Music Festivals

Black Voices, White Ears: Music Festivals' Great Divide

Solange's ACL set drove straight to the heart of the commonplace pains of living in the world as a black woman.
Solange's ACL set drove straight to the heart of the commonplace pains of living in the world as a black woman. Photo by Greg Noire/Courtesy of C3 Presents
This year's Austin City Limits Music Festival lineup brought black voices to the front. Bombshell headliners like Jay-Z, Chance the Rapper and Solange dominated the festival's main stages, bringing a much needed splash of color into a historically monochromatic lineup. While the festival's artistic drift into more diverse territory is a welcome change, there remains one small problem: for all the black artists featured on the main stages, ACL's fans remain notably fair-skinned. Why?

Perhaps these demographics should come as no surprise. The city of Austin has a white population of about 68 percent, a product of its long history of segregation and displacement embedded into local laws. Two decades of rampant gentrification have further pushed the city's black residents into suburbia and away from the economic opportunities in the central parts of the city. And even though the festival boasts nearly half a million attendees over its two-week, six-day extravaganza of music, its $255 price tag for general admission tickets can be just too much for a racial group that historically suffers from employment discrimination, wage gaps and limited opportunities for wealth-building.

That presents interesting problems for this year's headliners, whose music speaks directly to the black experience. What happens to the musical experience when a festival can't attract diverse listeners? And what about those artists? How can they carve out a space for themselves when their intended audience is nowhere to be found?

Saturday's headliner Chance the Rapper has long built his reputation of Obama-style altruism; he's the kind of guy who buys out theaters of the biopic Marshall to ensure people can go see it, or donates $1 million to Chicago Public Schools, all in the interest of serving his local community, and the black community in particular. That being said, Chance also has scores of non-black fans, likely attracted to his effusive charm and ministerial style. At ACL, the rapper transformed the Honda stage into a revival tent. His rendition of "Blessings" and "Ultralight Beam," replete with fireworks and live gospel singers, proved both agreeable and unifying, a soothing balm applied to a world of racial animus. That comforting, religious message allowed Chance to drop lines like "Jesus's black life ain't matter/ I know, I talked to his daddy," without so much as a sideways glance from white fans.

click to enlarge
Jay-Z's Friday-night ACL Fest set seemed to be carefully crafted with Austin's tame audience in mind.
Photo by Roger Ho/Courtesy of C3 Presents
At least, most white fans. Far back from the Jay Z performance on Friday, one very young and very white listener commented loudly how much better Jay Z was than that "hugs and feelings Chance the Rapper shit." The opinion was a strange one, considering Jay Z's performance; songs like "Family Feud" from the artist's mea-culpa album 4:44 proved to be one of many sensitive reflections on the pain the rapper had inflicted on his loved ones. And even though Jay Z might enjoy a reputation for hard-knocks style rap driven by themes of drugs and violence, his set seemed to be carefully crafted with Austin's tame audience in mind. Curious yet crowd-pleasing choices like "Numb/Encore" (from the artist's 2008 collaboration with Linkin Park) or "Young Forever" tapped into the audience's desire for accessible rap music, as did easy-to-sing radio hits like "Big Pimpin'" and "Empire State of Mind." These judicious selections show how a seasoned performer like Jay Z deftly navigates an audience that accepts his message under circumscribed terms.

Though Chance's and Jay Z's approach to the non-representative audience was conciliatory, Solange's was defiant. Her set was a bold, high-concept piece of unapologetically black performance art. Songs like "Mad" and "Don't Touch My Hair" drove straight to the heart of the commonplace pains of living in the world as a black woman, all with a brassy, all-black band backing her up. But the most poignant moment of Solange's performance came during "F.U.B.U." For almost half the song, Solange came down into the crowd to a black woman at the front, hugged her and held her hand as they both wept, all while singing the song's renitent chorus: "this shit is for us/ some shit is a must/ this shit is for us." After returning to the stage, the audience joined her in the ebullient chorus, joyfully pledging for a black-centered concert experience. In the end, however, the collective moment was an ironic one, as even at Solange's stage black listeners were in the minority.

To wholly blame ACL for its underrepresented audience would be unfair. Black audiences are marginalized at most major festivals for the same reasons they are marginalized at ACL, and the structural policies that segregated Austin can be found replicated in most other American cities. But if the festival is really wants to "up its karma," as its larger mission suggests, it might want to consider finding ways to foster a diverse audience in addition to a diverse lineup. Doing so would remove the burden from black artists to engineer their shows to suit the festival's current listeners. With the $277 million ACL pumps into the local economy, it's worth it to circle back to the communities who made these headlining artists possible.
KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Katie Sullivan is a sometimes writer for the Houston Press.