Travis Scott sought to uplift Houston. Did he let it down?

HOUSTON —

Playwright ShaWanna Renee Rivon was speaking at her alma mater — the University of Houston — a few months ago when a student told her he wouldn’t be able to attend her upcoming writing workshop: He was going to Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival.

“He expected something historic. It was evident on his face. Rivon stated that it was a feeling of pride.

After news broke that the Nov. 5, concert had been fatal, eventually claiming nine lives Rivon raced to check on her student. She said that he survived but was shaken. Many Houstonians had taken pride in Scott’s reimagining of Space City’s urban park. It was a place that shaped children across racial and class lines.

AstroWorld was razed in 2006, when Scott — born Jacques Bermon Webster II — was 15 years old. It was a fond memory for Scott and Houstonians. In a nostalgic nod, he titled his 2018 album “Astroworld” and launched his two-day music festival of the same name at the theme park’s former site the same year, making the entrance gate a cross between his image and one of the iconic rides, the Texas Cyclone.

The roughly hundred-acre park opened in 1968 beside the Interstate 610 loop encircling downtown. Rides included the Texas Cyclone — a wooden roller coaster modeled on New York’s Coney Island Cyclone — and Thunder River, considered the world’s first river-rapids ride when it opened in 1980. It grew to include a water park and dance club, Studio A, that broadcast a show on local television, “Videocity.”

“When you got to a certain age, in the summer, we would get a summer pass. Your parents would take you up there and it was just a place to be,” said Rivon, 43, who recalled dancing at the club. “It was just a sense of freedom.”

The park’s Southern Star Amphitheatre hosted performers including the Beach Boys, the Grateful Dead and AC/DC, introducing many Houston youths — in an era before the internet and streaming music — to genres they’d never heard, said John Chiles, an adjunct professor in the University of Houston’s African American studies program.

Houston is a city carved into neighborhoods, from the mansions of River Oaks and Rice Village to the low-income apartments of Greenspoint and Sharpstown. It was originally divided into wards which were often associated with ethnic communities. The Fifth Ward was Latino, while the Third Ward — where Scott lived with his grandmother and which he often refers to in his songs — was historically Black.

AstroWorld was able to transcend these divisions for many, Chiles stated. Houstonians did not grow up at the theme park, Chiles said. They also worked there often with people from completely different areas of town.

“AstroWorld is really woven into the Houston community,” said Chiles, 58.

After the deadly crowd crush at the festival during Scott’s set, Chiles said, “the citizens of Houston are heartbroken.”

“It goes back to AstroWorld being a positive experience for so many,” he said.

Chiles said Houstonians are not just following the unfolding investigation, led by police, but also “taking it personally.”

“There’s a great pride here, especially in the hip-hop community,” said Chiles, who teaches about Houston hip-hop legends, inviting local artists to speak to his class.

Beyonce grew up in the Third Ward and name checks it in her songs like Scott does (he’s also been known to visit Frenchy’s Chicken and Shipley Do-Nuts, bringing girlfriend Kylie Jenner, who posted about the doughnuts on Instagram). Megan Thee Stallion, who grew up in Houston, is expected to graduate from Texas Southern University in the Third Ward next month. This historically Black university is Chiles’ alma mater. But neither of them created a music festival the size of Astroworld, which debuted in 2018, returned in 2019, then was postponed last year due to the pandemic.

A visitor writes a note at a memorial outside of the canceled Astroworld festival in Houston, Texas.

A visitor leaves a message at the memorial to the cancelled Astroworld Festival of Nov. 7.

(Alex Bierens de Haan / Getty Images)

Unlike other “pop superstars,” Scott used his music, and the Astroworld Festival in particular, to attract artists of other genres to Houston, Chiles said: In addition to hip-hop standbys like Drake and Young Thug, this year’s lineup included Bad Bunny; Tame Impala; Earth, Wind & Fire; and SZA. Chiles stated that Scott also gave back to the community in other ways, including charity and youth work. Scott received a key to the city from Sylvester Turner one year after his Astroworld Festival debut.

“People that know Travis Scott know he’s a good person. He does many things quietly ,” Chiles stated, noting that Scott was there to dedicate one of the eight Houston public schools gardens his foundation built days before Astroworld.

Chiles, who has met Houston Police Chief Troy Finner, said he “came up from the ranks; he cares.” But he was troubled to see Finner and other officials blame Scott for not shutting down the concert (Finner stressed at a Wednesday briefing that Scott had the authority to stop the show).

” We have to examine the crowd’s willingness and ability to be managed,” Chiles stated. “This happened in Houston, but this is not a Houston issue.”

