Photo by Gabriel C. Pérez/KUTX
NPR LIVE SESSIONS – PRODUCED BY JULIA REIHS/KUTX
In the midst of the recent social justice movement spurred by the killing of George Floyd, Austin musicians have urged their city to examine racism embedded in the music scene itself. KUTX Multi-Media Producer Julia Reihs connected with Mélat, native Austininte and former KUTX Artist of the Month (February 2018).
“First off we got the name ‘Live Music Capital of the World’ because we had more live music venues per capita than anywhere else. So it really had nothing to do with the music, it was really just about the space. And what ended up happening is the space did not go to everybody – it went to the white guys with the guitar.”
“When I finally did start making music, I never saw myself represented in things like ACL and SXSW. 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 Austin music scene that did not exist before. She has played ACL Fest, SXSW and was named “Break out 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 genres.
“Racism in Austin isn’t quite over. It’s systemic. You don’t realize that what you’re saying and what you’re doing is actually continuing to push people out and not allowing for space. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been called a hip-hop artist. It’s like – this is not my space to take – especially people who do hip-hop and rap – it’s hard for them to even get these venues because there’s a preconceived notion about what type of crowds they bring in. It’s all based on preconceived notions, stereotypes.”
“Being quiet about it – it isn’t going to work anymore. I have to find a way to incorporate my activism into my everyday life, into my art, into my existence, into all of it. Hopefully in just doing what I’m doing and saying where I’m from and telling my story, it shifts perspective for another little girl or a little boy or person who doesn’t necessarily see themselves reflected in our city.”
Produced by: Julia Reihs
Additional footage by: Jorge Sanhueza-Lyon and Spectrum News
Featured songs by Mélat: “Happy Hour” and “After All”
Mélat in KUTX Studio 1A 2.9.18
How Cheer Up Charlies is working to stay afloat during the shutdown, with a little help from their friends
By Annie Lyons
A quick look at Cheer Up Charlies’ calendar of past events reveals all the Red River bar values. There’s everything from a monthly LGBTQ storytelling showcase to an evening of Texas sex education with comedy and drag performances to a neon rainbow ‘90s country night that features all things Dolly. And, of course, there’s countless concerts highlighting local artists.
Since opening in 2009 — first as a food truck and then as a bar one year later — Cheer Ups, decorated with whimsical murals and a neon sign outside with a shining grin, has made its name as a place that welcomes and celebrates Austin’s LGBTQ community. Yet it’s never conformed to any one definition. When co-owner Maggie Lea describes her and co-owner Tamara Hoover’s vision for the venue, she speaks of a creative community space where like-minded folks can gather for all types of programming.
“‘Everybody’s space’ is what we called it. You don’t put a label on the type of people that come through your doors, and everybody feels comfortable, hopefully,” she says. “We wanted to be a place that can function as a live music venue or a dance club or a speaker panel space or a storytelling night or a literary night.”
Like all Austin music venues, the Red River bar shut down in mid-March due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Lea, who has been undergoing cancer treatments since August 2019, had coronavirus on her radar long before most of the American public; her doctor’s office was taking the risk seriously by early February with people wearing masks to protect the immunocompromised. Before any U.S. cases had been publicly confirmed by the end of that month, some of her nurses had already asked her if she thought South by Southwest would still happen.
So when the festival was cancelled on March 6, she wasn’t shocked — but it was a devastating blow nonetheless.
“South By is our main source of income. We taper that money throughout the rest of the year to supplement months that are slow or winter months, summer months where there’s not a lot of people in town,” she says.
Hoover and Lea took the next steps when the state officially closed bars on March 19. They enacted mass layoffs so that their staff could get unemployment benefits and successfully applied for a Paycheck Protection Program loan. And when their staff approached them with anxieties over rent and bills as they waited for their first unemployment checks, Lea created an emergency staff fund via GoFundMe, which recently surpassed its goal of $18,000.
“Tamara and I have been through so much as far as moving locations, tons of upheaval and changes within our leases … all kinds of stuff. We’ve been doing this a long time. So it honestly was just like, ‘Okay, what else can you throw at us?’ I guess we’re going to close it, but we’ll just figure it out,” she says.
But for all the changes the pandemic brings, the Cheer Ups community remains vibrant.
Frontman Connor McCampbell and dance choreographer/performer LB Flett of synth pop performance group TC Superstar can’t help but beam when they recall their favorite memory on the Cheer Ups stage: the May 2019 release show for their album R&D.
“It was kind of a once in a lifetime show. Cheer Ups was the perfect place to do it,” Flett says.
They remember audience members standing on tables for a better view as a line wrapped around the block outside the venue. Other Austin musicians and friends joined them on stage for the songs they feature on as the band played the whole album start to finish. “Just a beautiful energy,” McCampbell adds with a smile.
TC Superstar is known for their elaborate choreography, technicolor visuals and high-concept albums. The group has always had that certain something that perfectly fits the Cheer Ups ethos. Since their inception, they’ve become homegrown favorites on the venue stage and believe they’ve played there more than any other spot in town.
McCampbell sums it up simply: “It just feels like home base.”
The affection is mutual.
“I always worked when they played because we were so busy when they would come in,” says bartender Kathee Lozano. “That was the one kind of guaranteed band (where) if you saw that they were playing or they were headlining, you knew it was just going to be a huge night. It was going to be all hands on deck and good vibes all around.”
Flett remembers brainstorming ways for the band to stay engaged with their fans in lieu of live shows.
“At the same time, we were also noticing that a lot of people were struggling. A lot of good local businesses were struggling, and specifically, the ones that have always helped us out — which are our local venues,” she says.
They soon settled on the idea of a series of livestream concerts titled “Tip Your Bartenders.” Each show would spotlight a different venue, and viewers would be encouraged to donate to the corresponding staff emergency funds. Cheer Ups was a no-brainer for the line-up and the first venue they approached.
How do you do a socially distanced livestream when your concerts regularly feature five instrumentalists and three dancers?
“Sometimes constraints lead to creativity,” Flett laughs.
Taking advantage of Instagram Live’s split-screen feature that allows other users to join the stream, they developed a variety show of sorts with Flett and McCampbell acting as MCs for a litany of guests. (The pair are roommates and could safely record together.)
The April 23 “Tip Your Bartenders” show for Cheer Ups featured performances from Daphne Tunes, Blair Howerton of Why Bonnie and Aaron Chavez of both TC Superstar and Volunteer Astronauts, as well as Flett and McCampell doing TC material with another one of the group’s dancers, Emily DiFranco. Bartenders from Cheer Ups also made appearances to give drink mixing demonstrations, including Lozano, who whipped up her own creation: a creamy peanut butter and jelly shot.
Mccampbell jokes, “It was kind of a bummer, ‘cause it was always like, ‘Oh, you made this awesome drink!’ We’ll toast with our cheap beer that we have here.”
About 300 people tuned in to the livestream, well surpassing the capacity of Cheer Ups’ indoor stage. Lea estimates the event raised about $1,000 for the GoFundMe.
