How A Husband And Wife Rap Duo Are Making Hip-Hop History In Austin
Riders Against the Storm arrived in Austin in 2009 at a time when the city wasn’t embracing its hip-hop talent like it is now. Since then, the group continues to push for hip-hop in the city while creating and curating nourishing experiences that puts Austin’s people of color first.
Just outside Empire Control Room & Garage, where hip-hop group Riders Against the Storm is hosting their sixth annual RAS Day culture and music event, is a mural painted on the side of another venue nearby called Elysium. The mural, made by local artist Tim Kerr, briefly tells the story of Austin’s Red River district and its transformation from a strip made up of junk shops and used furniture stores to where most of the city’s most popular music venues reside.
The mural includes an acknowledgment of Simon Sidle, a son of freed slaves who helped establish Red River as “antique row” when he opened his first shop in 1917. By the late ’70s, most of the black-owned businesses on that strip — including Sidle’s — were torn down; detractors called the leveling of several Red River blocks “urban removal.”
Why this bears mentioning is because Riders Against the Storm have been dedicated to cultivating and reclaiming spaces for black people and other people of color in Austin since moving to the city from Rhode Island in December 2009. As artists, community organizers, and spiritual practitioners, Jonathan “Chaka” Mahone and Ghislaine “Qi Dada” Jean — the husband and wife duo that is Riders Against the Storm — use their creative endeavors in hopes of healing and bringing people together. Although their latest iteration of RAS Day was more of a concert — the lineup included Leikeli47, Madison McFerrin, The APX, Lavelle White, DJ Eye Q, Eimaral Sol, and M3CCA — previous ones included activities for children and yoga sessions along with music performances.
Before their rise in Austin, Chaka and Qi Dada faced challenges being accepted in the city’s live music scene, and at the time the city wasn’t as receptive to rap music as it is now.
“[Austin] is deemed the live music capital of the world but hip-hop was never really a part of that conversation,” Qi Dada said. “There was a fight for quite some time against the hip-hop community here. The clubs were not booking hip-hop.”
Hip-hop institutions like Roméo Navarro’s B-Boy City and Hip-Hop Hump Day, a weekly event where four MCs were tasked with freestyling while accompanied by a live band, didn’t exist when Chaka and Qi Dada arrived in Austin. So the two started throwing parties at the Orun Center of Cultural Arts. There, they met their DJ, Chorizo Funk; in early 2010, the three started their monthly Body Rock dance event, which they’ve been doing for the past nine years. (Body Rock has been held at multiple places throughout Austin but it usually resides at The Sahara Lounge, formerly a juke joint named TC’s.) Described as a ceremony or gathering over a party, it’s common to hear all types of black music being played during Body Rock. Sometimes the trio even has themed nights that are dedicated to a specific artist like Erykah Badu, Outkast, or Prince.
“It’s easy to look at it on the surface and think that we’re hosting a party, but there’s so much training that has gone into it prior to be the proper conduit for spirits so people can feel things that they forgot they could feel,” Qi Dada added.
In February 2010, the duo released their album Speak the Truth, a 15-track project that they described as a “culmination of the past four years of RAS’ journey through life, love, struggle, and music” on their Bandcamp page. Other releases followed, including a live recording of them opening up for Dead Prez in 2011.
In 2013, Riders Against the Storm made history when they received the Austin Music Awards’ Band of the Year award. The pair, who won the award through a voting ballot process, was the first rap group to ever receive the award since its creation in 1982. The duo proceeded to win the award again in 2014 and 2015. Aside from Riders Against the Storm, only two other groups have received the Band of the Year award three times: Spoon and Los Lonely Boys.
“The people wanted something different. They didn’t want to see the same people winning,” Qi Dada said. “That goes back to our organizing tactics. Being able to organize people…the people made it happen.”
That same year, Riders Against the Storm were given their own day by former Austin mayor Lee Leffingwell on August 29. On August 30, 2014, Chaka and Qi Dada celebrated by having their inaugural RAS Day event at outdoor music venue Kenny Dorham’s Backyard, named after the late Texas-born jazz trumpeter who played in Charlie Parker‘s quintet, as well as recorded with Thelonious Monk and Sonny Rollins. The pair decided to host the event there to raise funds for the venue after the city threatened to not renew their lease over maintenance issues and reporting of income.
“It’s one of the few spots on the east side that’s run by a black person that also caters to black music,” Chaka said. “We had like $400 to put this party on. The sound rental company gave us $2000 worth of sound equipment and set it up for free. Everybody played for free. We ended up bringing in over $2000 and we gave all that money to Kenny Dorham.”
RAS Day continued to take place at Kenny Dorham in 2015, 2016, and 2018. Both the 2017 and 2019 iterations of the event have been held at Empire Control Room & Garage. Each lineup has included both local, regional, and national talent including Jean Grae, the Sun Ra Arkestra, Nitty Scott, Saul Williams, and PJ Morton.
This year’s RAS Day ended with a headlining performance from New York rapper Leikeli47. The lineup also included acapella vocalist Madison McFerrin (also from New York) and Atlanta husband and wife dance and funk duo The APX. Riders against the Storm, 90-year-old blues singer Lavelle White, DJ Eye Q, and R&B and soul singers M3CCA and Eimaral Sol served as the local talent on the bill.
“Coming to Austin and seeing how separated everybody was, this is such an amazing thing to be able to see so many black and brown people in a shared space,” Sol said. Originally from Killeen, Texas, Sol said this was her first time attending RAS Day.
The ceremonial aspect of Body Rock could also be felt at RAS Day, Chaka occasionally walking around with a wireless microphone and inciting Soul Train lines or Qi Dada hyping up two black women twerking on each other while a crowd gathered around them. Chaka and Qi Dada’s dedication to curating distinct and memorable experiences that are accessible to all but especially to people of color, is why attendees resonate so strongly with their events. And the pair only hopes to keep giving these experiences to a city they’ve become so immersed in.
“We just wanna celebrate what’s dope,” Chaka said. “I don’t care if you’re queer, if you’re this or that. What’re you bringing? If your shit is dope, it’s dope. There’s a lot of dope shit that needs the spotlight.”