Josephine Baker (1906-75) was an acclaimed performer who fled segregation in the United States to take the stage in France and fight racism and Nazism.
Singer Billie Holiday (1915-59) was a celebrated jazz innovator and activist known especially for her controversial performances of the anti-lynching song “Strange Fruit.”
Together, these two towering Black women inspired two modern-day cannabis entrepreneurs to name their new South Los Angeles dispensary “Josephine & Billie’s.” And, in a recent interview, Ebony Andersen and Whitney Beatty called their business’s aim to be “designed by and for women of color a first.
“When we say ‘by Black women,’” Andersen explained, “one of the aspects of that is that almost exclusively, white people, white men and women, have designed retail spaces in cannabis and beyond.” A long-time urban planner herself, Andersen observed that, “Almost 80 percent of urban planners are white people [who] did a lot of design that is from the perspective of white people.”
Andersen and Beatty wanted something different: not just a dispensary but a kind of cannabis speakeasy, an experiential venue that would be a callback to the Jazz Age and Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and ’30s, during Prohibition. Nonwhites weren’t welcome in speakeasies back then. So Black businesspeople opened their own, which they dubbed “tea pads.” There, Black Americans could safely gather to exchange ideas, art and music and to consume alcohol and cannabis.
“Josephine Baker and Billie Holiday were two women of color who were persecuted for their cannabis consumption in that time, and yet used their art to fight against injustice,” Beatty explained. “They rejected the rules, all while holding the door open for women who would come after, and for us that was the goal.”
For their L.A. dispensary, which opened October 29, Beatty and Andersen focused on the influences that “Josephine & Billie’s” era promoted. Accordingly, their brightly colored, 1,500-square–foot dispensary was established near Leimert Park, an African American cultural mecca. For those who enter, the first impression may be that the space appears like any ordinary euro-style smoke shop, Beatty said. Apothecary cases line the walls, selling bongs, t-shirts and other merchandise. But customers in the know will offer up a password – speakeasy-style – and be led into a rear private “speakeasy” which sells cannabis products but also educates customers about the creativity of the Harlem Renaissance, through artworks and books.
It was an idea that took off early on. Jay-Z, the celebrity rapper and “visionary officer” for The Parent Company’s social equity venture fund, made Josephine & Billie’s his first investment last summer. That put its owners in the elite company of Black female founders who have raised over a million dollars. There are only about 100 such individuals nationwide, Beatty said.
Beatty also snagged one of Los Angeles’s first 100 “social equity” licenses as far back as 2019. These hard-to-get licenses help ensure that black and Hispanic entrepreneurs, lacking the resources big cannabis companies possess, have a fair shot at opening dispensaries in their own neighborhoods.
“Communities of color have been disproportionately disenfranchised by the War on Drugs for Years,” Beatty said. “And in legalization we found that less than 5 percent of licensed businesses are owned by black and brown people. [We haven’t been] participating in this industry.”
So, while Josephine & Billie’s emphasizes BIPOC people, it doesn’t exclude anyone either. What it does do, Andersen said, is “provide retail designed for and by Black women in mind…that’s a retail experience that never has happened”
Another piece of this aim is the dispensary’s nine employees. Enter Josephine & Billie’s, Andersen said, and, “You’ll see Black women, which is not typically the case when you walk into a cannabis retail store. “So I think that alone is our big indicator.”
Another is the founding duo’s ambitions. They hope to develop the business into an MSO with this first outlet serving as flagship and eventually expanding to other locations; a delivery service is also planned for next spring. Already the business’s website already offers online ordering for in-person pickup.
What will those customers be picking up? Well, pre-rolls to start with, but skincare and flower products are expected to be in-store soon. Then, after trademarking is completed, there’ll follow a customized “Josephine” strain,” which Beatty described as an “uplifting daytime sativa hybrid. Joining it will be a gentler, relaxing “Billie” strain.
The founders identify with these special strains and namesakes, Beatty said. “I think I am the ‘Josephine,’” she said, “and Ebony is the ‘Billie.’”