What happened at SXSW 2021 on Day 1? Stacey Abrams shouts out 'Supernatural', more
The first day of the 2021 South by Southwest virtual event is off to a roaring (and briefly technically challenged) start. The music and movies continue into the night, but here are a few highlights from opening day.
1. Day One keynote: Stacey Abrams
Day One's keynote with Stacey Abrams faced down technical difficulties that threatened to send the session off the rails with a 30-minute delay before Janelle Monáe turned the tables on any doubts with a surprise music video intro made exclusively for the session.
Abrams and Hugo Award-winning novelist N.K. Jemisin spoke of storytelling in their own novels and as a tool for voter outreach, political activism and in perceptions that have arose around Abrams' ascendancy among Democrats.
And of course, it wouldn't be an Austin-centric SXSW panel without giving some credit to the show "Supernatural," which Abrams said often had storytelling themes underscoring the need to work together. — Philip Jankowski, staff writer
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2. Austin enters the Matrix
Attendees got their first live glimpse on Tuesday of what SXSW would feel like as a virtual-reality experience. SXSW Online XR, as it's being called, combines virtual cinema screenings and walk-through exhibits in VR representations of spaces such as the Contemporary Austin Jones Center and colorful versions of South Congress Avenue downtown and the Red River Cultural District. The apps to access these features require VR hardware and take a little getting used to; VRChat, used to walk around and speak to other attendees, has lots of functions but seems geared toward people already used to VR experiences, not newbies. On Friday, HBO Max will roll out its own experience for SXSW called Orbit that'll include an exclusive preview of "Godzilla vs. Kong." — Omar Gallaga, Special to the American-Statesman
3. The beat goes on
The first virtual music festival kicked off with showcases for the sounds of Sweden and South Korea. And though it's not officially part of SXSW, Asleep at the Wheel leader Ray Benson's birthday bash has always been a big part of fest week. In place of the usual big bash at GSD&M with special guests, Benson had a short livestream at noon from the Facebook page of the Health Alliance for Austin Musicians. Online donations were accepted for the organization, which Benson co-founded in 2005. And Benson, who got COVID-19 a year ago but recovered, played a timely new song titled, "We'll Be Together Again, in Better Times." A short video featured many of Ray's friends wishing him a happy birthday, including Willie Nelson. — Peter Blackstock, staff writer
The Austin City Council's decision two years ago to de-criminalize camping in many public spaces stoked a political firestorm unlike any he's ever seen in the city, Mayor Steve Adler said during a SXSW panel discussion. Austinites will get to vote soon on whether to reinstate the camping ban, as the issue will be on the city's May 1 ballot. Adler made no predictions on whether voters will reinstate the ban or let the current ordinance stand. "It will be a close vote," he said. — Ryan Autullo, staff writer
Kendra Scott and Mark Cuban see Texas as a special place to do business and get companies off the ground. The Texas tycoons on Tuesday spoke on what makes the Lone Star State business community vibrant, where they look to invest, and giving back to their community. "This is a breeding ground," Scott said. "Entrepreneurs love to help each other here in the state of Texas." — Kara Carlson, staff writer
Actions, not words. That's what is needed to bring about meaningful change and to fight institutional racism in America. That was the message delivered by two public figures in a SXSW panel discussion hosted by CNN anchor Don Lemon and featuring writer Jemele Hill and NFL veteran Malcolm Jenkins. Hill said it was "a chaotic four years" under former President Donald Trump. She said she has a "sense of relief" from not having to wake up with "Twitter rants and generally bad behavior coming out of the office of the presidency." She said she thinks there will be a temptation "to be a little easier on this administration, for things that should have been the norm." — Shonda Novak, staff writer
The full SXSW story:'Work yet to be done' on fighting racism in America
5. Entertainment highlights
Hip-hop producers Timbaland and Swizz Beatz sure seemed to suggest they were totally over going to shows. Citing the comfort of couch streaming and anxiety about going out, the hitmaking duo behind the viral Verzuz battles said at SXSW that they think in the future, even tours will have a streaming component. “I’ll just set it up in my living room and I’ll have my own 15-20 people over and we’ll enjoy it from the VIP — which is my house,” Swizz Beatz said. — Ramon Ramirez, special to the American-Statesman
Gosh, that Aretha Franklin miniseries seems like must-watch TV. The eight-episode drama, "Genius: Aretha," is coming to Hulu via National Geographic this month and features head-turning, real-life singing from Broadway star and TV fave Cynthia Erivo as the queen of soul. At SXSW, producer Brian Grazer was clear: “This is a story that should not be a movie.” — R.R.
"As long as straight is the default, queer representation will be important," said Zelda Barnz, the wunderkind writer and producer behind HBO Max show "Genera+ion." Barnz appeared on a panel Tuesday with dad Daniel Barnz, also on the show's creative team, and TV veteran Russel T Davies, whose AIDS dramedy "It's a Sin" also airs on HBO Max. About 40 years separate the time periods of the two shows, which show the LGBTQ community in far different states. “Period drama, really?" Davies said. “My life is a period drama?" "It's a Sin" serves as a correction in the queer canon, he said: to remind a straight, middle-aged audience that a plague wiped out a generation and to tell a young audience about it for the first time. Conversations about queer rights have to keep happening or we'll lose progress, he added. Zelda Barnz, who pointed out that a huge margin of Gen Z people identify on the LGBTQ spectrum, said she wanted to keep those conversations alive by showing stories of joy in "Genera+ion." — Eric Webb, staff writer
Director Barry Jenkins and composer Nicholas Britell, collaborators on films like "Moonlight" and "If Beale Street Could Talk," sat down (virtually) to talk about how music helps tell a story. SXSW viewers got some gorgeous sneak peeks — visuals and audio — for "The Underground Railroad," their Amazon Prime Video series based on Colson Whitehead's novel. It premieres on May 14. It's the "largest scope of orchestral work we’ve ever done," Britell said. Each episode is a different state, he said, whether physically or emotionally, so the music needed to reflect that complexity. Luckily, Jenkins has great intuition about where certain music fit into the show: "Barry knows these things in such a deep way," Britell said. — E.W.