The organization behind Atlanta Black Pride has been working to “reclaim” the Labor Day festivities that they worry have become synonymous more with partying than with their long-term goal of educating, empowering, and celebrating the local Black LGBTQ+ community.
In 1996, In the Life Atlanta established Atlanta Black Pride, Inc. in hopes of formalizing and organizing the smaller, disparate events that had been taking place for Black LGBTQ+ members throughout the city. Last winter, organizers renewed their efforts to “reclaim” the legacy of the 23-year old organization—charging that the intellectual property of Atlanta Black Pride has been “usurped, misrepresented, and maligned” in recent years.
Atlanta Black Pride typically hosts many of its events at Candler Park, but this year the organization went virtual in response to the Covid-19 pandemic—hosting its film festival, literary cafe, and workshops online. A planned erotic poetry night and fashion show were cancelled after organizers decided they couldn’t capture the essence of the events online. Prior to Labor Day, Terence Stewart, CEO of Atlanta Black Pride, says the organization informed their constituents that official events would be held virtually, and that anyone who came to party would be attending an event sponsored by an event or club promoter rather than a sanctioned function. Stewart noted that the organization did partner with three groups, such as the Legendary Marquette Lounge, helping them provide masks and adhere to Covid-19 restrictions, and allowing them to use the organization’s name when advertising.
Rickie Smith, president of In The Life Atlanta Foundation, said limiting the number of partners helps them manage blowback if anything goes wrong. The organization started warning other promoters—sometimes even resorting to legal measures—who used the Atlanta Black Pride moniker without permission after being held responsible for unassociated events organized by Black LGBTQ+ partygoers during the holiday weekend. “If anything ever happened during that weekend, of course, ITLA would absorb” the blame, he said. “[Promoters] could reap all the benefits and the glory of the weekend but would hold none of the responsibilities of the weekend. Sometimes you just get tired of taking the blame for stuff you didn’t even do.”
Smith said the common use of “Atlanta Black Pride” by people not associated with the organization also made it hard for them to obtain sponsors, some of whom falsely believed they’d already partnered with the official group or were deterred by the misconception that the weekend was all about partying. Stewart stresses that Atlanta Black Pride hosts programming year-round. Even amid the ongoing pandemic, he says they’re working to host events that touch on mental health and youth homelessness.
Stewart insists Atlanta Black Pride is “brand protective”—not in an effort to monopolize the market for Black LGBTQ+ events, but to ensure the organization’s longevity. “If we want to be around for another 25 years, we have to clean up some things and draw a line in the sand,” he says.
In a bonus episode of GPB’s recently released podcast Shots in the Back: Exhuming the 1970 Augusta Riot, reporter and instructor Sea Stachura catches up with a few of her students from the podcasting program at the Jessye Norman School of the Arts. Like most kids, 10-year-old Gabbie Stallings has been attending school remotely and hasn’t been able to talk with Stachura about all that has happened this year. But in a recently recorded, candid conversation, she admits she’s become fearful when leaving her home following the deaths of Black people such as George Floyd and Ahmaud Arbery. “I’ve become very self-conscious whenever we go out. I try to be safe. And I feel very relieved when we go home,” she says. Her reflections cast a sobering light on how history repeats itself.
Shots was produced in partnership with the Jessye Norman School throughout the past year as part of an after-school extracurricular program for middle and high school students. Stachura had already been an instructor before presenting the idea to the school’s principal. “He saw it as a real opportunity for the students to engage in their community and recognize that even at their age they can contribute something significant to the world,” Stachura says. “The ground beneath their feet has a history, and that history isn’t as rosy or as clean as some would present it.”
Shots in the Back has been years in the making for Stachura, but the content of the podcast is as timely and relevant as ever. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Augusta Riot, which was sparked when 16-year-old Charles Oatman was beaten to death in a county jail. Six Black men were shot in the back and killed by police during the ensuing riot. The podcast tells this story over six episodes and several bonus episodes, featuring narration from Stachura, interviews with sources, including witnesses, family members of the victims and local leaders, and occasional reflections from students who are learning the complicated history of their town for the first time. The inclusion of young students offers a sober look at history for listeners who may have grown numb or cynical to news about racism and police brutality.
While GPB had originally planned to hold the podcast until September (a postponed date thanks to the pandemic), in June, as America was facing an ongoing racial reckoning, the radio station opted to release it early, hoping to spark further conversation about race in America over the past half-century. As many older people also feel uncomfortable discussing such issues, Stachura hopes the podcast will encourage them to push past these feelings and have important conversations.
Releasing the story as an audio docuseries allowed Stachura’s research to discover new sources, too. She credits listeners with providing tips that helped to further contextualize the deaths of Oatman and the six Black men killed during the riot. In a bonus episode, one of these sources, Fred McBrayer, shared his memories of working with Oatman as a vocational rehabilitation counselor, helping prepare the mentally disabled teen for future jobs.
Not surprisingly, the journalist and podcast instructor had some challenges getting students to feel comfortable discussing race. For one, half of the students in the class were white. One white student, Aidan Allen, 14, says he’d never really discussed race at length before deciding to participate in the podcasting program. As a result, he was self-conscious and worried he might say the wrong thing. “I have this fear of just saying some random stuff that’s racist. I was stressed out,” he says. “I’m in a whole school of people that I don’t want to offend.”
In one episode, Stallings hints at how awkward it was for her to discuss these things in front of her white peers. “Not to be offensive, but it’s a lot of white people in this room and it makes me feel uncomfortable.”
