Illustrations by Joshua Hanton.
On the night of the 26th of September, four women arrived at DSTRKT nightclub in London's West End. They had been invited by one of the promoters and had been assured space on the guestlist. West End clubs are dressy, and the group were ready for a night out—pre-drink selfies had been taken in tight polo-necks with clutch bags. However, when they got there, two of the women, Reshia McFarlane-Tapping, 27, and Tasha Campbell, 28, were asked to stand across the road so a manager could see them. According to the women, the manager told them they were "too dark" and "overweight" to be allowed into the club. None of the women went in.
In the following days, another member of the group, Lin Mei, posted screenshots of conversations she'd had with one of the club's promoters after they'd been refused entry. The promoter told her the club "only wanna let to mixed raced girls in they said [sic]." When questioned further he said "I really care about the white crowd," and "the black crowd is the concern." The screengrabs inspired outrage across social media, culminating on the night of the 29th of September with protesters gathered outside the nightclub. The protesters were a mixture of those in support of Lin Mei and her friends, and others who claimed to have experienced the same treatment at the club. The word had spread along with a simple question, "Do I look DSTRKT?"
In the days following the incident at DSTRKT, hoping to discover how typical this sort of racial profiling was of nightclubs in the area, I set about contacting both DSTRKT themselves who repeatedly declined opportunity for involvement as well as music industry and nightlife professionals who had experience with the club and the West End as a whole. What quickly became apparent was that what had happened to Lin Mei's friends that night was far from an isolated incident. Rather it was symptomatic of London's West End as a whole, an area of nightclubs known for their opulence, VIP areas, and bottle service, one where rising property values and a handful of oligarchs were giving rise to a new class of clubber. As the days turned into weeks, and I received more and more in the way of testimonies, many telling the same story: a culture of exclusivity was becoming a shortcut to exclusion. Judgements, ostensibly based on guestlists, were masking discriminatory motives.
"Funny thing is, you get this sense, straight away I know. It's this look that says "I hope you're not coming here cos you're not going to get in"." - DJ Fabio
One of the first people I spoke to, Jasmine Dotiwala—a producer, writer, and former head of hip-hop and R&B music channel MTV Base—stressed that the prejudices the incident exposed were consistent with a trend she'd noticed with increasing frequency while clubbing in London. "When I was a teenager it was hard to get into clubs if you didn't look cool and edgy, but never due to race," she said. "Nowadays black people just simply accept that if they don't personally know the staff at clubs, they won't get in."
As Dotiwala sees it, black clubbers are suffering the rise of a new breed of club on the West End. "The focus of clubs has stopped being music and dancing, and switched to high-rolling banker and city types with their champagne magnums and sparkler fireworks," she told me. This grab for cash has in turn left club owners attempting to target the audiences they perceive as more desirable. "They think that black guests 'scare and intimidate' their other more wealthy, white, city banker types," Dotiwala said.
It's a sentiment echoed across all the responses I received. The same themes returned time and time again, in every conversation I had: promoters, DJs, or clubbers—all assured of guestlist—suddenly being unable to gain entry, even if they were involved professionally in the event going on inside.
Many of the people who travel to West End on a regular basis do so for professional reasons, such as Fiona Ramsay, an artist manager and self-described "black female of dark skin", whose client list with both BMG Music group and in a freelance capacity has included the likes of Beyonce and Whitney Houston. Having spent years entertaining clients at the city's clubs, she said she was unsurprised by the events at DSTRKT. "I've actually done several events at DSTRKT, and without saying it they were always concerned about the type of guests, in other words, how many black people would turn up."
She said she's always known the West End to be something of a no-go zone for persons of colour. "Years ago, as a black person, you knew the clubs which would let you in, such as Corks Wine Bar or Moonlighting, but you stayed away from Chinawhite, for example," she said. "It was a running joke of frustration for us as a community because so many black people had experienced the frost of the door men when more than three black people approached a central London club."
Contrary to whatever perceptions we may have of social progress in Britain, Ramsay believes these racist practices are becoming more and more frequent. "Clubs that used to let us in have actually closed down, and the new clubs are owned by people who on a normal day would not mix with people of colour," she explained. "They want their clubs to reflect that. I can not name one club that I think will have a welcoming door policy if I was to turn up with two black females and three black males."
