Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone
Photo: Dylan O'Connor
How Artist Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone Is Helping Black Residents During Tough Times In Austin
Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone, who is half of the hip-hop duo Riders Against the Storm, was getting ready to produce a fundraiser livestream supporting the Black Live Music Fund he created in Austin when it seemed like the end of the world arrived. According to The New York Times, a catastrophic and deadly Texas winter storm hit, leaving as many as 400 million people without power the week of Feb. 20.
Mahone established the fund to support Black musicians in the city financially. While the Texas capital has a liberal reputation, Mahone and other Black residents say it needs to address racism embedded in its core. Also, gentrification is pushing out Black and people of color. Black musicians face their own set of limitations in the city known to be the Live Music Capital of the World, and several have been open about the racism they’ve experienced in the scene.
But when the storm hit in mid-February, plans for the livestream benefit that was supposed to occur on Feb. 19 stopped. Mahone, a community leader who has served in the Austin Music Commission and is a Recording Academy Texas Chapter member, pivoted to helping those affected by electricity loss since the state’s power plants were not equipped to handle freezing temperatures.
Through the DAWA fund he created to aid fellow Black musicians of color and people of color who are “social workers, teachers, healing practitioners, and service industry workers,” he began to distribute money to people in the city, a majority of them Black.
Mahone, originally from Pittsburgh, is well aware of Austin’s history with segregation and has noticed how gentrification is pushing out low-income people of color. When the pandemic hit, and it became apparent COVID-19 affected Black people at disproportionate rates, he saw that people began to notice what he had been observing.
“There have been the beginnings of a shift that I think is going to ripple out into the future,” Mahone told GRAMMY.com in early February. Overall, city leaders “don't want to deal with the race question,” he continued.
When the storm hit, Mahone felt like the Black community just couldn’t get a break. “Gentrification and displacement, then a pandemic, now a hurricane-like weather-induced disaster,” he told GRAMMY.com via email. “It’s heavy.”
Now, as the snow is gone and the state copes with the aftermath, Mahone and his team are preparing to do another livestream shedding light on Black musicians’ experiences in Austin.
Mahone spoke with GRAMMY.com earlier this week before the release of Riders Against the Storm’s latest album Flowers For The Living, which came out Feb. 22, about how the Black community was affected during Texas’ winter storm. Via an upcoming livestream on their Riders Against the Storm FB page on February 26 at 7:30 p.m. CST, viewers can learn more about the Black music community’s struggles.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
What does Austin look like right now? What’s going on?
It's surreal now because it's 70 degrees. The snow is gone, but the struggle is still here. A grid failed. The system failed (again and again). People's homes were destroyed, some died; just about all were traumatized somehow by this. But the sun is out, so it feels like last week was some crazy alternate reality. It does feel great to know that people stepped up and came together, helping each other survive and make it through. It's a little wild because it feels like everyone wants just to get “back to it.” But I still need to process so much for this experience. There were so many lessons.
How is the Black community being affected?
It feels like we just can't get a break overall. Gentrification and displacement, then a pandemic, now a hurricane-like, weather-induced disaster. It's heavy. The storm made me feel the weight of it all even more. Despite the haul, we came together and stood strong collectively. We were hit hard by this storm, but we held it down for each other however we could. I think this gave us a look at the power that we have, and I hope it pushes us towards more collective action.
How are musicians being affected?
Musicians are like everyone else—finding a way however we can.
What are some of the things you’re doing to help?
Last week, I raised and distributed over $20k in direct cash assistance through DAWA, and by week's end, it will be over $30k, most likely. Building coalitions with orgs across all races and sectors, I helped facilitate food, shelter, and distribution centers throughout the city. This week, I am recovering, processing, checking in with my community, and looking to build stronger coalitions for future emergency/disaster response and relief in the future.
What’s the toughest part about going through this unexpected event?
I think the toughest part will be the aftermath. Going through it was intense, but now that the weather is back to “normal,” things ease back to “normal,” whatever that means in 2021, we can't forget the lessons. We can't forget what we did together, without assistance from the government.
We can't go back to sleep and just move along as if this didn't just completely rock our world. We have to become more resilient, more aware of our environmental impacts, be more vigilant with our coalition building, understand the equity gaps, and be more empathetic towards each other.
This event didn't just affect poor people or people of color. The grid went out for people across race and class lines.
Any thoughts on city and state leadership right now?
So many thoughts, but I am going to leave that for another day. What I can say is this was bound to happen. Some leaders have been aware of this for years and did nothing because… money—a familiar story. We can't put so much 'power' in their hands. We have to take it back. What that looks like is on all of us that know the leadership failed. My job as an artist is to make this new path forward joyful and visible.
Do you have more details about the livestream event on Feb. 26?
The Thankful event is a livestream featuring seven Black artists/groups from Austin. People should tune in to learn more about Black musicians’ perspectives in the “Live Music Capital.” The two-hour program is a fundraiser for the Black Live Music Fund, featuring artist interviews and performances. Anyone can tune in and enjoy the program. I'm also excited that the event coincides with our new album, Flowers For The Living.