Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival was a disaster, a morbid one. What was supposed to be the exaltation of 50,000 people raging last Friday night was eclipsed by the death of eight people in the crowd.
When the hip-hop star appeared on stage in Houston, the crowd surged toward the front, leading to chaos and ultimately casualties. He, surprise guest performer Drake and concert promoter Live Nation are now under investigation and have been sued.
Scott’s concerts are often electric, buzzing with energy, but they’ve never escalated to this level, and unfortunately this tragedy is a symptom of rap’s adoption of punk sensibilities.
Hip-hop concerts today are much different than in the days of yore. Those who smoked and bopped to beats in the 1990s have been swept away and replaced by the spiritual descendants of fans down the hall: punks. Just to the left of the tame fandoms of rappers such as Drake, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar are the crowd surfers, stage divers, moshers and ragers in the crowds of a new breed of performers, headed Tyler the Creator, A$AP Rocky, Trippie Redd, Playboi Carti and Scott.
Their music is visceral in the same way punk was. The lyrics get fans charged up, and the instrumentals do the rest. Instead of the mesmerizing lyrics, beautiful melodies or rhythm that were once preferred by rap fans, they now rage on energy alone. When Tyler the Creator chanted, “Kill people, burn shit, fuck school,” in the hook of his song Radicals in 2011, it was anthemic and the soundtrack to raging for an evolving genre and new generation.
Part of the reason the rabid fandom of punk, metal and now rap look forward to live shows is because they’re exhilarating. Contrary to Drake in the 2010s, the punk aesthetic of XXXTentacion’s Look At Me! and Scott’s No Bystanders felt nearly countercultural. Trading slickness and sensuality for discord and chaos was and still is elating. The ability to completely release your body and emotions is cathartic, and doubly so for a rager who has been cooped up in their house for more than a year because of the pandemic.
But the difference between the Astroworld Festival and previous shows is that the chaos was uncontrolled. What happened at Astroworld was a departure from the punk culture. Rooted in punk and metal shows was a sense of etiquette and safety that took years to develop after the AC/DC and Guns N’ Roses crowd crushes. This etiquette hasn’t fully crossed over with today’s rap fans or artists.
People who died at Astroworld were as young as 14, and a nine year old was seriously injured. Scott deals with a crowd young enough to have read about the overcrowded and violent Woodstock ‘99 festival in a textbook rather than to have lived its horrifically similar experience.
The unwritten rules of punk spaces – if someone falls, pick them up; shoulders, no elbows; don’t pull people into the fray – predate the people who occupy them now, and it’s part of the reason why ragers were jumping on emergency vehicles as first responders were trying to tend to those in need.
And to top it off, Scott encourages the mayhem. At the Lollapalooza festival in 2015, Scott was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct after inciting fans to ignore security and rush the stage. In 2017, after a performance in Arkansas, he was arrested again and charged with inciting a riot. In a now deleted tweet, after selling out Astroworld, Scott said the festival was going to sneak in extra people.
Mayhem has always been the bedrock of Scott’s stardom but that doesn’t excuse his lack of care. The performer occupies a bully pulpit during his show, and what he says could mean the difference between life and death for fans. Others in the space have been careful, and have been applauded. A$AP Rocky, one of the pioneers of hip hop’s punkness, halted his Rolling Loud performance in 2019 to make sure fallen people got picked up.
And Playboi Carti did the same just this summer at Lollapalooza when he was notified of people passing out, explicitly saying, “I care about you guys, safety first.”
Astroworld is what happens when punk is stripped down to merely the aesthetic without its culture. It’s massive, it’s loud, and the crowd is a swarming ball of energy. Performing in front of and being a part of that ball of energy is totally enthralling, but without the ability to truly harness that energy while constantly stoking it will only lead to tragedy.
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