For Ramsey, managing artists has often meant bringing high-profile clients to bars and clubs in the area; when this has involved celebrities of colour, the hierarchical attitudes at core of these door policies are exposed further. Fiona told me, "Two months ago a group of us arrived at Mahiki with a well-known black actress from America. We were on the list, but the bouncer didn't know who the actress was, and turned us all away. Then, the club owner called me and asked where we were. I said, 'Your door man refused us entry,' and the club owner asked us to come back. I've never been there again."
Dotiwala had a similar story to share, this time at Jalouse, a member's club in the Mayfair area of the West End that has since closed. "I hosted a joint Halloween party at Jalouse nightclub in 2009 with Mariah Carey," she told me. "It was a private party with a VIP guest list. I had invited all my MTV BASE talent, which included names like Bashy, Kojo, Tinchy Stryder, and Tinie Tempah, amongst others. Strangely, on the night, I received numerous texts from guests saying that doormen told them they weren't on the guest list. I realised after a few of these texts that they all just happened to be black males."
Despite her guests being on the list and having every right to enter the club, the management kept them outside. The situation was eventually resolved when Dotiwala arrived and ensured their entry, but the damage had already been done. "When we arrived at the club an hour later, I will never forget the humiliated, haunted looks on the faces of my earlier rejected guests," Dotiwala told me. "They had achieved so much personally in their careers, but were still being discriminated against in this country due to the colour of their skin."
"I no longer do any business with central London clubs because this is not a problem with just DSTRKT, it's the vast majority of them." - Fiona, Events Organiser.
What these stories demonstrate are the confused and convoluted politics at play in the West End district. As property prices have risen, with the average rental price in London hitting £1500 PCM this year, the communities that called the area home for decades have been slowly pushed further and further out of central London. The wealthier class that have arrived in their place have naturally introduced a new focus for businesses in the area. Catering to the interests of the super-rich, practices that would be deemed reprehensible in other areas of society, continue under the guise of VIP culture.
One person I spoke to—who wished to remain anonymous, but who I will refer to as Daniel—has promoted parties and DJed in the West End for a number of years, and has experienced the worst of the area first hand. He recounts a time he arrived at a club with "box fresh Air Jordans and clean jeans," only to be told he couldn't come in because his trainers "weren't good enough." It was as these words were spoken that he describes how an unnamed ex-boyfriend of Kate Moss, who was white, "came out for a smoke with dirty jeans and dirty Converses on."
Frustratingly for many entertainment and events professionals like Daniel, these West End clubs are central to their work, meaning any strike against these establishments would be a blow against their own livelihoods. "I've had to fight against myself," he told me. "I'm not violent, but I believe in rights. Yet If I acted on those rights, I'd look like a bully. I can't afford to act on them."
A club and magazine photographer, who wanted to be known as Ally, has worked extensively photographing nights in the West End, and similarly wanted the names of clubs themselves to be left off his account, but was more than happy to detail some of the discrimination he's witnessed within many of these venues. "I've shot a wide range of clubs in London and internationally," he told me. "Only in London, in certain West End venues, have I had the unusual experience of being taken aside by the club manager and briefed, 'Make sure you keep group photos of black people to a minimum. Otherwise more turn up, and it becomes, you know, a black club.'"
Many other people I spoke to that wanted to remain anonymous despite having experienced numerous incidents of racism in West End clubs. But the pressure to stay silent is considerable: the fear for DJs and promoters is that speaking out could put their careers in jeopardy. The West End is still one the most profitable quarter of nightclubs in the country, so despite its apparent and infamous legacy of racism, many of those who resent it the most are dishearteningly reliant on it.
Following Lin Mei's accusations, DSTRKT released a statement on Facebook regarding the incident on October 1st. Not only did it refute the allegations by stating the club "condemns any type of racism," but it also claimed that language regarding race had never been used. The statement also included screen grabs from Lin Mei's personal social media accounts, proving she had been in the club on previous occasions, and a Facebook post in which she had used some racially charged language herself. As statements go, it was specific, personal, and bizarrely petty.
