On a recent trip to London, my friend, the Guardian columnist and author (of the book “Brit(ish”) Afua Hirsch, and I went undercover in London’s West End to investigate racism in London’s West End club scene.
The responses we’ve received from this article have been fascinating – it’s quite clear that a number of black and brown people in London have experienced racism and discrimination in their nightlife experiences. We hope that London’s current nightlife tsar will take some time to do something about this truly unacceptable behaviour.
Below is Afua’s column for The Guardian:
Afua Hirsch (right) with her friend Lola Adesioye on Park Lane. Photograph: Joe Plimmer for the Guardian
It is midnight on a warm midsummer’s night in Mayfair, central London. Across wide lanes of traffic – ceaseless, even at this hour – I can just about make out the dark silhouette of Hyde Park’s trees. But it is a dozen plastic-wrapped parking tickets, slapped on a primary-coloured Lamborghini beside me, that I can hear flapping in the breeze.
I am at the Hilton Park Lane hotel, the super-rich heart of the super-rich centre of London. The sports cars are not only symbols of extreme wealth, but of the attitudes that accompany it, that allow the car-owners to treat parking fines as if they were an upmarket meter system.
This is exactly the clientele Drama is here to serve. The nightclub, a compact establishment carved out of the hotel’s basement, is for “those who drip irresistible confidence”, according to its website. “Expect the loud. Expect the abnoxious [sic]. Expect drama.”
“They know me. They invited me down here. And now they don’t want to let me in because of my colour,” she yells. “Don’t deny the fact that black people are poppin’. You play our music. Do I need to say any more?”
When I talk to the 24-year-old, she explains why she is so furious at being denied entry. “I’ve been standing in the line and seeing bare white people going in before me,” she says. “Personally, I think this is a colour thing. Black people are not allowed in central London, I swear to you. The way Mayfair works for me, you’ve got to look like a certain something – you have got to be white, tall, really slim.”
She describes herself as an “influencer” and says she does not want to be named because she fears the consequences to her profile. But, she continues: “I’m a party girl, I go out all the time. And as black women, we are always being disrespected – we can’t go out there and have a good time, without them reminding us about our colour.”
In this sentiment she is not alone. Last month, another young black woman, out clubbing to celebrate the end of her exams, alleged that she was charged twice as much for entry to Drama as white girls in the queue. The club denied that this was the case, saying that both white and black members of the group were charged £20 for entry.
“We do not tolerate any form of discrimination against any individual or group,” the club said in a statement. “The standard door charge at Drama Park Lane is £20. Promotions are offered for various reasons, but never on the grounds of discrimination of race, colour or national origin.” The club is now investigating both the allegations.
But on social media, the young woman’s mother, TV producer Nadine Marsh-Edwards, said: “My daughter went to a club in the West End last night. Black girls got charged £20 entrance fee – white girls £10 … London life right now. They need to be reminded it’s London 2018 not Mississippi 1962.”
The club contacted Marsh-Edwards, although her comments have led to further allegations, many citing almost identical experiences, throwing a spotlight on reviews of Mayfair clubs on TripAdvisor, where allegations of racism are common, stretching back several years.
On the night I went clubbing in Mayfair I saw this flexible door policy at first hand. Drama’s £20 entry fee was quickly waved away when I made a vague excuse, leaving me the impression that it is considered small change when compared to the takings inside.
Until about a decade ago, I was no stranger to the Mayfair and central-London club scene. Devotees of hip-hop and R&B, my friends and I knew the DJ schedule at most of the clubs by heart, and would go wherever they were playing our favourite music. On a good day, we could blag our way in for free, but most of the time, we paid £10 or £20. But, as a black girl, you always felt your game had to be tight. Those of mixed race, like me, had an easier time than our friends with darker complexions who seemed to be judged more critically by doorstaff. The threat of exclusion was always lurking just under the surface.
