White club owner, black promoter turn firestorm over race into hope for KC nightlife

It started as yet another controversy over how black people are treated in Westport.

A black man shared on Facebook a secret “no play list” he’d discovered of rap and hip-hop songs that a white bar owner forbade his DJs to play. To the man who shared it and the hundreds of people who commented, the document appeared to be an indefensible case of racial discrimination.

And yet, within days of that March 8 post, the powerful white Westport business owner behind the list says he is coming to understand why black Kansas Citians feel they are unfairly excluded from the city’s social scene. And he is pledging to help change the situation.

The prospect has the parties involved — and people across the city — excitedly anticipating a future that just a week ago seemed as far away as ever.

“The negative has created a positive,” says Joshua Lewis, a nightlife entrepreneur whose events are often filled with young, black professionals. “We’re finally moving forward.”

The hubbub began when Joshua Hudspeth, who is black, shared a screenshot on Facebook of a document showing a list of banned artists and songs. He said the list had been distributed to DJs at Johnny Kaws and Johnny Kaws Yard Bar in Westport.

No Play List screenshot.jpg
Joshua Hudspeth posted this screenshot of a “no play list” to Facebook showing songs banned from rotation at a popular Westport bar. The list, featuring only rap and hip-hop artists of color, created a social media firestorm. But the bar owner says the list was taken out of context. Joshua Hudspeth

It included 11 artists — some of music’s most popular stars like Drake, Cardi B, Kendrick Lamar and Migos — and 29 songs — the lion’s share of which, like “Ape Sh--” by Beyonce and Jay-Z and “Sicko Mode” by Travis Scott — are Top 10 billboard hits. Every artist and song was from rap or hip-hop musicians of color.

Hudspeth questioned Brett Allred, the 36-year-old white owner of the Johnny Kaws chain of sports bars.

“Hey Brett Allred ... So basically what you’re saying is that you don’t want any ‘Rap/Hip Hop/Urban’ music being played at your establishments,” Hudspeth wrote.

The “no play list” post quickly drew nearly 350 shares and more than 700 comments. Many were apoplectic angry. Others came to Allred’s defense.

The firestorm caused Allred to temporarily deactivate his Facebook account, before responding the next day in the comment section of Hudspeth’s post, explaining that the screenshot showed a small portion of an eight-page document meant for his DJs’ eyes only.

“For whatever reason, I don’t have the answer but if I play all predominantly ‘rap/hip hop music’ or I have a ‘dance floor’ I’m going to have a high probability of violence and going out of business,” he wrote. “As a business owner I have to make choices that give me the best chance of succeeding long term. One of those choices is choosing to manage the music in my establishments. It doesn’t have anything to do with race. It doesn’t feel good to be accused of racism. I don’t think anyone’s value in this world is greater than another.”

The debate highlights the ongoing struggle between black Kansas Citians, who feel excluded from the city’s social scenes, and the primarily white club and bar owners in the city’s premier nightlife areas — Westport and the Power & Light District — who say they avoid rap culture and the crowd it attracts as a measure of safety.

“It’s what I’ve witnessed personally in the industry, it’s what I see in the news, it’s what seems to be needed,” Allred told The Star. “The concepts that have struggled and that struggle with violence ... a lot of it has to do with the music they play.”

But after a public back and forth, Hudspeth and Allred did the unexpected — they met in private, looping in Lewis, a popular event promoter among the city’s young, trendy crowd, with the hopes of reaching a compromise.

After hours of conversation, they say they have gained an understanding of each other’s concerns. Hudspeth and Lewis say they realize Allred’s decision was a business one and not personal.

As for Allred? “For me, the awareness of this underserved community was totally unknown,” he says.

Now, Allred, one of the more dynamic players in one of Kansas City’s most popular nightlife districts, says he plans to work with Lewis and Hudspeth to create a more inclusive environment at his bars, one that will target the very hip-hop-centered culture that many felt he was previously marginalizing.

“People in the nightlife scene in Kansas City have accepted this divide. There was no one pushing for change on the issue,” Lewis says. “But now we’re attacking the problem. We’re causing change.”

