The Charlotte metro area is inundated with LGBT nightlife offerings. With 14 different bars and clubs, nearly any person can find a fun, relaxing place to let their hair down, grab a drink and chat it up with friends. But, among those more than dozen clubs and bars, only one is owned and operated by a local black businessman. Milton Howard owns The Nickel Bar on Rozelles Ferry Rd. He and other black nightlife promoters say keeping diverse opportunities open for entertainment and fun is important, and they’re working each and every day to make it happen.
As qnotes ramps up its annual Black History Month coverage — with this feature story this issue and other pieces to follow in the next couple issues — we wanted to give the community a chance to know more about Howard and local promoters. Check out the profiles below.
Started in 2004, SugaWalls Entertainment is operated by Blaze, who grew up in Hickory and started her company in Greensboro, where she graduated from North Carolina A&T University.
SugaWalls started out simply enough, when Blaze began doing a few events for another entertainment venue in Greensboro. Those events later grew to become SugaWalls, a nightlife promotion company targeting women.
Blaze is now based in Charlotte, where SugaWalls is undergoing a bit of a transition from weekly events to events once per month.
Offering events for the black LGBT community is important, Blaze says. In Charlotte, there aren’t always opportunities for black LGBT folks to find inclusive and comfortable environments. In the Triad and Triangle, Blaze says, there were more opportunities. Blaze attributes that to the larger historically black colleges and universities there.
Having those spaces is important for young people, Blaze says.
“If you’re a single black female or male who is in their 20s or 30s and you’re trying to establish yourself in a city, as well as meet someone, it’s very hard to do that when you can’t really identify with who is in your surroundings,” Blaze says. “There definitely needs to be diversity to allow consumers to be comfortable with who they are.”
Blaze adds, “People go out so they can meet other people. If you can’t find anyone there you’re attracted to, it will cause a dilemma and, in that case, drive people away to other cities.”
Blaze says it’s been a mixture of fun and challenge in planning events. She and other promoters don’t have clubs or bars of their own. Finding space can present obstacles, but it does allow Blaze to meet a lot of people interested in creating unique entertainment events.
When looking at Charlotte, Blaze sees growth and a chance to make a difference.
“Charlotte is a melting pot,” Blaze says. “There’s lots of opportunity here.”
Sophisticated Lyfe Entertainment
Starr’s Sophisticated Lyfe Entertainment is now going into its fourth year. She started the entertainment group after moving to Charlotte in 2008 as a way to bring the nightlife and entertainment she had become accustomed to in New York City to Charlotte.
“I wanted something more professional and upscale,” says Starr, who bills Sophisticated Lyfe and herself as “the premier urban upscale LGBT inclusive event planner.”
Inclusion is important to Starr. Her events attract folks of all races and all genders, though she mostly targets women.
“I wanted something that was welcoming to all,” she says. “Something professional I could feel comfortable if I went along and could hang out and engage in conversation.”
The key to Starr’s outreach is ensuring her brand is clear and understood.
“We are not catering to an 18-plus clientele,” she says. “We are very specific. If you are above 21 and you like coming into an atmosphere that is a little bit more upscale, that’s going to have music that’s not just current but some old music as well, then this is an event you want to attend.”
Sophisticated Lyfe attracts folks from all over the region, Starr says. People come to celebrate milestone life events or birthdays. Some plan an entire weekend adventure around the events.
“The key with us is that we pay attention to detail,” she says. “If you are a VIP, you really feel like it.”
HollyJ Events Presents
Originally from South Ozone Park in Queens, N.Y., HollyJ made her way down south to Charlotte 20 years ago, where she attended Wingate University. It was in 2002 that HollyJ opened up her promotion company, HollyJ Events Presents.
“There was a need that I saw,” she says. “I wanted something that looked like what I was used to going to in New York.”
HollyJ had her own business for quite a while, but it took some “faith” she says to finally step out and do it full time. Once she did, she hasn’t looked back and she says she’s seen changes in the local nightlife and entertainment community.
“A lot of the clubs now realize that they have to perform,” she says. “Charlotte is starting to become a little New York City. You have to change with the times. I really see that now things are changing.”
HollyJ’s events are billed as “FLO,” or “For Lesbians Only.” She caters to women specifically who want to have a safe and comfortable place to relax, without having to worry about being outed at work or being harassed by men. And, she says, her events are always a fun mix of folks from different walks of life.
“It’s an eclectic party,” HollyJ says.
With each event, HollyJ says she tries to out do and better herself.
“For every event I get nervous. I’ve always had that jitter,” she says. “But, I’m always trying to out do myself each time and see what I can do better or different.”
What does she enjoy most? The people.
“It’s the excitement of seeing the women dressed and hearing the music and to watch the people dance,” she says. “I just like to see different cultures mix and intertwine and enjoy each other.”
The Nickel Bar
Milton Howard, the owner of The Nickel Bar, started his bar in February 2009. Four years later, he’s still going strong, welcoming in a diverse clientele of men, women, black, white, Latino and more in what he likes to call a friendly neighborhood bar.
The diversity of folks who stop in The Nickel Bar for drinks, fun and conversation mirror the growth of the bar’s surrounding neighborhoods, says Howard.
“You have the growth in the diversity of the Smallwood community and Wesley Heights, especially the growing gay populations in those areas,” he says. “We have a combination of black, white, Latino and Asian that come through the bar. And, I think with the younger generation, you will see a lot more diversity than you’ve ever seen before.”
Sitting on Rozelles Ferry Rd., The Nickel Bar is a stone’s throw from dozens of other neighborhoods, too, and is just among a couple other gay nightlife establishments in West Charlotte.
“Our doors are open to all people,” he says. “One of the things that I feel good about as a bar owner is when I do have customers, say, who are not black come in and they speak about how comfortable they felt. They don’t feel like they were looked at a certain way or judged. That makes me feel good as a business owner.”
It’s that diversity, openness and easy-going atmosphere that every neighborhood bar needs, Howard says, and he’s always most excited about the experience his patrons have.
“It’s a great mix,” Howard says. “We try to put all the positive energy into as we can, because customers can have a god experience in a nightlife setting. That’s very high on my priority list — customer satisfaction.”