Q&A with Eastside Pizza House's Jabee Williams - 405 Magazine

Q&A with Eastside Pizza House’s Jabee Williams

Jonathan Blake “Jabee” Williams is an Oklahoma City native, raised on the east side.

Jonathan Blake “Jabee” Williams is an Oklahoma City native, raised on the east side. His hip-hop career began in earnest after the death of his brother in 2001, and his discography now includes five albums. In 2022, Williams took on another challenge, this time as the owner of Eastside Pizza House in the award-winning Eastpoint development at Northeast 23rd Street and Rhode Island Avenue.

We talked to him about the challenges of moving from entertainer to small business owner, and the impact of white developers and new residents on historically Black neighborhoods and business districts. As part of the planning for this issue, our editorial team sat down with Williams and other community leaders to gather input to help guide our coverage. These questions emerged from that meeting. 

How does an influx of new non-Black neighbors impact the neighborhoods that have been traditionally Black?

The biggest impacts are tricky to define because they change the dynamics of a neighborhood or community. At a minimum, they make residents cautious about what’s happening and where the neighborhood is headed. It’s a precursor of displacement so often, and so they naturally wonder if they’ll have to move. A more problematic impact is that white people move here from the suburbs – in advance of or during gentrification – and they don’t understand the way the neighborhood works; they’re not used to the same things. I’ve had friends get the cops called on them because they were playing their music outside or there were too many cars out front or people gathered on a porch. Those things have always happened in our neighborhoods, but people who move here from the suburbs want things to be the way they are in Mustang or Yukon or Edmond.

Related to that, talk a little about white saviorism in the context of white developers and Black entrepreneurs or long-term, family-owned Black businesses.

A friend told me years ago that whatever they do for us without us is what they do to us. Just because a white developer has worked successfully in other parts of the city doesn’t mean they will do well on the east side. Their success also leads them to believe they understand what we need or how things work better than we do. That attitude can be triggering to generations of Black people who have been told what’s best for us, where we should live, how we should raise our kids and where we can go to school. This feels like the same thing that developers do when they show up to tell us what we need, as if we don’t know what we need. It’s dehumanizing for a person to act as if they know better than we do. 

What has your experience been in terms of moving from the entertainment industry to hospitality? Is one more accepting of Black entrepreneurship than the other? What are the challenges in both? 

Entertainment is much more accepting because I’m a Black man doing hip hop, so of course that’s what I’m supposed to be doing. As the owner of Eastside, I’ve already had people ask if I went to school to learn to make pizza or if I was just the face of the operation, as if some white owner hired me to provide a face for his business. There’s the other aspect too where many people don’t like my stance on social justice issues, and that affects the way they view my business – the positions are considered normal for music, though. At the same time, other restaurant owners – Black and white – have been quick to support and encourage me, give me good advice, help however they’ve been able. 

The similarities between music and real estate development are hard to miss. Label owners and executives know nothing about rap culture or street culture, but they still want to tell you everything about your music and how it should be. Developers take much the same attitude in that they didn’t grow up here, but they’re comfortable telling us how things are based on what they think they know.

You can’t develop over here without considering the neighborhood. Too many try to pimp Black culture, trading on our legacy and history. But if a woman who looks like Clara Luper walks in, she can’t afford to eat there or book a party for her girlfriends there. They are building spaces that are inaccessible to the neighborhood, and that feels like the start of gentrification. Eastside is built on the legacy and history of the neighborhood, and Black people work here. And they can afford to eat here, and we also give back to our community.

Over against the assumptions you talked about in the meeting, talk about how the Black community can and does care for its own spaces, public art and businesses. 

When we started the With Love Project, people said, “You can’t put murals on the east side. They’ll be covered in gang graffiti.” The assumption behind that is that we don’t want nice things. Recently, I saw a post of a white couple jogging down Lottie, and there were all kinds of comments, but several said something to the effect of “you should be glad your neighborhood is getting fixed up,” as if we did this to ourselves, or as if the presence of two white joggers means the neighborhood is improving. We didn’t do this to ourselves; it was done to us. We love our community and its spaces, and we have taken care of the murals, Kindred Spirits, Homeland, and there is more coming. All we’ve ever wanted was access to resources and to be included in the decision-making processes that affect our communities. My grandmother worked in her flowerbed every weekend until she couldn’t anymore. I walked over there many Sundays and helped pull weeds. She lived on the east side until she died, and she was proud of her garden and flowerbeds, and that is who the east side is.