Jordan Rakei’s first SXSW appearance was also his first time setting foot in the state of Texas, one of the few areas of the world he had yet to visit. Born in New Zealand, the international musician moved to Australia at a young age before relocating to London to spark his career. He’s since traveled far and wide, performing for and connecting with fans around the globe.
“We sold out a show in South Korea and when we got there, people were lining up before the gig to take photos, like proper fans,” he said, surprised by the country’s big crowds. “It was a seated gig which was quite weird, so everyone was very quiet, it was a really special night. They were singing along in English to all the tunes, that was crazy.”
With such a widespread following, Rakei has learned to study the tendencies of his fanbases in different areas of the world, which influences his strategy when it comes to releasing music. He often finds himself reassessing where his biggest market is, selecting singles that will best appeal to that audience in order to promote his album in the most effective way possible.
“I was sort of torn between Europe and America: Americans like soulful music, more hip-hop oriented, while Europe likes that, but more experimental,” he said. “Each decision is affected by what we think is our biggest audience. So we released ‘Sorceress’ first, and it appealed to all audiences in a different way.”
Set over a mellow groove that left room for refreshing instrumentation to float above it, “Sorceress” served as the perfect lead single to his recent album Wallflower, capturing the project’s overarching sound within approximately three minutes. Lyrically, it tied into the introverted, reclusive theme of the album together, as he tried to bring to light his struggles with social anxiety and its impact on his music career.
The album’s cover, a photograph of a young Jordan Rakei taken by his father, highlighted this theme as well and was a no-brainer when it came time to choose the art.
“I was about 4 years old and I was sitting on a bridge, and I was nervous of people walking toward me,” he said. “Me crying in the photo, it just sort of captures me being shy and introverted; that’s what [Wallflower] is all about.”
The album contained the most personal songwriting of Rakei’s career, especially in the form of a touching tribute to his late grandmother in “May.” While much of his music contains abstract wordplay to hint at the truth rather than express it outright, the song was more of a literal recollection of the moment he learned about her passing when he was only 13 years old.
“In those 13 years, we only saw [my grandparents] about twice a year, when we’d pop over to New Zealand every now and then, but it was still a really close bond,” he said. “That’s the memory I have, just them being amazing grandparents and always supportive, so it was just a dark day in my family’s life.”
Purely a beatmaker when he began making music, Rakei didn’t start writing lyrics until much later, and doesn’t think he would have been able to tell such cutting stories earlier in his career.
“The way I put words together, I didn’t have those skills back then, and I also didn’t have the content,” he said.
The passion that Rakei poured into “May” was fully evident during his March 12 showcase at the Elysium, which was presented by KCRW. Keeping his eyes closed while playing the haunting chords on his keyboard, he climbed to the upper range of his vocal register, filling the room with his melodies and connecting with the audience in the process.
Accompanied by only his drummer and programmed basslines from his laptop — which he affectionately referred to as Tom — it was a fantastic performance, although only a fraction of what he aspires for in the live setting. Rakei makes full use of production possibilities while recording music in the studio, and wants to accomplish similar things on stage, performing with a multitude of musicians rather than relying on a computer.
“With my albums, I can layer 50 things, but I can’t have 50 band members, because it just costs too much money,” he said. “I would love to perform with an orchestra 24/7, and have a choir as well. I’ve always wanted to play in a big scale, with massive production and big lighting, that’s the dream.”
Moving between interviews and showcases at a furious pace, Nilüfer Yanya’s first SXSW experience is the product of hard work rather than late-night parties and panels throughout downtown Austin. The London-based indie-R&B sensation handles the rush of each day with the graceful wit of an old pro, while still eagerly welcoming all the week has to offer. Outside a café on Brazos Street, Yanya spoke candidly about her musical past and the exciting future ahead, as well as her first trip to SXSW.
Signing to ATO Records, releasing two EPs and now playing her first headlining North American shows all within the past year, continual motion seems to be a recurring theme within Yanya’s life. She looks upon her accomplishments with fondness, saying she never imagined these dreams would come to fruition.
“The journey has been quite surreal. Before the summer, I had never been to America,” Yanya said. “I had never thought about an American label, or even doing so much as a show in America. When you come here, it becomes an actual place. So much has happened in such a short space of time, it feels momentous. These things happen for a reason.”
While she hasn’t had the opportunity to explore America just yet, Yanya has done her fair share of traveling. Using creative pursuits for good, she and her sister Molly started Artists in Transit, a collaborative arts project geared toward delivering creative workshops in underdeveloped communities in 2016. Since then, the collective has taken three trips to Athens, Greece, sharing their skills and love for art with the children of the community.