“That’s fair,” a white student responds.
“Because they are fresh to the story, [the students] haven’t yet muted themselves,” Statchura says. “They haven’t decided that there are certain things that they are not supposed to say, although they are already at a point where they know that this stuff is dangerous to talk about.”
Stachura first began reporting on the riot in 2011. While at Augusta University (then Augusta State University), she received a grant that allowed her to conduct oral histories, do a few presentations, and submit a FOIA request that got 900 pages of FBI files declassified. Many of the interviews featured in the podcast are from this work, although students did help conduct a few of the newer interviews. “I was stunned there was no historical record besides some Augusta Chronicle newspaper articles that told a very racist version of what happened and left out lots and lots of parts,” she says of her motivation to report on the riot. “I think this is a story that is valuable to the entire nation because how can you have a major civil rights uprising where six Black men were killed by police and [the nation has just] forgotten about it?”
Many of the students who participated in Stachura’s podcasting program are too young to completely recall or comprehend previous instances of police brutality. For them, learning about the 1970 Augusta Riot—something that happened in their own hometown—and watching this year’s instances of police brutality were the first times they’d grappled with the country’s long history of racial injustice and the ways it still persists today. “What they learned is that they were holding a mirror to their own time,” Stachura says.
Tiara Dugger, now a college freshman at Georgia State University, participated in recording Shots during her senior year of high school. She admits she had no idea about the Augusta riot before participating. “I felt so bad because I’ve lived here almost all of my life and I knew nothing about the history,” she says. “It makes me have a deeper appreciation for the city. It wasn’t a bright situation, but my city has more history than I thought it did.”
Dugger says she’s happy this project included the voice of students because, ultimately, these issues impact them, too. “A lot of older people think that children should stay in a child’s place. But we see all the stuff that’s happening and it does affect our daily lives,” she says. “We have to go out into this world and our lives are at risk every day just because of the color of our skin, our gender, all of that stuff. With kids, it provided a new perspective. It shows you that a child isn’t a child in today’s society. We had to grow up faster.”
For the past month, GPB has hosted a series of virtual panels to continue the conversation about the 50th anniversary of the Augusta Riot. The final event will take place on Oct. 5.
Artists in other cities had just started to use outdoor spaces, such as drive-in movie theaters, to host drive-in concerts during the COVID-19 pandemic. After Keith Urban hosted a drive-in show in May for medical workers in Tennessee, Variety reported Live Nation’s plans to produce a series of concerts in the parking lots of its amphitheaters this summer. Leeks and Parks, who were previously behind 2 Chainz’s Pink Trap House and other marketing successes in the city, saw an opportunity in Atlanta and launched the Parking Lot Concert series.
Taking place at the Murphy Park Fairgrounds in Southwest Atlanta, the venue has space for 300 parked cars, and attendees can tune their radios to a specific station to listen to the live performance in front of them. Leeks and Parks said all four of the shows they’ve hosted so far with Atlanta-based artists—Schooly, Travis Porter, Young Dro, and Peewee Longway—have reached capacity. This weekend, they’ll host a July 4th show, “Home of the Brave: Atown Bash,” that features Crime Mob, Fabo, Kilo Ali, Pastor Troy, Dem Franchize Boyz, and more.
But despite the executive order, most of Atlanta’s concert venues are still deciding when and how they will reopen. While restaurants have relied on social media to update patrons on reopening plans, the profiles of many of Atlanta’s most prominent music venues have remained largely silent, save for posting black squares to support the Black Lives Matter movement and announcing streamed events. Most have not publicly commented on when fans will be able to attend live shows again.
When contacted for this story, Live Nation, the company that books most of the concerts at the Coca-Cola Roxy, the Buckhead Theatre and the Tabernacle, directed Atlanta to its list of concert updates in lieu of a statement. At the time of publication, there were no concerts scheduled until August 8, when Desi Banks is set to perform at Buckhead Theatre. Zero Mile, the company that books shows at Terminal West, Variety Playhouse, and the Georgia Theatre in Athens, also declined to comment on future reopening plans. All of the summer events on the company’s website are postponed or cancelled. Decatur staple Eddie’s Attic did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Fox Theatre said the venue hasn’t set a date to reopen yet, but it won’t be in July.
While the executive order is “a welcome step forward from the previous mandated closure,” Josh Antenucci, senior partner at Rival Entertainment, the company that operates Center Stage, the Loft, and Vinyl, says that social distancing guidelines still make it difficult for venues to reopen. “Until the distancing requirement is relaxed, there’s no practical and safe way to resume a business rooted in the practice of gathering people.” As such, Center Stage will remain closed, too.
Reopening venues is just one step in bringing back live performances. “It’s not just that the venues are closed,” Antenucci says. “In order for artists to ramp back up, they need to have a comfort level in their ability to do so safely and that all of the venues that they play will do so safely.”
Part of that equation—being able to host a show without fear of getting sued. A June article in Billboard examined the liability of venues and promoters in the event of a COVID-19 outbreak at one of their events. “I would have a very hard time telling my client that if you comply with what the government has said as to reopening, that you’re in the clear,” Kinsella Weitzman, Iser Kump & Aldisert partner, told the publication. “This is something that will be adjudicated with a lot of hindsight bias. It’s so difficult to predict what a court will say a year and a half from now.”