But, descending beneath the Lamborghini-lined entrance to Drama, those days seem like a more innocent time. The first thing that struck me was the prevalence of cosmetic surgery. Next, that this was a club devoted not to dancing, but to “tables” – booths topped with grey ice buckets for super-sized, frosted bottles of spirits that cost those enjoying them up to £1,000. The dancefloor is an afterthought – a few square metres of space we had to share with a disproportionate number of security guards and a couple of women in thongs, who occassionally burst into unprovoked episodes of twerking. Champagne, the drink of choice at the bar, was an eye-watering £17 a glass.
About a quarter of the club’s floor space was shut off altogether – an unoccupied and unlit VIP area. It felt like a metaphor for the whole experience of going to a club that is always aspiring to a wealthier, more important and famous clientele.
During the period I was in the club, out of about 150 clubbers, I saw just one group of five bored-looking black boys, slumped around a table, and one black woman in a large table-less group of white friends. Among the staff, we observed just one black man.
When we moved on to nearby Scandal, a larger club closer to the heart of the West End, there were more people dancing. There were also slightly more people from minority ethnic groups and a black DJ. But with the exception of one dancer among the half-dozen or so women performing provocative moves in little cubby holes built into the walls, I could see no black women at all. The club declined to comment.
It is black women, critics say, who are the net losers in the current Mayfair club game. Fashion blogger Fisayo Longe recently described her experience at Libertine, writing that she was denied entry and was told it was: “Maybe because you’re black,” and “… probably because you’re not good looking enough”. The nightclub has denied this, saying the records from their ID scanner prove they have a varied demographic. “We can categorically state that we do not have a door policy that is based on the colour of people’s skin.”
The near absence of any ethnic group from a social space in London is unusual enough for a city with a 40% non-white population. But it is all the more surprising in nightclubs that – as Drama and many other high-end Mayfair establishments do – play almost entirely black music. Those who claim black people are being deliberately excluded are becoming harder to ignore.
In 2015, the nightclub DSTRKT refused entry to a group of black women who say they were told they were “too dark” and “overweight”. The nightclub denied this and says the club was full. The same year, Cirque le Soir rejected a group of New Orleans Saints NFL players, despite the fact that they had reservations. The players reported being told it was because they were “six big guys” (none was over 6ft) and “too urban”. The nightclub denied this, saying the men were refused entry because they were in an all-male group.
TripAdvisor reviews of the past few years report clubs including Libertine, Drama and Cirque le Soir splitting up mixed groups of friends, with only the white members allowed in. “Eww, your kind isn’t allowed in here,” one girl reports a staff member telling her and an Asian friend. Other reviews of some Mayfair clubs dating back to January 2017 include the headlines “undercover Nazis” and “Racist Club! No black people allowed!”
But in a society where British people of colour face discrimination at work, racist abuse on the streets and even deportation, do unpleasant experiences at a handful of nightclubs really matter?
Marsh-Edwards thinks so. “This is the start of a young person’s life out in the world, and these sort of micro-aggressions tell you a lot about how you are seen by society,” she says. “Some of these girls are going to end up running companies, they are going to go into that boardroom one day, probably as the only woman and highly likely the only black person. And they have already been told they are not worthy, and not on a level playing field.”
In a world where discretion is seen as a core asset, it was difficult to find anyone who works in the Mayfair club scene who would allow their name to be used for this article. One promoter, who is black, says he witnessed overt racial discrimination over more than a decade working in Mayfair and the West End. “I can go into any club with 10 hot, blond models and be given a table and a bottle,” he says. “But I can go with 10 black girls, who are beautiful, and be kept on the door.
“I used to have so many fights with club-owners about this. My own sister got turned away on her 40th birthday from a club I was working at – she came with six black women, they had booked a table two months in advance and there was nothing I could do to get them in. Well-dressed, smart-looking black people getting turned away.”
Despite his personal objection to the policy, he continued making money from it. “I was walking away with hundreds of pounds for bringing in girls. The clubs would do a ‘quality check’ – they would give you marks out of 10 for the girls that you bring. They just need to be hot. Hot, and predominantly white.
