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 June 8 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, we share what they said about police brutality and why the protests give them hope. In the first part, they talked about discrimination in the Austin music industry.
These are their stories.
(This transcript has been lightly edited for length and clarity.)
Deborah Sengupta Stith: Before we dig into things today, I just wanted to go around and do a quick check in with all of y'all and see how you guys are doing. What's on your mind? What kind of emotions are you working through right now?
Mobley: To the extent that it's being treated like a debate, having your humanity debated in public is not an especially fun experience. But on the positive side, I'm very excited that things that two weeks ago I couldn't have imagined being part of mainstream discourse are being discussed seriously. And I think that there's something about this moment that feels different from the past, so I'm enthused about that and hopeful that we can keep pushing and serious structural change may be imminent.
Ghislaine "Qi Dada" Jean: This particular corridor is a culmination of things. You know, I come from an organizing background. I've been a part of different prison abolition movements. I've been a part of different organizations, external review boards for the police department, different activist groups that have been a part (of) disclosing the brutality — just the general history of systems of force and how they play out in the world and play out against people and what is at the bedrock of that. So to kind of see everyone come face to face with information that's been predominantly underground is really, really exciting to me. And I'm really, really happy about it. It leaves a lot of inspiration for me. And also, I just think the things that need to take place, people's opportunities to sit in this stuff and deal with this stuff, you know, it just makes my work feel very, very valid.
Mélat: I'm definitely better today than I have been in the past week. I had a lot of conversations with some of my Black friends about how they were feeling, and it seemed to kind of resonate with how I was feeling. It was really this feeling of all of the emotions that come with being a Black person in America, the little microaggressions to the big things that you see in the news. And then having all of that weight just come flooding in over the past week.
And then having people realize, like having people actually be quiet, listen and say, "We want to help. We want to understand. We want to move forward, and how do we attack these issues with actionable measures?" has been a little bit mind-blowing, to be honest. It is exciting to actually be in a place where you see things happening, you see progress, and even though they’re baby steps at this point, you need those baby steps to walk the mile. So I'm definitely better today than I was a week ago, just because of what I was feeling. But I'm very proud and excited for, you know, all of the movements that are going on, all the collective empowerment.
Kydd Jones: I'm feeling better. You know, I'm saying it gets better day by day. Energy gets up day by day. (I’m) just glad the information is getting out there. You know, it's a beautiful thing to see my people get together and come together for just one thing and drive that for us to make it count. This is the time to really make it count and be a force to be reckoned with. So we gotta just, you know, keep it moving, keep it positive, keep the energy up and not let up, you know.
Sengupta Stith: How are you using the platforms you have to raise awareness, to raise money, to raise healing energy? Kydd, you just released a new song, is that correct?
Jones: Yes, I just released a song the other day, titled "Goblin." I was actually planning to release another song, a different song, but it wasn't the type of music I was trying to put out at the time that was reflecting everything that was going on in the world. So I stayed up the night after I went to a protest, May 30, you know, just filled with emotion and just filled with energy at the same time. I was just getting it out. That's my therapy. That's the way I get my word out. That's the way I get my emotions and my feelings out. So that's what I did. Yeah.
Sengupta Stith: Mobley, I saw that you've been raising money over the last few days on your social media.
Mobley: When uprisings started taking off in Minnesota, I posted saying that I would match $500. I was hoping to raise $1,000. And then a bunch of people responded with a lot of generosity and a lot of enthusiasm. People wanted to also match and help make it bigger. We're a little past $10,000 now. People are still giving, but I ended up raising a lot of money that way.
But it's always been a pretty big part of my art, foremost. I mean, it's explicit in the music. It's explicit in the videos. It's explicit in my shows. I think it would be difficult, I think you would have to really try to not in some way address this stuff when it so thoroughly impacts the way that you're viewed in the world and the way that you move through the world and, obviously, as a result, the art that you make. So it's part of everything.
Sengupta Stith: Qi, for you, it seems like working on community is what you do. Has that changed at all during this time?
Jean: I think a little bit? I think partially because on top of this, we're dealing with (the coronavirus), so we can't be in the community, you know, the way that we typically can engage with the community. So fundraising pretty much is the way to support at this moment. You know, we can't throw everybody in a big Body Rock party (a regular dance party hosted by Riders Against the Storm) and just tell them to shake it off or, you know, all these different formats that we have so that people can release, connect and disturb in a very uplifting kind of way that’s curated from a particular cultural lens also. That's really important.
So fundraising has been really big. Chaka (Jonathan "Chaka" Mahone, Jean’s husband and the other half of Riders Against the Storm) has had his DAWA project that has been in place for some time. Diversity and Wellness in Action. DAWA also is a Swahili word for medicine. So he's been fundraising since before these actions because these actions aren't new. Right? So that's been a big thing to just kind of provide space for people who are frontline people of color, artists, etc. With a very limited questionnaire, they can get direct resources very easily with cultural sensitivity.
I think that that's a very critical point. I think that's an important thing for people to register. Even after these things (protests) get squelched, or after the kind of energy dies down a little bit, that these things are still happening. So it's important to now plug in so that this energy gets outsourced into these local projects that allow people to continue the efforts and really embody the effort as a part of what you do in the city, period. It's just what you're going to do as a citizen in the city.
Sengupta Stith: I know with RAS Day (an annual party that Riders Against the Storm threw for several years), you guys always talked about how people who are doing that social justice work, it's exhausting and they need the healing.