“There is no mistaking the fact that this [pandemic] is devastating for the live events industry,” Rival Enertainment’s Antenucci says. “It’s also becoming increasingly obvious that in order to operate in the new norm is going to be more expensive than in the past.” He noted that the “economic shift” will inevitably mean concerts will cost more for patrons and venues. Promoters and artists will also face an increased financial burden.
As traditional live music venues hold off on re-opening, the pivot to hosting concerts in parking lots allows artists who have been cut off from touring—a main source of revenue for musicians—to get on stage and connect with fans in a time of increased isolation. Still, some of these concerts have garnered critiques.
In a video shared on Twitter from Travis Porter’s Parking Lot Concert concert in June, a crowd of people are seen standing in front of the lot’s parked cars, as women twerk on car hoods to the rap group’s strip club anthem, “Bring it Back.” (Ahead of the Travis Porter concert, fans were able to purchase access to a “front row twerk section” for $15.) As with the Skooly listening party in May, few people in the video from the Travis Porter show are wearing masks.
And with cases surging in Georgia, some are concerned that these concerts, like dining inside restaurants or packing bars, are another example of the city’s recklessness during the pandemic.
Street Execs’ Leeks and Parks say they provide free masks to everyone who enters the parking lot. They also offer an option for attendees to order food from participating vendors and have it delivered to their car. On their website, they encourage people to stay in their cars during the concerts and to wear a mask in the event that they leave their vehicle.
Leeks said they plan to continue the series throughout the summer, hosting one concert every Saturday and eventually expanding into other genres outside of hip-hop.
“I’m not really worried about what’s going on indoors until I see the temperature of the American people [change],” he said. “I think parking lot and outside car concerts are here to stay.”
On Saturday afternoon, as Atlanta navigated its second night of protests in response to the deaths of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and others to police brutality, producer and artist The Dream took to Twitter to share a message with looters. “IF YOU ARE NOT FROM ATLANTA, DONT COME HERE AND PLEASE GO HOME. I OWN THINGS IN THIS CITY, A LOT OF BLACKS OWN THINGS IN THIS CITY, FROM BANKHEAD TO BUCKHEAD,” he wrote. “DO NOT DESTROY PROPERTY THAT NEGATES THE DECADES OF WORK. MY CHILDREN WILL NOT BE SET BACK BY YOU!”
The series of tweets garnered immediate backlash, with critics accusing the artist of caring more about property than the human suffering that led to the protests and looting. “Look at this multi millionaire telling us WE need to worry about his kids fortunes,” one Twitter user responded. “Every day these celebs prove just how completely out of touch they are.”
Amid a week of protests in all 50 states and around the world, the responses from Atlanta’s rich and famous have received mixed reviews, in some cases highlighting a class divide that has long existed among Black residents. For some, Atlanta is Wakanda—as T.I. put it during Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms’s Friday night press conference—a real-life version of the fictional Black Panther mecca where Black people govern, run businesses, and thrive among one another. For other Black Atlantans, the rapidly gentrifying city is a reminder that economic goals often overshadow the suffering of vulnerable communities.
The Dream insists his tweets weren’t just about his own investments, but there is an inherent conflict of interest in his and other artists’ statements. While it’s certainly possible to both empathize with protesters and feel pained to see the city in chaos, these artists also benefit financially from encouraging peace. As entrepreneurs and longtime ambassadors of a city that is a hub for Black businesses, their economic success and the continued growth of Atlanta are indisputably linked. Even if they came from the Black working class and genuinely wish to advocate for them, refusing to acknowledge this reality dilutes their messages.
The Twitter dialogue and other recent critiques of local celebrities illuminates the absurdity of the expectation that Black celebrities serve as the voice of all Black people. Even in a city as Black as Atlanta, Black success isn’t guaranteed. This might help explain why some locals weren’t swayed by Mayor Bottoms’s assertion that T.I. and Killer Mike “own half the west side” as she asked protesters to stop damaging and looting property downtown on Friday while standing alongside both rappers.
In a recent Atlanta Journal-Constitutionarticle, reporters Ernie Suggs and Rosalind Bentley write, “despite Atlanta being celebrated for decades as a ‘Black Mecca,’ the city’s jobless rates were 11.5 percent for Black residents and 2.5 percent for white residents as recently as 2017, according to the Brookings Institution. The wealth gap also remains huge.”
Last year, Bloomberg ranked Atlanta as the “capital of U.S. inequality” for the second year in a row. “Headlines highlighting the city’s exceptional inequality are almost an annual tradition,” reporter Stephanie Stokes accurately pointed out in this 2018 WABE article about the most recent rankings from the Brookings Institute. While David Sjoquist, a professor in Georgia State University’s Fiscal Research Center, told WABE at the time that those rankings improve if you take the full Atlanta metro area into account, rather than just the city limits, he also said Atlanta had “one of the smallest middle classes among the 50 U.S. cities studied in the Brookings report.” He cited racism as a reason for this, noting the fact that many white families left the city when Atlanta integrated its public schools and the Fair Housing Act banned discriminatory housing policies in the 1960s.
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Where traditional media has mostly covered only the crime in Atlanta’s impoverished neighborhoods, our hip-hop artists have long given voices to the voiceless, documenting stories of their triumph as well as their pain. In the mid-90s, as Atlanta was preparing for the Summer Olympics, music by rap groups including Outkast and Goodie Mob spoke to Black residents who didn’t benefit from what Maurice Hobson, a Georgia State University professor and author of The Legend of the Black Mecca: Politics and Class in the Making of Modern Atlanta, calls the city’s “Olympification.”
