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Jonathan 'Chaka' Mahone elevates Black excellence, creates opportunity in the Live Music Capital

Jonathan "Chaka" Mahone stands in front of a mural he painted for a Black Everythang Matters showcase at Empire Garage.

“For me, music is not a tool to be famous,” Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone said during an early January episode of the Monday Music Mashup, Austin360’s streaming show. 

“Flowers for the Living,” the new album from Riders Against the Storm, the husband/wife hip-hop duo featuring Mahone and Ghislaine “Qi Dada” Jean, is due out in February. Though Mahone wants “a wide amount of people to hear it, to know about it,” his group’s purpose has always been bigger than hip-hop.  

“I'm making (music) because I want it to help. You know, I want it to create opportunity. I want it to create new worlds, in a sense,” he said. 

The newly appointed chair of the Austin Music Commission wants to help “people to see new potentials in themselves and in the world that they are surrounded by,” he said.

As the world shut down, devastating the Austin music industry last year, Mahone went to work. Through his nonprofit DAWA (Diversity and Wellness in Action) he raised close to $100,000 in emergency funds to support people of color creatives, teachers and healers who are in crisis. While protests over the police killing of George Floyd, an unarmed Black man, erupted in cities across the country, Mahone, then vice-chair of the Music Commission, advocated for the creation of a Black Live Music Fund. In August, with most clubs still closed, he produced one of the best livestream events of the year, Black Everythang Matters, a showcase spotlighting the excellent artistry of a diverse group of Black artists. With tightly edited performance segments and compelling interludes exploring issues of race, justice and healing at home and in the world at large, the event raised the bar on what a virtual concert could be. 

Looking back, growing DAWA was his proudest achievement of the year, Mahone said. He launched the organization on his birthday in September 2019, but in 2020 the organization “really blew up” with other artists and organizations rallying behind the cause with fundraising events and releases. Among other efforts, pop artist Mobley contributed a portion of proceeds from streaming ticket sales of his stunning visual album, “A Home Unfamiliar,” and Gary Clark Jr. and Los Coast released a stirring cover of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” to benefit the fund.  

In Swahili the word Dawa means medicine. Mahone sees stopgap financial aid as a way to help people find space to heal. Because of Riders Against the Storm’s strong focus on community building, Mahone has been informally mobilizing to raise money to assist people for years. 

“We were getting hit up a lot with people that were like, ‘Someone got evicted. So and so had a mental breakdown,’” he said. He saw the way troubles can snowball. “They're in the hospital for a few weeks. Their car gets impounded. They lose their job. We were constantly trying to figure out how to help people behind the scenes.”

Austin is known for its creative class of artists, innovators and entrepreneurs, but with an ever-increasing cost of living, even the best and brightest talents can fall upon hard times. This was true before the pandemic and is likely to remain true for some time. 

“You could be performing at an extremely high level and giving a lot to your community and still be struggling,” Mahone said. He wanted to provide an avenue “to receive funding and receive support” to people of color “teachers and musicians, artists, social workers that are, like, giving so much great energy to our community,” he said. 

Mahone and Jean are not far removed from the struggle themselves. 

“When we first got here, to Austin, we were going through ups and downs pretty consistently in our first three to four years,” he said. While the couple was never evicted, there were times when they “had to leave” a stable home situation, he said. 

“We literally couldn't afford a new place and couldn't afford the first month and, you know, a deposit,” he said. People opened their homes, their living rooms and spare bedrooms to the couple. 

“We had a safety net. We had a community that supported us,” he said. There was “always someone with a life raft.” Through DAWA, he hopes to offer that beacon of hope to others who do not have the same support system. 

Jonathan "Chaka" Mahone performs with Ghislaine "Qi Dada" Jean, his wife and partner in rhyme, at Antone's in 2019. The duo has a new album, "Flowers for the Living," due out in February.

In late June, Mahone opened up applications for the first round of DAWA micro-grants. He received over 200 applications in 48 hours. Working with a team of volunteers, he distributed $40,000 in the form of $200 Visa gift cards to 200 people. Applications for the second round of grants are open now at dawaheals.org

Mahone’s goal is to make the fund a continuous source of support “so that we don't have to stop when we run out of money,” he said.  

“You know, because you do the math, 200 people, $200, that's $40,000, right,” he said. “It doesn't go that far.” 

He would like to increase the amount of each grant to $500. The organization is exploring ways to bring in consistent revenue streams to bolster the fund and to make the distribution process for the volunteer-run organization faster and more efficient. 

As he was handing out the first round of DAWA funds, Mahone began a second push for funding for Austin’s Black community, this one aimed directly at his fellow musicians. As vice-chair of the Austin Music Commission, a citizen-led group that advises Austin’s City Council, he called for half of a new hotel tax-funded Austin Music Fund to be allocated to Black Austin musicians. He was frustrated by ongoing conversations among industry leaders that discounted the struggles of historically marginalized artist communities in the city.  

“They were talking about the difficulties of living in Austin, as a musician or as a creative, as an artist. What about Black people? What about generations of Black people who have been displaced?” he said. “You can literally look at, in 1991, when the moniker was given, the Live Music Capital, (the) Black population was at 12%. Now we're at 7.4%. Literally from that time, when you decided we're going to brand ourselves and market ourselves as this great destination city, we're going to bring people in, and those people — guess what, they're going to like it, and then they're going to stay here — there is a direct correlation to the decrease in the Black community and the Black population.”

After months of discussions with city staff, council members and the mayor, Mahone decided it wasn’t “a good idea to have (the Black Live Music Fund) underneath a city auspice,” he said. 

He wants Black artists to apply for and receive city funding, but he decided "that we need to have control over our own destiny, our own fund,” he said.

In late October, the Music Commission voted unanimously to make a high-level recommendation to the city’s Economic Development Department: 50% of money from the Austin Live Music Fund should go to a “BIPOC-focused creative equity fund.” (The term BIPOC is an acronym for Black, Indigenous and people of color.)

Mahone, who was elected the first Black chair of the commission in December, said he believes that there are “some great people within the city's fabric working hard” to redress inequity issues in Austin. 

“I think the things that they're doing now are important things that, you know, should have happened 10 years ago,” he said. 

His goals for the commission this year include pushing to make sure the group’s recommendation to prioritize historically marginalized groups when allocating Austin Live Music Fund money passes through City Council. He wants “to see that 50% of the live music money is going to go to develop, and restore, and preserve the cultures that the city has largely built itself upon,” he said. 

He also wants to raise awareness in the community about the commission’s work “so that people can feel compelled to bring us ideas, or bring us issues, and then we can work on them,” he said. 

“I want more people of color, I just want more people in general to understand that, you know, we are a voice to City Council,” he said, adding that council members look to the commission for guidance on issues within Austin’s music community.

As for the Black Live Music Fund, Mahone is pushing forward to find private financing for the endeavor.   

“We need to create our own economic opportunities. We need to have the money in our hands, and we need to be giving the money to each other,” he said. 

His goal is to raise $50,000 for the fund by June so he can award $2,500 grants “to 20 projects that are about creating opportunity for Black music to thrive in Austin,” he said.   

“We're not just going to, you know, wait for the city or anyone else to do it. We're going to do it ourselves. We're going to raise the money, and we're going to build the situation that we want to see, that's long overdue,” he said.