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A White Soundtrack in a Black Neighborhood

How a change in the playlist can attract a different clientele

Illustration by Vance Lump

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I was drinking my day away at Harlem brunch spot the Grange — ask for a passionfruit Bellini and thank me later — when I looked around and wondered if I had been teleported to Williamsburg. The crowd here in Upper Manhattan had always been diverse, but that day it seemed noticeably whiter.

I just wanted to get some hot sauce and eat the Grange’s bomb-ass sweet potato and kale hash with duck in peace — not ponder the racial politics of new Harlem, that of gentrified brunchers versus old Harlem, the historic mecca of blackness. But there we were, me and two friends, looking like three lonely blacks at a Journey concert.

Which, it turned out, was basically what was happening: One of my friends pointed out that the afternoon’s brunch music was noticeably… whiter… than it was on our prior visits there. The Grange, to my memory, used to play popular music (that is, what’s popular — not pop), but the new soundtrack, an ambiguous light techno mix, would have been perfect for the backdrop of a gallery opening. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the genre. But if you own a restaurant in a black neighborhood, and you’re purposely playing that music, you're sending a clear message as to who this restaurant is for. Other Harlem restaurants, like the Row, may not play contemporary tunes by black artists, but they at least play jazz, which fits within a grand tradition.

The music that a restaurant plays doesn’t change its location or its cuisine, of course, but it does set a tone and a vibe. Everyone walking through its doors wants to feel comfortable, to have a good time, and to feel welcomed. In a traditionally black neighborhood, when the restaurateurs start steering their establishments away from blackness, even if only sonically, it’s as though they’re telling neighborhood locals to take a hike.

Dining in a Harlem restaurant among a predominantly white crowd once felt like an anomaly, but it has become increasingly common. I don’t have a problem eating around hordes of white people — there’s more than enough hash to go around — but I’ve begun to feel uneasy, because some of these restaurants don’t seem invested in being part of the community they’ve moved into. There’s a difference between joining the party and storming in.

The black population in Harlem has been declining for decades. Longtime residents have watched the demographics shift across a generation, but recent headlines reflect a sense of final tipping point. In the past year alone, the New York Times flipped from headlines like the doom-and-gloom “The End of Black Harlem” to the uncomfortably laudatory “Harlem’s French Renaissance.”

I am not a Harlem native. I’m paying more for a tiny space in New York than friends outside the city pay for actual houses. I will be patronizing the hot bar of the upcoming Harlem Whole Foods. Hell, I love brunch. But enjoying the new amenities doesn’t make me comfortable with the obvious, ongoing attempt to strip the area of the rich appreciation of blackness that made so many of us want to live here in the first place. When I moved to New York more than four years ago, I wanted to live in an area that was mostly black, which, in New York City, often means Harlem. It’s where I am most comfortable, because if no one else will be welcoming to a black person, other black people will.

The last thing I expected when I moved to the spiritual birthplace of black culture was that the soundtrack to my days would be unrecognizable to the black people who built its cultural legacy. It almost makes me feel unwelcome in my own neighborhood.

The day after my Grange brunch, I went to Cantina 1838’s new location on Lenox Avenue. When I first went there, Future was playing. The second time, it was a mix of auntie bops — Chaka Khan, Charlie Wilson, and so on. “Charlie Wilson and tacos” is both a good name for a mixtape and a mood for a Mexican-themed restaurant in Harlem. The third time I went, Cantina, too, was playing classic rock. And I don’t mean classic rock like Little Richard or Ike Turner. I’m talking old Aerosmith and songs that remind me of 1990s commercials for soft-rock compilation albums.

I like a few Aerosmith tracks, too, but if your restaurant is a sea of black customers, why are you playing classic-rock and soft-rock tunes? When I asked what happened with the music, two separate servers explained that the managers were there, and they had dictated a tune switch. After a couple of inquiries, they changed the music back again. But who thought that soundtrack made sense in the first place? Why go out of your way to alienate your clientele?

Of course, some restaurants are better than others. There is a French restaurant — one of many, thanks to Harlem’s West African roots — named Barawine that plays a lot of R&B and pop tunes, and unsurprisingly, the crowd is mixed. The same can be said of the Mexican restaurant Oso, which ranges from Mexican pop to ’90s R&B and hip-hop. There may be far more white people in these restaurants because of the neighborhood’s ever-changing demographics, but you get the sense that black people are at least welcome there.

I can’t pretend gentrification will ever disappear. But, new neighbors, think about where you are and consider those who have been before you. And pick your playlist accordingly.

If you’re running a restaurant in Harlem, mecca of black culture, art, and music, home of the Apollo Theater and the Cotton Club, and where the Langston Hughes House still sits, keep that history in mind. I don’t expect every Harlem restaurant to play OJ da Juiceman or Gucci Mane, but can’t we all agree on Sade? Hell, I’ll give you Michael McDonald, too, but let’s be reasonable.

Michael Arceneaux is a writer and longtime Beyoncé enthusiast currently working on his first book, I Can't Date Jesus, for Atria Books.
Vance Lump is a freelance illustrator based in the Pacific Northwest.
Editor: Kira Goldenberg