Amid controversy, Waltham’s Rhino Lounge continues to thrive
After a heated meeting with the Waltham Board of Licensing in November, the Rhino Lounge moves on as a beloved community space.
PARTYGOERS: Rhino's patrons enjoy the lounge.
The Rhino Lounge, located at 11 Cooper St., has been a Waltham nightlife staple since its opening in 2015. A multi-floor venue with a stocked bar, a dance floor, and faux-leather booths, the lounge also operates as a private event space, something members of Brandeis sorority Sigma Delta Tau laud as being “accommodating … you can tell they just want their patrons to have a good time in a safe environment.” The sorority has hosted events yearly at the space since 2016.
On a blustery, early-February evening, we visited the Rhino Lounge for the food, drinks, and energy we had heard so much about. We were greeted by a line dancing club: older women in matching outfits holding their once-monthly practice, moving in sync to upbeat tunes as other patrons watched over food and drinks. A young couple sipped drinks at the other end of the bar. The bartender, Harold, was up and about, talking to the women of the line-dancing group, those in the kitchen, and us. Harold told us he’d only been working at Rhino Lounge for five months but enjoyed it and said that he was very accustomed to Brandeis students and their events.
Upon request, Harold introduced us to the Rhino Lounge’s owner, James Serumaga. Serumaga recommended we try their in-house beef stew and agreed to a sit-down interview with the Justice later that week. In a Feb. 14 conversation, Serumaga said that he was deeply familiar with Brandeis students as patrons, particularly those involved in Greek life: “They come every year. They were looking for space to have a party, and we have the space. That’s how we started, they’ve been going every year. We’ve never said no.”
In a March 6 follow-up interview, Serumaga, who is Ugandan, explained that he is the co-president of Afro Voices, the Rhino Lounge’s parent company. With extensive leadership experience in the business sector, as well as within the church and local Ugandan community, the creation of a restaurant was a natural step towards a goal of furthering community and community engagement within the greater Waltham area.
Along with original Afro Voices founder Robert Kayanja, Serumaga said that he found joy not solely in managing the restaurant, but working directly within it. Making good food, Serumaga said, was an integral part of this process. “People come to me, and when you host them you make food for them. Lots of stews and rice, fish stews, and Afro food. We serve it from Thursday to Sunday. I'm in the back in the kitchen, making it And that's why Rhino Lounge is starting to be more community based ... it gives you the energy to work the next day.”
Rhino Lounge in the spotlight
While providing a space for joy, dance, hot meals, and relaxation for those in Waltham, Serumaga acknowledged a rough last November — one that left the lounge, and himself, feeling unappreciated by the city for the work they do as a community fixture. That month, an incident report filed by Waltham police and directly involving the lounge, culminated in a highly-controversial Nov. 16 meeting with the Waltham Board of License Commissioners. Clips from the video were cut from WCAC’s full-access community network taping of the meeting, and posted by user “macabeeI95” on Reddit’s r/Waltham on Nov. 21.
“Waltham to Rhino Lounge: ‘You people have been disrespectful since you got here,'” the caption of the Reddit post reads, referencing a line from Commissioner Kevin Ritcey toward Serumaga and Afro Voices co-president Robert Kayanja. The post lambasts the commissioners for their behavior and cites them as having “talked down to the owner and manager or talked to them in the third person throughout the meeting.”
In the full tape, Serumaga and Robert Kayanja sit next to each other before the Waltham Board of License Commissioners. This board, appointed by the mayor of Waltham Jeannette McCarthy, is tasked with “[maintaining] the highest possible standards in regards to the sale and service of food and/or alcoholic beverages.” McCarthy has been mayor since 2004, and the Chairman of the Board, Wayne Brasco, has served in that position since 2000. The meeting followed a “request for attendance” by the commissioners for discussion of an incident that occurred involving an alleged gunshot outside of the Rhino Lounge — a gunshot that Serumaga, and others present at the scene, say never happened.
October incident report
On Oct. 23, 2022, at approximately 1:24 a.m., a 911 call was placed to the Waltham Police about a suspected gunshot outside of the Rhino Lounge. The report, written by Waltham Police Patrolman Daniel Aucoin, who was accompanied by six other officers, was read aloud at the Nov. 16 commission meeting.
