The 9:30 Club has been in business for more than three decades, 20 of them on V Street NW, just steps away from the strip once called Black Broadway. Over its lifespan, the D.C. music venue has hosted thousands of shows with no apparent bias toward certain performers or audiences, other than those who bring money through the door.
So why is it that this week, as 9:30 Club celebrates its 35th anniversary, the venue is attracting criticism for allegedly whitewashing its multihued history?
The controversy began at the World’s Fair, 9:30 Club’s weeklong anniversary bash that kicked off Tuesday night. At the VIP reception, scores of people lined up to peruse an exhibit of 9:30 Club ephemera, spanning an impressive collection of photos, flyers, memorabilia and video from the club’s colorful past. But at least one attendee left the show with a searing question: Where was the black history?
Kristi Riggs, a stylist and fashion designer who lives in D.C., says she’s seen plenty of black artists perform at 9:30 Club over the years, including Erykah Badu, The Roots, Jill Scott and numerous hip-hop groups in the ’90s. But their memories are drowned in the sea of pale faces currently on display at the venue. That’s according to a post Riggs published on her Facebook page that has begun to circulate widely online.
“[I’m] so SICK of white people conveniently erasing the contributions of black people. Especially, the black people that have made you rich,” Riggs wrote. “I can count on one hand how many black faces were in the photo exhibit that covered the walls of the entire club.”
Riggs’ post has touched a nerve, racking up more than 100 comments. Many express disappointment. Some seem unsurprised. Others point to a need for more black-owned venues in D.C. A few call for a boycott of 9:30 Club.
Take a close look at the World’s Fair exhibit — open through Saturday — and you’ll find a colorful mosaic, but one that’s more white than brown. Flyers plaster the walls, harking back to punk and punkesque bands that played the venue once upon a time: the B-52’s, Einstürzende Neubauten, The Replacements, hundreds more. A screen plays live footage from a Jesus Lizard show. Fugazi’s gear occupies the stage.
Meanwhile, the bass guitar played by Trouble Funk’s Big Tony is displayed alongside Fugazi’s gear. Video of a recent Leon Bridges show plays on a loop, projected onto a massive cube. Tucked away in a green room, there’s a cardboard standup of the late godfather of go-go, Chuck Brown, not far from the hair dryer 9:30 Club purchased for the late godfather of soul, James Brown.
Artists of color aren’t invisible at the World’s Fair. But they are outnumbered.
Riggs is a longtime 9:30 Club patron who considers herself part of the venue’s extended family. She attended the exhibit’s VIP reception Tuesday night, hoping to reflect on nights she spent there — especially during the ’90s, when D.C. was still Chocolate City.
“I was really excited to go [to the exhibit] because the 9:30 Club has always been near and dear to my heart,” Riggs says in a phone call. “You always know when you’re headed to a show at the 9:30, it’s going to be a special night.”
But she was taken aback by the amount of space dedicated to white punk rockers. This 9:30 Club didn’t feel like the one she knew. “There were just so many voids, in terms of the timeline,” she says. Disappointed and hurt, she left the party, and typed out her feelings on Facebook.
To Riggs, the exhibit’s relative lack of melanin brought up bigger issues — namely her sense that today’s whiter, wealthier D.C. is overwriting its black history.
“Erasure is racism,” Riggs says. “[White newcomers] just want to pick it up from here, like, ‘Oh, thanks for creating this really cool city that we’re all clambering to move to — it’s really wonderful and colorful and fabulous. But we don’t need you anymore now. We’ll take it from here.'”
Particularly in the neighborhood 9:30 Club has called home for 20 years, that erasure seems ubiquitous. Once segregated, largely poor and African American, the U Street area is now lined with pricey residential buildings and teeming with white revelers most nights of the week. In an apparent act of swagger-jacking, an apartment building called The Ellington nods to the neighborhood’s jazz heritage, but shuts out lower-income residents with rents north of $2,500.
To many, the change stings — and sometimes it feels intentional. When black-owned U Street mainstay The Islander closed in 2013 following a bitter feud with new residents, owner Addie Green told the Washington Post, “It’s the kind of change I believe Washington wants.”
To some extent, 9:30 Club has participated in that change. I.M.P. Productions, the venue’s owner, took over operations of U Street institution Lincoln Theatre in 2013. The company immediately brought new life to the historically black, city-owned venue, which had gone underutilized for years. But the first bookings under I.M.P. control were white acts, a decision that seemed out of touch with U Street’s history.
About the all-white bookings, I.M.P.’s Seth Hurwitz said at the time, “We are going to try all kinds of things… But, ultimately, the audience for the Lincoln will be determined by what does well.”
Riggs suspects that as D.C. has grown whiter, 9:30 Club — whose spokesperson declined to comment for this story — has followed suit.
“As the population in D.C. became more white, their bookings became more white,” Riggs says.
For a venue with such a diverse history, she says, that feels like a slap in the face.
“Those African-American artists of all genres helped to cultivate the culture that is known as the 9:30 Club. It’s become known as a beacon of cool,” Riggs says. “And if they think that all happened because of punk-rock music, they’re absolutely mistaken.”
Top photo by Flickr user Heaton Johnson used under a Creative Commons license.