Riders Against the Storm Hit Their Stride With Flowers for the Living
Three-time winners of the Austin Music Awards' Band of the Year honors keep building community and creativity
"We are Austin music," repeats Jonathan "Chaka" Mahone.
He states those words emphatically in reference to not only his own musical endeavors, but the unappreciated depth of Black talent in the Texas capital.
"Putting the Black and brown face on music is what they should be doing," he continues. "Get out of the way. Stop acting like we're still in the Willie Nelson and Stevie Ray Vaughan days. The symbol of [Austin] music is still a guitar. That day is over!"
His passion transcends virtual confines necessitated by the coronavirus pandemic. After 11-plus years of hustling alongside his wife, Ghislaine "Qi Dada" Jean, the hyperactive social justice advocate earned the right to voice his opinion in unadulterated terms. The two unite as Riders Against the Storm, a hip-hop duo focused on uplifting its community in lieu of promoting dysfunction for album sales.
Jean states she and her spouse's "training" from elders prepared them for their paths. She entered the world in the Eighties, when hip-hop already stretched deep into the roots of her Brooklyn childhood. Meanwhile, party culture informed her Haitian roots and Caribbean heritage entwined all three festive rites rife with unique storytellers.
Said background feeds the pair's popular Body Rock ATX events.
"I learned to merge the idea of rhymes, stories, music, and how that orbits a person," she says during a Zoom interview lasting nearly two hours. "Our music is really about that. How can we take a story of emotion and people, and have that orbit them where it can actually affect different points in their imagination, spirit, and body."
The singer, 39, also states their desire to tap into a young, Black, and free frequency.
"All of the [American] music that we love was created by young Black people who were celebrating the fact that they were free," emphasizes the first ever Black female to win an Austin Music Award for Band of the Year. "We're still celebrating the fact that we're free! The fact that we've been unhinged from bondage. That was not that long ago."
So Far Gone
The other half of the first hip-hop group to win the Austin Music Award for Band of the Year grew up in Pittsburgh. His father, a Black man who overcame poverty and racial inequality to become a lawyer, instilled a nonstop work ethic in him. Jonathan Mahone's efforts to improve the local community accentuate that fact. Austin Music Commission, Black Live Music Fund, Diversity and Wellness in Action (DAWA), and E4 Youth stack an antithetical list to what many rappers usually flex.
Mahone says he sent out $32,000 in emergency direct cash assistance, via DAWA, to those impacted by February's unprecedented winter storms.
Before discovering he wanted to combine social justice, music, and art, the DAWA founder attended Brown University in the hopes of becoming a civil rights attorney. Initially intending to follow in his father's professional footsteps, he changed course while at the Ivy League institution. Mahone came to believe that law programs train the future "rulers of America" how to sustain the very system of oppression he yearned to tear down.
His calling became clear only after some years of soul searching.
"To actually have the impact I wanted to have and make a living was not easy," says the 43-year-old. "That was a challenge and part of the reason I started DAWA. People who give the most in our society are paid the least."
Mahone graduated from Brown with a bachelor's degree in American civilization (honors) and a master's degree in teaching. He met his partner afterward, in pursuit of a 2004 contest awarding the winner an opportunity to open for NYC hip-hop duo Dead Prez. Their collaborative tandem followed each having rapped during college.
He brought over a CD of beats, they wrote to Monica's 2003 Top 10 hit "So Gone" (its instrumental employed for the popular #SoFarGoneChallenge social media trend in 2016), and the future husband and wife performed their very first song together at the contest. Victory and 17 years of music and life ensued.
"Not full-time [music], not professionally. More so, 'Let's see what happens,'" clarifies Jean about balancing diverse creative portfolios. "We were doing a lot of different things and music was one of them, but that's the first leg of it."
A relocation to Austin in late 2009 occurred after spiritual inclinations, and Mahone met then-Austin resident Martin Perna of Antibalas and Ocote Soul Sounds at a political magazine retreat.
Body Rock ATX
The Northerners arrived here with that year's full-length album Speak the Truth, and a penchant for throwing memorable house parties discussed months afterward. They parlayed both into Body Rock ATX. Perna suggested to DJ Chorizo Funk, aka Eddie Campos, that he meet with the newly minted Texans.
Campos vibed with the duo, which led to Body Rock's February 2010 inception. The spinner operates two turntables while the front MCs engage primarily via call and response. Attendees of all demographics receive a safe space to free their minds of various shackles.
"Walking in the door, the purpose is to feel good," affirms Campos. "We know how much goes on in our lives and we know how different we all are, but we also know the power music, intention, and ceremony have. It's a really powerful experience when that happens as a group."
Pandemic-eradicated Downtown locale Plush and its 105-person capacity held the first event. Attendance doubled, tripled, and eventually quadrupled monthly by the second year. Its last in-person convergence occurred February 2020 before COVID halted such gatherings and brought in roughly 800 enthusiasts.
"[That] lets me know there are people who are not waiting for someone to tell them what's hot," says Jean. "They can feel it and are willing to invest in it again and again. So much so that it becomes ingrained into their lives, which is really the biggest honor."
