Roughly two weeks after protests erupted across the country in response to the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who was killed by police in Minneapolis, and a day after thousands took to the streets of Austin for a peaceful demonstration, four black Austin musicians joined our weekly Zoom chat show, the Austin Music Mashup, for a conversation about race and music in Austin.
In a wide-ranging discussion that lasted nearly an hour, expressive pop artist Mobley, R&B singer Mélat and rappers Ghislaine "Qi Dada" Jean from Riders Against the Storm and Kydd Jones spoke on police brutality, the recent protests and using their platforms as artists to advocate for social justice.
They also took a hard look at institutional racism in the Austin music scene and the often harrowing experience of trying to make it as a black musician in this city.
Here, they talk about discrimination in the Austin music industry. In the second part, we share what they said about police brutality and why the protests give them hope.
These are their stories.
(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Deborah Sengupta Stith: People of color in Austin have long talked about how there's this disconnect between Austin’s self-perception as this liberal hippie oasis and the reality on the ground, which is that Austin is a very segregated city. There is a lack of economic opportunities. There's a lack of representation across the board for people of color in Austin. For those of y'all who grew up in Austin, can you talk about some of the experiences you had either growing up or as an adult that kind of illustrate that disconnect?
Mélat: You know, I've always said that I never felt like (South by Southwest and Austin City Limits Music Festival) had any space for me. I rarely, if ever, saw anyone who looked like me in the music scene. So why would I think that this was a place that I could even start doing that? And it proved to be so. To be honest, it felt like I had to fight for every inch that I got as an R&B singer in a place that doesn't even understand what R&B is. I mean, I've been told, "Oh, I love R&B, the Supremes are my favorite." I get it. That's not me.
I've been nominated for best hip-hop artist in Austin and I was offended for myself and for the hip-hop artists because I was like, "Oh, how on earth?" It was because an R&B category didn't exist. I don't know how many hip-hop shows I played, because there was just literally no place that I could go sing my songs that people would even care, or recognize what I was doing.
When it comes to the organizations, one of the things that I'm most frustrated with at this point is the fact that a lot of the leaders of these organizations do seem to realize that they have racial genre-based issues, right? However, when it comes to making actionable differences, I have yet to see those things in place. We may have equity and diversity programs here and there, but what are they actually doing?
It's been years that I've heard these talks. What is happening? Why is nothing more happening? It's a little bit disheartening to have a city called the Live Music Capital of the World. Yet it doesn't know how to embrace all these different genres. It doesn't even know how to categorize them or how to understand them.
I always said, "You know, at least they understand there's a problem. At least they know there's something to work toward." But I don't feel like we've quite worked toward much yet.
DSS: Kydd, you started rapping when you were in high school with your brother. How did that work for you when you were trying to transition out of school and into the clubs?
Kydd Jones: We started off in middle school and then throughout high school, you know, just steady pushing the music. And then, I guess, whenever we started trying to get to the clubs, the only clubs you could really perform in back then, it was like Victory Grill, this one hip-hop club on Riverside and then maybe Spiro’s. Those were like the main three venues and if you got to perform at any one of those, you know, you were doing something.
But me, my pops was from New York City. So I always had seen things on a greater scale. So that wasn't really enough for me, I wanted to go downtown downtown and I saw that was really going to be a challenge. No one had even made that strive to even really go downtown downtown and do those things, mainly because we wasn't accepted in those clubs.
And it's just been tough. You realize that the structure really isn't made for, you know, "urban music," black music, hip-hop music. The city isn't ready for that.
In ways, I think they are ready for that. I think just the people that are in charge, that are doing these things are racist. They old. You know, we need to change these things, these people with, you know, these midcentury thoughts and mindsets. We don't need these people in charge of our organizations, when, you know, black music is the No. 1 thing in the world. Period. Black culture, you know what I'm saying?
To have people who don't even appreciate the culture, to even know what you know, what type of genres you know, from R&B to soul to neo soul to XYZ, they can't even grasp those concepts. We should make these people take tests every year, you know. What do you know? What do you know about these artists? What do you know about this genre? But if you just rock and country they need to get you up out of there. Because that's not really representing what we got going on. Definitely in this city, we the Live Music Capital of the World, but we only represent, you know, two genres, if that.
Mélat: Just one quick thing to kind of support what Kydd was saying, I'm not naming names here, but there was a leader of one of these many organizations who took it upon themselves to learn a little bit more about the history of music. In learning the history of music, she realized that, you know, black people came up with rock ’n’ roll and jazz and all that. They were the founders of this music. And that was her realization within the past, like a year or two, and she's, you know, one of the people who runs this organization. So, I think, as silly as a test sounds, it's actually very true. I think education is super important in that aspect.