Poor populations are often negatively impacted by Olympic bids, and as WBUR reported in this 2016 story on Olympic displacement, “thousands of Atlanta’s poorest residents were issued one-way bus tickets to the cities where they had relatives. They had to sign papers promising they wouldn’t return. Some 9,000 poor Atlantans were arrested during the 18 months before the opening ceremonies.” The homeless population weren’t the only people affected, however. WBUR notes “the neighborhood of Summerhill was sacrificed for the construction of the Olympic Stadium, which was to become the home of the Atlanta Braves.” Residents were also displaced from the demolition of the Techwood housing projects.
While city officials worked with Black and white business communities to prepare the city for the global spotlight of the games, Goodie Mob expressed the frustration of the Black working class on their 1995 landmark album Soul Food. “Crooked [expletive] Jackson, got the whole country thinking that my city is the big lick for ’96,” Big Gipp rapped on “Git Up, Git Out.”
“Goodie Mob’s earlier discography is a reflection of centering working class Black Atlanta in ways that were overshadowed by the larger story being supported by city government,” says Dr. Regina Bradley, Kennesaw State University professor, hip-hop historian, and co-host of WABE’s Bottom of the Map podcast.
In the years since, artists from T.I. to 21 Savage have continued to speak for locals who weren’t benefiting from the city’s status as a Black Mecca. But, with stardom and increased success, some of these musicians have also aligned with the same groups they previously criticized. “T.I. is right. Atlanta has been Wakanda to many and hip-hop has def amplified that Black Mecca mythology,” Rodney Carmichael, NPR’s Atlanta-based hip-hop reporter, tweeted. “BUT its also home of the TRAP—the genre pioneered by T.I. that gave a mic to ‘the least of these’ and popularized a dominant counter-narrative to our promised land propaganda.”
Some critics on social media highlighted the contradictions between some of Killer Mike’s lyrics about police and the largely praised speech he gave during last week’s press conference where, standing alongside Atlanta Police Department Chief Erika Shields, he shouted out the police officers in his own family. A few days later, the rapper put together a press call in hopes of introducing reporters to activists who might otherwise go unrecognized. It was his way of using his celebrity to uplift grassroots activists including Judith Browne Dianis of racial justice and civil rights organization Advancement Project, Pastor Michael McBride of Black Church PAC and Live Free gun violence prevention campaign, and Nse Ufot of the Stacey Abrams-foundedNew Georgia Project, a nonpartisan organization that focuses on voter registration and civic engagement through technology, gaming, and pop culture.
As Killer Mike pointed out on the call, he’s been involved in activism since he was a teenager. His Edgewood Avenue barbershop, SWAG Shop, acts as a community hub where he’s previously interviewed Senator Bernie Sanders and given free back-to-school haircuts to kids. When asked for comment regarding the critiques he’d received for standing alongside the mayor and police chief, Killer Mike’s answer was simple: “No. It’s not productive to respond to criticism.” But, those critiques, he said, only make him “get better and come back, and be informed by the people actually doing the work.”
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Increasingly this year, publicfigures—much likebusinesses—have struggled to strike the right tone in the midst of a global pandemic and, more recently, civil unrest as a result of police brutality. And many young fans aren’t shy about expressing their outrage when this happens. For some, there’s an expectation for the celebs they support to be knowledgeable and vocal participants in the social justice causes that matter most to them. But, for others, it seems silly to expect all pop culture figures to speak out and be experts on these topics. Not everyone wants to be an activist.
Regardless, if Atlanta’s hip-hop stars truly want to participate in community activism, they’ll have to reckon with their own status as members of the wealthy elite.
“Something I have been thinking about is the commercialization of the ‘gate’ and who gets to keep it,” Bradley says. “If you are a multimillionaire artist, do you still get to be the litmus test for working class communities that propelled you to economic success and popularity? What is the line? Money blurs so many lines and plans of action.”
On Saturday, April 4, a day affectionately dubbed “404 Day” in the city of Atlanta for its most famous area code, the comment section for Jermaine Dupri’s DJ set on Instagram Live moved quickly, showing friends reconnecting over their love for the city in real time.
As Dupri delivered an Atlanta-themed set of songs including hits from Playa Poncho, OutKast, and Monica, former Mayor Kasim Reed asked if he’d missed the Raheem the Dream portion of the set. (He had.) Music mogul Scooter Braun recounted his love for the city and the impact it’s had on his career, and shouted out celebrity friends. Local residents reconnected with childhood friends and gave a shout out to their neighborhoods. The Instagram Live broadcast reached more than 15,000 concurrent viewers at its peak but, in the moment, it felt like all of Atlanta, new and old, was watching and celebrating together.
And while Choose ATL, the Metro Atlanta Chamber’s initiative geared towards millennial and gen-Z professionals, was planning to hold a live event for “404 Day” before the pandemic, it wasn’t scheduled to include a DJ set from Jermaine Dupri. “The 404 Day virtual party was specifically designed to bring the community together during these difficult times and try to offer a sense of togetherness knowing we’re physically apart,” Ashley Tanks, Choose ATL’s senior director of PR and programs, says. Tapping Dupri, someone who has been integral to Atlanta’s identity as a hip-hop and R&B hub since the 1990s, seemed like a no-brainer.