Many of Houston’s hip-hop stars, including Paul Wall and Slim Thug, have been silent since the Astroworld disaster. Rapper Bun B, also known as Bernard Freeman, 48, went on Instagram Live from Houston on Monday to talk about the tragedy.

” The city is dealing with a lot,” said he. “I wasn’t even there and I feel a certain way … extremely emotional about the situation.”

Bun B said his loved ones who were at the festival were safe, but he noted how much trauma everyone involved experienced. He said he flew from Houston to Los Angeles last weekend for ComplexCon with concertgoers who were returning to California after attending Astroworld, and one youth seemed particularly traumatized, wearing headphones in the plane, “trying to process it through Travis Scott’s music, which was his whole reason for going.”

“What are we not getting to as a community with this? Bun B stated that we sent our children from all over the globe.

Houston disc jockey Michael Pierangeli, who attended all three Astroworld festivals, said the crowd was more intense this year.

” The anticipation was higher this year because we are in the middle of an epidemic and Travis Scott is the first major event outside. You’ve got a lot of people flying in from all over,” said Pierangeli, 30.

Houston attorney Tony Buzbee, a former Republican mayoral candidate and River Oaks resident, grew up going to the AstroWorld park.

“There is that nostalgia,” Buzbee said. “Most of the people who went to that concert don’t know what AstroWorld was, but the people who run the city do.”

Buzbee said he let his teenage sons attend the festival in 2019, but they felt unsafe and didn’t return. Buzbee represents the family of one of those killed this month, 21-year-old Axel Acosta, and said they hold both the organizers and Scott responsible. You can’t encourage people riot. Buzbee stated that you can’t encourage people to riot, regardless of how famous you are or if they gave you the key to the area and stopped traffic to give you a place to park your Lamborghini. Did he attend an after-party following this concert?” I’m going to ask him when I depose him.”

Houston, the fourth-largest city in the U.S., is also considered by many the most diverse. That was reflected in the Astroworld crowd and the casualties, which included Black, white, Latino and Indian American attendees, ages 14 to 27.

Among them was Bharti Shahani, 22, whose parents had emigrated from India, settled in Houston, opened a clothing store and sent her to Texas A&M University.

“Houston is a diverse community of immigrants, people who are seeking better opportunities for the next generations,” said one of the Shahanis’ attorneys, Mohammed Nabulsi, as he stood beside them at a Thursday briefing. “Bharti was the first-generation oldest sibling. They are the glue, they are the liaisons, mentors .” This is what not just the Shahani family has lost, but what our whole community has lost: a bright star.”

Lawyer James Lassiter, whose firm is representing the family, recalled going to AstroWorld as a child, how the park had “always been a symbol of family and all the good things about Houston.”

Lassiter said his 17-year-old son was also at the festival, and “I was blessed that he made it home that night.”

Ezra Blount, a 9-year-old who attended Astroworld with his father, remained in critical condition at a Houston hospital Friday after being trampled during the crush, said his grandmother Tericia Blount, who lives in the Houston suburbs.

Blount, 52, a retired nurse, was at Texas Children’s Hospital, where she said doctors were trying to wean Ezra off medications that had kept him in a coma for a week as they addressed swelling in his brain and heart issues. She claimed that her son took Ezra with him to Astroworld, as Scott had billed it as a family event.

“He did face painting, ferris wheels, and rides for the children,” she stated. It was stated that it was a family event open to all ages. You would think that we could all go together, him and his son bonding. And then your whole world is just totally capsized.”

Blount said the family, who have retained attorney Ben Crump, want to see everyone involved held accountable, including Scott.

“He should have stopped,” Blount stated. “He saw things, but he just kept going.”

By Friday night, a week after the concert, a memorial at the Astroworld Festival fence had grown to include photographs of the dead, cards, balloons and hundreds of bouquets.

Toni Tacorda, the sole visitor at dusk. According to the University of Houston student, she was a security guard at the concert and visited the state to pay her respects. She said one of them, an 18-year-old, had extricated the body of the 14-year-old concertgoer who died.

“We could only save so many people,” said Tacorda, 21. “We were doing our jobs.”

Tacorda moved to Houston from the Philippines at age 6 and considered it a welcoming place. It was a great feeling to see the memorial grow as more people added their tributes.

“That’s the thing about my city: There’s always somebody there for you,” she said.

She was at the Astroworld concerts the previous two times and was inspired by Scott’s rise. However, she wasn’t sure he could save the festival from such a tragedy.

“Astroworld is not going to happen again,” she said. “It’s going to be another disaster associated with Houston.”

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