Austin Musicians of Color Talk About the Pandemic's Outsized Impact on Their Communities

COVID-19 extends into all realities of Austin's pervasive inequality


Adrian Quesada (l) and Eric Burton of Black Pumas (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
“Is it tomorrow or just the end of time?” – Jimi Hendrix, 1967

As a lens, the coronavirus epidemic extends into all realities of Austin's pervasive inequality, from economic distress to broad health and welfare. Musicians of color continue being threatened by COVID-19's iniquitous effects on their communities. Local practitioners know there's a cruel, wide-ranging stasis baked into their reality.

"That's the part I'm used to, the predictability of who succeeds or fails in this social, historical, and political race," says father, husband, and "Scholar MC" Bavu Blakes. "I'm a hip-hop guy. We've always moderated this, endured this, responded to this. That's who we are.

"It's the same as it ever was."

"The realization that more Black and brown lives will be lost as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic should be eye-opening," says Cris Flores of Austin's Loro Man­age­ment. "If our people are dying or falling ill at higher rates than white people, how will this contribute to an already imbalanced representation in our entertainment industry? We know the answer: It worsens our livelihoods and further oppresses an already oppressed people."


Loro Management's Cris Flores (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

"The Black community is vulnerable due to the capitalist structure and, of course, white supremacy," says Chaka from husband-wife duo Riders Against the Storm. "The mental illness and illogic of racism aren't going anywhere. This dysfunction is a pre-condition that makes us extremely vulnerable to things like COVID-19, poverty, and gentrification. All this is intertwined."

"Growing up, I thought my parents were the last generation to witness Black people being treated like animals, tortured and killed," says Chicago transplant DJ Shani Hebert, who evokes the life-imitating-art quality of the virus' destruction. "[COVID-19] is some pretty next-level shit. It used to feel like living in a reality TV show – like all three Hunger Games movies in succession.

"Now, it feels like [Netflix's sometimes-dystopian anthology series] Black Mirror on a loop."

Culled from wide-ranging conversations with almost exclusively Black and brown musicians as community proxies – and utilizing data and distant (and not-so-distant) history as contextualization – a panorama of where Austin stands in regard to these racial groupings during this public health event starts to take shape out of the prevailing haze.

Continuum

The current predicament requires context given Austin's long history of visiting racial disparity issues and finding ways to shunt them. In 2016, following the shooting death of David Joseph during an interaction with Austin Police, Mayor Steve Adler formed the Institutional Racism & Systemic Inequities Task Force. The committee issued a report – later called a "continuum" of purpose by its writers – the following year, its first bulleted reading familiar:

"Interrelationship among racism [acts on] five sector areas. For example, institutional racism in education can impact an individual's ability to obtain a livable-wage paying job, which [affects] one's ability to obtain safe housing, which in turn can contribute to poor health outcomes."

“This is just beginning, and the financial fallout isn’t even close to being understood yet,” warns Riders Against the Storm’s Chaka. “Many of our people are about to start getting evicted in the coming months.”

A critical note in the report's subsequent "Health" chapter notes "minorities are disproportionately homeless and have significantly poorer housing options. Due to discrimination and limited educational opportunities, minorities disproportionately work in low-paying, high-health-risk occupations (e.g., construction, migrant farmworkers, fast food workers, garment industry workers)."

Fast-forward to June 3, 2020, over 4,000 verified coronavirus cases have been reported between Travis and Williamson counties, with over 110 deaths. About 55% of lab-certified infections and 37% of deaths in Travis County come from the Hispanic sector, which represents 34% of the overall local population. Hispanic people lead in Williamson County with at least 41% of confirmed infections, also well above their respective county representation of 24%.

Black people are underrepresented in Travis County cases at 7.2 % against an 8.9% population estimate, but represent 13% of the county's COVID-related deaths. These numbers aren't unique, with most of the continental Americas reporting similar data, if not worse.

Through the context of COVID-19, a mostly unattended report, an unjust local continuum continues to inform an abusive relationship between the city and communities of color dating back to the capital's inception. Minorities living in Austin metro's denser, transmission-prone ZIP codes shoulder this ongoing calamity under the guise of abruptly becoming "essential workers." Two certainties going forward are that Black and (mostly) brown bodies will be sickened disproportionately.

Governor Abbott's state-controlled reopening virtually ensures this dismal reality as a consequence of Austin's continued failure to rectify inequalities long identified. Meanwhile, performers aren't considered "essential," no matter Austin's marketing tack. Bars and venues have little to no guidance on whether or even how to continue profitable operations at reduced crown volumes. Ideations of live performance, at whatever capacity, remain mostly shelved.

