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Astroworld Festival tragedy: Travis Scott's culture of devotion, chaos turned deadly – Houston Chronicle

The culture of Travis Scott is one of devotion — and chaos. His fans, “ragers,” love his music, to be sure. But it’s more than that. They stand in line for hours to buy T-shirts. They crash websites to cop his Nike and McDonald’s collaborations. They snap up everything from branded seltzer to Nerf guns to eau de parfum. Some thank him for saving their lives.
In a concert setting, there’s a frenzied exchange of energy between artist and fans. The ground quakes. Adrenaline rushes. It’s unlike any other contemporary concert experience.
“Raging and having fun and expressing good feelings is something I plan on doing and spreading across the globe. We don’t like people that just stand,” Scott says in a 2015 GQ video titled “How to Rage with Travis Scott,” celebrating his aggressive persona.
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That was the plan when he resumed the annual Astroworld Festival at NRG Park, a music and nostalgia experience he created in 2018 to celebrate Houston. The event takes its name from the city’s iconic amusement park that Scott and so many others grew up with. This was the first year the festival expanded to two days.
But the chaos Scott inspires turned to tragedy during the rapper’s Friday night performance. Eight people have died, a dozen remain in the hospital and many suffered injuries after a crowd estimated at 50,000 surged toward the stage. It will go down as one of the deadliest concerts in U.S. history.
Travis Scott performs at Astroworld Festival at NRG park on Friday, November 5, 2021.
The youngest victims were teenagers — just 14 and 16. A 9-year-old is in a medically induced coma at Texas Children’s Hospital. More than 30 lawsuits have been filed, and more are expected.
FESTIVAL CHAOS: 8 young lives were cut short in chaos at Astroworld Festival
Scott has faced criminal charges twice before for inciting crowds to rage. But his explosive shows and combative persona have made him one of the most popular figures in hip-hop and pop music. The Astroworld: Wish You Were Here Tour of 2019 was the industry’s most successful that year, raking in $53.5 million. He has performed with Drake, Justin Bieber, Kanye West and Kendrick Lamar. His appeal cuts across race and gender. His girlfriend, reality TV star and makeup mogul Kylie Jenner, is pregnant with their second child.
Kevaris Gregory, 26 flew in from Indiana to experience Astroworld. He’s lost count of how many times he’s seen Scott perform, but it’s in the double digits. He ended up onstage that night with a friend when Scott recognized him from previous shows. Gregory, who was pulled up from the crowd by a security guard, was stopped by police — before Scott waved him onstage. He says he didn’t know things had gone bad until later that night.
Kevaris Gregory has met Travis Scott several times.
“I’m just trying to wrap my head around what made this one so severe,” he said. “Nothing seemed wrong to me at all. With the adrenaline and just how the concert’s going, you’re not thinking. You do see the lights, but you can’t tell what is what out there. If someone’s screaming, you can’t decipher ‘Help!’ from ‘Travis’!”
Kevaris Gregory has met Travis Scott several times.
FESTIVAL TRAGEDY: Social media posts show fans begging to stop the Astroworld show
But Texas A&M student Seanna McCarty had a different perspective. She and others tried to get security to stop the concert after witnessing the chaotic crowd swallowing concertgoers. “The rush of people became tighter and tighter. … Breathing became something only a few were capable of. The rest were crushed or unable to breathe in the thick hot air,” she wrote in an Instagram post that went viral. “It was like watching a Jenga tower topple. Person after person sucked down … You were at the mercy of the wave.”
Social media has been quick to condemn Scott. A viral video compilation shows Adele, Dave Grohl of Foo Fighters and Harry Styles stopping midshow to help fans. Scott did stop performing multiple times that night to alert security to fans who were in distress. In a black-and-white Instagram video he uploaded following the event, he said he “could never just imagine the severity of the situation.”
Police officials said concert promoter Live Nation agreed to stop the show at 9:38 p.m. after several people collapsed. Scott continued to perform, completing what was scheduled to be a 75-minute set. Videos from concertgoers show people performing CPR, some screaming, “Stop the show!” But it was drowned out by the music and the crowd.
Scott’s shows hinge on a precarious balance of euphoria and aggression. When he opened for The Weeknd in 2015 at Toyota Center, the crowd’s reaction to Scott rivaled that of the headliner.
During the 2016 Day for Night festival, he berated a security guard for grabbing the microphone from a fan. “I’m gonna smack the (expletive) out of you,” Scott said before having the guard removed. “No security touches a Travis Scott fan, bro.” The crowd went wild.
During a 2017 concert at what is now Bayou Music Center, he told the crowd, “If you can’t survive this (expletive), the front door is right there, right there, right there.” A surprise 2018 show at the same venue drew thousands of fans who tore down barriers at the front of the stage — as they did at the Astroworld shows.