Lozano says the GoFundMe was integral in helping her make rent, and the fundraiser exceeded her expectations.
“I thought it would have been really, really cool, even if it wasn’t raising money for us, but the fact that it went to our GoFundMe — it was just really sweet and selfless of them,” she says.
Part of what makes Cheer Ups special to the Austin music scene is the venue’s tendency to take a chance on new talent in town, like when TC was first starting out.
“We have spent a lot of time capturing incubator type bands, like local bands, right from their start, giving them their first show or their first time to be on stage,” Lea says. “We don’t charge room fees and stuff, so I think it allows all kinds of people in the creative class to get their foot in the door.”
She thinks this generosity is part of the reason so many people decided to give back to the venue and feels grateful for any support while the bar remains closed.
When bars were allowed to open on May 22 for Phase 2 of the state’s reopening plan, Lea and Hoover held off, not wanting to rush. They instead spent their time deep-cleaning, investing in personal protection equipment and figuring out how Cheer Ups can safely continue to function.
It’s expensive and time-consuming to thoroughly sanitize the space, Lea explains. For instance, they’ve completely redone some of the floors behind the counters to make every surface cleanable.
“Bars are meant to be gathering places; it’s meant to be about the atmosphere, the vibe and the buzz of people gathering,” she says. “Part of being at a bar is to not always feel so clinical and sterile.”
They began aiming to reopen the first week of July as a patio cocktail bar, taking advantage of their recently remodeled outdoor space and garden. (“Our plants are thriving,” Lea jokes.) Masks would be required at entry, among other restrictions, like only allowing one person at a time to use the restrooms inside.
But on June 26 — hardly a week before their scheduled reopening — their plans crashed to a halt when Gov. Greg Abbott issued an executive order requiring all bars to shut down that same day.
Now, it’s a waiting game. Bars can’t technically reopen yet under state mandates. But it’s a frustrating burden placed on owners to decide the right thing to do. Open too early, and you risk harming your staff and community members. Open too late, and you risk closing permanently.
“It’s just kind of been a struggle deciding when to open because of the mixed messaging and the onus on small businesses to decide what the rules are,” Lea says.
She and Hoover worry about the financial costs to reopen piling up too high the longer they stay closed. Most of their PPP loan was used to pay for things like rent, utilities and TABC taxes for the months they’ve been closed — things that the festival revenue could’ve made up for.
Lozano says she knows Hoover and Lea would never directly put their staff at risk by reopening prematurely. And her co-workers, who she describes as family, are the “type of people that are always going to wear a mask or face covering to the grocery and just stay at home as much as possible.” Still, she feels nervous at the prospect of eventually returning to work given the number of COVID-19 cases.
“I can almost guarantee that none of our staff will get sick at the bar, but I am worried about other people because … you can’t totally control how people act when they drink in a social setting,” she says. “But at the end of the day, it’s worth it for me to go back … because even though I’ve only been there two years, that company and that family just means so much to me.”
“It’s a welcoming, supportive community, and it’s kind of one of those things like if they’re a friend of yours, they’re a friend of mine.”
Reopening also sparks the existential question: As a place that thrives on community gatherings, what can Cheer Ups be during the pandemic?
“At this point, I don’t know,” Lea says. “I think we’re stuck to just selling alcohol. It sounds really cynical, but we’re like, are we just selling drinks to make ends meet?”
“We definitely had a sense of where we fit in before the pandemic. And I think nobody can speak in past tense terms about stuff like that — we have to reimagine where we fit in in the future.”
This summer, that looks like cultivating community in every way they can, like supporting the Black Lives Matter protests and finding new ways to celebrate Pride.
Lea says that in the past, Cheer Ups has always tried to reject “rainbow capitalism,” referring to when corporations co-opt Pride for profit, in favor of a more DIY approach.
While those events couldn’t happen this year, Lozano believes the Austin LGBTQ community still came together during the month, especially considering the original Pride’s legacy of protests led by Black trans women.
“Even if we can’t be at the bar celebrating Pride, I feel like we’re all still doing our part from home,” Lozano says. “I know that the rest of our staff has just been spending a lot of time and energy donating, petitioning, protesting and sharing information virtually, and just trying to support the Black Lives Matter cause and especially highlight queer Black people.”
Hoover and Lea collaborated with different artists to sell t-shirts, splitting the proceeds between their reopening costs and various Black Lives Matter groups, with a focus on Black LGBTQ organizations. So far, they’ve raised over $7,600 for BLM causes.
“I can’t say more about the type of community that we have built for eleven years,” Lea says, “including all of our previous employees and anybody that’s ever put in time and effort and their passion into our space, I think it shows that we have a very large, robust network of people who understand us.”
“(Cheer Ups) makes a lasting impression on the next person that walks through the door and the next person after that.”
TC Superstar would agree with her. It’s places like Cheer Ups that make the Austin music scene feel like home for McCampbell and Flett.
“As much as we’ve toured around the U.S., not to throw shade on any other cities, but there is not a music scene I’ve seen out there that is like ours and how close-knit it is,” McCampbell says. “The pandemic scared me a lot, even just with the initial cancellation of South By, knowing what that does to businesses here. But I have a lot of hope. I think we have a wonderful community. People here look out for each other.”
The venue’s latest merch offering says it all. In bright letters, the t-shirt reads: “The Best Little Gay Bar/Not A Gay Bar/Is It A Gay Bar?/Lesbian-Owned Music Venue-Danceclub Whatever-You-Need-It-To-Be In Texas.”
And for those who love Cheer Up Charlies, the space is exactly what they need it to be.
Integral KUTX live music engineer steps away after a long career.
By Jeff McCord
He had a front-row seat for forty years. Since August of 1980, when new UT communications graduate Cliff Hargrove moved into full-time employment at KUT, he has engineered thousands of live music sessions, the vast majority of them mixed live on-air, without a net. In one high-pressure situation after another, even when we started doing live music on location, Cliff was the one you could always count on to keep his cool. You never heard his voice on-air, most listeners never laid eyes on him. Yet his work was as vital to the sound of KUT & KUTX as anyone on our staff.
This spring, Cliff decided it was time to retire.
“A lot of it has to do with my family. I’ve got seven grandchildren now.” Like every other live music venue, Studio 1A has been dormant since March. His wife worked for a restaurant travel company that has folded, with her now retired, he decided to follow suit. He’s gone from babysitting rock star egos to looking after the grandkids.
Cliff grew up in Fort Worth and got the music bug early from his older brother. “He had a band, he actually played with Gary Lewis and the Playboys for a while back in the 60s.” Too young to take advantage of the city’s club scene, Cliff would go to concerts. He remembers his first. “The Shindig Tour came through Fort Worth, I was in seventh or eighth grade. I got Bobby Sherman’s autograph.”
Cliff played baritone saxophone in his school band from fourth grade all the way through his senior year, but it was his brother that offered him a real peek into the music business.