Shelved

Frightful isn't the first descriptor employed by most artists as the virus arrived from Asia and Europe. In fact, Michael Lee, singer-guitarist of Nine Inch Nails-esque local act 1996, admits to being naive about the virus' spread from China.

"I was going to attend a family wedding in Canada in April, and my parents never bought their tickets," says Lee, who is Chinese American and also fronted indie/dream-pop band Letting Up Despite Great Faults and dream/electro act Fanclub. "I thought they were overreacting. For some reason, you think, 'A virus can't cross the ocean.' Even when we heard about Italy, and then the first U.S. cases, I still thought it would just be magically nipped in the bud."

Many describe COVID's Texas start as a wait-and-see situation. For their part, Chaka and Qi Dada of RAS tag-teamed COVID-19 out of the gate. The latter hails "from a Caribbean island [Haiti] with minimal infrastructure at times," while the former "prepare[d] for all hell to break loose."

"I could feel it a few days before the grocery stores got crazy, so we got up at like 3am to get two-three weeks of food," remembers Chaka. "The store was reasonably calm, but only a few hours later, it was pandemonium."

Rising rapper the Teeta, who recently released the appropriately named album The Quarantine, reacted viscerally as well.


The Teeta (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

"I had this doomsday scenario that would end in mass anarchy and transition into one government and global economy," he confesses. "From there, I stocked up on essentials day by day, and took out a lump sum of cash just in case the banks crashed."

Grammy Award-nominated Black Pumas crossed paths with the pandemic while touring Europe's biggest markets. Co-­founder Adrian Quesada initially believed "it would pass as many of the scares of the last decade or so, like Ebola, or H1N1." After the band returned home to Austin, singer Eric Burton immediately feared for his New Mexico-based family.

"I help support them to a degree, [so] I was worried," admits the "Colors" composer/vocalist.

Like Burton, everyone interviewed also registered concern about their careers. Most noted a natural accompaniment of creative pause, either for immediate economic stresses or self-care within a crisis. Buda-based Beto Martinez of Grupo Fantasma, Brownout, and Como Las Movies confesses to being "in a daze" after the rush of cancellations of tours and SXSW.

"Creativity and creating was the last thing on my mind," says the guitarist, composer, producer, and now occasional solo artist, "[but then] I became a bit of a source of info for a moment, getting a bunch of calls and texts those first few weeks from other musicians. Many of my bandmates couldn't record themselves. That led to me recording a complete song, playing all the instruments and singing.

"I did it as a joke at first, but I'm now doing a daily series of songs. It's not something I ever imagined doing before."

"I've always created on my own from home, so the practical side of the creative process is mostly unchanged," says Mobley. "That said, I've never tried to maintain creativity in the middle of a global pandemic."

Acts with label support like Black Pumas and Mobley, and resourceful artists with followings such as the Teeta and RAS count ready fanbases waiting for them on the other side. Through streams and side hustles, they will likely come out clean. New artists and those who make their living directly interacting with audiences in club settings are having a tougher time navigating.

Jalesa Jessie, who performs as Chief Cleopatra, falls into the "essential" worker category through an employer, H-E-B. Recent debut Chief Cleopatra positions her as one of Austin's rising stars, but COVID-19 temporarily halted that progression.


Jalesa "Chief Cleopatra" Jessie (Photo by David Brendan Hall)

"[SXSW's cancellation] was a big blow for my band," says the Corsicana native. "My creativity kind of went on a hiatus after that. Everyone has said, 'Well, this is a good time to be writing music,' but it wasn't that simple for me."

Alt-R&B artist Jake Lloyd continues drawing a paycheck as an "essential worker" at a distribution warehouse, but creativity now forces him to tech up like Martinez and his bandmates.

"Stepping up my digital game means more and better releases to compensate for the lack of live in-person networking," offers Lloyd.

Eddie Campos, who performs as renowned DJ Chorizo Funk, describes recent events as "devastating" considering his primary workplace involves people "dancing and drinking in tight, physical spaces where transmission is most likely.

"I've tried with varying degrees of success to take my art online, with podcasts and live streaming," he says, "but I've had difficulties, mostly around archaic copyright issues. I always felt that the dancefloor inspired me as a DJ, and right now, that's not an option."

If A Tree Falls In the Woods

The peculiar aspect, dating from the onset of the coronavirus era, is everyone's day-to-day management of the data floods, in the macro and micro. Almost everyone interviewed either knew someone infected or were a degree away from someone infected with COVID-19.

Qi's brother in Haiti contracted the coronavirus. The couple also knew others with tell-tale symptoms in December, just before it had been identified as a stateside threat. Dr. James Polk, Ray Charles' former bandleader and current organist in Elias Haslanger's popular Continental Gallery residency Church on Monday, confirms COVID-19 in his circle of friends.