“Artists in Transit is our way of showing solidarity in the way we know we can,” Yanya said. “I just came back the other week from Athens. I’ve grown to love it – I feel like I’ve really gotten to know the place.”
Yanya performed her first headlining shows in America this past November in New York and Los Angeles, and has already come a long way since those milestones. Her February EP “Do You Like Pain?” received critical acclaim, with songs like “Baby Luv” and “Thanks 4 Nothing” exhibiting the wide breadth of Yanya’s songwriting capabilities. Released in conjunction with remixes of both songs, one of which was done by Yanya’s friend and saxophone player, Jazzi Bobbi, the EP has received attention from publications including DIY Magazine and Pitchfork.
“‘Baby Luv’ and ‘Thanks 4 Nothing’ allowed me to get more expression into the music,” she said. “It wasn’t so much about creating an interesting part, it was about being able to simplify something and use it in different ways. Each time I write a song, I never know what it’s truly about until afterwards, and it may take on an entirely new meaning much later. I feel like I’m writing the same song again and again — just trying to write it better each time.”
On the lineup for highly anticipated SXSW showcases such as SoundCloud, BBC Radio 6 Music and KCRW, Yanya is relishing in the week’s festivities, but is equally enthusiastic about what the future has in store.
“I’m really looking forward to putting out an album and would love to tour North America, as well as Asia,” Yanya said. “It’s beautiful to play for the sake of music. You can’t lose the reasons why you’re doing what you’re doing and why you enjoy writing songs.”
Rising rapper Abhi the Nomad seemed calm, considering he was about to performing a handful of high-profile showcases at SXSW, fresh off the release of his critically acclaimed album Marbled.
“I remember back in 2015 we said, ‘one day we’re going to play SXSW’,” he said, talking over coffee at a North Austin outdoor shopping mall. “It was one of those ‘if only’ statements, and now it’s actually happening.”
Championed as Austin’s hometown hip-hop hero — a title Abhi accepts with great honor, yet contradicts his past history of constant nomadic travel — for the first time in his life, he finally has somewhere to call home.
“I grew up as a Third Culture Kid moving every three or four years, so I’ve traveled my whole life,” Abhi said. “Austin feels like home, I honestly feel like I belong here. They’ve taken so kindly to the record — they’ve welcomed me.”
Abhi is happy to call Austin home, but he currently stands on uncertain ground with regard to his American citizenship. After being rejected for a work visa, Abhi says he must demonstrate “extraordinary talent within the field [his] expertise is in” in order to remain in the country.
“The visa issue is overbearing,” Abhi said. “Unfortunately, only one in every three people get selected, and I just didn’t make it. Everything is tentative right now.”
Realizing how the success of his record could be a means of staying in the United States, Abhi strives to represent those who share a similar migratory background.
“There’s a whole word of [Third Culture Kids] that have lived the same way I have,” he said. “I don’t know of any musicians who are living that life, so I try to be a voice for that. I try to put all of these experiences into my music, because there’s definitely people who can relate.”
Previously “avoiding the elephant in the room” of his uncertain visa situation in his everyday life, Abhi now utilizes the story as a central motif throughout Marbled.
“The term ‘marbled’ draws from past experiences and life decisions you may regret,” he said. “Having your stripes and your scars are what make you the person you are, so acceptance is the overall theme of the record. I shied away from it for years, but I feel like at this point leaving out details is futile — I have to tell the truth.”
Wanting Marbled “to be for all types of people of all different ages,” Abhi drew from his wide palate of musical influences when making the record – a fact that some see as an issue when attempting to categorize the album into a single defined genre.
“I want everyone to be able to relate to something on the record. I didn’t go into making Marbled thinking this is going to be a dance record, or a hip-hop record — there’s honestly all different styles of music that I love to make,” Abhi said. “I’m trying to make the best songs. I want each song to be its own monster; they don’t have to be tracks that necessarily tie everything together.”
Crafting music he describes as a “hybrid of a lot of things,” Abhi is humbled by the momentum of Marbled, and understands that it is only the calm before the storm.
“Everything matters — even if there’s 10 people in the room, you have no idea who those 10 are,” he said. “I feel like you’re always in the eye of the storm. You can’t stay in the middle, you have to stick your hand out and feel it.”
