Facing decreased funding grants from the city of Austin for two years in a row, husband-and-wife music artists Riders Against the Storm have decided to cancel the 2020 edition of RAS Day, their annual celebration of hip-hop and healing.
“We live in a city that is quick to speak progressively but then moves with a stuttered complacency. The status quo of liberal jargon and policy is a gray cloud looming over a city that touts itself as a haven nationally,” wrote the group's Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone in a public letter announcing the cancellation Friday. The letter was addressed to “friends, fans and beloved community."
“While there are many things that we love about residing in Austin, Riders Against the Storm is absolutely tired of the continued lip service about ‘change,’ ‘diversity,’ and the current city-wide favorite, ‘equity,’” he added.
The group initially was offered $11,970 from the city’s Cultural Heritage Festivals Program for the 2020 event, a sharp decrease from both the $29,966 they received for this year’s event and the $37,470 they received in 2018. Mahone said in his letter that the amount initially offered for 2020 was almost $2,000 less than the grant the group received in 2015, “when our event was in its infancy."
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Mahone told the American-Statesman that he was frustrated with the offer. He told the city "they could keep it,” and the grant offer was later increased to $28,420.
Alberto Mejia, who oversees the city program, said each Cultural Heritage Festivals grant application is reviewed by peer panelists who assign it a score. Awards are determined, in part, by a system that measures applicants against the application with the highest score.
“The entire applicant pool is subject to an 8% decrease in the requested amount for each point scored lower from the highest scoring applicant of that given year,” Mejia said in an email on Thursday. This year, the city's Arts Commission budget working group approved an 11% cap on the amount a grant could be decreased. In what Mejia said was an oversight, they did not carry the cap over to grants for 2020 events.
“Upon becoming aware of the severity of the impact this oversight had on several applicants" including RAS Day, he said, the Cultural Arts Division staff and Economic Development Department leadership moved to request the Arts Commission reinstate the 11% cap.
Mahone said in his letter that other city arts grants like the Core Cultural Funding Program are “scaffolded” in a way that allows artists to build their request amounts after several successful years.
“Somehow the one grant space that was created to benefit black, brown and Asian creatives has absolutely no scaffolding for successful projects,” he said. According to guidelines for the Cultural Heritage Festivals Program posted on the city's website, applicants must "focus on the unique aspects of one or more cultural heritages’ various artistic forms of expression such as visual, performing, media and literary arts." Language that specified festivals should be "ethnic" cultural festivals was changed in 2019 so that LGBTQ and disability groups would be eligible for the grants, Mejia said.
“Our festival is getting better. It’s getting stronger. We got national press this year. There’s no logical reason why (funding) should be going down each year,” Mahone said.
The cancellation of RAS Day comes as independent festivals across the country struggle to stay afloat, like Mad Decent Block Party in Massachusetts and Bud Light River City Rockfest in San Antonio. Soaring artist booking fees are one obstacle, due to competition from major events backed by large companies like Live Nation, which owns a controlling stake in Austin-based C3 Presents.
Mahone said an artist he courted for several months for this year’s RAS Day ended up on the Austin City Limits Festival lineup. “It happens every year,” he said. With limited funds, he said, RAS Day was “handcuffed in a lot of ways.” He said his festival operates on “razor-thin” margins.
Austin’s independent festival scene has shrunk in recent years. Pachanga Latino Music Fest restructured as a series of club events in 2016. Fun Fun Fun Fest reincarnation Sound on Sound Fest folded after an investor pulled out in 2017. Euphoria Fest dropped off the scene after a scaled-back club event in 2018.
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In the letter, Mahone said that RAS Day is "on hold indefinitely until we create a model that works fully on our terms."
"It’s not like we’re making a whole lot of money," he told the Statesman. "It’s a lot of time. It’s a sacrifice. It’s something that we offer to the community, but you’re not helping us grow it."
The city's Cultural Arts Division — along with the Arts Commission and consultant team MJR Partners — has been conducting a communitywide review of the Cultural Funding Program since spring of this year that will extend through March 2020. They are currently seeking input from all community members. The Cultural Funding Program is funded through hotel occupancy taxes collected by the city.
"We want awards to reflect organizational success and growth, and we are looking at our process to examine where there might be impediments to that," Meghan Wells, cultural arts manager for the city, said Friday.