This online conversation continued, with grime MC Stormzy getting pulled into the controversy after tweeting in support of the ongoing protests against the club—tweets that devolved into a spat when one of the club's employees went on the defensive in a series of barbed, but now deleted, replies. When I spoke to Stormzy over the phone a day or two after all of this, he was frustrated that the focus of his support had been relegated to a heated Twitter exchange as opposed to the larger concerns at stake.
"It shouldn't be debated on Twitter," he said. "It's the same with the club's response. I felt they were trying to par [Lin Mei's allegations] off as tit for tat. It's not that." Stormzy felt this sort of petty, online interaction was unsurprising, particularly considering the way the club itself had approached their statement. "The least the club could have done was handle it delicately—even if they thought they weren't in the wrong, they shouldn't have been so inappropriate."
The aspect of the situation that left Stormzy equally frustrated was just how much clubs like DSTRKT rely on music of black origin and its surrounding culture. From hip-hop nights to appearances from R&B singers, the West End is an economy built on black artists, yet these are the very same clubs that most black people don't feel comfortable even trying to get into. "I find it so cheeky," Stormzy told me with clear and genuine anger. "It's such a disrespect. You won't embrace black people but you'll play our music." He's not alone in feeling this way. When we spoke on the phone, promoter and DJ Daniel even jokingly suggested a challenge to central London clubs: "If you don't want to let any black people in, fine, don't play any record that contains the n-word," he said. "Let's see how long you last."
Having begun to build a more solid picture of exactly how extreme the climate in the West End was, I received a call from drum & bass icon DJ Fabio, who'd heard I was writing a story about discrimination in clubs on the West End. Over the phone, he asked if we could meet to discuss a few things. A week later, when we sat down to talk, it was clear the topic was something he had been waiting to speak about for some time.
Fabio was keen to stress that while the West End is a particular focal point for this issue, he's been witnessing and experiencing discrimination in the British clubbing capital for decades. "I've been going out clubbing in London since I was 12, 13," he said. "Used to go to soul clubs back in the day, when I was really young, bunking off school, going to funk nights. And as far back as I can remember, way back into the late 1970s, it's been the same." Fabio said the colour of his skin has too often defined his experience in London's clubland. "I remember bouncers who used to make us wait until everyone had gone in the club, until the last ten minutes and then we could go in. If that was two white guys there is no way that would have happened, but we put up with it because we wanted to hear music. That's what makes it so sad: we are willing to put up with your racism because we want to hear tunes."
One evening, around a year and a half ago, Fabio went to DSTRKT to support his girlfriend, Charlotte, who was DJing and hosting an event there. He went with two friends—one of Asian descent and one black—both of whom had expressed concerns about the club as they had never been allowed in before. Taking no chances, the three of them dressed smartly in shoes and trousers. But when they arrived, the group were told by the door staff they weren't allowed to come in based on Fabio's Asian friend's clothing. "I said, "Well, he's got shoes and trousers on," and she said, "It's not about that; it's how you wear your clothes."
"They'll take the culture, but not the people." - Daniel, Promoter and DJ.
After calling Charlotte to negotiate his entry, Fabio alone was allowed inside. He headed down to the basement level main room, watched Charlotte's set, and then left to help his two friends get in. Yet before he could make it up the stairs, he found himself flanked by two of the nightclub's security, who asked him to follow them somewhere quieter in order to discuss something. "They didn't touch me, but they cornered me," he said. "I couldn't walk backwards or forwards. Really intimidating."
"I said, "Well, why can't we talk to her?" They said we couldn't and that they had seen something on CCTV. They wanted to talk about it upstairs. I thought, I know the deal here, I haven't done anything, I'll go upstairs and see what you've got to say. They said, "Can we talk outside?" Alright then, I thought, my friends are outside anyway and I really want to hear what you've got to say. I walked outside, and they closed the door. Properly closed the door. I thought, "Oh my God—what are they doing?" I called Charlotte and said, You won't believe what's just happened; I've been thrown out"."
