Hip-hop artists regularly talk about "doing it for the culture," but husband/wife duo, Riders Against the Storm embody the ideal.
"Culture is a whole system of living, not just a lifestyle," Jonathan "Chaka" Mahone says.
The group’s path to success eschews the standard music industry template. While most artists generate an audience through record releases, playlist placement and radio airplay, Riders Against the Storm rolled into Austin nearly a decade ago and built their own scene. In their exuberant stage shows, Mahone and wife Ghislaine "Qi Dada" Jean deliver knowledge over rich full-band arrangements. Valuing spiritual uplift over commercial success, they imbue their happenings with ritual theatricality that aims to elevate listeners to a higher plane. They supplement the concerts with dance parties and community meetups. Jean creates and sells bold jewelry pieces, and Mahone spreads beauty with his visual art and clothing line. He also mentors young people through the nonprofit E4 Youth's Legacy ATX project.
In a city struggling to overcome a history of institutionalized racism, they create spaces where black is beautiful, music is soul food and hip-hop saves lives.
Though they've played Austin's biggest stages, including the Austin City Limits Music Festival in 2014 and the outdoor show at Vic Mathias Shores during South by Southwest in 2017, they consider the enduring impact of their community work just as important.
“My personal mission is to make sure people’s hearts are accessible,” Jean says. “Accessible to themselves, accessible to the experience, so that they feel safe letting their hearts be very open.”
Carrying “that kind of concern over people’s hearts, it does something else to your art,” she says.
“When you can actively see, 'Oh my music does this to a 5-year-old. My music does this to a woman. My music does this to a couple. My music does this to people at 21. My music does this to people who are differently abled. My music does all these different things.' Working in the community gives you a real time awareness of how to craft music in my mind,” she says.
Audiences welcome RAS into their hearts “in a very real way,” she says.
Regulars flock to the Body Rock party they host with DJ Chorizo Funk for both drunken revelry and spiritual revival. It's a place where party-goers can sweat out sorrows and embrace their joy, where they can express love and grieve losses. "Body Rock is what we call all souls church. It’s a place that people need (in order) to let go. And there are so few places that are consistently nourishing in that way," Mahone says.
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Their annual festival, RAS Day, similarly marries music and healing energy. For this year's RAS Day on Aug. 17, the group has moved the event from Kenny Dorham's Backyard to Empire to simplify production, and they're proud of the lineup they've curated. It features rising rapper Leikeili47 and Madison McFerrin, who is building on her father, Bobby's, legacy with a fresh take on a capella music.
"Beyond the aspect of healing and music and community, (RAS Day has) really been about putting women at the forefront," Mahone says. "We’ve always had at least half the lineup, or the majority of the lineup, being women and this year it’s all women." Husband/wife couple the APX, RAS, Dallas soul artist M3cca, local soul legend Miss Lavelle White and recent Austin360 Artist of the Month Eimaral Sol round out the bill.
In addition to concerts and parties, the group also runs a RAS Village Facebook group that hosts occasional potlucks and an annual Kwanzaa celebration. Though they’ve only released a few singles in the past few years, they created a loyal base of supporters who sustain them, a fact that they think is under-acknowledged by media outlets whose coverage is built around album release cycles.
"When people say nothing is happening for hip-hop in Austin, we get confused," Mahone says. "We are an example of the power of hip-hop."
In 2019, the group is ready to move to the next level.
“There’s like a reorganization that’s required to go into another phase. And I feel like that’s what’s happening with us right now,” Jean says.
“We have a lot of really powerful records that we haven’t put out yet that we’re anticipating are going to be received very, very well,” Mahone adds.
Jean smiles slyly. She believes the group’s next evolution will be “maybe cataclysmic in a way.”
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To mark the turning of the page and herald the coming of a new era, they’ve released a new collection, “See Me,” that remixes songs from throughout their career, including tracks from their 2008 album “Speak the Truth,” recorded before the group arrived in Austin, and recent singles “Mali” and “Over/Under.”
The title track “See Me” is a new version of a song from their 2016 release “RE:Mixtape.“ It’s built around a defiant refrain, “See me now you don’t,” from Mahone countered by a chiding “You don’t see me” from Jean.
“It’s kind of like a conversation that we’re having with Austin, in a sense, and a lot of people, where you don’t really see what we’re doing,” Mahone says. “You will though. And that’s kind of what the energy of it is: You’ll find out.”
In a sense, “See Me” is a direct result of RAS’ community work. The core of the project is a set of six remixes done by 21-year-old saxophone player and emerging producer Blaigne Ayuma Sixon, who goes by the artist name Ayuma. The young artist also produced the album.
Ayuma came into the RAS Village through his mother, Anî La'arni Ayuma, a Body Rock die-hard who became like family to Mahone and Jean shortly after moving to Austin. As a 15-year-old aspiring saxophonist, he toted his horn to community events, where Mahone and Jean encouraged him to play. When Mahone became involved with E4 Youth, a local nonprofit that provides creative industry training to underserved youths in the Austin area, he brought Ayuma into the Legacy ATX music industry program. There, he encouraged the aspiring musician to branch out from saxophone to production.
“Production, I feel like is the best outlet for opportunity in terms of employment. Everybody, especially now, they want production,” Mahone says.
At first, Ayuma was reluctant to wear a producer’s cap, but over a few years in the Legacy program, his skill set developed. When he returned from a family trip to the Philippines “charged up” about making beats, Mahone gave him a set of RAS a capellas to practice with.
“I was super excited,” Ayuma says.
Mahone says his intention in sharing the vocal tracks with Ayuma, whom he recently started managing, was just “wanting him to get into that mindset of ‘I’m a producer.’” But the quality of the work drove a bigger vision.
“Blaigne is, I feel like, a special talent, not just in Austin, but I feel like he is a special talent in music,” Mahone says. "He is music. You don’t have to explain music to him. He knows what’s going on when he hears music. He understands it.
“When we had the four (songs) done it was kind of like, we basically have an EP. Now, let’s finish a few more. Then we had a few more done and it was like, 'You know, why don’t we do some interludes? Why don’t we really, like, kind of just make it a little bit of a story here and just make it a more complete thing?' So it’s kind of turned into a little album, a little mini album.”
“From having fun, it turned into something serious, but it all came from the love of the music,” Ayuma says.
Ayuma's production merges seamlessly with RAS vocals. Lush sound beds on the 2017 track “Mali” underline the song’s emotional weight. Sustained piano lines contrast with spitfire rhymes on last year’s single “Over/Under,” and “Reminisce” is a gorgeous throwback to hip-hop’s Golden Era from an artist who was born years after most of rap music’s defining classics were released.
PHOTOS: Riders Against the Storm at SXSW 2018
As someone who grew up with RAS and has experienced firsthand the positive impact the group has, Ayuma says he hopes the project will help raise their profile to a wider national audience. “Someone see Riders Against the Storm,” he says. “See them please because they’re doing so much stuff in the community level, for themselves, for everyone, for me particularly.” He notes that in his time with the Legacy ATX project, he watched Mahone mentor hundreds of young people.
“Over the years, it all adds up,” he says.
As they move into a new phase, Mahone and Jean hope the community they’ve spent years developing will help them rise to the next level.
“There’s an African proverb that goes, ‘If you wanna go fast, go by yourself; if you want to go the distance, you go together,’” Jean says. “And I think that there’s always been a back and forth, a battle, with figuring that out for ourselves and honoring that for ourselves, but ultimately, that’s our aim: to go the distance together.”
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