According to the report, a resident in a nearby apartment building heard yelling coming from outside the lounge, and then “heard a loud bang coming from the back parking lot, which she described as a gunshot.” When asked if she had seen anyone with a firearm, she stated that she “could not see much, but just heard the noise.”
Aucoin said a “large pool of fresh blood” was present outside the front of the lounge, approximately five to seven feet from the door, along with broken glass. The blood trailed away from the lounge and up Cooper Street. Aucoin then talked to a bartender who explained that the blood was from a customer who smashed his hand through a pane of glass inside the lobby of the lounge. The bartender also stated that she had noticed the customer had a cut on his hand or wrist, and that his friends were wrapping it with bandages.
Aucoin concluded that it “appeared that a male was escorted out of the bar and in the process suffered a cut to his hand. This appears to be the source of where the blood trail came from.”
“There was no gunshot,” said Serumaga, who was inside the lounge at the time of the incident. “One of my staff was outside who said nothing like that had happened. But, there was some kind of confrontation outside. And then, they said somebody called the police…and the person [the caller] said there was a gunshot. But nobody heard a gunshot.” He further explained: “One of the guys [involved in the confrontation], as they were going out, hit the window….that’s where the blood came from.”
Corroborating Serumaga's point, per the incident report, no gunshot was determined by the Waltham police to have taken place at or near the lounge that night. However, in the Nov. 16 meeting, the Commission members appeared insistent that it did. “It’s always a big story, and the story never comes together,” Brasco said.
Furthermore, despite the report’s hypothesis that the blood trail was a result of the man who cut his hand or wrist, the commissioners also seemed convinced that it may have been a result of the gunshot. “I’m scared to death,” Brasco said. “Don’t try and convince me that there wasn’t a gunshot here last year … I don’t believe it.”
Brasco was referring to an incident that occurred in May of 2021, when an outside group pulled up at an event taking place outside the Rhino Lounge and fired shots into the air. Serumaga clarified to the Justice that he had never denied that this had happened. “It was a panic,” he said of the 2021 incident. “We had a group lie to us. The group invited people from all over, around Boston … some people didn't like these guys, they had rivals. So they wanted to cause havoc, and when they came, they brought a gun, and started shooting in the air. Since then … we’re strict. We ask, where are you from? What kind of group are you bringing? We process everyone who comes in. It was a very unfortunate incident.”
Serumaga emphasized to the Justice that he had met with the Commission about the 2021 incident, and discussed it in depth. However, Brasco spoke as if the issue hadn’t been resolved at a prior meeting. “I don’t know where you come from, James,” he continued. “I don’t know if gunshots are…okay. Not in this community. That will not happen.”
Legal contention & allegations of racism
Another point of contention at the meeting was the fact that a Rhino Lounge employee declined to give her name to the police. After telling Aucoin that she had seen someone experiencing car trouble and that she was a lounge employee, she told Aucoin that she “did not feel comfortable giving … her information,” and then walked away.
“What, is she, funny?” Brasco asked Serumaga, rhetorically, at the Commission meeting. “‘I don’t feel comfortable giving you my name?’ I don’t feel comfortable with you having a license. How’s that sound?”
The Justice verified with a Boston-based lawyer who requested to remain anonymous that while “an entity that holds the [liquor] license is obligated to cooperate and assist with police” in the case of investigations or reports, an individual employee “doesn’t have to do anything.” However, the entity – in this case the Rhino Lounge – can be held legally responsible for a “failure to cooperate.” Because of this, Serumaga said he let the employee go, as well as the security detail that was present that night. Per the Commission’s order, he also installed security cameras outside, which he said are helpful, because their footage is indisputable.
“Maybe she [the employee] took it personally … they [the commissioners] were mad about that,” Serumaga told the Justice. “She didn’t know then, but I had to train [my employees] … if anything, you have to answer the police.”
“Listen, you people have been disrespectful since you got here,” Ritcey said in response to Serumaga’s explanation of the employee’s actions.
Serumaga said that he felt hurt and disrespected by the comments. “It was uncalled for: calling us ‘you people,’ ‘you bring guns here,’” he said. “We don’t bring guns here. We bring people to have events here, and take care of them … They should have investigated that before they [called] us to say those things to us.”