Once stood outside, questioning the door staff on their decision, Fabio witnessed a man, claiming to be the owner of DSTRKT, approach the security guards who had thrown him out and whisper something to them. "That's when they turned and said, 'You've been selling drugs'." The nightclub had fabricated allegations right in front of him. At this point, the club owner and the door staff ended the conversation definitively and closed the door. "I was staggered," said Fabio. "Closing the door on me like an animal. It was the most disgraceful act of racism I've ever seen in a nightclub."
This episode is extreme, but it points to a common thread in many of the stories of racism I encountered in my research. The agenda of these clubs is exercised through subtle, manipulative devices. Nobody is ever touched, inflammatory words are never used, but enough of a case is mounted to justify action. Clothes are worn in "the wrong way"; somebody is suddenly "suspected of selling drugs."
For Fabio, the next step has to be an organised campaign, something to draw vocal attention to the constant and unending frustration the area creates. "I'm glad the DSTRKT story broke, but something bigger has to be done," he said. "There is much more to this than meets the eye." Throughout our conversation, he drew an interesting parallel with the Kick Racism Out of Football campaign that since being established in the UK in 1993 has, while not eradicating racism in the country's football community, stigmatised it to the point it has become publicly unacceptable.
"I used to watch games on TV with the sound turned down because I could hear the black players getting booed or getting monkey chants, but they did something," he explained, "and I think that's what this needs. It's a problem that's been buried, but clubland needs this."
Where can we go from here? Once racism in clubland is recognised, how do we go about challenging not only door policies, but the regressive attitudes that motivate them? For an authoritative opinion on what real progress—if any—can be made, I turned to Kate Osamor. As Labour MP for Edmonton, East London, she maintains an open dialogue with residents and businesses in her constituency, so understands better than most the experiences of Londoners today, and as far as the situation on the West End is concerned, she's also grown up experiencing nightlife in the capital as a person of colour.
"For me growing up, listening to acid and jungle, we used to go to warehouses because that was the only way we could get in," she tells me, referring to her early days in the London club scene during the late 1980s. "The crowd was completely mixed together, because we were allowed; it was encouraged. You'd have more fun that way, and you'd learn from each other." Based on the egalitarian spirit of these early clubbing experiences, Osamor believes that for the situation to change, the culture of the entire area has to change. "The West End isn't about that," she said, referring to the principles that guided her experiences of clubland. "It's about the elite, it's about class."
What much of this comes down to, of course, is the increasing structural inequality in the city, along with a lack of black-owned clubs. With the rising rents and growing income inequality across central London, the playing field for fledgling business is more competitive than ever. "If you are a young black guy coming up and trying to open a club, you are going to be blocked from competing alongside the big hitters," Osamor told me. Still, facilitating support for black-owned businesses, she believes, has to start with licensing board's attitudes towards black culture and new ventures. "It's up to whoever is licensing clubs to offer spots to new businesses to allow competition. That way the rules can change. What's happened in the West End is that a monopolising set of clubs have evolved and small club owners haven't got a way in."
Yet for black-owned and black-friendly spaces to succeed, Kate also feels a shift has to occur within black communities, namely in what she feels is a hypocritical failing to "support our own." With reference to the DSTRKT incident specifically, she felt it was important to question why the conversation was taking place there in the first place. "If a black club opened up in Tottenham or Peckham, those girls wouldn't go there, and that's part of the problem," she said. "We are drawn to places where we're not welcome. We feel that it's going to elevate our status."
"Those girls, had they got in, would they have said, "What about the other black girls in the queue?" I don't know: I don't know them. But that is part of the problem: if we get in, we don't look back. We don't question our own motives."
For Kate, the issue with clubs in central London is one small component in a larger conversation that Britain still needs to face up to with regards to its relationship with minority groups. Additionally, while the episode at DSTRKT focused on the plight of four black females, it is important to recognise the struggles of black males, a group Osamor feels face as many, if not more, barriers to success. "It is so much harder for black guys to get on in society," she said. "Your stature is so low that if you see a black guy is in a club, then he must be a drug dealer. Then, for black men, if they do well, it's never reported in the way it should be. People need to see that a black guy isn't just a footballer or an athlete."
