Cxffeeblack Is Redefining The Coffee Industry One Bean At a Time
Photo by Erin Kim
Over the past few decades, coffee has elevated from a simple cup of joe to a $430 billion dollar industry. But what comes with that impressively high statistic is the exclusivity of coffee knowledge, whitewashing and the stripping away of longtime traditions that derived from Black and Brown farmers. Now, Cxffeeblack is here to completely dismantle that concept.
The Memphis, Tenn.-based company (which also has the Anti-Gentrification Coffee Club shop) was founded in 2019 by Bartholomew Jones and Renata Henderson (the city's first Black woman roaster and Jones’ wife). Its mission is to provide resources to not only educate their local community about the historic coffee rituals they learned about from countries like Ethiopia and Ghana, but to reclaim an industry that is rooted in colonialism and slavery. And they provide superb brews as well, including the earthy Guji Mane that was "grown by Black farmers in the town of Uraga in the Guji Zone of Oromia in Ethiopia" and the fruity Uwacu (translating to "our own" in the Rwandan dialect of Kinyarwandan).
Below, Jones discusses what needs to be done to make a more equitable coffee industry.
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This concept originally started in 2019, right?
It started out as kind of online thing we were doing; covering different Black baristas, teaching people recipes, making beats and making a pour-over and then it turned into a coffee concept. We did a concert—all of it started with music. The coffee originally was merch for the music. If you come to the concert, you get a free bag of coffee. We were only doing 50 bags inspired by streetwear. It was limited, and people started treating it like we were a coffee brand.
You were like, “Oh wait, I gotta take this seriously though.”
I was still teaching and we had just helped to start a performing arts school that closed shortly thereafter. It was a very interesting thread of events. I released the album CxffeeBlack and I [just released] a new EP. So originally, we had that coffee bag concept that started growing then the school closed and the pandemic hit. Then I dropped the album on our website which was like our biggest month so far. After the sales of the album, we got nominated for a spread.
Basically, they pick the 20 most influential policy folks on the planet. They do it every year. This is the equivalent of being on the freshman list on XXL, but for coffee. We had a platform and I had noticed all these people performatively speaking about George Floyd. One of my homies, who I do music with posted a post saying, ‘Love Black people like you love our culture.”
The coffee space is very performative. A lot of people's marketing strategy is “I pay a lot of money for my coffee because I'll do good stuff with it”. There's a lot of dissonance. People don't acknowledge the historically Black reality of coffee. Whether it's being coffee beans, café Arabica specifically, being discovered in Ethiopia and that being the bean that was stolen from the port of Mocha to build the industry as it is or whether all the rest there's over 120 other species of coffee that are indigenous to Africa. Whether we're talking about Robusta or Coffea canephora, which is being found in Central and West Africa now.
The most recent reality is the slave trade and the workforce catalyst behind the coffee expansion in the new world. Whether we're talking about Haiti, Cuba, or Brazil. Black people are being pushed out of cafes. The gentrification that Black and Brown folks are experiencing is another round of trauma from this thing that originally was a beautiful ritualistic medicine in our communities in Ethiopia [that turned] traumatic. Me being a rapper, I'm going to flip the “Love Black music and love Black culture” and I'm going to say, “Love Black people like you love Black coffee.” All these shops you go into, there’s these pictures—
Like the white picket fence, white family. We're not part of that.
The people who come from the same places that you claim to love coffee from, if they come into your shop, would you love them too? I mean it. If the children of these farmers came in wearing [air] forces, wearing some J’s with a tall tee on, would you love those people too? The reality of the answer has been no. Just the fact that a lot of these shops don't even take cash. It's like, you in the middle of the hood and you don't take cash? Say you don't like Black people without saying you don’t like Black people. So I put up a post that said, “Love Black people like you love Black coffee” and it went viral. It wasn't a product; it was just a statement. It was the day before my wife and I's anniversary. I just threw it up at night while we were at the Airbnb and I woke up to [comments like], “Yo can I get a print?” and then it snowballed into our shirts being in almost every specialty cafe. People would order their shirts for their entire staff.
I have one. When I was in Memphis I got some for my friends who also wanted them.
That's crazy. We were like “Wow, this just kind of put us in a different space” and then came all the interviews and the podcasts. Eventually, people started asking us if we would ever open a café and I said no. For context, my wife and I bought a house in the hood as soon as we got married. When I proposed, it was on parent-teacher night. Her female students that she was mentoring and had stayed behind to help her grade were like, “What is he doing?” They had never seen anyone propose before. It led to a whole conversation about commitment, building a family together and trying to build generational wealth. Whatever we are doing as a family, we knew God had something special for us and we want to do it next to our people.
I knew that if we ever did open a café in our neighborhood, I was worried that it would contribute to the gentrification. One of my neighbors works for the neighborhood community developers and he was like, “Look man, just do something.”’ But if I do it, it's going to be an anti-gentrification coffee club, not even a coffee shop. It's a place for people to kick it. We created this really different experience and that led to a writer [reaching out] for an HBO Max show.
