Hip-Hop for Change Boycotts Continental Club Over Alleged Discrimination

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West Oakland's Continental Club, originally established as a blues venue in 1961, reopened in January 2022 under new ownership. Local nonprofit Hip-Hop for Change and other event organizers are calling for a boycott and accusing the new owner of discrimination. Owner Ron Frydberg denies the claims.  (Nastia Voynovskaya)

Speaking out against racism isn’t controversial in Oakland, a city known nationwide for its activism. At least that's what Eric Sasz of Hip-Hop For Change assumed when his nonprofit rented the Continental Club for its free, all ages Women’s Empowerment Summit on March 12.

Originally opened in 1961, the Continental Club hosted blues and R&B artists for decades as part of West Oakland’s once-thriving circuit of Black nightclubs. The club reopened in its current form in January, and features a Black Panther Party-themed mural on its rooftop in homage to its history. That’s why Sasz was taken aback when Ron Frydberg, the owner of the venue, asked him to take down T-shirts with the slogan “End White Supremacy” from his merch table, Sasz said.

“I was like, ‘There’s no way.’ I think this is our best-selling T-shirt,” recalled Sasz, who serves as Hip-Hop for Change’s event director. “This is what we do as an organization: fight racism and do social justice work.”

After Sasz pushed back, he said, Frydberg backed down. But the T-shirt incident was the first in a series of discriminatory behaviors Sasz said he and his staff witnessed during the Hip-Hop for Change event.

Now, Hip-Hop For Change and other event organizers in Oakland are accusing Frydberg of racism, homophobia and sexism, and calling for a boycott of the Continental Club.

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“He’s contributing to the problem in Oakland right now, which is coming into historically Black places and colonizing them,” Sasz said.

Meanwhile, Frydberg denied several of the allegations. “It’s unfortunate that they had such a negative feeling towards us after doing everything we were supposed to do to host their event,” he said.

Accusations Over the ‘F’-Word

Another Hip-Hop for Change staffer, who spoke to KQED under the condition of anonymity out of fear of retaliation, was working the Women’s Empowerment Summit when a colleague came to her in tears after a conversation with Frydberg.

“She just came up to me and she’s like, ‘He just called me the ‘f’-word,’” said the Hip-Hop for Change staffer, referring to the homophobic slur. “And she is a transgender Black woman. And I was like, ‘Wait, what? Like, he did what?’ And [Ron] was very defensive about it.”

As the Hip-Hop for Change staffer put it, after being called the slur, the transgender woman became increasingly upset, had too much to drink and had to go home in an Uber. “When we were leaving, Ron’s security team kept calling her ‘him’ and kept saying, ‘Oh, the gay boy over there’ and stuff like that,’” the staffer said.

Sasz discussed the situation with his staff, including the person who was allegedly called the slur. Afterwards, Sasz confronted Frydberg, who denied using that language.

When reached by KQED, Frydberg denied ever using the slur, and accused Sasz of changing his story. “What he told me is that he heard that somebody in my staff said that, not me specifically,” he said. “In fact, what had happened was I was coming to talk to him about a situation about his staff being drunk and belligerent, and harassing my security guards. … He couldn’t tell me who it was [that used the slur]. I talked to all of my staff. It became a big issue that night.”

“We go above and beyond to make sure that everybody is well respected while they're at the club,” Frydberg added.

Sasz denies that he changed his story.

‘Guilty of Being White’

Tensions escalated as the Women’s Empowerment Summit continued. According to Sasz and several other witnesses, Frydberg and his security repeatedly asked one of Hip-Hop for Change’s artists, a new mother with two infants, to move from a booth Frydberg wanted to reserve for bottle service. The table hadn’t been sold, and neither had several others in the section that afternoon. (The artist, Gina Madrid, said she sat at the booth to move her babies away from the club’s speakers.) Sasz also said that at the end of the event, Frydberg raised his voice and threatened to throw Hip-Hop for Change’s chairs into the street if they didn’t get them out that night.

“He’s seeing the demographic of the crowd, I think, that we’re bringing in,” recalled Sasz, noting that most attendees of the Hip-Hop for Change event were Black and brown, while Frydberg is white. “And I think that’s where we started to feel racist behavior.”

Speaking to KQED, Frydberg denied asking Madrid to move, but also asserted his right to maintain a service offered at his club. He denied getting aggressive about the chairs, and said that he asked politely for Hip-Hop for Change to remove them.

At first, Frydberg declined to answer questions about the “End White Supremacy” T-shirts. Shortly after Hip-Hop for Change posted their call for a boycott of Continental Club on Instagram on May 5, the club’s account commented that Hip-Hop for Change is now “bashing us because they didn’t like someone who’s only guilty of being white.”

A speaker panel at Hip-Hop for Change's Women's Empowerment Summit at Continental Club on March 12, 2022. (Jane Vick)

But in a follow-up conversation, Frydberg’s tone changed from defensive to apologetic, and he clarified that he agrees with the “End White Supremacy” message. He only wanted the T-shirts taken down from the raised display, he said, out of fear of making the club a target for angry white supremacists. (Sasz said he understood Frydberg to be asking him to not sell the T-shirt at all.)

