @aaronronel