In the days leading up to my trip, I grew weary. This was my maiden voyage to SXSW and the staggering number of emails, information and artist showcase announcements did little to taper my apprehension.
Day one began with a 6 a.m. flight from Washington, D.C. The journey included a layover in Tampa (my hometown airport, of all places) before touching down just before noon in Austin: the land of the Longhorns, mouthwatering tacos, the nation’s largest urban bat population (yikes) and festivals galore.
From the moment we set foot in the Austin Convention Center and later onto the popular Rainey Street, I realized there’s only one way to experience the iconic music festival — full throttle; I fully embraced the visual and melodic feast.
Musicians traveled from around the world to exhibit their talent and Austin obliged, filling every corner and crevice with performance stages and artist time slots, dragging late into night, as feverish attendees crisscrossed the city by foot, shuttle and scooter.
The first day ended at the British Music Embassy, where genre-bending British grunge pop artists the Nova Twins, who also happen to be Black and female, owned the night with a searing set.
Day two featured an impressive patchwork of thought-provoking sessions and events.
I glimpsed into the future of vintage, as high-end fashion houses conversed about evolving into purveyors of resale and champions of sustainability — an event where I made fast friends with a DJ and spent the next two days eating fried chicken and venue hopping with her (SXSW is a magical place, if for no other reason than strangers can unite behind a common purpose: devouring a banquet of musicians).
At one session, I learned about the rise of artists — following in the footsteps of Childish Gambino, Janelle Monae, Issa Rae and others — building multi-hyphenate careers through channeling their creativity energies and vision into various artistic pursuits.
At a second session, I received a crash course in how production teams partner with artists — especially in response to the raw isolation of the pandemic — to bring to life immersive concert experiences for audiences through complex set pieces. When it comes to tours, the lights, the fabrics, video, and special effects all blend together to tell a memorable and often emotional story.
Lastly, I sat in on a presentation centered on the importance of giving voices who have been historically suppressed a platform to challenge the dominant narrative and tell their story on their terms. Two poignant questions stayed with me: Who are we listening to? Who’s voices are being privileged? I’m still unpacking them.
The ladder session is the perfect microcosm of what SXSW is at its core: an instrument through which a diversity of budding musicians can be discovered. And there was something for everyone, from cowboy-mermaid vocalist Lorena Leigh, to the energetic and eccentric Mauvey, a Ghana born, British and Canada bred alternative pop artist who blends R&B, hip-hip and soul, to the high-energy Korean indie rock band, SURL.
Yes, the main course was the music and every performance left you salivating for more. From crowd-pleasing R&B artist Tyla Parx, to the irresistibly likable hip-hop/indie/rock/pop trio BLACKSTARKIDS, to the sultry Seratones and their “Astral Soul, R&B and Sci-Fi Funk,” to St. Lucian-British artist Poppy Ajudha, to Atlanta-based new wave/punk band Lesibu Grand and more.
The last night ended with an outdoor concert by heartthrob Shawn Mendes at the Moody Amphitheater, who works a stage and thrills a crowd as well as any warm-blooded pop star.
After day four, our thirst for music was slaked and our eardrums and vocal cords were ready for a rest, at least until next time.
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