Jean: You know, battle fatigue is real. If you go to war, battle fatigue is real. You know, for our background, we've been around a lot of people. (For) veterans, we have Veterans Day, but the people who were fighting for social justice, the veterans of that, they don't have resources to connect to, a lot of the elders and people that we've been around growing up.
One of the Angola Three used to live here in Austin, Texas, and we went and played dominoes with him to try to understand his lens. Robert King was here and he was describing to us his plight of having to live in solitary confinement and try to find some sort of peace. He used to make these candies, and he would try to find peace and connectivity and some sort of meditation out of making candies out of little coffee cans in his cell. And eventually, when he went out, he started to sell these candies to fundraise for the brothers that were still inside of the Angola prison. And, fortunately, they are all out now.
That informs our technology, our mental technology about how it is that people need to connect with healing so that they can continue to do work and maintain their sanity while they're in the midst of it. All of those components are pretty critical. And if you look at any social justice movement, spirituality was always a component to it, because there had to be some sort of rising force that allowed you to move forward.
Sengupta Stith: Mélat, you said that you're inspired by the response that you've been seeing from your fans. Have you gotten any pushback as you've talked about things online?
Mélat: No, and that's been kind of the crazy part for me in particular. Like I said earlier, it's just this, this feeling of people actually wanting to understand and your feelings not having to be questioned. I mean, there are debates going on, but me and my little bubble, I haven't had that.
And for me, kind of like Qi was saying, I always talk about love when I write songs. It's always about love. It's always about, you know, just accepting and spreading love and compassion in every capacity every time you have a microphone. You have some sort of power to disperse this information.
For me, it's been really having one-on-one conversations with people and even a little bit larger than that. A friend of mine and I put together a little brunch for some Black friends. We've been holding these little brunches, you know, over the past year, and we held one about a week ago, you know, right in the middle of everything just really starting to erupt. It was kind of like a therapy we all didn't know we needed. Me and my friend were very reluctant to do it because everything was just getting so intense. But we realized in that moment how much everybody was kind of carrying this weight alone, especially because we're in isolation due to COVID and all that. So, being able to bring people together, give them some space, to not only talk about all the weight that they're carrying, how they're feeling, but to talk about (HBO series) "Insecure" and planting and how they've been coping with just the past, what, three, four months of life in general.
So that's kind of been where I've found some space to speak to the people who aren't really speaking up on social media; that's not their mode of communication. So that's really been where I've kind of been focusing my efforts.
Sengupta Stith: You’ve all attended some of the protests. Can you talk about what the energy has been like?
Mélat: Beautiful. Surreal. The energy of that many people being together for the same cause. They're there peacefully. We know this. We've seen this. And to see the Black cowboys riding through, I had to kind of acclimate myself to the environment because it reminded me a lot of the first time I went to Ethiopia and I realized that everyone around me was like the same skin color. It was just that same feeling of surreal, just bliss, just like excited that this is even happening. So for me, that was my experience, and I think it's beautiful and I hope it continues every single day for as long as we need to, as long as we can.
Sengupta Stith: During the first weekend of the protest, officers from the police department responded with (less lethal) rounds, and the injuries that people sustained at those protests made national headlines. Were any of y'all surprised to see what many describe as excessive force from the Austin Police Department?
Jones: Not at all. I think in some cases we were expecting it, some backlash like that. Were we expecting the way, you know, it was televised, the way it was captured in real time? I don't think so. I don't think anybody would ever expect that ever. But, you know, it happened, and this is what we’re faced with right now. So we've got to keep striving, keep staying in their face. So we can't let the world forget. We can’t let anybody get by, you know, we can't let nobody get off. It's the time to stay on everybody's necks and hold them accountable. For sure.
Mobley: I'm just gonna say, I mean, everything's a nail to a hammer. Like, they don't have all those toys for no reason. They don't have all that riot gear, they don't have those (less lethal) rounds, like, they have it. They're going to use it because they have it. And what better circumstance to use it than when the entire institution is being called in question by people in the country? So obviously it's shocking and it's shameful, but I don't think anybody -- certainly no Black people who've had interactions with the police -- but anybody who's paying any attention at all to police in the United States ever, I think it would be hard to say you were surprised that police were being police.
Sengupta Stith: It’s been such a difficult, devastating couple of weeks. I wanted to try to end on a little bit of a hopeful note. We touched briefly on things that have made you feel hopeful. Does anybody have anything else that they want to share that has brought them hope over the last couple of weeks?
Mélat: I have a song that I haven't shared yet, and I'm really proud of it. I wrote it last week when I couldn't find the words to say and then, whenever I did write the words, they just weren't enough. I'm really excited because it actually felt like what I was feeling, what I hoped for.
One of the main parts is to let love and justice flow through. There's no violence to this. There's no hatred to this. There shouldn't be. It should not be anything except for a free flow of love and justice for everyone, because that's all that's all we're asking for. That's all we've been talking about.
I'm gonna read this quote. A few weeks back, I had a really hard time and at the beginning of corona and trying to find the words to motivate myself to continue to create, to continue to do anything, because everything was changing so quickly. And I watched a David Chappelle special and he recited a Toni Morrison quote at some point and it spoke to me. It spoke to me then, it speaks to me now.
And the quote is, "This is precisely the time when artists go to work. There's no time for despair, no place for self pity, no need for silence, no room for fear. We speak, we write, we do language. That is how civilizations heal."
I have that on my phone. Every single day I read that and I remind myself why I do what I do, why it makes me feel good and I continue to share it. So that's actually something that's been really keeping me hopeful.