Bartholomew Jones: reclaiming black coffee history

The founder of Memphis-based Cxffeeblack is on a mission to highlight the lack of racial diversity in the coffee industry through music, education and cups of joe.
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Rapper and activist Bartholomew Jones clearly recalls the night that Cxffeeblack was conceived. It was at a Memphis recording studio where the self-proclaimed coffee nerd and his friends were mixing music with pour-overs. ‘There was this cool vibe – we had guitars and trap drums, my wife and kids were there, we'd created this very black experience – but then we ran out of coffee.’ Heading to the local coffee shop was a vibe killer. ‘It was very hipster, very posh and the feng shui was off,’ he says, laughing. ‘And it was like: why can't we have a coffee shop that matches our experience? One where I don't feel like an outsider or have to leave my culture at the door?’

Addressing this lack of diversity in the coffee scene, Bartholomew launched Cxffeeblack in 2018 as an umbrella brand offering everything that the caffeine-loving hip-hop enthusiast could desire, spanning a coffee label, Guji Mane; apparel including hoodies and tees; a podcast; and, of course, music. Right from the start, the threads of hip-hop and coffee were always interwoven, with Bartholomew rapping about brews and selling bags of coffee at gigs. ‘People kept asking us for a second drop,’ he says. ‘We ended up selling 50lb [23kg] of coffee in 10 days – and 90% of it was bought by young, black creatives.’ 

He has since neatly packaged up this concept with the Brew Culture Subscription Box, offering first dibs on exclusive coffee and music content to those who sign up. He's even launched a physical coffee pop-up, catering to like-minded folks in his neighborhood. ‘It's like a communal living room but we just happen to be making really dope Ethiopian or Afro-Colombian coffee. And every Friday there's some loud Memphis dudes rapping on the corner.’

While Cxffeeblack has certainly struck a chord commercially, often selling out online, it has always been about something bigger than shifting beans. For Bartholomew, it's also about connecting to his history, ‘as an African-American disconnected from his ethnic last name and tribal identity’. As an educator, he also sees Cxffeeblack as a means of doing some good in the community. ‘We think about it like a social enterprise,’ he says. ‘Both coffee and hip-hop can bring communities through some really difficult times and also offer an income for people to rise up out of oppression. It was never about: what will people buy? It was more about: what do people need?’

It's this distinction that helps Bartholomew to promote Cxffeeblack with integrity. ‘It's about looking inside yourself to figure out your purpose and then creating a product that serves it,’ he says. ‘If you're feeling good about what you're doing, you're able to market it without feeling greasy. And then people will connect to your story.’

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given Bartholomew's schedule, self-care has been a stumbling block. ‘I had this martyr-syndrome mentality, working 80 hours a week and not paying myself.’ His background in faith work and not-for-profits led to a dilemma. ‘Once I had profit, I didn't know what to do with it,’ he says. ‘I had to figure out how to hire help and manage income. But I talked to my therapist and he was like, “Bro, why haven't you paid yourself?” He told me that I couldn't look after others if I wasn't well. That was a big lesson.’ 

Today, Cxffeeblack is getting attention as a player in the fourth-wave coffee movement, which focuses on socially conscious production. But Bartholomew isn't hung up on labels. ‘If people put us in the fourth wave that's cool, but the moment it stops being conducive to sharing coffee with our hood, I'm not interested. I don't care about waves, just so long as no one drowns.’

This article was first published in Courier's 100 Ways to Make a Living. To purchase a copy or become a subscriber, head to our webshop.

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