I want to talk about the uses of the X in the name. Of course, that stems all the way back from slavery and wanting to rid oneself of their slave name and reclaim a new identity. I feel like a lot of people may not catch that in the name.
For sure, and that was a big conversation when we were in Rwanda. Especially when we shot the documentary. Talking about what the X is for led to a really powerful conversation with a lady there who was one of their national Q graders. A Q grader is essentially a coffee version of a sommelier. This lady cups a lot. Cupping is basically assigning points from zero to 1 based on different flavor characteristics, moisture levels, acidity and all those things. She comes to the screening and asks, “What's the X for?” We explained to her the tradition of Malcolm X. The tradition of trying to put this as a placeholder until you find a connection that's meaningful, one that connects with you. For Malcolm X, that ended up being the name Shabazz. For us, we're still searching but coffee is a seed from the Motherland and is an opportunity to reconnect to the soil and the land, to regrow an identity. Mathematically, the X represents a variable. Especially with coffee, the variable is everything. Whether you're talking about particle size, water temperature, seed density, agitation timing, contact with water between the coffee, or mineral composition, there's so many variables.
It could all change.
For every recipe, you can change X and it has a different effect on the coffee. We're talking about the processing of the coffee, how coffee from each region within each country is different, and how all the things that go into the growing effect the difference in the cut. When my wife Renata and I came into specialty coffee, we noticed that those things would be weaponized to gatekeep people out because you weren't aware of the variables right or you didn't utilize them correctly.
Photo by Erin Kim
I didn't know about that until our group came into the shop; I had no idea that all these minute details would affect the outcome of the coffee.
We feel like those are things to celebrate, I think that's a part of my own experience with Blackness. Growing up, I felt like there was this monolithic Blackness that I felt you had to conform to in order to be Black. As I got older, especially as I went to college, I started realizing there's such a diverse experience of Blackness and that is what makes us beautiful. We have all these different notes that we all bring to the table and the world is richer for that.
The world palate is richer for that. When those things are ignored and we have to conform to this monolithic expression, the world is poorer for that and then people are missing out on what we all uniquely bring to the table. Coffee has the potential to be this amazing experience for Black folks in the diaspora and that potential has yet to be realized. The narrative and the conversation around coffee have been centered on whiteness. This is theft and White cultural innovation, whether we’re talking about the creation of the espresso machine, or most recently, this focus on Scandinavian-style roasting in very minimalistic cafes.
There's a lot of cafes right that are bringing this very Norwegian style of roasting, and that's dope. But oftentimes, the African roots are ignored. It also denies the opportunity to create something new. What new could we do if we had a chance to create our own perspectives and not just palette swap a Black perspective on Starbucks? I really get in touch with what I call sampling. To get in touch with samples of our roots and really create our own articulations. What does this look like going back to the X with different variables? What does it look like from an African-American perspective? What does this look like from an Afro-Cuban perspective? What does this look like from an Afro-Colombian perspective? We just saw Black Panther 2.
I watched it on opening night. What did you think?
I think that final scene to me was such a fitting 'cause my whole thing is seeds and regrowing the future and regrowing the lost connection. The last scene…this is Prince T’Challas son and there’s this whole idea of looking backward. Our company was heavily inspired by Black Panther and this idea of coffee being real-world vibranium and redistributing it to the diaspora. At that time we released a shirt that said, “Coffee Black like Wakanda” to center that conversation. Most recently, we did a song called “T’Challas Song” and there's this beautiful image of T’Challa sitting on a throne in the ancestral plane holding a cup of coffee that says, “Make coffee Black again”.
What else do you think should be done to really knock down these gentrification walls?
People ask me that question and I think one of the best answers I have is inspired by one of my Latino brothers in Chicago. He has a company called Dark Matter and he was talking about a relationship they have with a farmer in Guatemala, a very wealthy family down there. The farmer asked him, “What do you think the future of our business relationship is going to be?” [He responded], “I really hope that our children do business together in the future.” It wasn’t even about that year’s harvest, it's about what happens for our generations and especially in Black Panther with the root being an opportunity for collaboration between Black and indigenous folks globally. Will we be pitted against each other or will we collaborate?
What I hope the future looks like is my children spending summers in Addis Ababa or in Brazil with farmers that we partner with. Their children spending summers at the Coffee Club and the roastery and just us spending time doing business together. Maybe they decide to stay in coffee. Maybe they don't. But I think that the profit generated from these industries is distributed among our communities and our children can have a different type of business relationships across the world and across the globe. This is something that we as Black Americans at least have tried to do a lot. Whether you talk about Malcolm's movement or the Black Panthers, whenever we've made these attempts to make these connections, there are very clear examples of government interference.
I don't know how successful this dream will be, but I do hope that we could see our folks doing business together, buying homes in each other spaces, and using our resources. Because at the end of the day, we have everything we need. When I say we, I mean melanated people. Land, climate, raw materials, the creative aesthetic needed to be able to market things, the music that you put behind the marketing and the fashion. We create all those things and so why not use these things to help each other and to help ourselves versus selling these things off to these large corporations just to promote their business and make a quick buck?
