It’s Saturday night in Orange Mound.
Cars pull into the parking lot at the corner of Park Avenue and Pendleton Street where Club Memphis sits, painted orange on both sides. Three lights cast angled shadows on the mural on the front of the building. The first light brightens the silhouette of a painted afro’d woman, the second highlights the name “Club Memphis,” and the third illuminates a pharaoh with eyes fixed as cars pass by.
Club patrons dance and vogue as part of a Kiki Ball at Club Memphis.
On the last day of September, people attend the annual All Shade Kiki Ball hosted by The Headliners, a collaborative of community-based organizations, health care providers, and community stakeholders focused on raising awareness of health disparities in the black LGBTQ community.
A Kiki Ball is a social gathering and competition combining dancing, modeling, performing and other creative outlets in a safe space for members of the LGBTQ community. The recent competition included titles for best-of face, vogue, sex siren, realness and overall.
Men and women open the doors to reveal a 3,840 square-foot-place bathed in blue tinted light. In the center is a disco ball and glittering paper stars hanging from the stage.
Malcolm Smith, a party attendee and semi-regular to Club Memphis, began to dance with four of his friends at a table. One man stood twisting and turning, twerking, jumping and voguing and ended by pointing to the person beside him.
The next person responded with their own dance and made it more elaborate, adding an extra step or flourish. The moves got bigger and the group had to move to the dance floor.
But the party on September 30 was not all about sequins and serving moves. The club also hosted free HIV testing.
Club patrons lounge near Club Memphis dance floor awaiting vogue dance competition. Voguing is a dance style where performers imitate fashion model poses normally seen on runways.
Smith, 25, said he has attended events at Club Memphis with friends before, but he is not from Orange Mound, rather South Memphis, which is closer to Downtown.
He said the best part of the club is the vibe and the music.
“I feel like our community [the LGBTQ community] is predominantly in South Memphis and Orange Mound, so the club is in an area where there are a lot of us,” he said. “It’s nice to have a club that is so close, especially for those who may not have a car or any kind of transportation. As long as this place keeps people off the street and out of jail, I’m all for it.”
As more people began to dance and drink, the music got louder. Laughter and conversations created heat from new activity and a few people headed to a smaller room in the back of the club to receive free HIV testing.
Party with a Purpose
Club Memphis' owner Ashaki Blair said she opened the venue in 2012 and inherited the club's name.
Raised in Orange Mound, she said opening the club wasn't easy.
Club Memphis owner Ashaki Blair serves a drink to a patron.
"I’ve always done my own thing and wanted to work for myself,” she said. “We had trucks that we owned. I waitressed. I worked at a strip club. Nothing was ever easy for me.”
Blair said it took her about $15,000 to renovate and paint the interior and exterior of the building and overhaul the kitchen.
“I saved money and put it into the club. No loans, no credit. I just had money that I had saved and wanted to invest,” she said. “I had a supportive group of family and friends. In the beginning, people gave me things like speakers, chairs … it was a blessing all around.”
Growing up, Blair said she witnessed the evolution of the space from a fish market in the 1970s to a club called The Chateau in the late 1980s.
“Where the DJ booth is used to be a fish market. My mom would buy the fish and fry the fish and I would run the fish down the walkway to the club,” she said. “We partied here when it was called The Chateau when I was young. I was only 16 years old.”
As she experimented with different ideas for where to take the business, including having teen nights on Tuesdays, reggae night on Fridays and hosting viewing parties for sports on Sundays, Blair said Club Memphis began to attract more LGBTQ customers.
She said she got a lot of support from family and friends who are part of the gay community and as business boomed, she got some opposition from people in the neighborhood.
“They told me I couldn’t do it. Not here on Park and Pendleton,” she said. “But, I don’t cater to one set of people. I cater to those who need to be served.”
The backlash made her stand firmer in her position to serve the LGBTQ community.
A Club Memphis patron undergoes a swab test for free STD testing provided by Friends for Life.
Ayeisha Cole, a volunteer with Partnership to Ends AIDs Status, said the most important part of the September 30 party was the HIV testing and pushing Pre-exposure prophylaxis or PrEP, a daily medication that can be taken to help reduce the risk of an HIV infection.
PEAS is part of the Headliners, a collection of organizations including OUT Memphis, The Haven Memphis, Friends for Life, Planned Parenthood Greater Memphis Region, the Shelby County Health Department and the Tennessee Department of Health.
According to the 2015 Tennessee State Health Profile from the Center for Disease Control, about 40,000 people were diagnosed with HIV in the United States and 712 were diagnosed in Tennessee, which made the state rank 16th for the number of HIV diagnoses.
“We like to call it party with a purpose. Yes, we’re having fun but we utilize the party to bring people in so we can educate them about HIV prevention and PrEP,” Cole said.
“Ashaki is known for doing a lot of things in the community in Orange Mound and she was willing to open up her doors to not only let us host our parties at Club Memphis free of charge, but she lets us have meetings there and come in at any time and let us provide HIV testing,” she added.
“This is serious for me,” Blair said. “If the LGBTQ community loves and supports me and are going to be here for the community then I’m going to do this for them."
Blair said she has used her club to prepare food for the homeless, advocate for safe sex, serve as a safe place for HIV awareness events and more.
The exterior of Club Memphis, located at 2790 Park Avenue.
Some of her efforts stopped for a while because she lacked community support.
“This was not meant to be just a party place. It saddened me that I couldn’t get help from the community,” she said. “I had to take a break. People would drop off clothes, coats and donations to give to the homeless. But no one would help me organize. In about two weeks, I will start back up. It’s about to get cold outside and people are going to need coats.”
Blair said that she sees less support for neighborhood businesses than was present in her childhood. She said that people have vandalized and stolen from her club, including ripping out the wiring and removing the air conditioning.
“I had a good upbringing. Everyone in the neighborhood looked out for each other. We had true friends, people we still know today. The neighborhood was great and it was healthy,” she said.
“This community grew from businesses and we never used to take our money outside of Orange Mound.”
Blair said every time she considers closing the club, she is renewed by the needs of the community.
“Every time I think about leaving it alone, or forgetting it, my heart won’t let me do that. My soul won’t let me do it,” she said. “I don’t care about the money. All I care about is being here.”
Club Memphis is open by request only.