Lips Café: Bringing Art and Community to Little Caribbean

Lips Café, located at 1412 Nostrand Ave., serves its delights in the heart of Little Caribbean./Kate Dempsey

By Emmad Kashmiri and Kate Dempsey

 

   Upon first glance, passersby might mistake Lips Café for a 60s Pop Art movement-inspired museum. Displayed prominently on its facade is its logo of red lips, reminiscent of the works of Andy Warhol and Roy Lichenstein, which provide a blush of color to the neighborhood of Little Caribbean. To owners Jamane and Donna Weekes, creating this café space is more than just about selling coffee: it is about having an artistic experience.

   Opened in 2019, the café began as Jamane Weekes’ way of paying homage to his exploration of New York City’s café culture and bringing different art movements into the neighborhood.

   “I went to Soho and I got really into cafés, and I used to go to all over the city like Harlem, Bronx, all over NYC just to go to different cafés and check them out […] I used to go to art galleries all the time. In my pastime I would either go to a new café or try to check out a new exhibition or gathering in Chelsea or anywhere,” Jamane Weekes told The Vanguard. “So what I realized is that there are none here, like none in Flatbush.”

   Inspired by what he saw, Weekes knew that if he established his own café it would incorporate the art world into its being. His idea: having a revolving door of artwork showcasing local artists’ talents. 

   “Art was always going to be a major part of this space, so every month we switch the artwork; we give artists the opportunity to adorn our walls and showcase their talents every month, just like how an art gallery works,” Jamane Weekes said. 

   Jamane and Donna Weekes learned the ropes of running a café through trial and error, encountering challenges and discovering solutions in real time. 

   “It was a long process because we really had no experience. We kinda just like went on a whim with and figured everything out […] It really took a lot of time and it took a lot of research because we were doing it and we were learning in real time,” Jamane Weekes said. “I think because we didn’t have the set, the knowledge, we were kinda able to put our own twist on things, so I think that made it like unique.”

   Lips Café isn’t just a place to grab a coffee and catch up on work: it’s also a community hub that captures the diversity and bustling nature of Little Caribbean. Just three stops away from Brooklyn College, students can enjoy a relaxing atmosphere where they can study, create, and hangout with their peers. Regulars and newcomers alike are welcomed with open arms, invited to share their stories and connect over food and a laid-back atmosphere.

   “People from different walks of life come here; it’s like a ‘home away from home,'” Jamane explained. “The café isn’t transactional; it’s more like a fellowship.”

   For Donna Weekes, the café is a way of building connections and feeling welcomed in the community. In the space, people catch up with old friends, students pore over their work, and cafe-goers take the opportunity to run into someone new.

   “All are welcomed. All are encouraged to be who they are and we celebrate that. On any given day you walk in and hear conversations from students, business owners, artists, hair stylists, politicians, musicians, parents, everyone and usually, at the middle table, all those worlds come together in a way that still warms my heart,” Donna Weekes told The Vanguard. “It’s naturally coded into our café, the moment you walk through the doors you’re welcomed into this constant state of community.” 

   Being a Black-owned business is integral to the identity of the cafe, and while they would like to be acknowledged as just another namesake in the broader Brooklyn area, they hope to provide support to other Black-owned enterprises. 

   “I just want to be looked at as this dope, successful business, but because I know what it means on a grander scale because of how little opportunities [Black people] sometimes have and resources we sometimes don’t have,” Jamane Weekes told The Vanguard. “Because of others that’s why it means a lot to me.”

   Donna and Jamane Weekes use their influence to support other Black-owned businesses as a virtue of being one themselves by providing mutual aid through resources and advertising. The café is currently partnering with 333 Lounge, a Black-owned lounge in Downtown Brooklyn, to support their business efforts.

   “We are just trying to show that as businesses we come together, especially as Black businesses […] it’s not about competition and stuff like that, it’s about coming together to see what we can build together and using our resources,” Jamane Weekes told The Vanguard.

  Books by Black artists and writers embellish the café, and traditional Caribbean dishes such as “bake and saltfish” and beverages such as “sorrel” join typical café offerings. To Donna Weekes, the aesthetic was modeled after her own fashion brand designs, an ethos she carries into the café’s food and drinks now. 

   “I’m a designer and each meal is designed by me. Similar to the artistic expression and construction of a garment, each meal, each dish is an expression of my heart and soul. Colorful, tasteful, it awakens your senses,” Donna Weekes told The Vanguard.

   The bond between the mother-son duo is stronger than ever thanks to their café, having faced the difficulties of starting a business together. It’s a way for the family to stay together and share what they have accomplished as a result of their hard work.

   “[The business] brought me and my mom closer together so I think that was another reason why I did it, so me and my mom could work together and stay close,” Jamane Weekes said. “When you grow older, you start to see your mom a lot less, and now I’m able to keep that relationship, keep that bond, that closeness with her.” 

   To Donna and Jamane Weekes, each customer becomes an extension of their family as they continue to bring art and community together in their space.

   “Lips is home, it’s home away from home for me and my family, and I wanted to make sure that when we walked in, when you walk in, you feel at home–you feel safe and inspired and embrace,” Donna Weekes told The Vanguard. “I think we achieved that.”

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