As a talent manager and 2008 marketing alumnus, Pharis Rolland speaks the language of money.
But he couldn’t help but ask himself: is it about race, money or music?
The question resonated through his mind after learning his hip-hop event, “Champagne Friday” was discontinued after its third event, the opening weekend of the school semester. He organized the event at The Bury to give African-American students and young professionals a place to socialize downtown.
But after receiving an email from The Bury’s — now former — manager, Jessica Phillips, who emailed him and said the event had been canceled, he thought the discontinuation was based on color.
“We are trying to not cater to any one specific type of crowd,” Phillips wrote, on Aug. 21. “The crowd you brought was very nice, but the music seemed to deter our normal crowd we need to cater to.”
Many students and members of the hip-hop community feel race plays a certain role in how bars and clubs operate. For some, it’s the dress codes. But it’s subtle and debatable.
“It was an event that wasn’t just because of a want, but was also because of a need and a demand,” Rolland said. “I know a lot of the student African-American community feels like they have nowhere to go downtown, because there’s nowhere that plays the music they want to hear.”
For Rolland, “Friday” was about more than just listening to music.
“A lot of people thought they had a place where they actually felt welcomed,” he said. “I’ve heard instances myself where a DJ is playing hip-hop, and he, seeing a crowd of African-Americans, just changes the music and it makes them leave.”
University student ShaTasha Harris, who attended the first and third “Friday,” welcomed the hip-hop theme as a moment of musical reprieve.
“It was a great turnout. It was packed and a diverse crowd,” said Harris, a senior sociology major and music business student. “Most of the bars cater to the white audiences and not necessarily the black atmosphere in terms of their musical selection.”
Rolland said the third "Friday" garnered the highest attendance of the three events and from what he saw, sold the most amount of alcohol.
And students have agreed that it was the most active of the three. “I would describe it as being high-energy,” said Dasjah Bledsoe, a junior public relations major. “As far as population, I’d say approximately a fair 150 people were there … it wasn’t full to the point you couldn’t walk around, but it was full.”
Rolland was surprised to hear music was Phillips’ determining factor.
“The only difference between [the third Friday] is that the crowd was overwhelmingly African-American,” he said. “The fact that they said hip-hop was concerned … the DJ, DJ Dark Knight, played pop music on all nights. But on the first night he played pop music first and no one came in until he played hip-hop … [the third night] … people came in when he started playing hip-hop.”
After hearing "Friday" was canceled, some students were outraged.
“I don’t think there’s outright discrimination against black people downtown,” Harris said, “but what The Bury did was just outright racism. Period.”
In an interview, Phillips said even though 90 to 95 percent of the people that attended were African-American, ethnicity had nothing to do with the discontinuation of "Friday."
It was about the music, “for the most part,” she said.
And it was about the money.
“During football season, if you need to actually pay promoters … to fill your bar on a Friday night, then you’re not doing something right,” Phillips said. “So it was also that we didn’t feel we needed to be paying someone on a Friday night to bring someone in, even if they did a good job.”
In part, the "normal crowd" Phillips said The Bury needs to cater to are the apartment residents of Whistlebury Properties: Whistlebury, Waterford Place and Whistlebury Walk.
“The main reason we opened this bar was to help cater toward the apartments that the owner [of The Bury] also owns,” she said. “A lot of this bar is to help the apartment complex. And we didn’t really get to see a lot of them that night.”
Phillips declined to comment on the residents’ race. But she said the residents tended to prefer country music, rock ‘n’ roll and Top 40 hits.
Since the email between Phillips and Rolland, neither have had further communication.
A three-step system
For one student, race isn’t necessarily the dominant factor of how a club is run downtown.
“[My friends and I] have an on-going joke: they’re not anti-black, they’re anti-hip-hop, like hip-hop people,” said Montu Miller, a senior African-American Studies major and public relations manager for All Out Entertainment. “I feel like I know a lot of hip-hoppers. And they’re all colors.”
Montu finds the "anti-hip-hop" filtering system, masked as a dress code, pushes away customers that dress like the very people creating the music.
“Let’s say Lil’ Wayne or Waka Flocka, or whoever, came to your place whose music your playing. They wouldn’t even be able to walk in,” he said. “How crazy is that to me? You won’t even let the people in the bar, not even who it’s catered to, but who makes it.”
The dress codes Montu refers to are general rules of thumb at some downtown bars.
Some are more specific than others, but bars with dress codes are often similar to venues such as 9d’s Bar.
“It’s a handful of rules,” said Mike Lewis, the owner of 9d’s and 8e’s Bar. “No plain white tank tops, no excessively baggy clothes, no excessive jewelry, hats need to be at six and 12, no tilts, none of that, no work boots and no swimming attire.”
For Lewis, dress codes are not used not for deterring race. Instead, it’s for deterring the homeless and overly intoxicated customers.
“Honestly, there’s a lot of the homeless population that causes problems,” he said. “They’d rather spend $2 on a tall boy PBR than something to eat. So in a way, it’s for our door guys to be able to deter that clientele. If you can tell someone is going to be a problem coming in, you can try and pick something out that can deter them from coming in.”
Leaving the discretion of admittance in the hands of door guys can be used to sway the homeless from entering one bar. But that same discretion can lead to more than just the evasion of a possible vagrant threat.
“I used to manage a little bit over at The Loft [now known as Cloud, under new ownership]. And it’s blatant racism,” said Cameron Raines, a local DJ and junior computer sciences major. “There was like a three-step system at the door. There were three bouncers at the door and it would be like, ‘Bouncer one, you check for any obvious dress code violations, that’s like step one of our defense.’ And that’s really how it was described, ‘Our defense against black people.’”
