City Scenes: The Truth Reflects, And Austin Doesn't Like What It Sees
As the 2020 pandemic shutdown entered its third month last May, a nervous and exhausted world witnessed George Floyd's death at the hands of a Minneapolis police officer. The act was brazen, committed while several other officers idly stood by, and fully captured on video. Like so many of the men of color killed by police who came before him, Floyd was unarmed.
Massive amounts of people worldwide flooded the streets to protest, COVID-19 be damned. The outrage was not limited to victimized populations of color who have long viewed the police as problematic. People from all walks of life stood together. Some demonstrations turned ugly; in many cities, including Austin, police pushed back with violent aggression, leaving both protestors and bystanders injured. This all started in late May, but protests and their reverberations continue to this day.
The pandemic was already exposing the economic and racial disparities that disproportionately affected (and continue to affect) the poor and people of color. Here in Austin, the city began to examine hyper-aggressive tactics employed at their police academy. The liberal city council removed thousands from the police budget to redirect to social services. Texas' Republican governor responded with threats to have the state take over city policing. And it wasn't just the police. Entrenched businesses and other tone-deaf organizations began to examine their institutional biases.
In Austin, a "progressive" city historically segregated by design, one business looms above the rest: music. So many here considered the music scene a big, inclusive umbrella. Emboldened voices said otherwise.
Jackie Venson, a prominent Austin singer-songwriter and guitarist, was offered an opening slot for a virtual presentation of Austin City Limits Radio's Blues on the Green. Venson turned it down, calling it an act of tokenism and publicly called out the event for its lack of diversity.
"Mostly I see microaggressions," Venson says. "When I hear there's not enough Black talent in Austin that draws a crowd, what I'm really hearing is the Black talent that draws a crowd, draws the kind of crowd that we don't want."
Paying attention and listening, really listening to Black voices, was eye-opening. Racism and bias were pervasive, even in the Live Music Capital of the World. —Jeff McCord
On the Pause/Play podcast, hosts Miles Bloxson and Elizabeth McQueen spoke with many Black Austin-based musicians about how they've been navigating the pandemic. For these musicians, racial injustice is not something they just became aware of — they've dealt with it their entire lives. The result was that many of the musicians featured in the podcast have decided to use their platforms to educate and engage their audiences around social justice. In episode four, they heard from Jackie Venson, who brought awareness to racial injustice and police brutality during her debut on the Austin City Limits TV show by wearing a black dress with the names of 73 Black Americans murdered by police.
In episode 10, Jonathan "Chaka" Mahone from Riders Against the Storm explained why he created a non-profit called DAWA that provides direct relief for BIPOC musicians and people that are in the giving professions. He also explained what led him to create the Black Live Music Fund.
In episode two, singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer Mobley talked through the process of making the collaborative visual album A Home Unfamiliar, which raised more than $25,000 for the DAWA fund upon its release. He also released a song called "James Crow," which is explicitly about racism. But in particular about the ways in which old-school racism has been kind of dressed up and sophisticated." To celebrate the release, he curated a reading list for the Austin Public Library called James Crow a Songwriters Reader. --Miles Bloxson and Elizabeth McQueen
They See Us Now
"Toni Morrison says the thing that she finds remarkable about the Rodney King incident was that we waited for justice. We literally thought that the system would do the right thing. This time around, it's ignorant to even believe that."
These comments from Megz Kelli, lead singer of Austin's Magna Carda, reflect an example of the frustration and impatience boiling over in the wake of George Floyd's killing last May. Music editor Jeff McCord spoke to six Black Austin-based musicians of different generations and genders for his June column, "They See Us Now." Their comments reflect a wide variety of insights and opinions about racism in their hometown, all united by a single theme: Enough.
"There's a quality that the current moment has that is not so different from something that happens in relationships," Mobley says. "You'll get in an argument and someone will say something. Both of you know that someone has said a thing that can't be taken back and the nature of your relationship is going to be different moving forward. This reminds me of that feeling. A lot of people, are not going to be willing to go back to the status quo."
Read their full impressions here. —Jeff McCord
The Space Did Not Go To Everybody
In the midst of the recent social justice movement spurred by Floyd's killing, Austin musicians have urged their city to examine racism embedded in the music scene itself. KUTX producer Julia Reihs connected with R&B singer Mélat.
"When I finally did start making music, I never saw myself represented in things like ACL and SXSW," Mélat says. "I figured I had to go to L.A. or New York or someplace where I saw myself reflected. People don't expect R&B to come from here. They don't really see Black people coming out of Austin like that in general."
Lucky for Austin, Mélat stayed and carved out a new space for R&B in the city's music scene that didn't exist before. She's played ACL Fest, SXSW and was named Breakout Artist of the Year in 2018's Austin Music Awards. But she still witnesses the covert racism that affects artists of color and skews tastes away from hip-hop, rap and R&B. —Julia Reihs
Now's The Time
According to musician SaulPaul, the COVID-19 pandemic and social justice movement have created a unique moment for the world to "reset" and "examine our ways." He says it could be fertile ground for change in the Austin music scene when it comes to addressing systems in place that have not benefited artists — especially artists of color — in the past. Listen to his story and learn more about SaulPaul, a musician with a message, here. —Julia Reihs
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