Beto Martinez's wife is a health care professional, not working directly with COVID patients. The couple heard anecdotal stories from peers "about the protocols and the fear in the hospitals." They have friends from New York and New Orleans also relaying harrowing stories affecting communities of color.

Simultaneously, most interviewees admit not fully comprehending the proportion, scope, and depth of the virus' wreckage so far, especially in Black and brown communities. Consider it a byproduct of the separation inherent to social distancing.

For example, RAS's Qi flatly stated she could not confirm dimensional impact and has even decided to concentrate on what she and her husband could see. Adrian Quesada confirmed not feeling "like I have a sense of the proportion sometimes."

"Following the news can either make you feel like certain things are exaggerated or certain things are underreported," he submits. "With a lack of daily human contact and communication, I do not feel like I'm 100 percent informed on people's personal experiences through this, and I can't rely on social media for that."

"My best sense of the scale of the devastation has been on the economic side," says Mob­ley. "Just about everyone I know is out of work, but I honestly don't feel as though I have a good grasp on the scale [of COVID-19]."

KUTX radio host Aaron "Fresh" Knight, who co-hosts The Breaks hip-hop show with Confucius Jones, says he's "aware to an extent." Both say they stay informed by keeping their ear to the street.

"I try to stay connected by talking to people in and of the community," says Knight. "Having a platform allows me to voice my concerns and opinions to help start a dialogue in the community."


Eddie "Chorizo Funk" Campos (Photo by David Brendan Hall)
“I am concerned about the impact, as Black and brown communities are the most deprived of health care access here in Texas.”

"I've been hearing stories from friends across the country, but I feel disconnected from the devastation," allows Campos. "I am concerned about the impact, as Black and brown communities are the most deprived of health care access here in Texas. It appears that [working-class, predominantly Hispanic] Dove Springs is getting hit harder as the second wave threat looms over us."

RAS's Chaka works with a coalition of organizations to secure federal resources for families financially affected by COVID-19. He also runs a fund, Diversity Awareness and Wellness in Action. The nonprofit will disburse roughly $15,000 this month.

"It's going to get harder," he warns. "This is just beginning, and the financial fallout isn't even close to being understood yet. Many of our people are about to start getting evicted in the coming months."

Another hazard in abstracting COVID-19's impact concerns restarting the country's economy. White lawmakers reopening the country nationwide is wholly related to the political disconnect of what's happening in the Black and brown communities. Unless you live in viral epicenters like New York City, Detroit, or Rio de Janeiro, that dissociation creates a hazing effect similar to war in foreign countries. It demonstrates the diminishing value of the fallen, or in this scenario, those most likely to be infected.

Let Them Die

Roughly 124 years ago, in 1896, a German-born statistician at the Prudential Life Insurance Company, Frederick L. Hoffman, wrote a 330-page article for the prestigious Publications of the American Economic Associ­ation. The volume, Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro, compiled statistics, eugenics theory, and anecdotal views solicited by the famed insurance company amidst a surge of state legislation halting discrimination against African Americans. Hoffman's influential, vehemently racist paper was written to prove that Black people, as a race, were too risky to insure.

"It is not in the conditions of life," Hoff­man wrote, "but in the race traits and tendencies that we find the causes of the excessive mortality. So long as these tendencies are persisted in ... the effect will be to increase the mortality by hereditary transmission of weak constitutions, and to lower still further the rate of natural increase, until the births fall below the deaths, and gradual extinction results."

In other words, 30 years after chattel bondage, Black lives held no value for Hoffman or Prudential in 1896. Esteemed The Atlantic writer Ibram X. Kendi recently surrendered to the notion – via bullet, virus, or other – that the statistician's judgment of Black existence amounted to "let them die."

Nationally, Black people are twice as likely to die from COVID-19. However, in the specific case of Austin, "them" are both Black and brown people. On June 1, Travis County had 88 confirmed new cases, the highest single-day gain since the pandemic arrived locally. Most were Hispanic.

Health officials state that the actual number of infections could be seven to eight times higher than statistics show.

Additionally, Abbott's order for "Phase 3" states that retailers are allowed to expand to 50% capacity immediately. Restaurants can serve groups of 10 people and can grow to 75% total capacity. Therefore, despite likely increases in COVID-19 cases, the state decided nothing will stop the flow of dollars into the economy because the people it will affect most remit no value.

"It seems clear to me that our broad unwillingness to respond to the pandemic with a more significant commitment to preserving life over profit, or some incoherent notion of 'freedom,' comes down to one thing," stresses Mobley. "The epidemic is understood to be most dangerous to people whose lives our society doesn't highly value."

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