“I hung out in a recording studio when I was a teenager, a place called Sound City. My brother worked there. One of the engineers was a young 20-year-old man named T Bone Burnett. He was very tall and thin, had kind of a Beatle cut. He played guitar, and he would do session work in the studio. He was quite a bit older than me, more my brother’s age.”
“They would bring in horn sections. One of the sax players was Dean Parks, who went on to play with quite a few people on the west coast. I actually dubbed some bari sax parts. But that didn’t happen very often. Usually, they’d want me to empty the trash or, you know, get coffee or something like that.”
After graduating high school, Cliff headed to Austin and the University of Texas. “I started out a music major, but I wasn’t cutting it, to tell you the truth. There were some really great players there. I lasted about a year and a half, took all the theory. But I wasn’t going to be top tier, I knew that.”
By now, Cliff had switched to the bass guitar, and was playing in local bands like Zydeco Ranch, backing artists like RC Banks and Ponty Bone.
“I’m a bass player. I’m not a songwriter. I’m not a singer. You’re kind of a sideman. You’re a little limited. So that wasn’t going to be a career for me.”
At a crossroads, Cliff switched his major to communications and began studying recording techniques, working in UT’s makeshift studios, which happened to be located in the basement of CMB, sharing space with the engineering operations of KUT. It wasn’t long before Cliff was interning for the station, and when he graduated in 1980, he stepped straight into a full-time position as a KUT engineer.
“Totally inbred,” he jokes. “Back then, I think we had seven audio engineers on staff, the music production with just a small part of what KUT did. It was mostly news and information. The station was more classical than anything. I did more work in the interview studio, if I had a music session, I would leave that and go directly over the interview studio to cover interviews for KUT and NPR.”
“Studio 1A wasn’t really operational when I first got there. Actually, Walter Morgan (who followed a similar UT grad to KUT employee path about a year earlier) was the person that started putting the studio together and talked to management about the possibility of doing live music shows out of the studio. It was designed to be a classical recording studio, but it was pretty much being used as a storeroom.”
Walter created the music program Live Set, which ran on Sunday nights for 25 years, beginning in the mid-eighties. KUT hosts would book the guests and Walter would engineer. Everyone from Willie Nelson to the Shins would perform over the years. Cliff and another long-time KUT engineer, David Alvarez, would fill in for Walter when he was away. The other live music being booked on KUT at the time was primarily coming from Eklektikos host John Aielli, whose daily program ran at its peak length from 8 am to 2 pm.
“John was the guy that brought most of the live stuff in. At first, it was mostly classical. Then we started getting into doing Zach Theater. They had a house band and they would do musicals, we did the Tommy show one time with a full orchestra. Because John was on until 2:00 in the afternoon, he would do two or three shows a day sometimes. He was really the first live music producer.”
Aside from an hour to set up, Cliff rarely knew what his days would have in store for him. “One time John brought in a Swedish girls choir, literally 40 blond girls lined up in the studio from one wall all the way around the entire studio We just put one mic in the middle of the room. I never knew until the artist or band walked in the door. Hate to say it, but it wasn’t unusual for two bands to show up a the same time because the booking process was so loose back then.”
Studio 1A wasn’t designed for loud live music. “It was tough. Not everything would work in that room. And sometimes you’d have to have arguments about how amps had to be turned toward the wall, how the drums needed to be in the far corner with baffles all around it. There was no room for an audience. All we had was the headphone system.”
“One of my early rock 1A sessions was the Fabulous Thunderbirds. Paul Ray brought them in. Jimmie Vaughan taught me some guitar and microphone techniques that I used for the rest of my career.” As other hosts, from Paul Ray to Jay Trachtenberg and Larry Monroe, began bringing in acts for their programs, the studio got busier. During early SXSW events, I would book bands in every available place, from the control room and both studios downstairs, one after another.
But it wasn’t until I took over as KUT’s music director in 2001 that we began purposefully booking talent on a national scale. It’s something KUTX continues to this day. I eventually turned booking over to Melanie Shrawder, current KUTX program director Matt Reilly followed her, then Peter Babb, up to our present-day live music producer Deidre Gott. All this led to a raised profile.
“We started having people like Doc Watson, Graham Nash, Rosanne Cash, Adele, Guy Clark, Ralph Stanley, Sean Lennon, Richie Havens, Ray Davies, even Kevin Bacon. I could go on,” recalls Cliff. “The star level went way up, let’s put it that way.”
When Walter Morgan took a position with Latino USA, Cliff became KUT’s primary live music engineer and would continue in that role for the rest of his career. Every day was a new challenge, the road takes its toll on touring musicians. You never know what kind of moods you’ll encounter, if they’ll be late, if their equipment will be working, if egos will flare. When you’re live on-air, deadlines are always tight. There’s always pressure. When that on-air light goes on, Cliff is always intently focused, even when there’s a big crowd behind him in the control room. You know not to bother him. But he’s never temperamental. I worked with Cliff for thirty years in all kinds of high-pressure situations – live remotes, digging through archives on deadline to find sessions for the 27 compilations of live sessions we have produced. He was never anything but professional and courteous. I can recall him losing his temper only once, to a rude entourage accompanying Los Lonely Boys. “That one almost came to blows,” he recalls.
Through thousands of sessions, with all genres of music being played by every imaginable personality and circumstance, Cliff worked tirelessly to make them sound their best.
“I just love music. I have an open mind. You don’t like every band, yeah. But, you know, you have to be professional and do your job and get an idea of what they want to sound like. It’s all about working with the musician. It goes back to my days of hanging out in Sound City up in Fort Worth. They were a commercial studio so they would bring in all kinds of music. “
When asked to name his favorite session, he’s hard-pressed to come up with only one. But he has no such hesitation describing the best moment of his career – leaving the dark basement studio behind in 2013 to move into the state-of-the-art facilities of the new KUTX Studio 1A. Cliff remembers the early planning stages.
“We wanted to be able to have a live audience, that was very important to us. And we wanted a state of the art PA and mixing console and, you know, the whole nine yards really. And we got it! We actually got what we asked for. The biggest thing for me going in the new studio was – the board and the P.A. and all that was installed – but everything else was just sitting in the studio in crates. All the monitors, all the guitar amps, everything. And I got to unbox everything, hook it all up and get things up and running. When I was in college, one of the courses I took was to design a recording studio, and, you know, to be able to move in and set up. That’s like a dream come true for me.”
Few things in life perform exactly as advertised, but our new Studio 1A is a happy exception.
“We could have an acoustic solo singer-songwriter and just get a great sound. But then you bring in the loudest rock band on Earth, and because the walls are triple insulation, it just kind of absorbs the sound. So you can bring in really loud bands and still get a good sound. Unlike the old studio where it was all flat walls and no isolation, no extravagances. We’ve got the best monitors in the control room, the best monitors on stage. And over the years we’ve added just the best microphone collection you can imagine.”
All this doesn’t add up to much without the talent coming to us. Who stands out for him?