Partnering with Butter.ATL, Atlanta Influences Everything, and FLR-PLN, the organization coordinated the Instagram Live that appeared on Dupri’s page and reached out to influencers in hopes that they would tune in. “We reached out to several Atlanta leaders and celebrities, and invited them to join. But, we honestly didn’t know who was going to participate,” Tanks says. But plenty of prominent Atlantans tuned in, including Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, WSB-TV anchor Jovita Moore, Lil Jon, Killer Mike, Ludacris, Usher, and T.I. all left comments.
Celebrities going live on Instagram certainly isn’t a new trend but, in this current global pandemic, the app that has sometimes been blamed for creating feelings of isolation and FOMO has proven to be an unexpected source of community. Like many people who are now facing changes in their careers as a result of COVID-19, musicians are also having to make adjustments. Touring, a major source of income for many artists, is on hold indefinitely. Public appearances have been halted. And, like others who are practicing social distancing, video chatting has become the primary way of conducting business and connecting with the outside world.
Recently, Timbaland and Swizz Beatz started a producer battle series titled ‘Verzuz” where artists go round-for-round against one another using snippets of their biggest hits. The battles, which are hosted on Instagram Live, have featured a number of Atlanta-based producers and songwriters, including The-Dream and Sean Garrett, Ne-Yo, and Johntá Austin. Atlanta native Lil Jon and T-Pain, who has lived here for much of his career, have had the most successful event of the series so far, with their viewership peaking around 280,000 last Saturday thanks to the pair’s extensive catalogs and friendly banter. For the most part, these battles have been less about “winning” (no one is actually declared victorious) and more about having fun and providing entertainment. When Lil Jon played “Lovers & Friends,” his 2004 hit song with Usher and Ludacris, during a round against T. Pain’s “I’m N Luv (Wit a Stripper),” he stopped short of his own verse in compliance with the rule that each producer only play one minute and thirty seconds of each song. But T. Pain requested Lil Jon play his standout verse anyway. With people—artists included—facing the threat of illness and unemployment, these Instagram shows have been provided a temporary escape into a reality where everyone wins.
T-Pain and Lil Jon’s large audience stemmed, at least partially, from the fact that they’re not just producers and songwriters. They’re also well-known vocalists. But, even creatives who work primarily behind the scenes have benefited from participating in Verzuz.
Atlanta-based songwriter and producer Johntá Austin has been writing hit songs since he was a teenager. He co-wrote “Sweet Lady” for Tyrese shortly before graduating high school and has since written songs such as Aaliyah’s “Come Over,” Mariah Carey’s “We Belong Together,” and Bryson Tiller’s “Don’t.” Austin says he was impressed with the audience that the battles had been getting so he came up with the idea to compete against Atlanta-based singer, songwriter, and producer Ne-Yo. About 80,000 viewers, including rappers Drake and Travis Scott, tuned in. “To see the amount of people that were tuned in for R&B music, that was great,” Austin says.
Ne-Yo agrees. While he lightheartedly admits Austin might have edged him out in the battle, he says everyone ended up winning in the end. “I felt like it was just positive all the way across the board, and I think that’s the reason that is getting the response it’s getting,” he says. “In the midst of this dark and confusing time that we’re going through right now, it shined a bit of light. It allowed people to be lighthearted and nostalgic.”
Like many artists, Atlanta native Yung Baby Tate says the COVID-19 pandemic has definitely affected her business-wise, but she’s been trying to make the best of this moment by finishing her home studio and connecting with fans online.
“It’s difficult for me to even see what the world is even going to look like after all of this is over. What is over for this? It’s hard to plan around something you have no control of,” she says.
Tate recently entertained about 200 viewers by singing songs such as Anita Baker’s “Caught up in the Rapture” and Brandy’s “I Wanna Be Down” during a “Quarantine Karaoke” virtual event on Instagram. “I just look at it as a way to organically and naturally connect with my fans,” she says, adding that she was livestreaming well before the current pandemic. “I don’t like to make it too much of a huge deal.”
Instagram Live events are free, so they’re certainly not a replacement for the revenue stream artists would receive from touring. But in addition to the streaming boost it’s likely given the musicians, they’ve also been able to build momentum for new releases. During their battle, Lil Jon previewed a new song with Ludacris and Usher, and T. Pain showcased some of the newer songs he’s been working on. Ne-Yo says he’s also working to release a “quarantine and chill” project soon. Austin recently released an EP titled Pandemic on Soundcloud.
“Hopefully, once we have safely combated COVID-19, we can get back out and be more visible in the public, but I think what’s great about social media and technology is we’re able to keep our connection with the people,” he says.
Glossier fans sometimes wait for hours outside of its New York City flagship before gaining access to the store. And while it was fairly quiet at the brand-new Atlanta pop-up store at Ponce City Market during a Tuesday night invite-only preview, by the shop’s grand opening on Wednesday, the line was out the frosted doors.
In the six years since founder Emily Weiss launched the direct-to-consumer beauty company (now valued at more than $1 billion) with a your-skin-but-better approach to beauty, Glossier’s Boy Brow pomade, Cloud Paint blush, and Milky Jelly cleanser have become cult favorite, particularly among millennials looking for a dewy, minimalist approach to makeup and an accessible skincare regimen.
Similar to previous pop-ups across the U.S., the Atlanta Glossier store allows customers to immerse themselves in the company’s signature aesthetic—think minimalist design, millennial pink walls, and close up shots of models wearing the latest Glossier makeup. Mirrors are prominent throughout the space—with one featuring the uplifting quote “you look good”—and shoppers are encouraged to experiment and try on products before purchasing. Once customers are ready to buy, employees—dressed in pink jumpsuits, of course—are on-hand to place the order and accept payment. Products can then be picked up at a window toward the back of the store.