Raines explained the second bouncer would look for more intricate violations if a black customer made it past the first.
“And then the third guy would just be a straight yes or no,” he said. “So that kind of stuff goes on … from what I’ve seen, that’s pretty much how it goes down at any club. It pretty much comes down to a straight yes or no to let a black person in your club.”
Cameron Ferguson contests Raines statement.
“We’re not discriminating on any race or religion, or anything like that,” said Ferguson, a manager at Cloud, who also managed at the location formerly known as The Loft, during its last two months of operation in November and December of 2011. “Now we’re trying to get away from the dress code … we would have people complaining, because they felt we weren’t allowing a certain group of people into the bar. And we didn’t appreciate that.”
Though he believes no racism occurred at The Loft’s door, Ferguson admits it could’ve still been possible.
“That’s what I had heard, that things had used to have been like that, but I wouldn’t allow that,” he said. “It really has nothing to do with race. We usually have three door guys on busy nights. There’s one guy who’s checking dress code, one guy who’s kind of organizing the crowd and a third guy who’s checking IDs.”
For some, dress code ethics are shaky.
“Dress codes, as an African-American male, I have reservations about it, obviously,” said Jarrod Miller, a senior sociology and criminal justice major and bar manager at Jerzees. “Are they effective in business? Hard to say. When people use them properly and they go across the board, they can be effective. When they’re mishandled, as I’ve seen at other establishments, it deteriorates any kind of authenticity of what the desired result is.”
He believes some bars use dress codes to dodge legal implications.
“It becomes not a class level issue,” Jarrod said. “But more to [the issue of], ‘OK, I’m using this dress code, because I want to keep someone out, but in order to keep myself legally within the realm of what I can and cannot say, I’m going to hide behind a dress code.”
Much of Jarrod’s views on race downtown are from a student perspective — not as a manager.
“I cannot speak for another business as a businessman, but I can speak as a man and say that there are some questionable things I’ve seen with other dress codes or other instances,” he said. “It’s murky.”
As a manager, his views are mixed from a business perspective.
“In Athens it almost seems taboo, because I feel like Athens creates and gives students what they haven’t experienced in big cities,” Jarrod said. “Every high-end nightclub or bar has some type of standard that they want their patrons to dress. And that almost directly correlates to their spending habits and to how they’re going to behave. It’s not perfect. Nothing in life is perfect … it’s an imperfect system of trying to achieve what you ideally want.”
The Booze, the money — the solution.
No matter the view on race downtown, all parties agree on one thing: bars need money to survive.
“It’s definitely all about drinking.” Raines said. “It’s all about the money, because in Athens, you can’t really have a cover. And that’s what [messes] everything up … if every bar in Athens had a cover it would be so much better for any kind of music scene. Because then it would be less dependent on the drinks, they’d be less discriminatory.”
And that money has got to come from somewhere.
“Because Athens is a college town, you want to go after the students … that goes without saying,” Jarrod said. “Because without UGA, Athens would be Sparta. All jokes aside, it would be nothing without the University. It does bring in a lot of income and a lot of different experiences.”
With every new student, there’s a new wallet.
“It’s a continuous influx of people every year," Jarrod said. “Every freshman class, you have a new customer base in which to impress.”
Lewis believes, as a whole, the city caters to student life. But he doesn’t believe all bars and clubs try to farm from the student crop.
“Some of the guys that open multiple bars have different styled bars,” he said. “But most of the independent owners that just have one or two bars downtown pretty much cater to the Greek life, or students.”
Students are the target-demographic downtown. But many people believe downtown bars cater to white audiences more than black. Or that they don’t cater to the hip-hop community.
“In a lot of [bar owners’] eyes, and even I’ve talked to one of the owners of The Grotto, he said, a lot of times, the people who listen to hip-hop music don’t buy,” Montu said. “Like me, I’m not going to spend $50 to $100 just on alcohol at your spot.”
Whether it’s white or black, Jarrod believes the answer is too ambiguous.
“The outcome is still based on an overwhelming majority,” he said. “The simple mere magnitude that there is a possibility of more whites to come in the bar than there are blacks, means that I’m going to experience more white people coming in than I see blacks. It almost lends itself to say, ‘Oh, white kids are going to spend more.’ But [actually] they might be spending the exact same … that’s very hard to quantify.”
According to the University’s Office of Institutional Research, Jarrod’s assumption on population and ethnic background are relatively accurate. Based on the Fall 2011 UGA Fact Book results, the grand total of white students recorded was 25,431. In comparison, the Black/African-American student population was a staggeringly low 2,767. The difference is 9:1, white students to black.
Given those numbers, Rolland believes it’s almost unavoidable that whites are catered to more than blacks downtown, which could be some of the source of his problem.
“If you look at the population, the African-American population is a minority,” he said. “So even looking at it from a business standpoint you can see why.”
And almost three months since the initial cancelation of “Champagne Friday,” he still believes The Bury made their decision based on race — not on business.
“Honestly, I tried to find every other reason I could that that was not the case, and I couldn’t really find anything else,” Rolland said. “A lot of it has to do with stereotypes and people not understanding the culture … and if they did have a better understanding of it, then you would see a lot more businesses in Athens providing or catering.”
As a promoter, and more importantly, as an African-American, Rolland is trying to reshape how people in the Athens music and bar scene view ethnicity and operate within the business.
“And that’s what I’ve been trying to do over the past few years,” he said, “is educate about our culture.”