Best in the Citi: Jonathan ‘Chaka’ Mahone

Jonathan Chaka Mahone Riders Against the Storm DAWA Black Live Music Fund Austin Tx
Jonathan Chaka Mahone, Founder at Black Live Music Fund
Jonathan 'Chaka' Mahone knows what it's like to be a struggling artist. Now, he's working to support other artists of color in the city.

Austin is a city where art is as much a part of its local identity as the burnt orange and white of the flagship campus that calls it home. So naturally, when one decides to pursue art full-time — particularly if the art he wants to pursue is music — the Live Music Capital of the World tops the list of destinations. 

Such was the case when Mahone and his wife Qi Dada decided they were ready to be full-time musicians, creatives and artists. They’d “had enough keeping it on the side,” so they moved from Providence, Rhode Island to Austin and put all of their energy into their band, Riders Against the Storm

“When we came to visit Austin, we just thought that it was going to be a place where we could thrive, we could grow, so we decided to take the plunge,” said Mahone.

But they quickly found an interesting dichotomy between being Black and being an artist in a city that had fully embraced its artist community but was simultaneously grappling with being the only major city in the U.S. with a declining Black population. 

..nobody seems to care about how hard it is to be Black in Austin

“There have been a lot of the conversations about how hard it is to be a musician in Austin,” Mahone said. “I kind of got tired of that dialogue about how hard it is to be a musician when nobody seems to care about how hard it is to be Black in Austin.”

The African American Leadership Institute

The Perfect Prescription for Austin's Inclusion Problem

Mahone had a background in community organizing. He had been a high school teacher, run a nonprofit arts organization back in Providence, and it wasn’t the first time he’d experienced rapid gentrification or racial injustice, either.

In high school, he led a walkout after a Black student was expelled after a white child received a much lesser punishment for the same offense.  

“Justice has always been something that I’ve always felt, or injustice — I’ve always been centered on that. I’ve always felt like I needed to play a role to make things better, make things bright, whatever that means to me at the time,” he said. 

His parents raised him to go to school, get the best job he could, raise a family. He went to Brown University thinking he’d be a civil rights attorney. “What I found was that wasn’t really my path,” he said. “I realized that by my second year of school that that wasn’t going to be my journey.”

His journey, instead, was activism through art, not law, much to his parents’ chagrin. 

“They were kind of like, ‘what are you doing with your life?’” Mahone said his parents asked. “I’m like, ‘This is what you taught me!’ And they were like ‘can’t you fight for justice and still be a lawyer or something?’”

Instead, Mahone created a nonprofit organization to provide studio space for youth in Providence, where he taught kids who’d gotten in trouble for graffiti tagging how to spray paint and create airbrushed pieces. 

When he and his wife moved to Austin, he maintained the community-focused nature of his work, even as they struggled financially at first trying to pursue art full-time. He started a nonprofit, Diversity and Wellness in Action, to provide financial assistance to struggling artists, social workers, therapists, and social workers. The organization raised $100,000 to support people of color in those professions during the pandemic. 

“People who give as a profession, they seem to be struggling the most, because our society doesn’t really value the work they do, our society values people who create more wealth,” Mahone said. “So people who decide they want to help people for a living, they usually don’t make that much money.”

“I know what it’s like when sometimes $200 can help you pay down something, help you buy groceries. It just gives you a chance to breathe, and sometimes that changes everything,” he said. 

He also runs a youth music program and sits on the city’s Arts Commission, where he has been fighting for acknowledgment of the unique struggles of Black artists.

“I’ve experienced all of that — just growing into myself and finding out how to do what is my passion, but how to also make a living. Because a lot of my passions aren’t necessarily easy roads to find a way to make a living. Over the last 10 or so years, I’ve figured it out, but it definitely hasn’t been easy by any means. But I’m here now, and because I’m here now, I can help others find their way, or at least find a way to support them any way I can,” he said.

You can keep up with Chaka and his Qi Dada on their website. To see the full list of 2021 Innovative Leaders — click here.

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