THE ONLY BLACK GUY IN THE OFFICE

What Happens When Your White Coworkers Discover Your Side Hustle

Sure, I got promoted — but it wasn’t the career advancement I’d anticipated

Illustration: Richard A. Chance

The day I sat behind a set of turntables with a kente print mask snug under my glasses watching Seattle’s Black folk roller-skate around a concrete court might just be one the most carefree occasions of 2020. For the few hours of Juneteenth I had off — for whatever reason, the “office” was closed on Blackout Instagram Square Day but not on the actual holiday celebrating Black liberation — I was excited to dust off my music hard drive and watch ATL-worthy skaters snake walk to Lloyd’s “Get It Shawty.”

Before the pandemic hit, I had two DJ residencies. The first ran every Friday night for about nine months. It was the place to be — that is, until gentrifiers complained about the noise and I lost the gig. (Mind you, the strip is filled with restaurants, bars, and karaoke joints that were just as lively as the venue I spun at. Sounds about White to me.) The second residency was at a spot predominantly frequented by what my friend has dubbed the “hip-hop Asian” community — Nike- and Supreme-obsessed, throws around the N-word like nobody’s business, has an affinity for hip-hop and R&B throwback events — that quickly became a biweekly staple.

Since 2016, throughout my different corporate gigs, DJing has been the constant on work nights and days off. I’m usually a firm believer in separating my creative outlets from the work that keeps my bank account in the black, but in this case, I don’t mind flexing a bit. DJing arms you not just with a little bit of cool factor that can’t hurt but with a crateload of stories that are good for charming a room.

I know I’m good at what I do, and they know it, too. I look at that as a form of activism: I can write the hell out of a marketing deck, and I can work a function with nothing but a Serato, a well-curated hard drive, and impeccable timing.

That doesn’t mean shit can’t get awkward when you cross the streams, though. At one previous job, I let coworkers in on my side hustle a little too early, during one of those dreaded introduce-yourself kumbaya circles. Before I knew it, they were name-dropping random electronic dance artists that all the techies listen to at Burning Man, pinging me streaming links to dubstep artists I knew nothing about, and inviting me to raves. Thanks, but no thanks.

My ears perked, though, when I was asked to DJ at a barbecue the company was hosting for employees. Sure, there was a high chance of boozed-up bros showing their asses, but I figured maybe getting in front of a new crowd could lead to other (read: paid) opportunities, so I agreed.

And then it hit me: Shit, now I have to figure out what to play for these people.

Being brand-new meant I had no time to suss out their vibe or do research. I know what I listen to, but some of my go-tos — like M.O.P.’s robbery anthem “Ante Up” — might scare them. Or worse, it’ll open up Pandora’s boombox and result in awkward daps or forced rap debates at work.

When the day came, I had some pre-made Billboard-charting rap mixes in there as safety with a few genre curveballs (Paramore, Imagine Dragons). Made it work nicely, if I say so myself. The crowd was nodding along on the 1 and 3; it was great. Then two White women approached the booth to commit a DJ’s cardinal sin: Make a request. Worse, a vague one. In this case, “Do you have any Lil Wayne?” It left me no clue whether they wanted Mixtape Weezy or the guy who made “Lollipop.”

They weren’t the only folks oblivious to DJ etiquette. At another tech bro event, someone asked if I play hip-hop — and then proceeded to request Disclosure. I acted like the convo never happened. Next tech event I play, I swear I’m showing up in a “No Requests, Please” tee. I’d much rather have Adam and Janice from HR holding their phones in the air like antennae, trying to Shazam the SoundCloud exclusive I just played.

Pushiness aside, these fleeting moments subvert the racial dynamics I experience at work. I know I’m good at what I do, and they know it, too. I look at that as a form of activism: I can write the hell out of a marketing deck, and I can work a function with nothing but a Serato, a well-curated hard drive, and impeccable timing.

I might err on the side of around-the-clock excellence when in the workplace, but I encourage any Black person working in corporate America to lean into their side passions just as heartily. Have that something that takes the edge off when harsh realities start to close in. Because just like Black lives, Black joy will always matter.

Do you know him? Is it you? The trials and tribulations of a Black man navigating corporate life.

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