“Working with people like, say, Allen Toussaint. The classiest guy I’ve ever met in my life. He looked like a million bucks, man. Such a long career, too.”
“Of course, I would have to say Robert Plant. Led Zeppelin always stopped in Fort Worth. I would love to go to concerts then, and then actually doing a studio session with him was. Afterwards, he came into the control room, started talking with me about how Jimmy Page miked his acoustic guitars and what type of mic he traveled with when they were tour. I just couldn’t believe it. He’s was telling me about how Jimmy miked his acoustic guitar because he was asking me how I’d miked the guitars that day when he was with Patty Griffin. He just came on his own and just started shooting the breeze with me. After all those times I’ve seen him up on stage, that tall, skinny guy with that long curly blond hair.”
“And sessions with our late friend Ian McLagan. He was our personal “Rock Star”, and he was a big part of the studio after we moved in. The actual B-3 Hammond organ that Mac used on Rod Stewart’s “Maggie Mae” was played in Studio 1-A many times.”
There were a few inevitable disappointments over the years, too, sessions that just didn’t go well. The time Steve Earle began ranting in the middle of his session, likening Texas heroes of the Alamo to slave traders; a Jekyll/Hyde pair of sessions with a local musician who used to be a big part of a famous band – let’s say Derek & the Dominos. And though he’s a big fan of the new technology of several solo and duo DJ acts, Cliff finds an over-reliance on pre-recorded music a bit troubling. But he doesn’t dwell on these things. He loved the forty-year challenge of coming in every day and working on something brand new. Stepping away is difficult, but Cliff feels the time is right. “It’s been a wild ride,” he says with a twinge of regret.
KUTX engineer Jake Perlman worked closely with Cliff over the past few years and will take over 1A whenever the time comes that we turn it back on. “Cliff couldn’t have been more gracious to me.” says Jake, “He allowed me to work alongside him, trading suggestions & ideas back and forth. It was a special working relationship. He didn’t have to be as generous, curious, and open – but I’m definitely a better engineer because he was. The “Magic Factory” (as Cliff calls Studio 1A) is a lot different without him around. I can’t wait to crank this thing back up & carry on his legacy.”
With us all of us working from home, it hasn’t really sunk in that Cliff has really retired, that we won’t be seeing him every day. After all this time of depending on him, it’s almost unimaginable. Yet as a lifetime member of our Concert Club, none of us has seen the last of Cliff. He’s too much of a music fan to stay away. When you see him, be sure to walk up, introduce yourself, and say hi and thanks to this elusive man behind the curtain. We all owe him a lot.
A mural in honor of George Floyd and the larger Black Lives Matter movement created by local artist Chris Rogers. Michael Minasi/KUT
Have recent events awakened the world to injustice? Six Black Austin artists discuss dealing with a lifetime of oppression, police violence, and the ways systemic racism surfaces in the Austin music scene
By Jeff McCord
The killing of George Floyd has resulted in a global eruption of outrage. For a pandemic-stricken world already on edge, yet another death of an unarmed African American at the hands of police served as a linchpin, triggering huge demonstrations in virtually every major city worldwide. They are still ongoing, and their message is loud and clear: Enough.
As we watch these events unfold, everyone has begun to examine our own worlds, our cities, our work and social situations. How has bias and systemic racism played a role, knowingly or unknowingly, within each of us?
Over the past number of days, I have spoken separately with several black Austin musicians (Jackie Venson, Megz from Magna Carda, The Teeta, Chief Cleopatra, Mobley and Tee Double) to gauge their reactions to the upheaval. Each of them came at the situation from their own perspectives. While our conversations all moved to different places, I asked more or less the same questions of all of them – beginning with this one: Why now?
MOBLEY: “A lot of the distractions that keep people from getting activated around these things are gone. And there’s the social position that a lot of people have been left in as a result of the mishandling of the pandemic. You have people who are out of work. They’re seeing no support from the government. They’re watching as the Fed creates a trillion dollars out of thin air and then it goes to corporations, and they get a twelve hundred dollar check. And maybe, if they’re lucky, they get some minimal unemployment for a set amount of time. I think a lot of people were already talking more loudly about the systems of power. This just came along at a moment where people’s dissatisfaction was already high and they had time on their hands. They were stuck in their homes and many of them on the low end, they didn’t have a job to go to every day. I should also say that a lot of credit should be given to the people who’ve been organizing around these issues for decades, because they laid the groundwork for this. We’re all using their words now, we’re all standing on their work.”
Emotions are raw and hard-felt in the wake of all this.
MEGZ: “You feel so hopeless,. As a black woman, my shared existence is to literally be a part of the movement; I have no way of escaping it. But this time around, I felt so charged up to push out the sadness and bring in more productivity. It’s feeling a lot more urgent than it has in the past. This boiled-over frustration where you can’t just take the bare minimum anymore, you know? You experience the pattern over and over and over again. Toni Morrison says the one thing that she finds very remarkable about the Rodney King incident was that we waited for justice and we did not react immediately. We literally thought that the system would do the right thing. This time around, it’s ignorant to even believe that. We are no longer waiting for someone to come and deliver something that should have been delivered 400 years ago. You have to take matters into your own hands. And I think that’s what feels more immediate about this situation. You see that people aren’t letting up. This is exactly what she was talking about.”
THE TEETA: “All this has been very emotionally draining. I feel overall that this is a great thing that people are becoming aware of [racism] and saying that it is actually a reality instead of something that’s far removed for themselves, you know?”
TEE DOUBLE: “I think it’s beautiful. You know, it’s like, they see us now. And a lot of different people are getting affected by the police. You see videos where people are getting pushed down and pepper-sprayed and all this – white people, Hispanic people. Everyone is feeling what black people have been feeling for years. And I think that once you put yourself in their shoes, you can kind of understand that.”
CHIEF CLEOPATRA: “I do feel the more people that realize what’s going on, and the more that they want to help, it’s definitely a sign for positivity and change. More people are stepping up now and speaking up and I think it will make a difference. Now, do I think it’s going to happen overnight? Absolutely not. People are going to have to keep pushing for it, and not just have it churned out for a few weeks. That’s the only way that we’re going to be able to push that type of evil out.”
JACKIE VENSON: “A lot of this is more of the same, but enough of it is not that it feels a little bit different. It feels like there is still light at the end of the tunnel. But it’s still pretty far away. We accelerated a tiny bit, but we’re still behind.”
MOBLEY: “I was talking to a friend of mine the other day. You know, I may be wrong about this, but there’s a quality that the current moment has that is not so different to me from something that happens in relationships between people, whether it’s a friendship or romantic relationship. You’ll get in an argument or you’ll be in a heated conversation and someone will say something. Both of you will look at each other because you know that someone has said a thing that can’t be taken back, and that the nature of your relationship is now going to be different moving forward. You can’t ignore the thing that’s been said, and it’s going to have to be dealt with. There’s a quality in the air. This reminds me of that feeling. A lot of people, especially young people, are not going to be willing to go back to the status quo before the pandemic and before these uprisings, things that were not acceptable in mainstream discourse are now acceptable in mainstream discourse. And I think that people who crave change won’t let that one let that go back. Now, will there be a backlash? That seems entirely possible. Who can say how swiftly the change will come? But I have a sense. There are too many of us now who won’t be satisfied with just gestures. It’s going to take more than that.”
