Searching For A Kiki: The Next Generation of Black and Queer Bars

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Nenna Joiner, owner of Feelmore Adult Gallery and the upcoming Feelmore Social Club in Downtown Oakland.  (Courtesy of Nenna Joiner)

Nenna Joiner owns Feelmore, a queer-friendly sex toy shop with locations in Berkeley and Oakland. Noticing the lack of Black queer spaces beyond the monthly “RnB nights” at many local clubs, they decided to open the Feelmore Social Club in Downtown Oakland, a bar slated to open in 2022. “This energy that they feel in Feelmore is akin to the energy that they're going to feel here,” Joiner assures, “We want to be open a long time.”

In the final episode of "Searching for a Kiki", Joiner speaks about re-imagining the Black queer space, and the role of the Black queer dollar in the community.

Below are some lightly edited excerpts of the episode with Nenna Joiner. 

Corey Antonio Rose: So you came [to the Bay Area in 1994], what were you looking for when you came here?

Nenna Joiner: I was looking for people and culture. Las Vegas didn't have it at the time, but Oakland definitely had it. The stories that came out of here with rap music, with the Black Panthers, just with everything was going on, even HIV and AIDS actually… to hear their officials responding to this national crisis.

Corey Antonio: And so once you moved here and you started to discover the Bay Area nightlife… what did you find? What did you experience?

Nenna: Well, I started riding the AC transit and I went into places they told you not to go. Because in Vegas, I lived in those places that they told us not to go. And so I was like, ‘Oh, that's nothing!’… Finding the queer spaces, which were at the time Bellas and Cables Reef... You could go to San Francisco and get the the white queer crowds, or you can go to Oakland and you can get all the Black that you wanted to. It was just beautiful.

Corey Antonio: I'm hurting. I moved to the Bay in August, and I have not gotten yet to experience a Black queer-owned bar, but there is a difference.

Nenna: Mm-Hmm.

Corey Antonio: And you feel that difference. What does it feel like once you're in a space and you know that you are centered in the experience?

Nenna: I didn't have to watch my back. You know, my feelings were protected. Everyone was there to have fun, to live the next day to celebrate life. And a lot of those people in those clubs, because they were much older than me, lost a lot of people because of AIDS… so really celebrating life was key, like it was like night and day. You can go in the club, come out the club, and feel a different way.

It started to change when downtown Oakland started to change. When they started to rename the neighborhoods, when they started to bring different businesses in and you were able to call the police and say, ‘Hey, there's a commotion, end their liquor license’. Or they would have a stain against them with the city, which would ultimately lead them to fight to keep their business open, versus the stories of other businesses that didn't have to go through that same experience.

Corey Antonio (narration): Bars and lounges that held the community down for years — Club 21, Diva’s, Club BnB, Este Noche and so many others were forced to close their doors for good. Gentrification wasn’t the only thing stacked against these bars. As tech forced Black queer people away from the city, they turned to apps to find each other. This meant the bars were no longer the oases they’d once been — you don’t need to go to a bar if you can order a man online — which brings us to today. Where you’re hard pressed to find a queer bar owned by a Black person. No tea no shade, there are a few gay bars in Oakland. I can count them on one hand, but that’s not a lot of options.

Nenna: Oakland. Oakland ain’t got no gay clubs, you know what I mean? You know that queer people ain’t gonna go spend all the money. You know lesbians, as soon as we get in a relationship, we ain't going nowhere. We staying home, and that's just in the first week after we met at the club. And so you don't want to pigeonhole yourself and to say that this is a gay club because the dollars that come along with that are very few, then saying we're very accepting of everyone. But being a queer business owner, I do key in ways to encourage those that look like me: being brown and being queer.

Corey Antonio: You already had the Feelmore in Berkeley and Oakland? What made you want to open a bar during the pandemic?