"It hasn't changed since we've had 10 or 20 people in the room," adds Mahone. "At a lot of [other] parties, people aren't getting free because it's about what you're wearing, who's there, or who's throwing it. Body Rock is not about any of that shit! It's about, 'Come here and sweat!'
"We don't care what race you are, what gender you are, what your sexuality is. We don't give a fuck! Let's get it on! For four hours, let's just get it on."
Riders Against the Storm took an inverted career path in comparison to the traditional trails for success. They cultivated an incredible live presence despite releasing little new music during the past decade-plus. The three-year span of 2014-16 netted them six Austin Music Awards, including three straight Band of the Year honors, which put them on an exclusive list alongside Grammy winners Los Lonely Boys and indie rock outfit Spoon. That's remarkable for an act that put out an eponymous five-song EP in 2013 before essentially ghosting the studio.
Body Rock's sustained success on a monthly basis made upholding the quality of those events a priority over recording new music. Years of grinding the live scene paid off in the form of a house purchased a little over two years ago. Stabilization of income primarily due to Body Rock's monthly magic and a complete "spiritual metamorphosis" finally equals new music.
There's plenty on the way according to both of them.
Magik & Xxtra
Flowers for the Living, the first studio album by RAS with primarily new content since 2009's Speak the Truth, dropped on Feb. 22 after a postponement from its original Dec. 2020 target date. February also notched 14 years of marriage for Jean and Mahone.
The full-length packages four entirely new tracks with four previously debuted singles. Speak the Truth's East Coast Nineties soul trades in for a sound closer to the ultimate vision of the group. The title track fuses soothing electro-instrumentation owing to house music, African percussion samples, and meaningful lyrics to create an invigorating concoction on par with gin and juice. Adding young Georgetown crooner Clarence James in the Kid Cudi role of providing a hypnotic hook/outro sends the cocktail's potency into overdrive.
New songs "Magik" and "Xxtra" explore uncharted territory. The former enchants and inches closer to Jean's desire to channel the voodoo rock genre of Haitian music in more songs. Mahone's solo "Xxtra" stakes a claim as the couple's most bullish effort yet. Its "extraterrestrial" Samaritan pops off while drums quake between otherworldly synths containing enough power to prompt Kryptonian Clark Kent to become Superman. Later, fitness instructor Richard Simmons gets a song named after him!
The title of their third LP comes from the belief people should send love to each other while they're able.
"Give people flowers because you're thinking about them, because you love them, because they mean something to you," Mahone suggests. "Don't wait for them to pass on for you to bring them this whole big thing of flowers that they can't even appreciate."
He pitches displaying a deceased loved one on a T-shirt.
"Why not make a shirt and be like, 'Yo, that's my friend right here! This is my guy! This is my best friend!' We wait until they die and I get that it's part of our mourning process, but why do we wait? Make a T-shirt of them now!"
Jonathan Mahone crafts much more than T-shirts for those he loves.
He joined the Austin Music Commission in April 2019 at the request of Council Member Natasha Harper-Madison. He then became chair of the Commission toward the end of last year after previously serving as vice president. It's his constant insistence regarding artists of color in Austin deserving equality that spearheaded many conversations at the government level.
The commission unanimously approved his recommendation that 50% of the Austin Live Music Fund be allocated to BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and people of color) last October. The diligent pro-Black voice also wanted a fund for Black talent outside of government constraints. Mahone consequently founded the Black Live Music Fund in November.
"Ultimately, I just want us to be in control of our own destiny," he explains. "I want the money to be in our hands and [we] make decisions about what we want to do with it. I just felt like [the Black Live Music Fund made sense], because I had already created the concept and built momentum toward it. People signed the petition when I first began saying the city should give 50% to a Black live music fund."
The first goal of the BLMF is to raise $50,000 by June. That money will divvy up into $2,500 grants to Black members of the music scene who have demonstrated a willingness to aid the local Black community. So far, roughly $20,000 has accrued, with hopes that streams like their Thankful – postponed twice due to extreme weather and finally broadcasting this Friday, Feb. 26 – will raise both awareness and funds. Heavy hitters such as Deezie Brown, Eimaral Sol, and Jake Lloyd remained committed since December, but Mahone quickly points out his people have endured worse than the coronavirus and natural disasters.
"The pandemic was going on in our community before this happened," he stresses. "Racism is a pandemic. Genocide, slavery – these are social and cultural pandemics. We've survived much worse than this. We've been through hell from the transatlantic slave trade and we're still here. Not only are we here, we're leading.
"There is no Austin without us."
RAS hopes Flowers for the Living will begin a process of people learning to understand them musically rather than believing it their magnum opus. It's a road less traveled, yet Jean and Mahone wouldn't choose any other method to arrive at this destination.
"We pursued music in the manner and means that were most realistic, most authentic to ourselves," offers Jean. "It required us to stabilize ourselves to the point now where we can facilitate stability for other people. We chose that route. That's a different route from most artists."