The night SXSW became a 'm.A.A.d. city'

AUSTIN, Texas -- I’ve been waiting to write about Kendrick Lamar, ScHoolboy Q and Isaiah Rashad’s showcase at the iTunes Festival at ACL on Wednesday, but instead ended up reporting on a tragedy.

A driver allegedly killed two and injured dozens when a car plowed into a crowd waiting outside a club at the SXSW music festival in downtown Austin. 

Once I could get back to writing about the showcase, it felt trite reviewing a concert in the immediate wake of something so awful. SXSW is a reverie of stuff that, fundamentally, doesn’t really matter in the face of such suffering and trauma.

Over the last few days though, I keep coming back to Lamar’s song “m.A.A.d. city,” which he played on Wednesday to the biggest cheers and audience-bounces of the night.

RELATED: Car plows into SXSW crowd, registered attendee among 2 dead

The song is a document of the hair-trigger violence and drugged-up insanity that plagued Lamar’s adolescence and his peers’. The abbreviation of the title is often read as an angel dust reference; the song’s gothic synth stabs, war-drum backbeat, screaming fits and pitched-down taunts evoke the madness and doom in the lyrics.

Walking around the debris and blood stains on the pavement early Thursday morning, it was obvious this incident was a tragedy resulting from the callous actions of one driver.

It happened on maybe the most well-documented-on-social-media stretch of pavement in America this week. It was a very public nightmare for anyone who saw it happen. 

Outside of some improved festival logistics, soul-searching about SXSW growing too big and a deadly serious reminder to never drink and drive, I’m not sure there’s a lesson here except that life can get cut down at any second for no good reason.

But the world of the song “m.A.A.d. city” has moments like that every day. Lamar’s album is a rich, emotionally complex work of art about growing up. It has just as much optimism and sensitivity as it does gore and vengeance.

But as everyone returns to the bars and concerts of the remaining SXSW weekend, that song’s images of kids with guns and “cul-de-sac and plenty Cognac, major pain” spilling out of minivans to settle age-old scores is haunting my days here.

PHOTOS: Car plows into crowd at SXSW

The most idyllic place in the world for rich twentysomething kids to pitch new social apps and see buzzy bands they’ll forget about tomorrow was mowed down in a flurry of engine noise and screaming. I can’t imagine the depth of the physical and emotional wounds that the injured victims and the families of those who were killed are going through right now. That all has nothing to do with music and should be treated as such right now. 

Yet, I guess the job of art is to try to make sense of the big, impossible questions about the incomprehensible. You’re generally not going to find instances of that onstage at SXSW. But something in that Lamar song keeps coming back to me as a reminder to try to be a more empathetic person, because the world is insane. 

It’s also especially insane for some groups of people in some specific places, and we should all be working to fix that. 

I met a guy outside a barbecue truck last night. He was a young African American man, an Austin local going to college nearby to study business and marketing. He wants to found a nonprofit to help local kids go to college too.

As we were talking over our food, he admitted he’s still running from some dark places that he hasn’t entirely left behind. SXSW was a fantasyland that, after an allegedly drunk and foolish man made some irrevocably terrible decisions, suddenly felt like the worst of what he was trying to get away from. That’s what Lamar was rapping on Wednesday.

I don’t at all intend to try to pull a music story out of real pain here. Everyone’s going to go home after this weekend, and get back to their day jobs in marketing, A&R, media or whatever else, and I hope the only takeaway from all this is to never drink and drive, and to be kinder and value each other a little more.

But at an event that was built on showcasing the best of art and music, this was one instance where a song, in hindsight, felt like a premonition.

I don’t want to hear it right now. But I can’t get it out of my head.


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