When I started in Coffee, I knew that I wanted to create the world that the baby Black Coffee nerd in me always wanted. I knew I wanted to start a coffee shop in the hood to help address the way that coffee shops can create and perpetuate interpretation. I knew that I wanted to hire my students at the time I was an English teacher in America’s first black built neighborhood, Orange mound. I knew that I wanted to give folks who were formerly incarcerated an opportunity to engage in a legal drug trade. I knew that I wanted to source coffee from people of African descent, particularly from places where coffee was discovered like Ethiopia and Sudan, and even other places in the motherland where species outside of arabica grow in the wild. At the time I had very little formal training and supply chain analysis, or understanding the complexities of engaging with hundreds of euro companies who have been trading coffee on the backs of black and brown folks for centuries. All I knew was I could rap, I had an ability to educate people about things they thought they didn’t care about, until they did, and I was passionate about trying to create a space for black kids like me who really love coffee.
Within the first few months of starting our company we had received a good amount of buzz from local press, and some attention to support from other black and brown folks within the coffee industry at large. I was being quoted by a unnamed coffee importer that I would later realize hair ties to some of the original Dutch coffee, importers who initiated the slave trade in Indonesia for coffee, and share the business strategy with the rest of the colonizing cartel in Europe.
As I was entering coffee an older, more experienced, coffee professional of Latino descent reached out to me and asked me if I was interested in being mentored. I wasn’t really sure what to think, but I knew that there was a lot that I didn’t know and I knew that I was excited about learning more from someone else, who had experienced what it was like to be a minority, especially coffee. That person was Martin Mayorga of Mayorga Coffee, and he went on to educate me about a lot of the very honestly scary realities behind many of the businesses in specialty coffee that we know and love today.
That conversation pushed me on a journey to eventually go to Africa, shoot a now award winning documentary and build an all African supply chain for a signature roast Guji Mane,, starting in the Guji Zone of Ethiopia, particularly the town of Uraga. That’s a story for another day, but I bring this up because I would think that this Methodology is all too common within the story of mini Melanated coffee professionals, and I hope that this provides an example of how this conversation can go in the future.
There is a world where Martin could have made a public racing video and bash me for all the things that I didn’t know about the intricacies of colonialism and the coffee trade. Instead he treated me like family. This isn’t to say that family doesn’t disagree or have time for interventions and teachable moments. But this is to say that the intent, for that is always to give the person the resources they need to succeed, even when they don’t know they need those resources. He treated me like a cousin. He didn’t put me blast in front of the homies. But rather waited till the ride home or the next family gathering, pulled me to side, and dropped some game on me for my consideration. And that I think is a motto for how education and accountability can look as we move forward with more and more black celebrities, answering into the coffee industry. Because let’s be honest, these folks don’t have to sell coffee. There’s millions of tequila brands yet to be built and cannabis companies, yet to be started, clothing brands yet to be launched, and the sneaker collaboration is yet to be dropped. The fact that people of colonial descent are considering coffee, I think, is kind of astounding.
The fact that black celebrities are considering entering into the industry that has been so white for so long and using their influence to increase consumption by within their demographics, ones is made up of a significant number of people from coffee producing countries and communities, while potentially also bringing light to a lot of the colonial realities that people are facing I think that’s important. I think that that should be supported. And I think that black artists in particular come from a long tradition of revolutionary ethic that brings with it certain presuppositions, such as sovereignty, reparations, and anti colonial self determination, that are much more difficult to find in entities that emerge from the coffee sector alone. That love ethic, when connected with the struggles of farmers in an informed and equitable manner, has the potential to bring an economic model to bear that we have never honestly seen at scale. I also think it’s very hard to receive correction from strangers on the internet, however well intended they may be, and its very easy for accountability and hating to sound strangely alike in a virtual echo chamber. I ALSO think that capitalism is very, very dubious, and balancing the tension of for profit business and revolutionary theory is extremely difficult to do well, I mean, just consider Tupac.
Speaking from experience there are so many ways to do specialty coffee wrong, and when I started my brand. I wish I knew that, I wish I knew that there were so many shady things under the coffee counter if you will. I wish I knew how important it was to make real meaningful relationships with producers. I wish I knew there were workers in african coffee farms who had seen Asian, European, and white American buys walk on their farms to buy coffee hundreds of times, but another black person coming to dj the same would bring tears to both of our eyes. I wish I knew that starting a “not a coffee shop” in my hood, an anti gentrification cxffee club, wouldn’t be the burden I thought it would. I wish I knew we didn’t have to accept the commuter model for cafes that centered the comfort of soccer moms and hipsters over that of my neighbor who had a bad night coming home from the blues club on Summer Ave.
I wish knew that WE bring the ideas, and that the ideas are the real differentiators. I wish I knew that we would touch hundreds of lives in our community over the years. I wish I knew that the status quo, in any industry, is generally anti black, and to ask questions when I walked into rooms and didn’t see folks looked my me, especially when those rooms claimed to for the good of folks who resembled my fathers father and his father before him, whose hands bear the same callouses born from a life lived harvesting the fruit of the soil. I wish I knew that was a better world for us out there, and that coffee, reimagined from our own notes, could be a key chord in its composition. At the end of the day, I’m not sure what the future holds, and I am definitly not the arbiter of what “right” looks like for this emergin world of black and brown folks in the west seeking to reclaim a connection to a seed so steeped in suffering. What I do know is that I’ve found a lot of ways to do this thing wrong, and that if we, collectively, can put our heads together, we have a better chance of dialing in the notes we deserve that we do alone. If we brew better, we all, collectively, will probably do better.