This is not new. This moment in time comes only after centuries of protracted and systemic racism, exemplified through encounters with police, and passed on through generations.
MOBLEY: “Modern policing in the United States evolved directly from slave patrols and posses and militias that were set up with the explicit task of protecting the interests of the white property-owning class, whether that meant committing genocide to clear indigenous Americans from lands that white people wanted to settle, whether that meant recapturing enslaved people who had freed themselves. That evolved into a force responsible for enforcing the Jim Crow laws. A law is only as strong as the willingness of the people in power to enforce it. It’s really important to remember any sort of legal discrimination, any sort of legal injustice that was inflicted on people historically, the police were the foot soldiers of that project. Without them, it wouldn’t have been possible. So racist repression has been central to the role of the police for as long as there have been police in this country. I don’t think it should come as a surprise to anyone that that remains true. It is the way it is, because that is the way that it was designed to be.”
TEE DOUBLE: “Black parents are always. ‘When you go somewhere, don’t appear menacing. Keep your hands out of your pockets. Don’t touch anything that you’re not going to buy. Smile often.’ My parents and their parents and their parents went through where they had to cross the street if a white person was coming towards them. My grandparents couldn’t look a white person in the eye without it being considered threatening. It gets to me and I have to tell my child, ‘Make sure you know, you do this. You do that.’
THE TEETA: “My parents never let us play with toy guns, for instance, because, you know, they always told us the police will say you have a gun and kill you. And this was before Tamir Rice. When I was about maybe about twelve, thirteen, we were like being fancy jaywalking. And [the police) handcuff us, set us on the curb. Really. We didn’t even know what jaywalking was.”
MOBLEY: “Racism is such a thoroughgoing feature of social life in this country. I think it would be difficult for anyone to prep someone for the totality of what it means, especially a child. My parents emphasized my own dignity, my own humanity, a respect of myself and other people. This is something that most parents of black children do. Just giving me the tools in terms of critical thinking, in terms of a willingness to confront moral lapses as I see them giving me the tools to work out for myself what it meant to be black in a fundamentally racist society. But, you know, I think for a lot of us, probably most of us, it’s too big to just explain to anybody. It’s a thing you kind of have to figure out for yourself.”
MEGZ: “It comes down to upholding a general system. This thing of authority up here, [the police] don’t necessarily want to be level with the average civilian. It’s almost like they have to be seen as above us, they have to be in this position of power. Leadership can’t necessarily look like: ‘I’m the boss, I’m calling the shots’. Leadership should be interactive, a collaboration. That is leadership that I feel like our country has never experienced. This was something I thought of watching the Michael Jordan documentary because he was such a mean person. But he got that championship ring. When you’re asked to do that kind of psychological damage to someone to get a championship ring, or in this case, to get the result that you want, that can’t be what leadership looks like in our community. You have to be able to talk to people, you have to be able to collaborate with people. You have to be able to engage. You know, you can’t just show up on the scene because it’s human nature to be defensive to that kind of behavior. If you know, you’re hanging out, you’re chilling. You’ve done nothing wrong. If someone comes at you and assumes that you’re a criminal or assumes something bad about you, you instantly get defensive. And so now we can’t get anything done because you’re hyperreactive.”
CHIEF CLEOPATRA: “I grew up in Corsicana, and I recently just found out that I had a cousin back in the day who was brutally murdered by the cops in ‘ 93. His name was Craig Thomas. They had a protest in Corsicana last weekend, which was the anniversary of what happened to him. They were worried that things were going to pop off and they had the National Guard in Corsicana, of all places.”
MOBLEY: “Obviously, I’m a black person, and that has always colored my interactions with police. I have had no shortage of negative interactions where my dignity was assaulted. But I have never faced any kind of mortal violence. The thing that kind of activated me on these issues first was seeing the response to the murder of Eric Garner, not just the response on the part of the state and the machinery that is supposed to seek justice in those circumstances. The thing that really aggravated me was seeing this man get killed, choked to death in broad daylight. And looking around at the rest of the people around me, particularly white people, and just being overwhelmed by the profound indifference to his plight. It was a real eye-opener.”
“I routinely get pulled over when I’m driving around the country on tour. Rarely do those stops end with any sort of citation. Frequently I’m asked to get out of the car. I’m asked whether I have an arrest record or a criminal record and responded to incredulously when I say I don’t. There are any number of assaults on dignity that happen.”
TEE DOUBLE: “ I would love for the day to come where black parents don’t have to tell their children. ‘ No matter how successful you become, you’re always black’. That’s always gonna be the thing keeping you back. You have to work a thousand times harder.’ I want to get to the point where everybody is just a person, you work hard, you succeed. A lot of these parental conversations, I hope they dissipate over the years. But there has to be action. The politicians who are kneeling, marching with people, that’s a great photo op. I love how that looks. But what laws are you passing? What laws have you passed the 40 years you’ve been in office?”
We all like to believe that Austin is an enlightened and progressive city, but for people of color, this can be far from the truth. The April shooting of Mike Ramos is just the latest of a long history of police violence against African Americans.
THE TEETA: “Austin. I think it’s marketed as all these great things, but it’s segregated. And it was designed that way. It was built that way. And I would just like to see that instead of gentrification that just comes with ignoring the fact that they’re black and brown people already here on this side of town, you can put funding towards building up a community that’s already here in place. And not just fuel capitalism. Put more effort towards the educational foundation on this side of the highway, some of that overspending that’s going on with the police.”
TEE DOUBLE: “When I was younger and I was at Maplewood Elementary, the police would come and do Police Day, they would open their trunk and they would give the girls stuffed teddy bears, they would give everybody a police badge sticker. There was a real community bonding, like, we’re here to help you. If you need anything, call us. Now, when you see the police and they go into their trunk, they’re getting a shield. They’re getting a baton. They’re getting a rubber bullet gun. Remember Police Ice? He was a Hispanic police officer. He would go around to different schools and rap, talk about police interaction and sing along with the kids. And he was loved on all parts of the town. We need more action like that. Police don’t have to become rappers. I’m not saying that. But they need better interaction when they go into these neighborhoods. If you go into a neighborhood, go in there to sit down and meet. Who lives there? Don’t go in there strong-arming and saying ’Get out my way’. The police have to be more willing in actions to show that they’re here to help as well.”