According to a press release, each Glossier pop-up is styled with a different theme to match the city it’s in (Miami’s had an art deco look, for example), and Atlanta’s pop-up was designed to pay homage to our music industry, albeit subtly, with pale pink foam panels on the walls (a play on what you’d see in a recording studio) and a playlist created by Atlanta’s own DJ Ohso.
And, in true millennial fashion, a small room in the back of the store allows easy space for a quick photo shoot. The Instagram-worthy room features a mirrored wall and a table and chair perched on the carpeted ceiling. A disco ball appears attached to the mirror. According to the press release, this room was designed to be modeled after a recording room, although in person, this is pretty hard to pick up on, as there is no discernible music equipment. Once you snap your selfie, be sure to rotate the photo to better see the topsy-turvy effect.
The retailer isn’t all about vanity. The company partnered with local activist Charmaine Minniefield on a mural at Ponce City Market’s Shed and is also donating $5 of the profits from each limited-edition Glossier Atlanta shirt sold to nonprofit civic engagement organization ProGeorgia. And, on March 8, International Women’s Day, Glossier will work to register voters in partnership with nonpartisan nonprofit IGNITE.
For now, Glossier is only scheduled to remain in Atlanta through April 26, but there’s a possibility that the pop-up could extend its time in the city based on success. Glossier’s London pop-up opened last November and was scheduled to close this month, but the retailer recently announced plans to keep it open through the rest of the year. According to Forbes, the London location has seen “100,000 visitors over the past two months and boasts the highest average sales per day.” Glossier is also working to open a pop-up in Arizona in March. Los Angeles even got its own brick-and-mortar after it hosted a pop-up, so maybe Glossier will decide to make a permanent stay.
In August, the eclectic rap duo EarthGang visited a number of Atlanta landmarks while filming a music video for their song “Down Bad.” In it, the Mays High School graduates—Olu “Olu” Fann grew up in West End, and Eian “WowGr8” Parker in Ben Hill—ride down North Avenue, hang out in the unofficial Olympic Torch near the Varsity, and eat Flamin’ Hot Cheetos outside of West End Mall. In another video, for “Up,” a young boy on a field trip to Fernbank Museum touches a painting and the exhibits come to life.
The visuals offer a glimpse into the hyperlocal raps of Olu and WowGr8 featured on their recent release, Mirrorland. Recorded in Atlanta and released by J. Cole’s Dreamville label, the album is rife with Old Atlanta relics and nods to the city that shaped them. Naturally, they’ve drawn comparisons to another versatile Atlanta rap duo: OutKast. But EarthGang, who tour New Zealand and Australia in December before embarking on a U.S. tour (they play here at Center Stage on February 26), don’t want to recreate the work of their hometown idols. They want to add their perspectives to the ones that have showcased the city to locals and outsiders.
To Olu and WowGr8, Atlanta is the all-black Land of Oz from The Wiz, the 1978 retelling of The Wizard of Oz. Album opener “LaLa Challenge” quickly spirals into a dizzying ode to home, with an organ line recorded at Olu’s family church in West End, the Shrine of the Black Madonna, while a woman places an increasingly specific hot wings order. “Under [the order], we were chanting, ‘strip club, hot wings, studio, club, church,’” Olu says. “That’s what people do in Atlanta all day.”
When the duo isn’t on tour, they often hang out at the West End studio of WowGr8’s cousin Big Oomp—known for working with local artists like DJ Unk (“Walk It Out”) and Baby D (“ATL Hoe”). It was during one of these visits that WowGr8 created the song’s hypnotic hook, which J. Cole suggested they shorten to what fans hear today. “Beyond just being a fun record to make, it was relationship driven. We both got drunk and vibed,” WowGr8 says. The song became a fan favorite: When They See Us actor Asante Blackk danced to the cut at an Emmys party.
On “Fields,” WowGr8 reminisces on hooking up with a girl inside the now-shuttered Magic Johnson Theatre near Greenbriar Mall. “That was the only place for a long time, when I was like, little-little, my mom let me go by myself,” he says. The lo-fi cut transforms into a brassy homage to West End, South DeKalb, and Cumberland malls—and the fashion the two saw in these spaces: airbrushed T-shirts and gold grills.
When the duo set out to make “Wings,” Mirrorland’s final track, they wanted to go beyond the Atlanta that people might know from the current trap-music era. In the first minute, Olu shouts out Georgia 400, Underground Atlanta, Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, and the 2017 I-85 bridge collapse. “We got what Atlanta looks like to T.I., Migos, 2 Chainz, Young Thug, [and] Lil Baby,” Olu says. “It’s our turn to show y’all what Atlanta is to us.”
Atlantans is a first-person account of the familiar strangers who make the city tick. This month’s is Demetress Williams, a foster mom, as told to Jewel Wicker.
I am the oldest of four kids. I have two younger siblings that people probably thought were my kids. You could say I’m family oriented.
Years ago, my cousin and his wife were foster parents and he was like, “You ought to do it.” And so, I did. This was around 2002. At the time, I was considered a therapeutic foster parent. You usually get kids that have a little bit of issues, behavior problems, so you get paid a little bit more than a regular Division of Family and Children Services foster parent gets paid. I’ve fostered maybe 10 kids.
