Hip hop legend DJ Jazzy Jeff was slated to perform last Saturday night at Kansas City’s KC Live, a club in the city’s Power & Light District. For those that live under a pop culture rock, DJ Jazzy Jeff won the first rap Grammy with Will Smith in 1988 and later co-starred with him on The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air. The legendary DJ’s show in Kansas City was free to the public, sponsored in part by VH1’s Save The Music Foundation.
On Saturday night, everything seemed to be going well until Jeff started spinning hip hop music. I know what you’re thinking: Who would expect a legendary hip hop DJ to play hip hop at a paid club performance? Trust me, I was shocked too. Well, the club owners weren’t having it, and the bouncers Uncle Philip Banks-ed him out of their club. Cruel, cruel irony.
The back story proves much more serious—and much more problematic. Apparently, the owner of KC Live has been on some sort of a crusade against gangs, baggy pants, and rap music. And, by extension, black people.
David Cordish, chairman of The Cordish, Co., owns KC Live and controls much of the Power & Light District. In October of 2008, Cordish demanded greater police presence against “gangs” in the Power & Light District. He accused the police of being “soft” on gang violence, and demanded they enforce a zero tolerance policy. But how many robberies, muggings, or assaults in the Power & Light District occurred at the hands of gangs? More importantly, how many robberies, muggings, or assaults occurred at all? No one knows, including Cordish. And that’s the problem—what makes Cordish suspect gang violence? Could he be referring to Kansas City’s young black population, many of whom frequent the Power & Light District? See, in contemporary American vernacular, “gang” is a loaded—and racialized—term. Where others see African-American partygoers, Cordish sees potential gang members.
A racially charged pattern emerges when we take a close look at KC Live’s oddly and suspiciously specific dress code. Look, I’ve heard of dress codes at clubs before, most along the lines of “No tennis shoes” or “No hats.” I guess that’s fine—you know, maybe the club wants to appear upscale or classy. But Cordish and KC Live ban “Shorts below the calves,” “White t’s” and…wait for it…“Towels.” Yes, towels. Sandals, a blue t-shirt and jeans? No problem. Timberland boots, a white t-shirt and a towel? Find another club.
There are a few things going on here. First, Cordish is taking the “No shirt, no shoes, no service” policy to the racial extreme. It’s as if he surveyed Kansas City’s large black population, made a list of their major fashion trends, and then slapped the list on the front door of his club under a “Not Allowed” banner. Second, the club is marketed as a “Top 40” establishment, yet prohibits hip hop. Check out any Top 40 list from the past 15 years—hip hop is well represented. This contradiction in music policy is a not-so-subtle, yet still implicit message that blacks (and their cultural forms) are not welcome at KC Live. Indeed, that was the exact reason DJ Jazzy Jeff was booted from the stage: He played Biz Markie’s famous hip hop ballad “Just a Friend.” Yes, the same Biz Markie song you can hear playing in Heineken’s most recent national TV ad spot.
Critics of The Cordish, Co. have called the club’s policies racist—and they’re right. Power & Light District? Try Power & White District, as many folks have started referring to the area. It’s obvious which racial group the company is targeting, and it has apparently exacerbated pre-existing racial tensions throughout the city.
Banning baggy jeans, like banning hip hop, is a clever way to enact racist policy under the guise of “race-neutral” codes and guidelines. It’s the contemporary, “color blind” variant of Jim Crow-era legislation of black bodies. Hip hop music doesn’t incite violence, and black t-shirts are no more acceptable than white ones. The message from Cordish is loud and clear: No black music, no black fashion trends, no black cultural forms. No blacks allowed.