There were signs of potential crowd control issues early in the day on 5 November 2021, when 50,000 people gathered for the third annual Astroworld festival in Houston, Texas. Ticketless fans were reportedly hopping turnstiles to enter the rapper Travis Scott’s hometown event. Inside the gates, organisers were unprepared for the size of the crowd.
But such events always feel packed, and often overwhelming. After the pandemic led to the postponement of many 2020 festivals, including Astroworld, attendees would have been eager to immerse themselves in the collective experience of live music – to move together as one, to the same rhythm at the same time. What’s more, Scott’s fans have come to expect mayhem at his concerts; he calls it “raging”.
Which is why what happened next was so horrifying. As Scott performed his headline set that night, the crowd surged towards the front, crushing people underfoot and leaving many unable to breathe. At least ten people – aged between nine and 27 – died and many hundreds were injured.
Scott has a history of disregarding audience safety. In 2015, he was charged with disorderly conduct after encouraging attendees at Lollapalooza festival to storm the stage against the will of security. At Astroworld, he stopped only briefly before carrying on with his gig despite pleas for help from the audience.
Video footage shows the rapper, after pausing to watch the crowd, declaring: “I want to make this motherf**king ground shake.” The show carried on for its scheduled time, with Canadian artist Drake joining Scott for the final songs.
Could Scott, from his vantage point on the stage, truly have realised the extent of the incident? Regardless, why did security staff not intervene and forcibly halt the show?
One survivor of the event, Cody Hartt, said he “screamed for help so many times”, only for festival staff to tell him they couldn’t stop the performance because it was being streamed live on Apple Music.
Nothing could make up for such a tragedy – but that has not stopped further controversy in the festival’s aftermath. At least 200 injured Astroworld festival-goers have since filed lawsuits against Scott and Live Nation, the event organiser. Scott has since denied liability for the incident, attempting to get the lawsuits dismissed. He reportedly offered to pay for the funerals of the victims, a gesture that was rejected by at least half of the bereaved families and described as “demeaning and inappropriate” by one lawyer. Scott has promised that all Astroworld ticket-holders will be refunded.
The undeniably tragic event raises many questions: how do we, after this pandemic really is over, learn to come together en masse once again? Should we understand Scott’s historic carelessness not as a stereotype of his music but as a facet of his character? And how do we ensure that both the music and the experience of enjoying it as part of a crowd remains liberatory – and safe?
Find the other entries in the New Statesman A-Z of 2021 here.