When you’re dealing with foster kids, it’s not like your biological kids. You have to have the mindset that these kids probably have been through more than an average adult.
I started fostering a six-year-old named Malachi and his older brother. The older brother’s father was eventually awarded custody of him. In total, Malachi has five siblings [two full, three half]. Two of them are now with their father. Malachi was moved around to various foster homes about five times after I first fostered him, and, during the times he couldn’t live with his siblings, there was crying and holding onto each other. It was gut-wrenching to see.
“I always told Malachi that if anything happened where I could adopt him, I would.”
Most of the time, the main objective is reunification, so you don’t want to get too attached. But that wasn’t the case with these [four] siblings. They weren’t going to be reunited with their parent, and Malachi had grown attached to me. I always told him if anything happened where I could adopt him, I would. After something happened while he was living in a foster home in Atlanta—I don’t know what—the kids were moved again. One of my coordinators noticed DFCS was looking for a new place for them. She asked me what Malachi’s last name was and said, “I think that’s them.” DFCS called and asked me if I would adopt all the kids. At the time, I was still fostering three girls. I said, “Yeah, but you have to give me time to find a bigger place.”
The adoption took place in April. It wasn’t a thought of “should I or should I not?” That was a no-brainer. I had already moved out of my home—a two-bedroom, two-bathroom, townhouse. I rented a four-bedroom house, and we stayed there for a year before I ended up buying the house that we’re in now. I still get foster kids for short periods of time, or respite, occasionally.
Why I do it is in me somewhere. I don’t know. Maybe somebody in my family before I was born did it. It’s not about the money, although some foster parents make it that. If someone takes on kids, especially a larger sibling group, daycare, assistance is needed. But now that I’ve adopted them, I don’t have to worry about them going nowhere.
When Brian Knott launched the A3C hip-hop festival 15 years ago, he envisioned a few days of concerts featuring independent artists—many of whom he’d befriended as the owner of record label ATF. With a name paying homage to “All Three Coasts” of rap—the east, west, and south—the small-scale shows attracted an audience but barely constituted a festival, says Mike Walbert, its managing director.
Starting in 2012, A3C’s scope expanded to a larger look at how hip-hop influences the world and vice versa, adding a conference portion where artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs talked music technology and issues such as substance abuse and mental health or found resources like recording studios and video production.
Today, the five-day event starting October 8 in downtown and at music venues throughout Atlanta is one of the largest hip-hop festivals in the country, a summit where tens of thousands of attendees are just as likely to hear how politics and social justice intersect with hip-hop as they are to watch 21 Savage, 2 Chainz, and Lil Yachty, plus hundreds of up-and-coming acts. The conference, nicknamed “hip-hop’s family reunion,” is Atlanta’s answer to SXSW.
And much like SXSW, which grew from a small music conference in Austin and is now a multi-industry takeover of the city, A3C is branching out, becoming a place, Walbert says, that brings “innovators from music, tech, film, business, and social justice together to connect, learn, and inspire each other.”
Helping the festival and conference grow are new majority partners Paul Judge, a venture capitalist dubbed by Fast Company as the local “Godfather of Tech,” and Ryan Wilson, owner of the Gathering Spot, a private membership club and coworking space on the Westside. “There’s no better city [than Atlanta] to build a lot of things, but certainly not something like this where you’re growing across industries,” Wilson says. “While you will see people from all over the country at A3C this year, there’s no way that you leave the experience not understanding that [this is] something that really only could have happened here.”
To help accomplish their goals, the team is emphasizing the keynotes, panel discussions, and talent and business development portion of A3C. And they are leaning on relationships Walbert has cultivated since he became managing director in 2009, along with help from the new partners: Judge founded Pindrop Security and now oversees the TechSquare Labs early-stage venture fund, and Wilson is a vocal advocate for elevating Atlanta as a hub for business, tech, and culture.
Experiences will include a battle between startups for a $25,000 prize and an entrepreneurial track, both sponsored by Google, plus free music-studio time provided through a partnership with publishing service Patreon. VIP conference attendees will have access to experts through a collaboration with OTT, or Over the Top Fest, a new event that aims to help content creators compete in the era of Netflix, Hulu, and other streaming services. Former Democratic gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, film producer Will Packer, fashion designer and Gucci collaborator Dapper Dan, and Kei Henderson, a label executive who manages 21 Savage, are all scheduled to speak. This year’s festival lineup features Megan Thee Stallion, Atlanta natives and brothers Lil Keed and Lil Gotit, and a Trailblazer series at Masquerade with E-40, Rakim, and Big Daddy Kane. Finally, A3C is hosting Fader Fort, the magazine-sponsored live concert series that has become a staple at SXSW.
The widened scope and larger footprint mean A3C’s conference and festival have outgrown last year’s venues (the Loudermilk Center and the Georgia Freight Depot) and will set up headquarters in AmericasMart. The downtown exhibition center gives organizers about four times more space than last year. And while this year’s events will make subtle nods to A3C’s 15th anniversary, Wilson says not to expect a lavish celebration. Walbert agrees: “What we’re producing this year, to me, is the culmination of 15 years of amazing work.”
Just a year ago, Montero Lamar Hill was sleeping on his sister’s couch. Today, the 20-year-old Atlanta native, better known as Lil Nas X, set a new industry record. “Old Town Road,” the two-and-a-half-minute song that previously sparked controversy in March when Billboard removed it from its country charts, has officially been No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 for 17 weeks, the longest run for any song atop the chart since it was first introduced in 1958. The previous record for 16 weeks was tied by Mariah Carey and Boyz II Men’s “One Sweet Day” (1995-96) and Luis Fonsi and Daddy Yankee’s “Despacito” remix featuring Justin Bieber (2017).
