Music

How Race and Class Play Into the Astroworld Tragedy

Two teens stand in front of a memorial of flowers, T-shirts, and balloons on a fence at dusk.
A makeshift memorial at NRG Park in Houston on Sunday. Thomas Shea/AFP via Getty Images

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At least eight people died and hundreds were injured on Friday when a surging crowd pushed the breath out of Astroworld’s audience of thousands. Two of the dead were high schoolers. The oldest victim was just 27. And the entire show was caught on tape.

There’s video of Travis Scott singing while an unconscious concertgoer is carried out, just yards away. There’s video of fans dancing on an ambulance as medics try to reach someone in trouble. And there’s a clip of people begging for help—a camera operator livestreaming the performance for Apple Music waved them off. The show kept going for 40 minutes after Houston police declared it a “mass casualty event.”

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On Thursday’s episode of What Next, I spoke to Stereogum senior editor Tom Breihan about what went wrong at Astroworld, whether Travis Scott is to blame, and why tragedies like this keep happening at concerts. Our conversation has been condensed and edited for clarity.

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Mary Harris: Can you give me a Travis Scott 101, where he came from and what his music’s like?

Tom Breihan: Travis Scott is from Houston. The Astroworld Festival is his festival. He started out as a rapper and producer who worked under Kanye West. He co-produced some of the tracks on the Yeezus album that Kanye West put out. Around 2013, Travis Scott emerged as his own artist, and he works as a rapper. He’s a sort of psychedelic figure.

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What do you mean when you say that, a psychedelic figure?

He likes to create this sort of woozy, mystical sound. Houston has this long tradition of what’s called screw music, where a legendary DJ named DJ Screw took tracks, slowed them way down, and made them sound alien and otherworldly and just super woozy and trippy. … Travis Scott integrated little bits of it into his music without going the full screw style. His music is sort of built out of classic Houston rap sounds, but it brings in different things. …

He is, or has been up until now, probably one of the five or six biggest rappers in the world. He creates a lot of excitement around just the release of a single. And a lot of that has to do with his ability to create these brand partnerships, which are a huge part of his identity. Like McDonald’s had a Travis Scott meal. He has sneakers that Nike makes. He is a corporate-friendly figure. … He has made himself and other people very rich through these sort of sponsorship deal things that he does.

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He’s also known for his shows getting wild.

I saw him for the first time in 2014 in Austin, during South by Southwest, when he was a mixtape rapper. He had like one big mixtape out, nothing that you could really describe as a hit. When he performed—and this is my first time seeing him—he didn’t really rap onstage. This really struck me. His thing is kind of shouting melodic catchphrases. It’s about capturing a certain feeling. So when he plays live, it’s always about telling the crowd how to react, saying, Everybody jump up this way. Divide in half this way. We’re all going to rage together. It’s all going to be a big mosh pit.

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Moshing in rap shows has really, really grown over the past six or seven years. It’s about sort of creating this feeling of catharsis. And that’s what he does. That has made him a huge live draw. It can make for an environment that is unpredictable and euphoric in some ways, but it can also be really unstable and potentially dangerous.

The energy that you’re describing at Travis Scott shows—it was notable to me how often it had gone wrong before this past weekend. I wonder if you can describe some of the previous incidents where Travis Scott held a concert, something went wrong, and various people are trying to hold him accountable.

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So the big thing that happened, the sort of emblematic moment before this one, was at Terminal 5 in New York, which is a very tall concrete venue with balconies that go up several floors. This one show a few years ago, I believe what happened was he sort of shined the spotlight on somebody who was hanging from a second-floor balcony and said, go ahead, they’ll catch you. And then a while later, somebody fell or, he says, was pushed from a third-floor balcony and fell and was paralyzed on the ground and apparently then Travis Scott told people to bring him up onstage after he fell. And so this guy is now partially paralyzed. He tried suing Travis Scott.

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Part of his claim is that if he’d gotten medical attention sooner, he wouldn’t be paralyzed.

Yeah. A pretty clear case of a performer who wasn’t thinking clearly and did not necessarily have his audience’s best interests in mind. You know, he has told crowds to smash through barriers before, and he has been arrested for it a couple of times and pleaded down to minor charges. In the past week since Astroworld, there have been a lot of videos being sent around online of performers stopping shows to make sure that everybody’s OK and to get help to people. And Travis Scott has done that in the past, but he has also added to situations and helped create situations where people could get hurt.