Mobley: I agree with everything they said, but also to push it further, I don't want to let these people off the hook and say it's just that they don't get genres because it's not just that. There are white people in indie bands singing R&B melodies and people get it and it's fine. There are white people in these bands who are rapping and people get it and it's fine.
I'm not making hip-hop and I got written up in the Chronicle as a rap artist on a rundown for a music festival. And it's not because of the type of music I'm making. I've never rapped in my life. It's a race thing. It is a blackness thing. The issue isn't that they don't understand genre. The issue is that this country has a racial caste system, and the hierarchy is set up to direct opportunities, to direct funds, to direct platforms, to direct power to people who are white, and to people who have proximity to whiteness. And to divert those things away from people who are black, no matter whether they're making rock music or pop music or hip-hop or R&B. Now, hip-hop, R&B, all that stuff, that is the easy way that they do it. It's a shorthand for doing it. But it's not about the genre. It's about racism. Don't get it twisted and think, oh, they just don't understand the genre. People know what they're doing.
Qi Dada: I have to echo what Kydd Jones is saying (about) the limited amount of venues that would allow you to do a damn thing. The limited amount of cultural education that would allow you to do a damn thing. It's hard to get through to someone who really thinks they're sophisticated that is basic as hell. Basic as hell. Just exquisite ignorance.
Our success has always been in the people. That's been our education. Because we come from an organizing background. It's also important when you see Mobley, when you see Mélat, when you see Kydd Jones, when you see RAS, when you see all these black artists, these are people with extensive backgrounds.
This town was created, this whole mecca of music was based and created off of the backs of black musicians. And you don't know how to categorize? That's nonsense. You don't know how to funnel money to make sure that keeps going, to make sure that that gets elevated? The fact that you're the Live Music Capital of the world (and) you don't know how to make sure that it gets elevated, you're doing it purposefully.
And so we have to get through that noise. And continue to get through that noise. And continue to get through that noise. But it was the people who came in, 10 people at a time, 20 people at a time, till it was hundreds of people at a time, thousands of people that wanted to hear it. It was the people.
So the structure has to catch up at this point, right? The structure has to catch up and they have to be held accountable. They have to be redistributed, reconstructed. The table, that's part of the whole thing, too. It’s just like, OK, well, you know, getting a seat at the table, making sure people are at the table. When you're at the table, they treat you like a child. They insult you and treat you like a child, like they're doing you a favor. So you go and build your own table. And that's what each one of the people on here has had to do.
It's like Hollywood or anything else. It's like, "OK, well, we got these positions available. Do you have a band? Do you have a guitar?" You know what I mean? "What are the things that we can do that makes sense for the constituency that we're providing for?"
You know, all of these folks who are the patrons of these organizations, they have to pander to them, which is natural. You get that, of course. You got to pander to an organization who's supporting your organization, but there's also the responsibility of expanding the patronage expanding the imaginations of your patrons, right? That's not hard.
But all of us have had to do that on our own and demand and just be ourselves and glow and do what we do and build our own tables. It's exquisite to me, like the bands who are winning Grammys, nominated for Grammys, are black and brown. And still, Austin wants to represent Austin music on some other. It blows my mind. What the hell are they doing? It's an insult.
And so you have to traverse insult just to be able to make your art. The dehumanization and the infantilization of you to do it, it's disgusting.
And they're going to change now.
DSS: When you're talking about these organizations, are you talking about nonprofits like Black Fret? Or are you talking about the clubs?
Qi Dada: It's a combination. Man, I don't wanna put nobody on blast, because I'm trying to keep this very civil, but the insult is out of goddamn control. The insult is out of goddamn control. Yes, it's organizations like Black Fret and organizations like the Austin Music Foundation. And at times, you can say it's been helpful. I'm not saying it hasn't been helpful, but the amount of conversation that has to be had, the amount of awareness, the amount of pointing it out on the map that has to be had, is outrageous. It's also for-profit entities. It’s venues. You know what I mean? It's booking agencies that exist here. I don't understand. The black art here is dope. You could be making so much money. You're choosing not to mess with them. You're choosing not to. You're choosing not to.
DSS: Mobley, as somebody who makes anthemic pop music that's perfect festival music, do you feel like you have gotten some resistance to your music as a black artist?
