The crowd gathered at Travis Scott’s Astroworld Festival surged towards the front when he took to the stage, in Houston, on Nov. 5. This led to the deaths of 10 people, including a nine-year-old child, and injured some 300 people.
Lawsuits are currently being filed against Scott and Toronto singer Drake, who came on stage shortly after the tragedy. Both rappers ignored the drama unfolding in the crowd and did not stop their performances.
Academic studies of American hip-hop and rap culture offer some understanding of the symbolic issues of this tragic event. Intercultural communications scholar Daniel White Hodge’s work is particularly relevant.
According to White Hodge there is a profound link between music and the economic, political and theological struggle of Black communities against racism in the United States, which have been going on since slavery. He proposes a “messianic” framework to better understand hip-hop culture. This approach reveals an increasingly strong contemporary desire on the part of some American (and European) rappers to respond to a compelling call from God.
Other research also helps in understanding the events at Astroworld. Some shed light on the behaviour of young people who worship musical celebrity excessively.
As a professional musician, composer and anthropologist, I draw on these studies to interpret the events at Astroworld using the metaphor of the “mission of Christ,” which avows it can change the world. Some youth now assign this mission to hip-hop and rap celebrities, benefiting from their positive influence.
The metaphor highlights the fundamental paradox of the lucrative music entertainment industry, which is that the triumph of a provocative artist becomes the cause of their downfall. It also raises the question of whether the rise of messianic fervour in the hip-hop and rap world was a cause of the Astroworld tragedy.
The rise in popularity of hip-hop and rap music has contributed to the music industry’s success in the United States, especially thanks to the expansion of streaming. In Drake’s musical imagination, this success itself may well be part of “God’s Plan.” His success is seen in the cost of the production of the song’s video, which has over a billion YouTube views.
Whether through video or on stage, Drake has clearly given himself a mission that goes beyond commercial ambition.
“One thing I make sure I do is always talk to the Big Guy upstairs every night, you know … I always let him know what my purpose is on that stage. It’s not to further my reputation … I want to make these people happy.”
“I am just seeing … a congregation … a group of, like, people … just seeing them be able to lose their fucking mind, man, to some music. That’s like the best feeling ever. It’s like better than any drug … It’s like saving somebody’s life for like 40 minutes, and then that can translate to like 10 years of saving somebody’s life.”
Devotion of the faithful
Researchers have developed tests to measure different aspects of fan behaviour toward celebrities in music, sports or film. The Celebrity Attitude Scale assigns three levels of devotion fans may have towards their idol.
“Entertainment-social” describes the behaviour of fans who appreciate the “entertainment value of the celebrities that they admire” while finding “opportunities to discuss their performances with like-minded people.”
“Intense and personal” describes those who are completely “absorbed in the personal life of their favourite celebrity, have frequent thoughts about them and an obsession with the details of their life.”
Some fans reach the “borderline-pathological” level by becoming “completely addicted to a celebrity.” This can lead to stalking, or some say they would do something illegal if asked to do so by their favourite celebrity. Some fans exhibit risky behaviour that goes as far as jumping from balconies at concerts.
These behaviours, however, are less “illegal” than “heroic,” if one considers that they are expressing a desire to engage with a musical resistance movement, an aspiration that requires fans to expose themselves to the judgment of their idol during the course of their ceremonial performance.
Seen from the perspective of this paradox of celebrity, the struggle of musicians who are engaged in an artistic resistance movement against racism appears to be a losing battle. This is what we can understand from the words of American rapper T-Pain whose song “Get up” was released in support of the Black Lives Matter movement:
I gave it my all and it still ain’t enough. Everybody gettin’ knocked down. The only thing that matters is what you gon’ do when you get up. … Get up !
A Christ-like model of resistance
In Homeland Insecurity, published in 2018, White Hodge presents hip-hop theology as a “framework for the radical engagement of emerging adult populations” in the struggle for civil rights. The author describes what he calls the “Hip Hop Jesus” as follows:
“The Hip Hop Jesus has the following characteristics: He has fundamental attitudes regarding church, God and Scripture. He supports male dominance and ‘man of the house’ ideologies. He ‘beats down’ those who are in his way. He instils fear as a form of control and power….”
For this Christ who “does not tolerate weakness,” the devil also has a characteristic figure: “it is not only an entity, but also a system and an institution,” writes White Hodge.
In the case of the Astroworld tragedy, it is the promotion company Live Nation that embodies this devilish figure. Lawsuits will target the failings of this organization which, despite its expertise, was unable to ensure the safety of participants.
The paradoxical power of agitators
In the messianic world of rappers, the Houston tragedy has set the symbolic stakes for judgment in the court of public opinion. From now on, whenever this missionary artist takes to the stage to be adored by his fans, he will face the ironic fate of the agitating Christ condemned for disturbing the established order.
But death is not a spectacle, and Scott should have known better than to stand on stage with his arms crossed, doing nothing and watching from above.
Professeure, Université du Québec à Montréal (UQAM)
Sylvie Genest does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.