MEGZ: “I actually wanted to be a police when I was a kid. It was first on my occupation list growing up. New Orleans is a predominantly black city, and you know, they have their issues. But what you see is more community policing because the people that are policing you look like you. They understand the community. They understand you as a person. I have a lot of family in law enforcement. So for me, it was never a thing that I was afraid of police because I knew I could call on a family member or that the cop, they may know my family member. When I moved to Texas and my very first week in school after Hurricane Katrina, the police were called on me because they accused me of being in a gang. And this is when I started to see the fracture in the system. You know, I’m literally like a month removed from Hurricane Katrina. I’m missing home. I’m drawing. And I have like a little picture of the Superdome and the seven – I was raised in the 7th Ward – and bubble letters I have. It was just a drawing. My teacher, she takes my notebook up and she sees it as threatening. She sees it as gang-related. Turns it into the principal. And the police come to get me out of class and tell me that I’m going to be suspended. They had no real evidence that this was actually gang-affiliated, which it was not. And they just decided that I was guilty of it, and I was suspended for three days. It was my first week at school. I’ve always carried that around, being seen as a criminal when they don’t even know you. I mean, I think that’s the heart of what we’re talking about when these things happen. I never before experienced the injustices of the system. But when I moved to Texas, I started to see how policing impacted my community. Criminalized me from the moment I stepped through the door, and that’s when my relationship with the police changed forever. I was maybe like 12, 13 years old. And it’s never been the same.”
TEE DOUBLE: “Usually a policeman who comes into a black neighborhood is not black. Most policemen who patrol the Eastside are white cops. You need people in the community who look like the community to ease the tension. You know, I don’t see tons of black cops patrolling Westlake. If I’m a black cop and I go into a black neighborhood and I see something happening, I can relate and say, oh, I grew up that same way. They say, man, your mother wouldn’t like that. Or I know your parents. Right? Now a cop comes into your neighborhood and they don’t look like you. They don’t understand the way you talk to your friends so they can take it as being threatening. Because you might be louder than the average person when you talk. They’re like, calm down. Why are you so excited? And it’s like, should I whisper? You know, do I have to cower down to you because you’re a cop? No, you’re a person just like I’m a person. And if we both had that understanding, then it works out. You’re actually here to protect me. And once that goes out the window, you see cops pushing people down on the ground. That older gentleman in Buffalo that they pushed down the other day, another cop actually tries to lean down to help him. And another cop pushes that cop, says, keep walking. That sums up the problems right there, you know, not all cops are bad cops, but the cops who try to be good, are pushed by the bad ones.”
THE TEETA: “Here in Austin, it’s never been a good thing. White people look at the police as something that represents safety. I’ve never looked at the police and felt safe. They’ve never helped me with anything. Anytime the police were called, even if I was the one in trouble, it still ended up worse than it would have been if we would have just left the police out of it.”
TEE DOUBLE: “In black households, in black communities. Calling the police is the last, last, last thing you want to do.”
Discrimination is not exclusive to the police in Austin. It permeates everything, even our treasured music community.
JACKIE VENSON: “In Austin, mostly I see microaggressions, subliminal, not overt so they’re harder to prove. Honestly, that’s the worst kind. But it’s there. What did they do? They didn’t do one thing, it’s what they’ve done over fifteen years. That’s what it is in Austin. It’s hard to do anything about, especially as one person, you know. And it’s hard to convince people when really, it’s right in front of our faces all the time. You know, I tell people, before the lockdown, next time you go out, look at what’s being promoted and then tell me who you see. Tell me who ninety-seven percent of the audience is. And tell me who’s on stage. And like, once you see it, you’re not going to be able to unsee it.”
CHIEF CLEOPATRA: “I’ve only been a solo artist for about a year, and though I’ve had a stroke of streak of luck, I’m wondering how easy is it going to be for me to get played on the radio. I’ve been like I’ve been struggling with that. And I’ve noticed that other black artists have been struggling with it too. And, you know, it does hit you because, you know, you feel like music is just good and you know, why not? I can’t really say that it is 100 percent of me feeling like there’s discrimination. But it does make you think, OK, where is my place in Austin music scene?”
TEE DOUBLE: “When I started doing shows, we couldn’t even get booked on Sixth Street. Now, well before the pandemic, it was hip hop everywhere. Hip hop is a mainstay down there. Well, when I started, they were like, you guys aren’t professional. How many people do you plan to have? What is the imagery I’m going to bring to my club if I have five hundred black people in here, regardless of if they’re spending money? Before we even got to a money conversation. It was all these questions.”
MEGZ: “Even if we’re not specifically talking about racism, a lot of women in the industry feel that there is definitely there’s this hierarchy going on. We’ve been undervalued. This is how the music industry looks. Since how have we far back we can remember? And now in Austin specifically, you see people just kind of playing off of that. There are ideas about what hip hop is, where rap is, just like their ideas about where blues was and, you know, jazz. And they take that stigma and it shows itself in how we’re booked and how our lineups are designed. Can’t have too many rappers, can’t have too many black artists in one spot. You see it and how they engineer music, it’s deeply embedded in everything. It goes so deep, you know, the demeanor, the microaggressions, the tone in which you talk to me. I’ve been in so many situations where I felt like I was being talked down like a child. I’ve been doing this for almost 10 years. So to treat me like I don’t know what I’m doing or that I’m not a professional, it really shows that this is embedded in the culture of the scene.”
JACKIE VENSON: “What I see in the Austin scene is, number one, a lack of creativity and a lack of desire to really want to dive deep into the soul community of talent. I’m talking about not just like Austin proper. It’s been super gentrified. I’m talking about Manor and Pflugerville, Round Rock and Leander. Opening it up to the places where it has been historically proven that black people have been pushed out to. And then the second thing is like this weird, like fear of who’s going to show up to the show. When I hear there’s not enough talent black talent in Austin that draws the crowd, what I’m really hearing is the black talent in Austin that draws a crowd draws the kind of crowd that we don’t want. We don’t want your crowd here. That’s what I hear, because that’s what they’re saying, it’s just blatantly untrue. That was the most disheartening thing I’ve heard in a very long time.”
“That’s why the hip hop scene has is struggling so much in this town. First of all, hip hop is kept out of all the major press and stations from this town. There are a few exceptions. And the reason why is because even when they try to put on a show, only a few venues will accept them. If you go to booking sites, you’ll find, like 80 percent of venues in any city are going to say no hip hop, no hip hop, seriously. It just says it on the website. It’s the same thing. We don’t want your crowd here. We don’t want your music here because it’s going to draw a crowd of people that we are made uncomfortable about when they are in large numbers. We don’t like being around large amounts of black people. Seriously, it’s just what they’re saying.”
As more people are finally starting to listen and understand the depths of our racial discrimination, what can we hope to see coming out of this discussion?