“There’s really no being safe being at a Travis concert,” fan Francelli Monreal said after the 2018 show. “The crowd went wild, with a lot of raging and mosh pits. I even witnessed a guy with a bloody ear from getting punched.”
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Scott’s 2019 Netflix documentary, “Look Mom I Can Fly,” makes the pandemonium a selling point. The first eight-and-a-half minutes include clips of tightly packed concert venues, security personnel attempting to corral the crowd and Scott himself jumping into the mayhem. There are ambulances and injuries, even as a fan voiceover calls him “the greatest live performer on this (expletive) planet.” It’s one of many statements from the young men who are a key part of his demographic.
“This is what happens at a Travis Scott gig,” one says after a show.
“Got a problem with La Flame, got a problem with me!” adds another, referencing Scott’s nickname.
“I had no one to turn to, and he was the first person to let me know that I wasn’t alone. Thank you for saving my life,” says another fan.
Travis Scott performs at Revention Music Center during his Bird’s Eye View Tour in Downtown Houston TX on Thursday May 11, 2017
A woman lights a candle at a memorial for those who died at the Astroworld music festival the night before, on Saturday, Nov. 6, 2021, at NRG Park in Houston.
Travis Scott signs autographs after his charity softball match at Minute Maid Park in Houston on Thursday, Nov. 4, 2021. Travis Scott and his Cactus Jack Foundation presented the inaugural Fall Classic Softball Game featuring an all-star lineup of athletes and entertainers in support of Scott’s Cactus Jack Foundation and the City of Houston.
The crowd watches as Travis Scott performs at Astroworld Festival at NRG park on Friday, Nov. 5, 2021. Several people died and numerous others were injured in what officials described as a surge of the crowd at the music festival while Scott was performing. Officials declared a “mass casualty incident” just after 9 p.m. Friday during the festival where an estimated 50,000 people were in attendance, Houston Fire Chief Samuel Peña told reporters at a news conference. (Jamaal Ellis/Houston Chronicle )
Emiliano Zucca couldn’t get a ticket to this year’s Astroworld Festival, so when a friend told him there were jobs available operating the carnival games, he jumped at the chance. He’s a fan of Scott’s music who admires the rapper’s Houston pride, as well as his fashion sense. He reported for duty at 7 a.m. Friday and was given permission to watch Scott’s closing performance.
Zucca, 20, says the area felt too small for that many people.
“I could hear whistles and people screaming. But at the same time, you’re at a festival,” he says. He didn’t know the extent of what happened until the morning news.
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“You’re just thinking people are screaming at the show. It didn’t come into my head that people were struggling to get out,” he said. “I want to believe that he would have stopped if he saw the magnitude of what was going on. I don’t want to put the blame just on him.”
A criminal investigation has been launched, and it’s unclear what the impact will be — not just on Scott’s career but on the local initiatives he introduced in the week leading up to Astroworld, including Cactus Jack Gardens, a program to teach students about agriculture, food, nutrition and entrepreneurship; and Cactus Jack Designs, a graphic and fashion design collaboration with Parsons School of Design. Even as his fame grew exponentially, Scott, whose name was Jacques Webster when he attended Elkins High School, frequently returned home for community and charity events.
Scott released two songs, “Mafia” and “Escape Plan,” the day of the festival. Both are still in the Top 5 on iTunes’ hip-hop/rap chart. His “Astroworld” album, released more than three years ago, remains in the Top 10. Festival shirts are selling for two and three times their original value on eBay.
WHAT’S NEXT: How to help victims of the deadly Astroworld Festival tragedy and their families
At a memorial for victims near the festival site, mourners echoed Scott’s signature phrases, writing “Rage forever” and “Rage for us in heaven” on cards and posters. Zucca says he’s struggled to sleep and felt “scarred” in the days since the tragedy.
“What’s the point of getting 10 feet closer by pushing someone else? It’s not gonna change how you see the show. It’s not gonna change how the artist sees you. My feelings are changed about concerts and festivals in general,” he said. “I felt like I could have done something. I was enjoying the concert while people were quite literally dying pretty close to me. But I was unaware of it.”
Chaos, it turns out, cannot be controlled.
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Astroworld tragedy changed a writer’s view of the live-music experience
8 young lives were cut short in chaos at Astroworld Festival
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Joey Guerra is the music critic for the Houston Chronicle. He also covers various aspects of pop culture. He has reviewed hundreds of concerts and interviewed hundreds of celebrities, from Justin Bieber to Dolly Parton to Beyonce. He’s appeared as a regular correspondent on Fox26 and was head judge and director of the Pride Superstar singing competition for a decade. He has been named journalist of the year multiple times by both OutSmart Magazine and the FACE Awards. He also covers various aspects of pop culture, including the local drag scene and “RuPaul’s Drag Race.”


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