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I was struck by this piece of video from a documentary about Travis Scott, where you see the crew that’s getting ready to start a show openly talking about the fact that the crowd is going to get wild, people are going to have trouble breathing. But it wasn’t even a warning. It was said casually.

Yeah, it was like, This is what these shows are like, be ready for it. And Travis Scott has been proud of being able to create that atmosphere before. He’s bragged about it. He has a line on one of his songs that says, “It ain’t a mosh pit if ain’t no injuries.” So this has been a point of pride, his ability to make things go crazy to set it off.

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In Houston, early on, like 2 p.m., before anyone was really on the stage, a bunch of concertgoers rushed the barricades and they came through. And it was basically a stampede of people. Eventually, the police are there with horses, but they can’t even stop anyone.

Yeah, and that, by itself, for a Travis Scott show, is pretty routine, where a bunch of people bust their way in. And I think that is the sort of thing that he has helped to encourage. The thing where these people got basically crushed to death while he was performing—that’s something else. That is not routine.

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Scott took the stage around 9 o’clock, and the head of the Houston Police Department is saying that he basically warned Scott, there’s an energy out there, be careful, I’m worried. How did things start to go wrong?

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At the first day of Astroworld, all of the earlier acts in the day played on one stage, while the other stage was empty. This was Travis Scott’s own stage. It cost a reported $5 million to build. He had it set up to become this whole spectacle. Half an hour before he starts playing, the screens near the stage start a countdown for when he’s going to go on, so it creates this big burst of excitement and energy when he is about to start. So the people who have been lined up at the front of this stage waiting for him to start for a while, they get sort of crushed by the big, big groups of people who come running over to the stage when the countdown starts up. So I think by the time Travis Scott even came onstage, things were very chaotic.

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Looking back now, engineering the event so that you basically create a swell of a crowd seems like a terrible error.

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Yeah. And it also seems like, from everything that I’ve read, from the accounts of the people who were there, the promoters didn’t do anywhere near enough to be ready for that. It seems like a lot of the medical people who had been hired to take care of injuries were in no way ready for what was about to happen. There are stories that some of them didn’t know how to do CPR. There’s a video of somebody dropping a stretcher and dropping somebody on their head.

There have been many, many Travis Scott shows where maybe people got bumps and bruises, but everybody was fine. This one was a bigger undertaking and I think we’re going to be going through video and trying to figure out what happened for a long time. But it certainly seems like the people who put the show together should bear a real responsibility for not being ready for what was about to happen, for what they had engineered.

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Even if the staffing was inadequate, there was one person who many argue could have stopped the show: Travis Scott. But you say it’s impossible to know what Scott knew when, or what Scott could even see from the stage.

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If you were a performer who routinely encourages this type of chaos and you look out at this vast crowd and you see chaos, I can understand how he didn’t think that anything was going seriously wrong while playing.

Because this is what it always looks like.

Yeah, exactly. There’s a part of the show in the video where he sees an ambulance out in the crowd and he says, Oh, it’s an ambulance. Is everybody OK? Everybody wave your middle fingers if you’re OK. And then he sees a bunch of middle fingers. And so he was like, all right, and so he starts. There’s another video of him stopping and saying, This person over here has passed out. Go help them. But also, if you’re onstage in front of 50,000 people as he was, then you can’t see everything. You just see this massive, heaving humanity. And so I can understand how he would have looked out at that and not realized that things were going seriously wrong.

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The story we’ve been told is that the local authorities thought if we stopped the show, it might get worse. Do you think that hunch holds water?

No. Their specific fear was a riot, and a riot and a crowd surge are two very different things. In a riot, something like Guns N’ Roses in St. Louis in 1991, people don’t get killed. They destroy a lot of property. But nobody died that day. I think worrying about a riot is sort of a misplaced fear. I think they should have stopped that show right away.

Is this about who’s performing and the assumptions they’re making about the fans? Because it seemed like a lot of the fans were really upset, and if someone had said, “We’re going to stop the show,” especially if the artist had said it, they would have listened.