"Clubland needs to address this, the West End needs to fucking wake up." - DJ Fabio.
To move forward, we have to challenge the way our society understands blackness. "We need to celebrate black success and we don't do that enough," Osamor says. "I think if we did that would help combat some of these stereotypes that have created this situation in the first place."
Mounting a response, however big or small, certainly seems like the next logical step. While the conversation around it may have died down, the incident at DSTRKT did prove that if discrimination is responded to vocally, then people will listen. It's something that Stormzy certainly feels is the way forward. "What happened at DSTRKT should be a scare for other clubs who do the same thing," he said, "These clubs should be so embarrassed that they can't afford to do it. We should speak out every time it happens, speak out, and expose."
As previously mentioned, when I reached out to the nightclubs themselves for response the reaction was largely muted, with most venues—including DSTRKT—declining the opportunity to comment. One club, however, Libertine, did respond with regards to their door policy. Despite the overwhelming collected sentiment about central London nightclubs, they confidently stated the following: "We have an ID scanner and as everybody comes in they have to scan a passport or a driving license. We can categorically state that we do not have a door policy that is based on the colour of people's skin. If you went through the records on our scanner, you would see just how varied our demographic is. We cannot comment on other central London clubs, but we have a fluid door policy that is based mainly on attitude, attire, and an even mix of men and women. If people write in and claim that they feel they were turned away on the basis of their skin colour, we have invited them to the club to peruse our records and see the evidence themselves."
Libertine's comment was given to us in good faith, and we have no reason to doubt the club's intentions, but sadly, this isn't an issue that can necessarily be disproven with data. Libertine's assertion that "if people write in" they will be invited to the club suggests accusations of this sort have levelled before, whether or not the club was aware of, or endorsed, the behaviour. The situation presented by everyone who contributed a comment for this article is one of implied—not explicit—discrimination. While a club may appear to have a varied demographic, terms such as "attitude" or "attire" are malleable and easily abused.
"We don't have power in clubs. That's when you need to question where this is coming from, and why you are happy to stand around, be judged. We need to know our history. Don't separate yourself from who you are. You say, no." - Kate Osamor MP.
This vagueness is not lost on Mark Field, Conservative MP for Westminster, the constituency in which many of the West End nightclubs mentioned fall. When I presented him with the findings of this article, and asked what, if anything, he felt could be done, he replied: "Unfortunately, however, in spite of MPs legislating against discrimination, it is not an easy task to destroy personal racist attitudes. I hope that no club in my constituency is acting unlawfully and that no customers and visitors to my constituency are made to feel unwelcome or uneasy here." He added: "If any club is discriminating against people on the basis of ethnicity, there is the legal framework in place to challenge that."
Grounding a discussion of racism in a discussion of the law, however, can mean trying to parse and quantify something that escapes definition and sometimes, even, observation. Progressive shifts in awareness over the years including what some have termed the discourse of "political correctness" have helped, but these shifts have also allowed systems of discrimination to learn the language of racism, and as such, how best to mask racist behaviour. The racism that occurs in the clubs on the West End falls into this grey area; never obvious or in your face, the discrimination is instead implied, tacit, and out of sight.
While the DSTRKT incident was now a few of months ago, as recently as a couple of weeks ago another nightclub in the UK was hit with a similar claim, after a group of black males paid upfront for a table in Bournemouth nightclub Cameo, only to be denied entry as they watched groups of white males enter. As it currently stands, central London is a pocket of the United Kingdom where people of colour feel they are at best unwelcome, and at worst completely ostracised. Beginning a dialogue that promotes alienated voices, and offers them the opportunity to vocalise what this part of London, and what this part of British nightlife, has come to represent, is crucial. Perhaps then, under the spotlight, change can begin.
One response to these allegations could be to write off the West End altogether, declare it shallow, seal it up as a lost cause and walk away. Yet this is a symbolic conflict as much as it is a physical one. These clubs are premium spaces in the middle of one of the world's most cosmopolitan cities where, despite all of that, racial identity dictates whether or not you are welcome. A bizarre contradiction continuing in the heart of 21st century Britain.