Mobley: I mean, that's, that's such a big part of just being black. It's like, well, I see this person is doing this, I see this person doing this and I see I'm doing this. Is it me? Is it? Or is it a racism thing?
The problem is, I shouldn't have to wonder that. And, unquestionably, it's reasonable for me to wonder that, whether or not I have, you know, ironclad proof.
I've been told to my face that I didn't get things because I was black. I've been told to my face by booking agents that have been used in various places in Austin and around the country (that talent buyers said), "Yeah, we like the music and then we saw the artwork."
Either hearing just myself or through my booking agent whatever, "We didn't realize it was black, we're not booking this."
So I know racism has been a part of it, but there's enough evidence at a certain point, you get tired of providing examples and pleading your case. It's like if after 400 years, if after the past hundred years of mass media, if after the past 20 years, 15 years of the internet age and all of the mounting evidence, you don't believe that this is a problem, then you're not somebody I need to be wasting my time in conversation with.
But I mean, short answer. Yeah. I mean, clearly. Look at the lineups on festivals. Look at how overwhelmingly over-represented white men are, how few women of any race there are, how few non-white people there are on these festivals, despite the fact, like everybody's saying, look at Billboard. Look at who's selling. Look at who's making the most popular music in the world, who's actually generating the cultural production that artists black and non-black are going to for their source material. Then taking that and turning that into wealth. I don't think there's any question that every black artist faces obstacles and disadvantages by simple virtue of their race. No question. So yes, short answer for me. But it's not just me. It's everybody.
DSS: Does anybody have a story about an encounter with club folks or fans that was either uncomfortable or awkward or overtly racist that you feel comfortable sharing?
Qi: I had a white woman grab my breast on stage. We were doing Body Rock (a regular dance party hosted by Riders Against the Storm). This is a very regular thing that we've had to, like, explicitly talk about at Body Rock.
When we talk about body safety and safe spaces and stuff, like a lot of time, I think like white women include themselves in the idea of being safe. But I don't really know what it is. That's not a conversation we have enough, but like the amount of black women I know that have been ogled by white women in clubs is astounding. Grabbing their hair, grabbing their breasts, grabbing their behinds, just thinking it's cool, whatever. I don't know if it’s some sort of doll play. I don't know what it is entirely.
It transferred from Las Vegas to Austin, being big for bridesmaids. So it's like a lot of drunk white women in the streets, drunk white women at your shows as of late. So it was a part of that ritual whatever that is, that happens when you're kind of drunk and with the girls and you know, it was one of those types of crowds that had come into the party and just didn't understand the culture of the party and then went in like that.
Kydd Jones: Just being in Austin period, like, I'm not gonna single any one venue out because I feel like as a whole, as black artists, we experience it in multiple venues in different places. For instance, things that I've experienced have been like going to venues that I'm performing in and not having an adequate sound man, right? Like we're paying for a sound man to be there at the venue that the venue is providing, and he's leaving in between sets. Same with having adequate bartenders at venues. They say they want to stop early because no one's tipping. This is what they’re saying.
And just, you know, performing at clubs, certain people can't get in because all of a sudden now there's a dress code. How's there a dress code? There's 100 people in there wearing the same thing as I do and all of a sudden, there's a dress code. I guess there's too many black people in there.
Mobley: I can piggyback a little bit off of both what both you said. First of all, what Kydd said, I have had countless shows, some in Austin, but I tour a lot, so this has happened to me all over the country where I am playing the show, I'm headlining the show or whatever and I go out to go to the van or whatever, or to take a walk. I come back and I can't get in the club where I'm playing because of a dress code that all of a sudden applies that didn't apply when I was there to do the soundcheck and when I was there loading in. So like, that's just blatant stuff.
And then, piggybacking off what Qi said, we don't talk about this a lot, but there is definitely a particular kind of racist sexual entitlement that particularly white women can have. It's not just with women. In my experience, I routinely have been groped, violated any kind of way you can think of inappropriately touching somebody in a private room let alone while they're standing on a stage. (If) you can imagine it, it has happened. And that's not even touching on inappropriate comments about your genitals or, like, just pick the most disgusting things that you can think of. And it's commonplace. It happens constantly. It happens all the time. And what am I going to do? Stop the show every time it happens? Like, I would never get through a show.
Again it should be enough to just say it happens. I'm not giving you any more details than that. I'm telling you that this is a thing that is, in a material way, an impediment to me having dignity, to me being able to make a living doing the thing that I do, to me having, you know, feeling safe wherever I am.
