Riders Against the Storm

“Mission Accomplished,” was how Chaka felt when Riders Against the Storm (RAS) won the prestigious Band of the Year award at this year’s SXSW Music Festival. To have Hip Hop appreciated and validated by a bona fide music-loving community was exactly the purpose of RAS’ move to Austin in 2009.

“Good music is good music,” Qi Dada added. Qi Dada and Chaka are performance partners. They’re also husband and wife. The couple was aware of the marginalization of Hip Hop on the music scene in Austin before they arrived, but had faith that a true love of music would and should transcend genre. So, they came. They came from Providence, Rhode Island, convinced that when you perform live music and “live” is as much a verb as an adjective, generating this much love and recognition had to be possible.

RAS are the Hip Hop sensation blazing across the Central Texas music landscape like a brush fire, igniting consciousness, love of music and sense of community all at once. The band also won Best Hip Hop Act during the 2014 SXSW Music Awards. They’ve come a long way since winning a local contest in Rhode Island to open for Dead Prez.

RAS authentically represents opposing principles. They are completely accessible and welcoming, yet there is a mysterious air around them. They could accurately be described as eccentric, yet they are charmingly “round the way” in their conversation and demeanor. They smack of something fresh and new, and at the same time familiar and “old school.” Their electric and vibrant appearance is undeniable, yet calming. Rebellious and status quo. Struggling and victorious.

With RAS, you feel like you don’t have to choose. They are both/and, not either/ or.

Drawing inspiration from performers including Erykah Badu and ZapMama, Qi Dada‘s style reflects her appreciation for the royalty in every woman. Donning brilliant clothing and accessories, she invites those who look upon her to be reminded of the highest sense of self one can attain. “Our regal selves,” she suggests.

“We have to allow each other the space to evolve. If the love is there, we know we’ll make it through it.”

As much as the electricity of the music, the allure of RAS lies in the duo’s chemistry. After seven years of marriage, Chaka and Qi still emit the energy of a love-struck boyfriend and girlfriend, excited about all the possibility of what lies ahead and completely open to the unknown.

“I hear so many people say that their partner ‘changed.’ They get frustrated and say, ‘You aren’t the same person I fell in love with.’ Well, we expect each other to change,” Qi says.

Chaka chimes in, “We have to allow each other the space to evolve. If the love is there, we know we’ll make it through it.” Chaka’s birth name is Jon. His first stage name was JBro, dubbed by his older brother as a pet name. “As a bass player, my brother was actually the musician I learned to appreciate music with. After developing fierce beatboxing skills and winning a talent show back in Pittsburgh, I adopted ‘JBro’ as my stage name,” Chaka says.

As he found himself growing into higher levels of self-awareness and “be-ing”, his new names presented themselves to him along the way: Chaka (“warrior”), Mandla (“brave”), Mhambi (“traveler”), Mpeanaji (“the giver,” pronounced as it appears: “em-pee-uh-NAH-jhee”). Together, they represent who Glenn and Andrea Mahone’s boy is today: A generous and brave warrior on the move.

Qi Dada’s parents named her Ghislaine. She was born into a long line of musicians and music lovers, including her Haitian great-grandfather who was widely known as an immensely talented philanderer who wooed women and audiences with the same flair for the dramatic. Her first stage name was Tiger Lily.

“I love tiger lilies,” Qi muses. “They are beautiful and wild, which is exactly what drew me to them.”

She explains that at the time, the raw natural beauty of the tiger lily and its inability to be domesticated, much like her great-grandfather, seemed the perfect frame for who she was. For example, Tiger Lily would inexplicably disappear moments before RAS took the stage for a show, or at the beginning of an interview, or when she needed to be accountable to some commitment. A phone call, the need to use the restroom, a distraction of any sort would unfailingly present itself at the most inopportune times. Tiger Lily chalked it up to her “nature.”

But, as she began to “do the work” of intense self-examination and exposure, true searching for her purpose and direction, Qi accepted that claiming such an identity would be more of a hindrance than a help. So she changed. “Qi, like ‘chi,’ means ‘life force,’” she explained. Dada means “weave into existence.” Together, they better represent the woman entering this dynamic new season of growth, opportunity and stability. Qi Dada now finds herself awaiting commitments in her newfound comfort with responsibility and exposure.

Chaka was inspired to name RAS when listening to a live performance by Sweet Honey in the Rock, the famous female a capella group from the East Coast.“Ella’s Song,” a tribute to Ella Baker, encouraged giving young people the reins of activism because they instinctively “run against the storm.” The lyrics were branded in his heart, and they became “Riders Against the Storm.”

Chaka and Qi hope and expect that the life force that is palpable during their performances is harnessed and used to help others press forward through life’s storms. They are affirmed when person after person shares stories with them of how acute self-awareness and the breaking of emotional dams have occurred in the middle of a show. Chaka incredulously recounts how the very voice of one young man changed after experiencing revelation during Body Rock, a monthly live music party on the first Friday night of each month at Sahara Lounge on Webberville Road.

Chaka attributes the changes to what occurs when a person steps into the truth of who they really are. In another instance, a couple mentioned that their baby’s first kick was felt during a performance. That baby is now a regular at RAS performances, perfectly at home atop a parent’s shoulder, overlooking men and women surrendering in dance and movement to the messages of unity, power, non-conformity and most importantly, love.

Qi and Chaka respond in enthusiastic unison when asked if they want to have children together, “Yes, Definitely!” They plan to start a family as soon as some “stabilizers” are in place, acknowledging that life right now is rather “bouncy.” For now, they are enjoying the ride and taking the time to really get to know and appreciate each other. Demonstrating how well they are learning to satisfy each other’s appetites, when asked what his favorite food is, Chaka replies, “Whatever she cooks.”

Near the top of Chaka and Qi’s list of most memorable moments was a recent opportunity they had to dance in the rain in Puerto Rico. The skies opened up and a delicious tropical rain began saturating the earth. People everywhere were running for cover, but Qi embraced the beauty of the chance to “sing in the rain”…in Puerto Rico. Seeing his wife through a window, Chaka went out and joined her in dance and romance, proving that you don’t always ride against a storm. Sometimes you just have to dance in it.

Riders Against the Storm recently performed at SXSW and opened up for SWV and Morris Day at the 2014 Urban Music Festival. Tomorrow’s Body Rock, Apr. 4, will be a tribute to Erykah Badu.

You can connect with Riders Against the Storm on Facebook, and on Instagram and Twitter.

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