Nenna: Honey, let me tell you — it was lonely selling sex toys in downtown Oakland. Not many things were open. Not anything was open. Maybe the bodega across the street, but nothing else. I can remember a couple of times that I cried outside. I wasn't crying because I didn't have customers, that wasn't the problem, I was crying because there is a culture that comes with protection when you have more than one business that's open on the street. You want to make sure that you have this shared reason to keep your door open, that you're open at the same hours. And that wasn't happening. Bars were closing and not just closing their doors for the meantime, they were closing for the long term.

And I said, I think it's time that we take this opportunity to turn it into something because someone else is going to come into that space. Why not us? And I think in a bar space, just as we've done with the sex shop, we've been very intentional and respectful in supporting people. [Because] we want to be open for a long time.

Corey Antonio: I wanted to explore the role of sobriety within the queer community. How do you see your responsibility as a bar owner?

Nenna: That's what it's about: Making sure that people don't have to go to another room to experience life. That they can experience life with everyone. It’s also about people who want to be at a bar experience without having to be forced upon, ‘Oh, why aren't you drinking?’ Like, no, I get to have the same kind of fun. You're having just less alcohol or no alcohol.

Corey Antonio: How does the experience of opening the Feelmore Social club compare to when you started your first business?

Nenna: I started at the Ashby Bart station, selling out the trunk of my car on the street corners. I wanted to start this business. And I was going to use the rap music I listened to when I first started learning about Oakland to infuse in me that you can start this out in the trunk of your car. Like, look at all these rappers like E-40. I've never met him. But he started out the trunk of his car in Vallejo. Now look at him. We can do this with the little bit of what we have.

When I first started Feelmore, I started with my own money. I would call all these places and look for someone to rent to me. I got about 50 no’s, and a woman picked up the phone one day, she was like, ‘Don't you know who I am?’ ‘I don't know who you are. Like you a white lady.’ And she says, ‘Well, I'm Joani Blank. I actually started good vibrations.’ And so she and I became friends. That was somebody who said, “I'll invest in you.” She invested in Feelmore.

Getting money is not easy. Not on your first business. Especially if you’re brown and queer. What does that mean? Do you get met with that every day? No, you don't get met with that challenge. But the historical nature of it is that people will look at you as “not bankable.” [You’re fighting the stereotypes of] what kind of business can brown people do? They can do hair. They can clean up somebody's home. You have to be very adamant about what you want to do — you're going to have to show that you've done it in your own life with little bit of money. I won't say my bank's name, but I've had to like, lay in and be like, ‘Look, I feel that you're not respecting me. You're not taking me seriously’ like having to go to history lessons with banks like? I've had to do that because I'm fighting. I'm fighting against knowing that you just gave a million dollars to someone else, knowing that you just showed up at the planning commission to support another client. But you can't even show up for me, and I've been with you for over 13 years. And reminding them.

But also what has been in my favor is the same people who were at the bank when I started, are the same people who are at the bank now. Those relationships really matter. So I tell any entrepreneur out there, do not go big, don't go to Wells Fargo. Don't go to Chase — unless you don't SBA loan — go to small businesses, small banks who have been there and also find out how long their people have been there. It's people who actually push that pen and push that paper and get you to the finish line.

Corey Antonio: Where do you draw your inspiration from and how do you make sure that history is not lost as you move forward?

Nenna: What I'm giving is making sure that my nieces and nephews who couldn't come in the store for 13 years, get an opportunity to be a part of my business. But also, when I die, because we all die, when I die, they can go to the internet and click a button and they’re going to see my name everywhere on there. And when I have talks like this, they’re documented. That's a way for those in the future to know that I did my work. I did. I understood the assignment. You know what I'm saying?

Corey Antonio: You understood the assignment.

Rightnowish is an arts and culture podcast produced at KQED. Listen to it wherever you get your podcasts or click the play button at the top of this page and subscribe to the show on NPR One, Spotify, Apple Podcasts, TuneIn, Stitcher or wherever you get your podcasts.