So, you know, there are the egregious things that make good stories, but then there's just like, little little stuff where it's like, do I feel like having a fight about this right now? Do I? Do I have the energy to make a point even though I know that what this person did is absolutely wrong, and it's clear as day to me? I don't feel like spending half an hour here explaining to them why it was wrong. I don't feel like watching them cry and get upset like, "Oh me? I did something wrong? But I have such a good heart." You get it coming and going. It's constantly like, OK, today do I have the energy for this or not? And it's completely (expletive). No one should have to live like that.
DSS: When the clubs are able to reopen, do you have any thoughts about ways that they could do better?
Kydd Jones: As a black artists, I think we should definitely approach performing and going into these venues and strategize it to a way that we benefit most off of it and that we are respected. Check every box, you know, (make sure) I’s are dotted and T's crossed before before we go into these venues and before we even start giving giving these people our business, because we are bringing these people business.
We are the Live Music Capital for a reason and that's because in Austin, Texas we have shows and live music every night, every day, If we're not bringing the people, the city is losing money, these people are losing money. So if they want to make money we need to be treated well. As black people, we need to make it worth our while and you know, get together and organize some kind of method to this madness to where we can be appreciated.
Qi Dada: They have to register the value in black artists. They have to register the value of the history of the city. They have to be available to understand that cultural intelligence is connected to their bottom line, it does affect your bottom line. It is beneficial to you to make a place, to do that. Now, everybody's different. That's just some utopian jazz. Everybody won't do that. You know what I mean?
So when you're talking about an organized mindset, an organized front amongst black musicians, that's absolutely necessary. It's absolutely necessary, because everyone here is just talking about horror stories. Everyone on this panel is talking about horror stories. And that should not be the echo of the black musicians. There should be glory for them. There should be a place that absolutely elevates and celebrates and they're happy that we're here. But racism trumps quite a bit, because you don't have to pay attention. You don't have to care. As a matter of fact, you can watch it burn and not be concerned. That's what racism is. It is a psychosis. It is a deep psychosis and that takes penetrative work. So an organized format for us is absolutely what is critical to shift that because we can't trust that they're going to do it. It's a lot of lip service. It's a lot weaker. There's so many times when people are like, "We'd love to hear what you have to say." It don't go nowhere. You just keep talking. So they can check their boxes and ensure that they don't get litigious actions against them. It's not genuine.
Mobley: I think one thing that's important to note — not to at all detract from the question of racism because I think that's what we need to be focusing on for sure — but another thing to remember is, I've had the relatively unique experience of being in bands with white people, being in bands fronted by white people and kind of seeing the other side of it. It's not like people are treating musicians well in the first place. So it's like musicians are down here (gestures). And then black musicians are even lower.
The baseline is already terrible. Like people are already undervaluing the labor of all musicians. People are already like, play this for exposure. People are already expecting that they can just take and take and take and take from the people who create art for society. And then all of the risk you have to bear, all of the strain you have to bear, all of the economic hardship that comes along with choosing a precarious and unconventional lifestyle you have to bear.
So it's a problem that we need to talk about in the arts generally, and then specifically, the extra, extra, extra burden that black people in those in those spaces have to bear. I mean, it can't just be about money. It can't just be like, how do I get rich off of this? And how do I pay out as little as possible to other people? If we actually care about art. If we actually care about other people, and actually having a society that's decent to live in, then we have to start having conversations that aren't predicated on, "Well, I'm interested in diversity, if it can make me money. I'm interested in equality. If it can make me money. I'm interested in fair pay, if it can make me money." It has to come from somewhere else because we've tried that. We've tried that for hundreds of years and look where it's gotten us. We're exploiting people. We're killing people over nothing. We're burning down the planet. It's just not working. It's not working
Mélat: Like Qi said, there's an educational component of it, right? So like the people who manage these venues and all the different ranks within it, we need to have an understanding of not only the artists but I think also the constituency that comes to these venues. If you're thinking that there's too many black people and now there's all of a sudden some strange dress code, how do you expect these black people to want to come back? How do you expect them to want to spend money at your establishment if you're not treating them with respect when they do come to your establishment? Now you're affecting your own bottom line and an entire crowd. Most of the crowds do tend to be white and you are training which crowds to come to your venues and inadvertently just messing up the whole system of what should be going on.
So I think as much as they need to pay attention to the people who manage the venues, who work in the venues, the musicians that they are disrespecting, and not giving the love and honor that they deserve, because they are the ones bringing in the people to your establishment, the constituency also needs to be treated with respect when they do come to the venues. I think that's, that's a huge part of it as well.