“Play it safe”

At one point, Allred had a bar in Manhattan, Kan., that prominently featured rap and hip-hop. A Kansas City native and Kansas State University graduate, Allred, who has worked in the nightlife business since he was 16, opened his first bars there.

But in 2015, the space closed after what he describes as a constant issue with violence. “I bet I was punched in the face 30 times,” Allred says.

On the club’s last day of operation, Allred says a brawl involving upwards of 50 people broke out. It ended with the crowd being sprayed with mace, a police officer suffering a broken arm, and, most harrowingly, a patron who, amid the chaos, pretended to have a gun.

“I remember hearing my friend Sean Roberts, who I had grown up with, screaming into the (security) radio, ‘He’s got a gun, he’s got a gun,” Allred says, voice quivering with emotion. “Hearing my friend scared like that. That stuck with me. I didn’t want to feel that ever again.”

Allred says the club was “some of the most fun” he’s had in his more than 15 years in the nightlife industry. Personally he likes a lot of the music on the controversial list. “I work out to that Drake song ‘Nonstop’ every day,” he says. “But it’s not about what you like, it’s about what’s best for your product.”

And what’s not good for Allred’s product — successful sports bars — is a barrage of hip-hop hits that often causes crowds to become frenzied and at times, he says, aggressive.

“It’s just from my experience. I think that certain genres of music put you at high risk. And I just don’t want to lose the time, money and investment that I’ve put into these bars. I just try to play it safe,” Allred says. “The (Manhattan) experience really made me want to manage music and control crowds and not put people at risk.”

So Allred created a training packet for his DJs at all his bars on how to prevent a crowd from getting out of control. The eight-page document included mandates like:

“Music played will be approximately 70 percent Top 100, pop or hip-hop, clean upbeat and above 90 BPM (beats per minute) on average.”

“Every fourth song should be a classic rock, sing along or country song.”

“There is never to be more than 4 consecutive hip-hop songs played in a row at any time.”

There was also a section of “No Playlist Genres” that included heavy and death metal, jazz, folk, blues, disco and dubstep.

Allred says he had to go into detail about rap and hip-hop due to the genre’s ubiquity.

“Rap is the only genre that requires any specification between what is too aggressive and what isn’t,” he says. “Heavy metal or grunge or jazz, those genres don’t need any extra clarification, it’s obvious.”

What the clubs do allow are some of rap’s poppiest hits, songs like “Gold Digger” by Kanye West, “I Got a Feeling” by the Black Eyed Peas, “Starships” by Nicki Minaj, “Can’t Hold Us Down” by Macklemore and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” by Will Smith.

Such tunes have either long been abandoned by most hip-hop-centered bars or were never in rotation to begin with. But they are played daily at Johnny Kaws to a crowd Allred says on any given night is majority black.

“What’s frustrating is that it’s one page out of an eight-page DJ document,” Allred says. “If I had a document that was meant to be distributed, it wouldn’t look the same. I wasn’t intelligent enough to realize that could even happen.”

But without that context, the list rang as offensive and racist to many.

Even city councilman and mayoral candidate Quinton Lucas calls the list discriminatory and wonders why the Westport Regional Business League has not yet spoken out against it. “I think it’s ridiculous,” Lucas told The Star.

“When you see things like the play list and when you see this unabashed, frankly discrimination in my viewpoint, that’s trying to tell black people that they are not welcome somewhere. ... It’s frustrating and it’s exceedingly disappointing to me.”

The Westport league did not immediately respond to The Star’s request for comment.

“It just felt like he didn’t want a particular crowd coming to his establishment,” Hudspeth says. “I understand that he wants safety. I want diversity.”

Indeed, the University of Missouri surveyed more than 400 top Billboard songs released between 2006 and 2016 and found that pop music contains just as many references to violence as rap music.

“All I want to do is provide these places for people to enjoy,” Allred says. “I just feel like it’s all being read so wrong, and it’s going to affect me for a really long time.

“I just wish I would have been intelligent enough to frame that list in a way that wouldn’t alarm the public. I feel like this has all been misunderstood.”

“A seat at the table”

Three days after Hudspeth shared Allred’s list on Facebook, he shared a surprising update.