So how did a young Lithia Springs High School graduate manage to turn a viral TikTok moment into a historic run atop the Billboard Hot 100? Combine internet savviness, a catchy tune, and a decent amount of luck.
Everyone loves an underdog. While “Old Town Road” was initially released in December, it made national headlines in March after it was removed from the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart for “not [embracing] enough elements of today’s country music.” Critics pointed to the song’s lyrics as proof that the “country-trap” song was a parody that shouldn’t be taken too seriously. But Billboard’s decision quickly sparked conversations about gatekeeping among industry insiders and fans alike. Last month, Lil Nas X commented on the moment, telling Teen Vogue, “You can have your country song with trap elements, but if it’s by known country artists, then it’s allowed. A black guy who raps comes along, and he’s on top of the country chart, it’s like, ‘What the fuck?’”
However, the controversy ultimately helped “Old Town Road,” already rising in popularity, to become a massive hit. And since March, artists across genres—from Dolly Parton to Young Thug—have voiced their support of the song. Billy Ray Cyrus, who collaborated with Lil Nas X on the first remix of “Old Town Road,” tweeted “When I got thrown off the charts, Waylon Jennings said to me ‘take this as a compliment’ means you’re doing something great! Only Outlaws are outlawed. Welcome to the club!”
It’s doubtful that Lil Nas X has ever ridden on a tractor with “lean all in [his] bladder,” but that was never the point. With the silly, unassuming lyrics and exaggerated southern drawl in “Old Town Road,” Lil Nas X has placed himself among black artists such as Solange and Megan Thee Stallion, who have illuminated black Southern experiences that are often overlooked in pop culture.
Lil Nas X’s internet savviness doesn’t hurt, either. Lil Nas X represents the latest generation of genre-bending artists who are utilizing internet culture to gain a following. As a product of Generation Z, Lil Nas X undoubtedly knew the power of creating content that could inspire viral memes. That’s why he uploaded a snippet of “Old Town Road” to TikTok, an app where (mostly) teenagers routinely mesh short dance videos with songs. After the song was posted to the app in February, it quickly began to gain traction on TikTok and beyond. He’s also been accused of tweetdecking—or artificially inflating tweet engagement through mass-retweeting and other coordinated efforts—to build his large Twitter following, according to outlets such as Buzzfeed and New York magazine, both of whom cited Lil Nas X’s alleged connections to a now-suspended Nicki Minaj fan account on Twitter that “[trafficked] in memes, viral threads, engagement bait” to increase follower counts. (The New York piece notes that Lil Nas X’s team has denied claims he ran the account in question.)
But regardless of how he started on social media, Lil Nas X seems to effortlessly create consistent, viral content. His Twitter persona is funny and topical, and most of his tweets are vague enough to be relatable to just about anyone (“bro murder is so bad. i don’t like it,” he tweeted earlier this month to the tune of more than 265,000 likes and 30,000 retweets). That’s not to say he never gets personal—in late June, the rapper came out on Twitter by sharing a photo of a rainbow embedded in the artwork for his EP, 7.
Lil Nas X embraces the platform as a social one, retweeting his fans and the memes they create around his songs. He interacts regularly with celebrities such as Dolly Parton and Mariah Carey, and that proximity to A-listers combined with his likeable content makes him hard to ignore on Twitter. Still, many artists who are popular on the internet fail to translate that fame into an actual hit song. (Think about BackPack Kid, the Lawrenceville teenager behind the “Floss,” who is still trying to translate the viral dance into a long-term career.)
He knows how to stay in our heads. Even when we think we’re over the “Old Town Road” craze, Lil Nas X reminds us that it’s not over until he says it is, releasing multiple remixes of the track including one with Atlanta’s Young Thug and Mason Ramsey, a.k.a the yodeling kid from Walmart. The remixes breathe new life—and catchphrases—into the well-known song. (Ramsey’s “If you ain’t got no giddy up, then giddy out my way” is too catchy not to belt out.)
The remixes also helped Lil Nas X achieve his most recent Billboard record. “If you’re an artist looking to break chart records in the streaming era, your best weapon might just be quantity,” NPR reports, noting that in many instances Billboard counts remixes alongside the original song. This is true for “Old Town Road,” as the initial remix with Billy Ray Cyrus, the Young Thug and Mason Ramsey remix, and the most recent “Seoul Town Road” remix with RM—a member of the megastar K-pop band BTS—all count as one entity on the charts.
Let’s not forget that “Old Town Road” is also just undeniably catchy. Sit back and watch what happens in a room—or a school gymnasium—when the guitar intro of “Old Town Road” is played. Both kids and adults alike will instinctively cock their heads back, open their mouths, and passionately belt out the opening “yeahh.” It’s irresistible.
Ultimately, Lil Nas X continues a tradition long held by Atlanta artists. When the music industry didn’t readily accept him, he forced his way inside and made himself hard to ignore. No matter what happens with his career next, he’s served as yet another reminder that mainstream music industry isn’t always the one driving the trends, but rather is often trying to catch up to them.
Correction 8/2/19: We initially reported that Lil Nas X was a graduate of Lithonia High School. He is a graduate of Lithia Springs High School.
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