As far as feel-good anthems go, "Walk With Me" is not an easy one. The stunning new super jam and ode to Austin will lift your spirits, but it doesn’t pull punches.
Rapper Megz Kelli outlines the struggle in blistering opening bars:
"Like every day it’s looking even hopeless/ I hold my head up like a king or queen and keep it going," she raps before reminding the listener that the social justice protests that have reshaped America in the summer of 2020 are a "movement not a moment."
"I hope they see it in my eyes, we’re tired of living lies," she raps as an introspective piano line from Graham Reynolds builds. Her Magna Carda collaborator Dougie Do joins on keys, and ATX hip-hop OG Tee Double kicks in on drum pads. The video shifts from studio shots to street scenes: a downtown music history mural, the Red River Cultural District logo, artists painting Black Austin Matters on Congress Avenue.
The groove expands with a guitar bridge featuring local legend Charlie Sexton and composer and music director Adrian Quesada, then it segues into a stirring duet between rising rocker Sam Houston and Latin pop sensation Gina Chavez. As R&B singer Mélat adds her voice to the soaring first chorus — "We will rise, rise in this together if you walk with me"— it becomes clear: In the grand tradition of music born from turmoil, this is a song about meeting a challenge and reaching deep for the strength to overcome.
"It's really this love song for Austin and our sense of pride and trying to grapple and deal and process just enormous emotions right now," said Celeste Quesada, who served as one of three producers for the project.
The Quesadas, who are married, began work on the project in June, as protests over the killing of George Floyd by a police officer in Minneapolis were roiling a country emotionally battered by months of coronavirus lockdown. The sprawling single clocks in at five minutes and 40 seconds with over 45 Austin musicians sharing their passion and talent. It stitches together a broad swath of Austin styles.
The gospel-laced chorus winds into a wistful funk-pop section with Heartless Bastards’ Erika Wennerstrom, Wild Child’s Kelsey Wilson, Empress of Austin soul Tameca Jones and the Vallejo Brothers. The groove fuzzes out as Black Angels frontman Alex Maas, backed by Spoon’s Jim Eno, takes the second chorus, which weaves into a quiet movement with Shakey Graves, Stephanie Hunt and Go-Go’s bassist Kathy Valentine. Before the exhilarating ride is over we’ve had smoking guitar licks from Jackie Venson, a Spanish-language interlude featuring Tejano icon Ruben Ramos alongside Superfónicos singer Jaime Ospina and members of Grupo Fantasma, and cameos by everyone from Austin Symphony Orchestra director Peter Bay to fabulous local drag queen Basüra.
As the song unfurls, performance cuts of musicians are spliced with poignant images that capture Austin at this moment in time: messages of hope painted on boarded-up buildings downtown, health care workers in masks, a mural paying tribute to Fort Hood soldier Vanessa Guillén, whose death sent shockwaves through the region.
The project is part of a national initiative from the United States Conference of Mayors, modeled on an idea developed by Greg Fischer, mayor of Louisville and current president of the group.
"It was a way to ensure musicians remained working and to help unite people with a sense of hope," said Diane Land, who is a producer on the project and married to Austin mayor Steve Adler.
Proceeds from the project, which will include sales of digital downloads, a 7" vinyl and a poster commemorating the song, will benefit the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians.
Adler and Land approached composer Graham Reynolds about the project, and Reynolds referred them to the Quesadas, who took the helm.
Adrian Quesada knew from the beginning that he wanted to bring together people from different generations, different music scenes, different racial backgrounds. He wanted there to be gender balance. The production took place with a backdrop of the coronavirus and a growing national Black Lives Matter movement, but also a reckoning on equity that hit closer to home.
"You had Jackie Venson calling out, you know, certain institutions that were in place that weren't always completely representing a good cross section of what Austin music looks like," he said.
He meditated on a quote from Chicago hip-hop artist Ric Wilson that described an artist’s responsibility as "not only to reflect the real world but also to project what could and should be," Adrian Quesada said.
He sketched out a soundbed that moved between the styles he hoped to incorporate and then began assembling a writing team to come up with "an overarching lyrical theme," he said.
The core team would come to include Sam Houston, Mélat and Gina Chavez, but he first reached out to Kelsey Wilson of Wild Child and Sir Woman, asking her to develop the chorus.
"It was actually, like, the most horrifying request that I have ever had," Wilson said with a laugh. The pressure felt intense. The mayor wanted to write a song "that brings everybody together," and her job was to write the hook that everyone would sing to "make the city feel united," she said. She was honored but terrified. She racked her brain, unsure if she was up to the job. Then, she left her house for the first time since the world shut down to attend a protest in downtown Austin. In the thick of the protest outside the Capitol, watching and listening, "I felt my heart expanding inside my chest," she said. "It was the most palpable love I’ve ever experienced in a group of people."
Over to the side of the crowd she heard a woman speaking to a police officer, calmly, with love in her voice. "She was asking him to just walk with her," Wilson said. This exchange, a woman telling a police officer she wanted to know how it felt to walk the block as him and she wanted him to know how it felt in her shoes, was "so powerful and so beautiful," she said.
It became the root of the song.
In these sorts of projects, hip-hop often feels inserted as a token element, but Adrian Quesada wanted it to be "in your face" from the jump, he said. Zeale and Phranchyze from Blackillac and Tee Double rap on the song, and Abhi the Nomad and DJ Orion put in some additional production work. He said he thinks Magna Carda nailed the intro not only by "spitting fireballs" but also by refusing to soften their message in the interest of unity, opting instead to call attention to "some issues that need to be addressed," he said.
"Not everybody 100% was feeling like, you know, ‘Let's all come together,’" he said. "You can't help but feel anger at certain times, when somebody's shot and killed in downtown Austin."
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There were "healthy discussions" among artists about the situation on the streets and striking the right tone, but ultimately the song is a testament to unity and resilience.
As the artists turned in their pieces, "every single person was lifting the song," Adrian Quesada said. The final piece feels masterful and inspiring.
"Music has a way of expressing while emoting hope," Land said. She hopes that everyone who hears this song will "gain a better understanding of the struggles and see there is hope as we walk together."
The audio track for "Walk With Me" will be released at 10 a.m. Thursday, and the video will drop at 2 p.m. More information at walkwithmeaustin.com.