I love how this is all mirroring Black Panther too.
It's crazy 'cause I was thinking about the opening scene with them desiring the vibranium and they could have sold it for a quick buck, but they held it. Because one, they believe you're not gonna use this correctly and then two, the money we can make developing ourselves is greater. For us, there has always been this connection between music and political strategy, the art and creativity of an imaginary world. That's why we say coffee is Afrofuturism in a lot of ways. Particularly, Black coffee. What we bring to the conversation is so unique. The ability to draw from our past, but also be inspired by our present and create a better future. A dude in Rwanda messaged me saying, “Yo bro, can you mentor me?” Now we’re talking about book recommendations. One of the things I’m putting out there and I feel like spiritually, God is telling me to go to Ghana in January.
Vic Mensa and Chance The Rapper’s festival right?
I'm hearing the conversation they're having and I'm like Coffee should be a part of this. We've reached out to West African coffee farmers that are out there. They're down for us to visit now. We gotta go fundraise again.
You talking about it with me will hopefully get more eyes on it.
People in South Africa reached out and they’ve seen what we’ve been doing. There's this dude with this company called Moses Coffee, which is so interesting. He only sells African-roasted coffee. He's in South Africa and he's like “You’ve got to come back to South Africa, we have to talk. Guji Mane is such a dope idea.” And our friends in Rwanda, Kevin Bhundu and Samaya…Samaya is the 2018 East African World Aeropress champ, which is a barista competition and then Kevin is the owner of like our favorite cafe on the continent which is called Kibo Newark Cafe. We’re actually working on a potential collaboration.
We have two collaborations coming up, one is with Onyx Coffee and we're working on sourcing coffee from them. It's important for me to source from our businesses on the continent and not just from importers in Jersey. It's not a critique by any means, but I think there's so much potential for these revolutionary partnerships where we're visiting each other's homes, and our children are growing up together and we're doing radical profit-sharing models with each other. I don't want this to come across as shade or anything more, so this is just my hope as a person who's in this space too. I've seen the potential for my own personal, spiritual, economic and emotional transformation. One of the songs on the new project is called “Aba Jifar”. That was the name that was given to me in Ethiopia after the King who was famous for preserving the economic sovereignty around coffee in that community. Apparently, he was super tall, and he had a 10-foot bed. We visited the vestiges of his palace in Oromia when we were there with our friends. You go to a warehouse in Jersey, nobody giving you a name, nobody is saying bring your children.
Photo courtesy of CxffeeBlack
It’s more contractual.
I think there's also the danger of perpetuating a lot of the same economic systems that put us in place in the first place, and as African Americans, we're dealing with how these systems transform. Most recently in Tennessee, we made slavery illegal in prisons with the 13th amendment. We've seen how insidious these things are and for a lot of our brothers and sisters on the continent, their systems haven't even transformed yet. That's just straight-up colonial predatory systems. Their crop was coffee, our ancestors' crop was cotton, but it's the same system. Everywhere we went, we were the first Black people to visit. They said, “Everybody who comes here is European. We’ve had Asians coming this the farm. We never had African Americans.”
You would think that they have such a wealth of resources that more of us will be going out there. My family is Jamaican, so I grew up with Jamaican coffee and Afro-Latino or Caribbean communities, there's so much visibility that needs to be shared throughout the whole diaspora.
And it's crazy because coffee in the Caribbean is the first place where African bodies are reintroduced to coffee after it's stolen. Coffee is stolen by the Dutch [during] the East Indian trading code. That's why we call coffee Java. It's 'cause the island of Java, the indigenous people who were enslaved there, were forced to grow coffee. After slavery was made illegal, the Dutch had given coffee as a gift to the Emperor of France when they came to Haiti. You see slavery being centered on where coffee production leads. At one point, Indonesia was the leading producer of coffee in the world. Why? Because slaves were producing the labor which made it more profitable. Jamaica’s coffee is so well renowned. Coffee is a $460 billion industry, but our people are not receiving that money. I think the President of Uganda said less than one percent goes to African countries. If you include Caribbean and Afro-Latino countries, I don't think the percentage gets bigger.
Which is really unfortunate.
I think it’s an opportunity to imagine a new economic system where we're selling coffee to each other and creating collateral. The point of the all-Black supply chain is not to exclude anybody. That idea was actually inspired by one of my Latino mentors. They were doing an all-Latino supply chain for 15 years and I didn't know you could do that. They intentionally censor the people we buy coffee from and trade coffee with, the communities that we want to support. I was like, “Wow. This is the model to create this difference in the future.”
We’re really inspired and hopeful about the future. It's going to include our music, fashion, style, ideas, and our legacy all into a coffee experience that's not just limited to the cafe, but that stretches to ancestral connections and maternal connections between Black women and their descendants. One that is rooted in Black sovereignty for community or color in collaboration between communities. I think in the end, they create a future for our children, and my wife says this a lot, where they as people can be treated with the same care that we see these cafes treat white folks' dogs.
Oh, that is a bar.
People literally dig holes in the ground and install architecture to make sure that their dog has a place. We would hope that our children would at least get the same consideration.