“The clubs would say it’s not about being racist, it’s business,” he adds. “Clubs will do whatever it takes to bring in these big table spenders,” while promoters were valued for being able to “guarantee [the] hot girls the table spenders want to see”.
A popular Mayfair club DJ argued that while there was undoubtedly racism, it was elitism that was the main issue. “I remember once bringing two black friends to a club where I worked, and being told: ‘You cannot bring two black people in here at the same time because it looks like a gang.’ So I’m not going to deny there is racism. Some of it comes from the way the media portrays black people. Some is similar to the racism you get in the fashion industry, with this idea that black people just don’t look good.
“But this is not so much about race as about money,” he says, describing how a pair of Nigerian clients at Drama regularly spent £30,000 each visiting the club. “Clubs want to attract the people who are going to spend the most, so they want good-looking people, people who look desirable and enticing, because that’s what brings in the people with money. That can work against black people, but I’ve seen it work in favour of black people too.”
The importance of catering to the tastes of the super-rich is a recurring theme. Another promoter, who specialises in bringing clientele from Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states to London’s clubs, said it was deciphering their wishes that led to some of the most problematic decision-making in some Mayfair clubs.
“The objective of these clubs is to sell alcohol, and club-owners have built up stereotypes based on spending patterns,” he explains. “So, for example, some owners will tell you that they don’t want Asians coming in because they drink before they come out. Black people don’t drink much either. The best clients are Norwegians, because they drink a lot. So there is a kind of logic behind the way they discriminate.
“Right now, it’s ‘Gulf season’. Societies like Saudi are very restrictive, but Ramadan is especially strict, so as soon as it’s finished, wealthy young people go to the other extreme. All the luxury industries in Europe try to cater to them.” Essentially, racialised stereotypes are being cited as a business model.
One DJ who was willing to speak openly about his experiences was Edward Adoo. He did not mince his words. “Things are getting worse,” he says. “Right now, the West End is a hostile environment for black people. There is no real diversity policy in these clubs. They can do what they please. The owners are not accountable. They don’t think they adhere to any conditions or rules, and that’s why they think they can behave like that.”
Yet the serious nature and sheer volume of allegations of racial discrimination have attracted the attention of the local authorities, which are now investigating. When I put the allegations to Amy Lamé, London’s first night tsar, appointed by mayor Sadiq Khan, she said she was in touch with those involved. “We take these allegations extremely seriously and are working with Westminster council and the Metropolitan police to stamp this out.”
A spokesperson from the council, which has responsibility for licensing – powers some have suggested should now be used to sanction nightclubs who practise discrimination – explained its plans to tackle the allegations: “Racism has no place in Westminster. That is why we have this week launched a task group to look into the standards of inclusion and access to the evening and night-time economy. This will include trading standards and issues such as discounted entry and promotions. If we find evidence of any racial discrimination we will take action.”
But evidence could be hard to find. One promoter I spoke to said he could see why black clubbers claimed racism was involved, but insisted: “These clubs are based on image. The reason people come here is because of the exclusivity and glamour. If we let all of them in, it would no longer be either exclusive or glamorous. So in a way, by coming here and getting upset when they get rejected, they are victims of their own fantasy.”
Is racism, even if it can be proved, actually a symptom rather than the cause of what is really going wrong in Mayfair clubs? The clubs I visited – Drama and Scandal – are unapologetic about their intentions to be elitist and discriminatory, not on grounds on race, but desirability, beauty and wealth. Scandal, for example, describes itself as “the ultimate nightlife experience for a privileged few”.
It is hard not to feel unwelcome in a club that plays black music, in a city with a visible black community, where black people are noticeable by their absence. It was uncomfortable for my friend Lola and me, doing our best to enjoy the music amid the tables, stunts and strippers. But, when you consider what it says about our society, and how we cater to the whims of the super-rich, it really means a whole lot more.