JACKIE VENSON: “In a venue where black performers are being kept out, the staff can strike. The staff can speak out, out a person, so that they’re forced to change publicly or people can stop supporting their business. That’s why it’s really helpful to out people. It’s not enough to individually not be racist anymore. You have to be anti-racist. The difference between being not racist, and anti-racist is that when you are not racist, you have a love for all people and you do your best not to judge anybody. You don’t use slurs and you’re not mean to people because of what they look like. That’s not being racist But being anti-racist, it’s all about being careful about where you put your money. Careful about who you elect into your city, into power, into education, into seats on the council. That’s being anti-racist. That’s harder That requires research That requires you to think about everywhere you shop and everywhere you eat. So the bartenders that work at a club that doesn’t let black music in, if you’re working for a racist establishment, you might not be racist, but you’re definitely not anti-racist. You can walk out of this place and look out this place that’s being anti-racist. That’s what we need to be. That’s how you change it. You wake up every day and you’re considerate of the problem that we have as a community and you actively do things to defy it.”
THE TEETA: “[Police} should be held to the same standards as civilians. If we just decided to kill people and commit acts of violence towards people, we’d be incarcerated. And I believe that they should be held to a higher standard if they’re supposed to be the authority.”
JACKIE VENSON: “Let’s just start right now. I’ve seen a little bit of that. The council had a public meeting about divesting 80 million from new weapons and talking about the things they were going to do with that money instead. I think that we all want the same thing. I mean, if you’re just a reasonable thinking human, wouldn’t you agree that a police officer should also be trained in social work? This isn’t radical. It’s so obvious. It’s actually radical that it hasn’t happened yet. It’s radical that we’re living this way. That’s radical.”
CHIEF CLEOPATRA: “The president has a lot of leverage. And regardless of it being Trump or whoever, we’re supposed to be leaning on them during hard times, you know. And I have not really seen Trump fairly address the problems that, in fact, he’s denying the problems. That’s a slap in the face because it’s like we have all these facts. I feel like the president should be addressing us, comforting us in this time of a horrible mess. We’re not getting that. Even today, I read he is getting ready to start his first rally in Tulsa. And I’m just like, are you serious? You’re going to the place of the black Wall Street massacre? You are so insensitive to what is going on. And as many people as he pulls in in influences, I feel like if he were on the right side of the coin, there would be a diffusing of emotions. I’m not saying people would not still be angry, but I feel like there would be an assurance. The President is on our side. He’s had many times to prove that he is a man of honor and it just not it just hasn’t happened.”
MOBLEY: “I don’t think that so-called leaders have historically been responsible for the most vital and necessary changes to our social systems, our moral systems. Historically, the people who have been responsible for that, are the people on the ground, people living relatively small relatively and anonymous lives, making courageous moral choices collectively and forcing the hand of so-called leaders and those in power to recognize the moral realities that they assert. I guess the question of what the role of leaders may be in implementing the changes needed is not as important as we like to think it is. Absolutely they have tremendous power. They could, with the stroke of a pen, change things in a truly fundamental way, alter the course of people’s lives dramatically. But I don’t think that we can be content to hope or wait for that. I think I think the onus is on all of us collectively who are committed to moving our society to a place where we can be proud of the way that we treat everyone in our society, to start making those changes and to push those who are invested with greater power than ourselves to either get on board or face consequences.”
THE TEETA: “This whole thing has been approached over and over and over, hundreds of years we have approached this. We’ve done our best to participate in the political process and try to be diplomatic about it. But we’re dealing with the same stuff now that we were dealt with in the sixties, Martin Luther King and Malcolm X and John F. Kennedy and all of them. Do you think that in their minds they thought that in the year 2020 that we would be still dealing with the same issues? Why are we dealing with the same thing?”
TEE DOUBLE: “We need the police. Or It’ll be the wild, wild west. But I think the police need more training. I don’t think the police should be militarized like the army. When they come into your neighborhood with tanks and they’re so bulked up with gear, like even if they don’t say, ‘I’m here to beat your ass’. Just the look of them, you know, they’re probably going to. And now cops, they have this blue line that when they do something, everybody is going to support them. The cops in Buffalo who pushed the guy down went to jail, but 57 cops resigned over that. When I become seventy-five, a young guy pushes me down and I start bleeding out the ears and everybody just walks over me, how would I feel about that? Think about what if that’s you on the other hand. And when you start empathizing with other people, it makes you pause and say, well, I’m not going to do that. But the police, a lot of the police, they’re just like, I’m gonna go out there and you know, everything is a nail and I’m the hammer. I’m gonna hit everything. You’re peacefully protesting, you have a mask on, you’re chanting and yeah, you’re mad, so you’re going to jail. I shouldn’t be upset if you’re yelling in my face because, yeah, you’re kind of pissed off. But instead, the police spray. They beat. They push. If you have police who will say, no, I’ll turn in a bad cop, that’s when things can start. Police, they usually tell, you know, people of color if you’re in see a gang or a drug, ‘if you see something, say something’. That’s their main tag line. But they see a lot and they say very little. So lead by example.”
JACKIE VENSON: “We put regulations in place to stop this blue code thing from happening. We put policies in place to make it so that a cop can be anti-racist without losing their job. We put policies in place that make the training longer than six months. A doctor trains for 10 years. Treat the job more like we treat all the other jobs that deal with human lives. We need to treat them like we treat doctors. The training needs to be intense. We need to treat them like any other occupation that deals with human lives. We train them in social work. We don’t put so much money into weapons. We have different types of cops, nonviolent cops that don’t carry lethal weapons. Sometimes there’s a real situation where you really do need a cop with a gun to show up. Maybe there’s like some kind of like crazy firefight going on between some gangs. It happens. So that’s when you in bring in the police that have lethal weapons, and they require more training. Maybe they are in training for six years instead of four. I’m spitballing ideas because the way that we do it now isn’t working. Somebody dies every day and they’re disproportionately black or brown in every state and every city in this country.”
MEGZ: “What we experienced in the past, it’s a very real thing for us. There are stereotypes about us. There are things that people actually believe that aren’t true. There are actually studies that say black people can tolerate more pain than white people. I do think that it is almost ingrained. It’s one of those things where if you’ve never been taught otherwise, you never try to see it in any other light. You know, because as a white person with privilege, as a white person, with opportunity. Why would you change how you think? I don’t think people even attempt to gain that kind of perspective. And so that’s the situation, you’ve already have made up your mind about who I am. I would respect police work if they went the extra mile to gain some perspective. I know it’s a difficult thing because life could be at risk or, you know, you have to make quick decisions. But there’s the whole point of a profession is you need to learn how to do the job. You know, you can say the same thing about a doctor. It can be a lot of pressure. But people do it every day. And that’s the whole point of getting it. You swore in to do the job and to do the job right. So I have to hold you accountable for that. I think it’s obvious that the entire function of the system has to be torn down and rebuilt. And I don’t necessarily just mean reform because reform would suggest that you are taken, which you already have, and tweaking it a little bit. This goes a lot deeper than that. You almost have to reconstruct it completely.”
