Black Music is the Culture of Austin. Fund It. Period.

Jonathan 'Chaka' Mahone, Vice Chair Austin Music Commission
For decades, Austin has been at the forefront of music tastemaking. However, one group’s major contributions to this success story have very rarely been told.

As various genres such as Rock, Blues, Jazz, and elements of Neo-Soul are premier staples for Austin’s music scene, festivals like SXSW, ACL, Reggae Fest, and even JMBLYA have helped to continue to reinforce Austin’s rightful title as the Live Music Capital of the world.

It is a constant struggle for black people and the black community to be seen and heard in Austin. While many in the Black community know it, we are also aware of the ostracization one faces in simply stating that fact openly. Yet, it’s a fact that the quality of Black life in Austin has been targeted by discriminatory practices well beyond the city-supported “1928 Master Plan”. 

This “plan” also referred to as the “Negro Plan” can still be found with a simple search. It was created to coerce freed blacks to move from the westside and what is now downtown Austin, and resettle within six square miles of East Austin. These six square miles were coined the “Black Cultural District.” And it was where Black art, Black businesses, Black education, Black music, and Black people not only existed but THRIVED.

In Black barbershops and Galloway’s Sandwich Shop, you can hear the legendary stories of Jackie Robinson coaching at the historic Huston-Tillotson before going to the major leagues. Driving down 12th Street, you’ll see the home where Thurgood Marshall lived while defending the right for Blacks to attend the University of Texas’ Law School (Sweatt v Painter 1950). On a late-night, you can grab food from Rolling Rooster and take in the scene at the newly restored Victory Grill. One of the last standing Black Venues that participated in Austin’s Chitlin’ Circuit, Victory Grill is where the likes of Ike & Tina Turner, James Brown, Etta James, Billie Holiday, BB King, Chuck Berry, and more icons graced the stages. 

Riding through Austin’s historic black district feels like a hip block in LA or walking a couple of blocks in Brooklyn. The gentrification is palpable. Where we once had music venues from corner to corner and black musicians playing on the streets, we are now fighting to even be a part of the music scene conversation. It is from this battle that the Black Live Music Fund was born. 

Sitting at the table

In November 2018, Natasha Harper-Madison was elected Councilwoman of District 1 (East Austin). In true Black girl magic fashion, she immediately began making her presence felt, as she made headway in supporting and ushering the black presence in more conversations around equity, building community, creative place keeping vs placemaking, and police oversight in the community. 

She also suggested that Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone become a part of the music commission, encouraging him to use his creative impact in a new way. In remembering when he was offered the position, Mahone says he was hesitant.  “I don’t want to be up a part of anything where people are just repeating cliche rhetoric, but wanted to make sure my presence moved the needle forward for the people I know and represent as a Black Hip Hop musician in Austin.  I honestly didn’t think it was going to be worth the effort initially, but I quickly realized the voice I had. Props to Natasha for putting me in a position to make a difference.”

In September 2019, Chaka launched DAWA (Diversity Awareness and Wellness in Action) to help those in the creative space and service industry. “When I decided to follow the path of a musician, I was a High School teacher with a Master’s Degree. People thought I was crazy. So when my wife and I chose to take the life of creatives, we struggled. It was the love, support, and donations from the communities that sometimes got us through. “ He continues to discuss the negative impact of a lack of stability and basic needs on a creative’s psyche. “DAWA was created to tell the creatives to keep going.  Why is it that people who have the highest effect on others and change in the community are always struggling?”

Using a multitude of revenue streams to fund DAWA, including $7,000 in donations from live stream events like Black Everythang Matters in August, music downloads from Austin artists like Los Coast (featuring Gary Clark Jr.), partnerships with local businesses like Juiceland, and more, Chaka plans to continue to help creatives with his voice and initiatives.  $20,000 has already been disbursed to People Of Color who are artists, musicians, social workers, teachers, healthcare providers via DAWA, and another $20,000 will be allocated in late-September/October.

As Vice-Chair of the Music Commission, Mahone and other commission members were able to have a louder voice, which they used to help the City of Austin’s Economic Development Department present a resolution to the city council for the Creative Space bond. Launched on August 27, 2020, this $12 Million Dollar Bond will provide creative spaces for underserved communities. 

In extending space to other black leaders and black cultural curators Mahone invited Jump on It! Executive Director, Charles “Nook” Turner; producer and community advocate, Ray Price (Doris Miller Auditorium); and rapper and community activist, Lauren “Chakeeta B” Riggins to join him in the “Live Music Working Group”. 

Providing solutions

On June 11th, Mahone shared his views on black creativity in Austin in a YouTube video. He expressed how a lack of black-owned venues and creative spaces showcasing Black music acts are a direct byproduct of the systemic racism black people face in many Austin spaces. 

The comments were immediately filled with “tension and backlash” over his addressing systemic racism and lack of equity for Black creatives – but, more importantly, the black community as a whole. While the Black Live Music fund was met with much resistance initially, Chaka feels it’s a step in the right direction, a catalyst for change. 

The City of Austin and Cultural Arts departments are starting to prioritize black equity.

With donations from his All Black Everythang event held in August as well as his birthday fundraisers and recent donations from partners such as Juiceland and more, Chaka plans to continue to help creatives with his voice and his initiatives. 

Since announcing the Black Live Music Fund, Latino and Asian communities have made similar requests to the City of Austin. With a smile, he says, “The City of Austin and Cultural Arts departments are starting to prioritize black equity. We’re getting their engines going and that’s good to see.”

I just hope that people are encouraged. I want people to feel inspired

So many question the lack of Black presence in Austin without looking at the host of problems that brought us here. While there’s a small minority of us in a lot of these places, we are relentless in ensuring that black voices are echoed up the ladder. In asking what he wants for the near future, Chaka says,  “I just hope that people are encouraged. I want people to feel inspired. And I want people to get involved with things that are already happening. Don’t sit back and wait and feel that voting is enough. You have to be active. Be the change you want to see.”

For more information on the Creative Space Bond or the Music Commission, be sure to check the City of Austin’s Public Information Page or tune in the Music Commission meetings.

In the meantime organizations and groups such as Six Square – Austin’s Black Cultural District, Austin Revitalization Authority, New World Audience, the African American Cultural Heritage Facility, Measure, The Victory Grill, UpSzn, Austin Justice Coalition, Black Leaders Collective, and the Austin Area Urban League are continuing to amplify the black voice and advocate for equity in all of Black Austin.


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