Difficult to pinpoint exactly when this city, with its long-running history of segregation and prejudicial practices, began to witness the demise of its centralized black culture, but pianist Dr. James Polk suggests it began in 1955, with the desegregation of city schools, and accelerated through 1967, when City Council passed the Fair Housing Ordinance outlawing discrimination on the basis of race, color, or religion in the selling, renting, and financing of a home.
Buses crossed the highway to take Eastside kids to traditionally white schools starting in the late Fifties. When the housing laws passed, blacks looking for something new could move to wherever they pleased. Not separate, but still not equal either.
“Kids could go to the schools, but they weren’t allowed to participate in extracurriculars,” remembers Polk, who moved to Austin from Corpus Christi as a teenager in the late Fifties. “That diminished the taste for developing music, but it also diminished the culture wherein black people had someone to look to in the community. They used to see the guitar player and decide they wanted to be that. Now, you’ve no longer got the opportunity.”
Stan Cobble, a 48-year-old promoter who used to work with 2 Live Crew, grew up in East Austin and sees the effect of his generation’s dispersement on the neighborhood he still lives in.
“My friends, they left,” he says from a picnic table at Chestnut Community Park, where he shares tacos with 35-year-old rapper and social organizer Charles “Nook” Byrd, who lives just up the street. “I have friends who graduated from University of Houston, Rice, and Texas, but they’re not in Austin anymore. They didn’t pass on the importance of keeping your land, keeping your property. That died.”
Cobble spent his 20s away from what had become the drug-riddled corridor at 11th and 12th streets, eschewing the White Swan for Downtown clubs like Catfish Station. By then, hip-hop had supplanted jazz and blues as the musical genre of choice among black youths, making the generational gap much greater. Young rappers couldn’t turn to the Eastside venues their parents grew up frequenting, so they turned their attention elsewhere.
“We’d throw parties in the parks,” says Cobble. “We had Givens Park off 12th Street, and Rosewood Park,” which sits between Chestnut Avenue and Pleasant Valley Road.
Nook understands the value of park parties. As an Eastside teen, he staged the Jump on It shows.
“Everybody would come,” remembers Black Mike, a younger rapper tied to DJ Rapid Ric’s Whut It Dew family who grew up admiring Nook. “All ages, all walks of life. Every Wednesday, he’d let us perform.”
Mike credits Jump on It with providing him an outlet to perform, and do so among an assembly of other spitters.
“We don’t have anything like that anymore,” he bemoans. “We don’t have an organization that caters to a large group of black people the way that we used to.”
Nook tried to revive Jump on It in March the week after South by Southwest, throwing a party on Rainey Street after he couldn’t get permits to use his East Austin park preference. Rather than 1,500, the revival drew 200.
“Youth are falling through the cracks,” nods Nook. “If you go to our neighborhood association meetings now, none of the natives that were here are represented. Jump on It was a big part of edifying the area. Gentrification was already in the process, but we made it cool for blacks to want to stay. With the absence of Jump on It, there hasn’t been anything for us, nor have we felt comfortable bringing anything here.”
Black Mike grew so frustrated with the opportunities for hip-hop that he got out altogether to start promoting R&B shows, working largely with MoJoe Room Bar & Grill near Highland Mall until the venue lost its liquor license this winter. He drew more than 1,000 people to MoJoe’s for Chrisette Michele in October and Musiq Soulchild in mid-January, but the venue’s struggles with Texas Alcoholic Beverage Commission (TABC) forced a Valentine’s Day’s date with Marsha Ambrosius into the Holiday Inn on I-35 and Highway 290 and only pulled 600 people.
Today, Mike struggles to find a venue he can book regularly. He threw a second show at the Holiday Inn on Memorial Day weekend – a Friday concert featuring Jagged Edge – but notes that “the staff was under the impression that it was going to be a lot of rowdy hoodlums and weren’t helpful at all.
“When I do a venue, I’ve got to bring in my own team,” he explains. “I bring in my own security, sound guy, and lights. You’re basically paying to rent the building. As long as I give them my insurance policy, they move back.”