MOBLEY: “ I know there are a number of reasons why people may act as though [defunding the police] is a complicated notion to understand. We live in an era where certain political factions have called for Planned Parenthood to be defunded. They’ve called for defunding Obamacare. They have put into practice defunding education and arts funding and all sorts of things. At no point during all of that did any of us profess any confusion about what was meant. It’s an utterly simple and straightforward statement. And I think that the idea of defunding the police does frighten some people because of where their political interests may lie, whether they be on the right or the left. And I think that some people will kind of opportunistically want to co-opt the momentum of those ideas and kind of transmute that that energy into more reformist policies. It’s my view that it’s not a thing that can be fixed. It’s a thing that must be replaced. Even if I grant that it is possible to fix it, even if I were to grant that it was possible to reform it. I think those of us whose lives hang in the balance. Those of us who represent the statistic that one in a thousand black men will be killed by a police officer, we have stood patiently enough as reform after reform, after reform has been proposed has been, to varying degrees of enthusiasm and commitment, implemented over the course of nearly two centuries. And we are still here at a status quo where black men are two and a half to three times more likely than white men to be killed by the police. If your answer to a human moral emergency on that scale is slow and measured change and slightly fewer people getting killed every year, people with irreplaceable lives, people whose families can never, ever be compensated for the loss of those lives, not to mention the loss of potential, loss of possibility, the loss of dignity, all of the ways in which this current system taxes the people under its heel. If your response to that moral emergency is ‘wait’, then I don’t think I have anything to talk to you about. I don’t think we are operating under compatible moral systems. It isn’t something that can be waited upon. It’s something that must be ended now. Reforms simply won’t accomplish that. There is a moral imperative, in my view, to do away with the current system of things and replace them wholesale and across all parts of society with a comprehensively new system that protects and affirms the dignity and possibility of all people.”
JACKIE VENSON: “Wouldn’t you like to live in a world where you don’t have to think about this stuff anymore? Wouldn’t you like it if a system is set up to weed some of this stuff out before it even manifests? Wouldn’t you like to think about all the stuff that could come along with that? We could put more money back into education. And that could benefit all of us, every single one of us in so many ways. Maybe racism doesn’t affect you, like physically to your face, but it affects you in sinister ways where we’re keeping people out, people that could have changed our country and our lives for the better. A favorite quote of mine is, I’m less interested in the new things in Albert Einstein’s mind. I’m more interested in the geniuses of equal caliber that died in sweatshops. Imagine all the people over the last 400 years that this country has gone around, all the geniuses that were forced into slavery. You know, this kind of stuff could benefit all of us if we let all of the minds in our country thrive. We can reach incredible heights. We’ve already reached pretty good heights, not letting all of our country thrive. Imagine a world where everybody gets the chance to thrive and we all benefit from each other’s no genius in trying. Wondering what can you do today to be anti-racist? Watch Netflix and check out a documentary, something that you usually wouldn’t watch. Just that one thing. That’s the thing that you did today. You watched TV, but you learned something and now you’re going more aware. It’s a muscle. Imagine anti-racism as a 10-pound weight, you just pick it up and do like 30 minutes of crunches a day. Read a book. Justify it. Go against it. Not that hard. You just have to learn stuff.”
MOBLEY: “When I was in my very early 20s, I would be more willing to kind of offer up a detailed account of what racism looks like. I grew increasingly impatient with that exercise at a certain point. There are 200 years of literature, people detailing the grand systemic scale, the intimate and personal scales of what the problem means, people whose entire careers, lifetimes have been spent journaling and detailing. If you’ve literally never considered this, even though hundreds and thousands of people have been trying to point your gaze toward it, I just don’t have the patience any longer for that. At a certain point, the fact that I say it exists has to be good enough. You could fill libraries with all the words that have been written about what this thing is. It is a real thing, a real problem, a deadly problem. And it must be taken seriously simply on the grounds that millions of us are saying that it is happening.”
Barracuda’s Closing A Harbinger Of Things To Come
By Jeff McCord
This week, the Barracuda, in business on 611 East 7th Street for nearly five years, announced it was closing its doors for good. They join a growing list of Austin businesses that have fallen during the pandemic, including some, like Threadgills and the Townsend, which also featured live music. Every small business is suffering during the shutdown, but it’s especially true for music venues. Their math only works with big crowds, and even then it can be a struggle.
“I think when people come into a music venue, they see it when it’s packed,” says Jason McNeely, managing partner of the Barracuda. “And that’s usually for a two to three hour period of time. But the rest of the week, it’s an empty space that doesn’t really generate a lot of income for us.”
Austin venues like the Barracuda had come to rely upon the annual South by Southwest festival for their survival.
“We’re on a very low-profit margin. March was our moment to pay ourselves and to catch up, pay off debts and to get the momentum going into the summer. The summer’s the most difficult part of the year. And so we would have a little bit of padding to get us through that and then fall would start and we would be breaking even again. Winter would be like summer would it would be a lot slower and more difficult. So March and South by Southwest is everything to the music venue.”
I can’t explain to the debt collectors that we’re holding out for government funding.” – Jason McNeely
Of course, there was no South by Southwest, and music venues everywhere shut down in March.
The situation is extremely dire for music venues. Their ‘first-to-close, last-to-reopen’ business model finds them with no revenue and bills mounting. The National Independent Venues Alliance (NIVA), a newly formed organization lobbying Congress for financial relief, has enlisted many Austin venues (including Barracuda) as members.
Without government aid, NIVA estimates 90% of independent venues will run out of money in the next six months, half of them well before that. I asked McNeely if aid would have staved off Barracuda’s closing.
“I support NIVA, any kind of advocacy on behalf of creative spaces is desperately needed. But there was no point where I thought that I could rely on that. I can’t explain to the debt collectors that we’re holding out for government funding.”
As for ‘limited capacity’ openings, McNeely says that doesn’t really work for music venues, either.
“It doesn’t at all. I also own parts of other businesses, restaurants and bars, and it does make sense that we can we can open up somewhat safely in a spread out environment. But with a music venue, we’re hosting a special event where people go to see artists. We can’t really monitor and ask people to stand six feet apart. And have artists perform with masks. It’s just a lot more challenging.”
“Before this pandemic crisis happened, we were in the middle of another crisis, which is affordability,” explains McNeely. “And it’s not just an affordability issue in the city of Austin. It’s everywhere in every major city in America. And I think until city governments are willing to look at that issue, then it’s going to be incredibly difficult for music venues to operate profitably. There’s a way for music venues to change the business model and have other revenue streams to support. But for the music venue in downtown Austin that has four or five touring shows a month, it’s going to be a huge challenge to be profitable.”
As of today, COVID-19 cases are up 42% in Travis County, largely attributed to relaxed social distancing. Barracuda is a real loss, but it will not be the last. The clock is ticking for venue owners all over, and especially here in a place we call the Live Music Capital of the World. What is Austin without its clubs?
City, state and federal officials need to act immediately to do any and all they can to aid and preserve these businesses. Communities, city blocks should adopt clubs and help them with fundraisers. We have to save these businesses. Our talented artists depend on them. And our very identity is at stake.
Have ideas? Join the discussion on the KUTX Facebook page.