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That’s definitely possible. I think the Houston police is going to have to think about that for a long time. I think the way rap crowds get treated is potentially very different. A rap show is often more heavily policed than a rock show. And things about race and class come into that. And the idea that the police didn’t necessarily trust this crowd to leave in an orderly way and so allowed them to keep getting crushed—that’s messed up, and that should be really, really reexamined at this point.

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I know you want to keep the focus on the structure here and the fact that the people in charge of planning the concert did not do their job in gaming out what could have gone wrong here. But when I look back at Travis Scott’s history as a performer, when I look at what had happened at this venue earlier in the day, when I look at the fact that this is Travis Scott’s event that he was hosting, it’s hard for me to think that he doesn’t bear at least some responsibility for what took place. Do you see it differently?

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Not exactly. Looking at Travis Scott, I think certainly, if he ever returns to performing, he needs to radically rethink the way that he does it. I think there is value in shows that get wild in mosh pits and in the raging-out thing that Travis Scott has always encouraged. I think that can be a real, healthy outlet for aggression, frustration, energy, whatever. The trick with that stuff is to find a way to channel and harness that energy in a way that doesn’t kill people or hurt people. He certainly is going to have to face some heavy responsibilities for that.

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Travis Scott released a statement on Instagram where he’s clearly pretty shook, but he says things like “I’m honestly just devastated and I could never imagine anything like this just happening.” And it’s hard for me to believe that’s true, because bad things have happened at his concerts and he’s been sued over them and arrested over them before.

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This is far beyond anything that’s ever happened at any of his shows. It is magnitudes worse. And I think if he is sincere in those videos, and I have no reason to believe that he’s not, he’s going to have to do some really serious soul-searching about how he put these young people in danger, the responsibility that he bears for that. But I also think that in the right situation, a show like a big Travis Scott festival performance can be safe, or at least minimally dangerous, I guess.

It makes me wonder, can you prevent everything? Especially when being in a mosh pit, being close to other people, having a cathartic experience, that’s part of what you’re paying for. And so if you have all these barriers up and you can’t get close to the artist and you’re not slamming into other people, why are you there?

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Yeah. And I don’t know, honestly. Maybe there’s no way to stop it from happening again, which is horrifying to contemplate. Mosh pits in general work best in small shows in smaller spaces where there’s a community around them, there’s an ethos, there’s what’s called mosh pit etiquette, where everybody knows that if somebody falls down, everybody has to pick them back up again, that everybody’s in it together. A big festival like Astroworld, where people pay hundreds of dollars to get in and where they’re shuttled from checkpoint to checkpoint on their way and then made to feel like cattle—that does not lend itself to a spirit of community and to an atmosphere where everybody is looking out for each other even if they are moshing.

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Maybe it’s not possible to have these sort of grand-scale mosh pits safely, like maybe that should stop. I think that if you’re going to put on a festival like this, you need to be ready for things to go badly wrong and you need to have plans in place. Otherwise, there’s another thing like this waiting to happen.

And what happened last week has happened before. You can tick off event after event—a Who concert in 1979 where 11 people died rushing the entrance, a Pearl Jam concert in 2000 where nine fans were crushed to death. One of the videos from Astroworld that went viral this week showed Travis Scott midperformance while in the crowd, an unconscious woman was being hauled away.

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It kind of reminds me of the part in Gimme Shelter, where the guy is getting stabbed and the Rolling Stones are a few yards away singing. There’s this sort of visceral power to the idea of someone performing while people are being physically harmed so close to them and they seem almost oblivious.

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There have been disasters at music festivals, big concerts, for decades. Since the birth of popular music in the rock ’n’ roll era and since these large concerts started, people have been dying at them. They’re potentially very dangerous places.

With Travis Scott, I don’t know where his career goes. Every time that somebody has had something bad happen at one of their events, it seems like it affects those people deeply and it really traumatizes them. It doesn’t kill their careers. So The Who are still considered rock legends after Cincinnati, the Rolling Stones are widely beloved after Altamont. Pearl Jam, what happened at Roskilde has not affected their standing in the world. So I think this will affect Travis Scott in the short term. I certainly think a lot of his corporate partnerships will go away. I think this will affect him on a personal level. I don’t think it will destroy his career. I just hope he does things differently. I hope he doesn’t play more shows like that because it is clear that they can’t keep happening.

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