“While there have been these reports of gunshots at the lounge, and that should be addressed, I'm ashamed to have city officials that act like that, especially when it's an all-white board talking to two Black men. That video is not a good look for Waltham,” one person commented on the Reddit thread.
The University of Minnesota includes the phrase “you people” on a list of well-known microaggressions.
Brasco also threatened the Rhino Lounge management, saying, “We’ll cripple you, financially,” if another incident was brought to their attention. At Serumaga, he said: “One more incident, and you’ll wish you never met me, I’ll tell you that ... I don’t trust you, Jimmy. I don’t trust you.”
By the time Rhino Lounge security escorted the party out of the lounge, the police had already been called by the resident. But Brasco was upset that Serumaga hadn’t called the police personally. “If you call the police, even if it’s a false alarm, you’re a good guy. You can always come to the police,” he said.
Ultimately, the Commission cut the lounge’s hours from 1 AM to 11 PM, due to the alleged gunshot. “That was like a punishment to us. Like ‘OK, right now, we cut your hours to 11 PM’, because we didn’t call the police. But there was no issue to call the police,” Serumaga said.
Serumaga also said that this was the first time they had encountered hostility from the Commission. “I was surprised, the way they behaved that day,” he said, and mentioned that his relationship with the Commission had previously been positive.
Darlene Wansiewicz, an administrative assistant for the Waltham Board of License Commissioners, declined to provide comment or interview for this article on behalf of the Commission.
Backlash against the Commission
In the thread about the incident on the r/Waltham subreddit, community members honed in on the language used by the commissioners. One went so far as to call the Commission members “racist pieces of shit” and asked how they “even have positions like this.”
“What a bunch of entitled townie tough guy wannabe goons on this board. This clip is exactly what it looks like and I'm embarrassed as a resident,” one commenter wrote.
Serumaga said that after the tape of the Commission began to circulate online, the lounge and the mayor’s office received a large number of calls from people supporting the lounge and expressing concern with the way Serumaga and Kayanja were treated by the Commission. Two days later, Commissioner Brasco showed up at the lounge to lift the restrictions placed on the lounge at the council meeting. “He visited us, and we had a good talk about how the business is. He called the other members, said he's seen what it is, and said we should lift the restrictions.”
While Serumaga said that Brasco didn’t apologize on behalf of the Commission’s behavior, he did say that he appreciated the Commissioner’s choice to come into the lounge. “Someone comes to your business and talks to you, that’s an understanding, it’s respect,” he said. He also relayed that he felt hopeful about creating a more positive relationship with the licensing Commission in the future. “Right now we do what we are supposed to do, and whenever there’s anything, I call them, I call the detective.”
Moving forward as a community space
Brasco originally said that he was “scared to death” by the alleged event of the gunshot, but others in the community don’t seem to share his feelings. Sara Shapiro, Vice President of Finance and of Academic Development for Sigma Delta Tau, said in a March 5 email correspondence with the Justice that she has “never been made to feel unsafe at the Rhino Lounge.” Shapiro said that SDT has hosted their semi-formal “Crush” there for several years, and has attended three of them. She said the events have “always gone well.” Shapiro also said there are always bouncers and fire marshalls present: “I know that if anything did go wrong or I did feel unsafe, there are people that I could go to for help.”
Alongside Brandeis events, Serumaga also said that the lounge was looking forward to a stacked rest of the year: holding birthday parties, wedding-related festivities, live bands, baby showers and an “oldies night” – the latter of which he said he personally loved for the number of familiar faces he expected to see present.
The Justice also asked Shapiro about her interactions with Serumaga. “He knows we always enjoy hosting our events there,” she said. Furthermore, after unforeseen issues with a sorority event involving lounge staff calling in sick and a limited menu, Serumaga gave the sorority a discount for this semester. “It’s a party. They enjoy it and we enjoy it too, and they are safe here,” he said. “Some are coming back in March.”
To this point, Serumaga emphasized that returning patrons were part of what made the lounge so special. “It's great having people you know … you’re a part of the family,” he said of the lounge’s patrons.