“I can understand how it might have been misconstrued as supporting white supremacy, but like, I'm Jewish,” Frydberg said, adding, “I clearly understand that I made the wrong decision. And it was hurtful in the moment, but it was not in any way with any intention to not support the cause.”

He described Hip-Hop for Change’s boycott on Instagram as “a piling-on campaign of white supremacy and racism, when that’s not the truth.”

The Former Bar Manager Speaks Out

Dennise Acio, the former Continental Club bar manager, said Hip-Hop for Change’s Women’s Empowerment Summit wasn’t the first time people felt unsafe or uncomfortable at the venue because of Frydberg.

According to Acio, Frydberg regularly made sexualized comments about female staff members. “He has said many times that he wants to hire bartenders that are sexy, and [he would] point certain people out. ‘Oh, like her,’” Acio said. “I had this one guy I hired. He’s great, he’s dependable. He’s always there and doing a good job. And yet [Ron] even pointed him out like, ‘Not like him.’”

When asked whether he had ever made comments sexualizing employees, Frydberg changed the subject and said Acio was the one who was in charge of hiring. (Acio said all hiring decisions had to go through Frydberg.) Frydberg said that his staff represents the community, and includes many queer women of color. “We’re committed to having a diverse staff that represents our community in all shapes and forms and sizes, and so on and so forth,” he said.

He was “using us as a face,” Acio said. “But really what he represented wasn’t the community at all.”

The exterior of the Continental Club. (Nastia Voynovskaya)

‘These are Dog-Whistle Words’

In January, Acio pitched Frydberg on the Continental Club hosting The Sweet Spot, a new party she’d created in collaboration with her partner, DJ and promoter Lady Ryan. Lady Ryan said that Frydberg’s former booking manager, Mark Sandstorm, relayed a flat-rate offer of $400, which she considered insultingly low. (“I’ve never seen a situation where a venue offers a promoter $400 to bring in their entire community,” Lady Ryan said, noting that the Continental Club is in a residential area without much foot traffic.)

After negotiations, the two agreed that Lady Ryan and Acio would keep the door proceeds, and the venue would keep bar sales. The first Sweet Spot party on March 6 was a success. Despite the tensions with Frydberg, Acio and Lady Ryan decided to throw another one on April 3.

After the second party ended, one of the bartenders poured the staff a round of after-shift drinks, a common practice in the bar industry. In a follow-up conversation, Frydberg told Acio that the drinks constituted stealing, and demanded she pay him back. Frydberg said he had a strict rule against shift drinks; Acio and Sandstorm, the former booking manager, said there was no clear, consistent policy at the time. “He picked and chose what it was,” Acio said.

“He was making comments like, for our community to claim that they’re so woke and … that they support one another, ‘And here you guys are stealing from me,’” Acio said. “I’m like, ‘We weren’t stealing from you.’ We worked our asses off and we had a couple of drinks after work.”

“Using the word ‘thieves,’ using the word ‘woke.’ You know, these are kind of like dog-whistle words,” Lady Ryan said.

“To my understanding, the staff—Dennise included, Lady Ryan—decided to throw themselves a party after the event,” Frydberg said. “I felt very disrespected as, you know, as a business, that the bar manager is allowing people to effectively steal from the company,” he added.

Acio said there was no afterparty: the staff was still closing the club down and counting tips when the shots were poured.

“I reprimanded her, and that's when the attacks started happening with Dennise and Lady Ryan,” said Frydberg, referring to Acio and Lady Ryan’s Instagram story posts detailing their complaints about the club.

The crowd at The Sweet Spot party at Continental Club on April 3. (Courtesy of The Sweet Spot and Stephen Flynn Photography)

‘That’s Our Labor’

Acio and Frydberg’s working relationship deteriorated, and she quit at the end of April. But even afterward, the Continental Club’s Instagram posted photos from The Sweet Spot to advertise their rooftop bar. “That’s our vibe, that’s our energy, that’s our labor that we put into that. And they’re capitalizing off of it,” Ryan said.

After KQED interviewed Sasz and Frydberg about the allegations last week, Sasz got a call from DJ Sam Mack, the grandson of Curtis Christy, who co-founded the original Continental Club—first as a restaurant in 1947 and then as an expanded nightclub in 1961. Sasz said that Mack told him he’d “see [him] in the streets” if he continued to speak out about the Continental Club, which Sasz took as a threat. Sasz showed KQED screenshots of text messages from Mack telling him to “shut the fuck up about white supremacy.”

Reached by KQED, Mack denied saying he would “see [Sasz] in the streets,” and insisted he had called to invite Sasz to a restorative justice circle to resolve the conflict. “If he took that as violence, then that’s [on] him,” said Mack.

Sasz said that despite the perceived threat, Hip-Hop for Change is proceeding with the boycott. “Really we’re just trying to educate our community so folks don’t have the same experience we had,” he said, characterizing the night as “probably the worst venue experience I’ve ever had.”

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Frydberg, meanwhile, said he wants to make amends and is open to meeting with Hip-Hop for Change on their terms. On May 10, he posted an apology on Instagram. “I understand that they’re hurt. And however we can rectify this, we are willing to make any commitment,” said Frydberg. “Like, if they want me to take a diversity training, I’m happy to do that. I mean, there’s nothing I won’t do to rectify this.”