“The last few days have been a very eye opening experience. Friendships have been gained and misunderstandings have been dissolved. Again I want to thank Brett Allred for allowing these open discussions to happen. In order for us to move forward as a community, topics like these must be discussed in a mutually respectful manner.

“I also want to give a huge shout out to Joshua Isaiah Lewis for helping me through this process. With that being said I’d like to invite everyone out this Thursday for food, drinks and to watch the KU vs. Texas basketball game. Sorry Brett no KState!”

Lewis explains the turnaround: “Meeting with Brett made us realize that he’s ultimately one of us. When I say ‘one of us,’ it’s not about black or white. He’s a millennial that’s trying to push Kansas City nightlife forward. I’m doing the same. That instantly made us more relatable to one another, more understandable. It made us realize there’s a chance for change.”

Lewis has spent years cultivating a reputation for the parties and events he throws marketed toward the city’s sophisticated, millennial, often college-educated crowd. The oft-used term is “young, black professional,” but Lewis says there’s more to it.

“I have a hard time labeling my crowd. They’re the movers and shakers of the city. The lawyers, the doctors. The ones working at Cerner or that cool boutique or that ad firm. It’s the cool people. And oftentimes the cool people are black. But it’s not about black or white, it’s about cool people.”

People, Lewis says, who go out ready to spend money, avoid drama and have a good time. People who expect to hear the exact music Allred is avoiding.

Wanting to show Allred this crowd, Lewis and Hudspeth invited him to “Touch Thursdays,” a weekly party Lewis hosts at the Brick House bar in Martini Corner.

The idea was to show Allred that, with the right DJ and knowledgeable staff taking the reins, one can play current hip-hop to a packed house without incident. Not only was Allred keeping a crowd away, Lewis said, he was also keeping out their money.

Lewis’ talk with Allred, born unexpectedly out of controversy, was just the type of meeting he had been trying to finagle since he began throwing parties in KC years ago.

“To get someone like you at this table, is all I wanted,” Lewis told Allred as they sat in Brick House’s third floor, joined by Hudspeth, while the party raged on below. “You’re somebody we couldn’t get to. A white person with power and property somewhere like Westport, like Power & Light.”

Despite a successful track record — Lewis has thrown parties in virtually every entertainment district in Kansas City, garnered top-level liquor sponsorships and can boast Chiefs players, influencers and local institutions like Operation Breakthrough as partners and clients — he says it still remains a struggle to fully infiltrate the city’s poshest entertainment districts and forge long-lasting relationships with club owners who have the power to change KC nightlife.

The task became even more difficult two years ago when a man entered one of Lewis’ popular, upscale day parties and killed an off-duty Lee’s Summit police officer.

At the Brick House table, he told Allred, “You see the types of crowds we bring,” motioning to the party below. “Now we’ve got someone’s ear who can make a change. Now we can partner to make a change.”

Allred says that Lewis and Hudspeth opened his eyes to a potentially lucrative, untapped market.

“Talking to those guys, it was the first time I ever felt like there was an opportunity as well as a need for a concept like what (Lewis) provides. I’m just really fascinated and interested.”

In addition to Kaws and Kaws Yard Bar, Allred owns four other Westport establishments that have yet to open. They include Dempsey’s Burger Pub (where Lewis used to throw parties as recently as January) and the spaces that formerly housed Snow & Co., Volume 1ne clothing boutique and the Set Cell cellphone repair shop.

“I can’t have six of the same types of venues,” Allred says. “I see there’s a need for something different, a need to supply a particular crowd.”

Lewis and Allred decided to move forward slowly and with open minds. The first step: Allred will partner with Lewis and have him promote and host a couple of events at Johnny Kaws, unencumbered — allowing him to play whatever type of music Lewis sees fit.

And maybe, Allred says, one of his new establishments could become a venue dedicated to serving the types of crowds Lewis specializes in. An unabashed hip-hop or R&B lounge, perhaps. A concept never before seen in a major nightlife district west of Troost Avenue.

“This entire ordeal, the universe could be coming together and, I don’t know, maybe this could end up working well for all of us,” Allred says. “I want to continue the conversation and remain open to the possibilities.”

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