Upon his departure, Abhi articulated one final statement reminiscent of his holistic personal and artistic journey: “You have to make your own luck.”
Take a trip to Waterloo Records near downtown Austin with the rising artist known as Demo Taped, and the actual vinyls might be the last section you peruse. A producer, singer and songwriter with experience in animation and other fields, he is simply a lover of all things art, especially when it comes with a positive message.
“Oh, man, Mister Rogers is like a role model for me, in a sense,” he said, holding up a pack of sticky notes branded with the host of the long running children’s television series Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood. “I was looking at YouTube videos of the man, and I tear up a little. If you go back and watch the episodes again, just what he says and how he delivers it. He’d say ‘I like you just the way you are,’ at the end of every episode; it’s such a simple saying, but to hear that, it’s something.”
Demo Taped is a huge proponent of self-love, and has made such messages a major part of his philosophy toward music. He recently released the 5-track EP Momentary, themed behind the concept of life’s brevity and why it’s important to make every attempt to embrace the highlights rather than get stuck on the lows.
“I suffer from depression and anxiety, so I’m not saying you can just make yourself happy and experience life every day as a happy person,” he said. “But still, try not to dwell so much. I don’t want look back on my life and realize that I spent too much time thinking about things that worried and hurt me, ultimately.”
His personal struggles with depression have influenced his songwriting and what he looks to accomplish in his career, as he not only embraces its cathartic qualities, but also aims to use his platform to encourage others who may experience similar struggles with mental health.
“Music for me, it’s definitely a release, but I also want to use whatever voice I have to talk about this,” he said. “It’s a matter of life and death for a lot of people, and if I can just say a few words on it, at the very least, it’s the least I can do.”
Reaching that level of acceptance wasn’t the easiest process for the 20-year-old artist. Once he realized how many of these issues were out of his own control, though, he began to actively seek out how he could improve his situation, and has seen the results in his life.
“It was me thinking, ‘who am I if I need medicine to be happy?’ he said. “That was the most destructive thought I ever had, it’s just so false. If you were diabetic, you wouldn’t neglect taking insulin, you wouldn’t neglect pricking your finger everyday. This is the exact same thing, except it’s all up here, which can affect everything in your life. Motivation, relationships, it’s why your mental state is so important.”
Music was there for Demo Taped when he needed it the most, and it’s taking him to new heights as he builds his catalogue. The Atlanta native is now signed to 300 Entertainment, and considers the label somewhat of a second family to him. Prior to that, however, he had actually dropped out of art school to pursue music full-time, after the school saw the success of his EP Heart and encouraged him to fully dive into his career.
“Even the principal said I should leave,” he laughed. “After the release of Heart, I was getting a lot of attention, and was flooded with emails, and they were like ‘hey, you might want to go.’ I had already been thinking about it and talking with my parents, but when the school said that, it really changed.”
Both Heart and Momentary involve a futuristic, modern sound, incorporating a range of influences and styles into his left-field production. Always seeking to subvert expectations, Demo Taped trusts his own ear above all else, creating music that he wants to listen to while trying not to lose too many listeners along the way.
“On my song ‘Chemical,’ there are some weird transitions that I got from just messing around with synths,” he said. “I never wanted it to take anyone out of the track, but I also wanted it in there. You can’t always just make everything you want to make, because you’ll get some really weird stuff, but I think it’s important to follow your heart and soul, all that cliche stuff that still rings true.”
Going forward, though, he hopes to do more with samples in his music influencing the type of vinyls that typically draw his attention.
“I have a massive collection at home,” he said. “I still haven’t sampled anything that’s out yet, but I always try to find jittery, underground soul cuts where the label and the publishing is dead, so it’s all open.”
Waterloo Records didn’t have too many of that nature, but Demo Taped was able to secure several tapes that harkened back to his childhood. Finding Funkadelic’s One Nation Under a Groove, one of several vinyls he decided to take home with him, on the shelves put a bright smile on his face.
“This is what I grew up on, my dad had this kind of stuff playing in the house,” he said. “I’ve been trying to chase this other album my whole time going to record stores, though; it has the song ‘Not Just Knee Deep’ on it. That stuff is fire.”
This Tuesday, Robert Hernandez, a journalism professor from the Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism, will be speaking about the mythic pipeline problem in journalism at Austin’s SXSW festival. Hernandez, who began teaching at USC in 2009, considers himself a product of California before a digital journalist, and felt the need to challenge the disparity he witnessed between his diverse surroundings and the lack of diversity in the newsroom.
The “pipeline problem” is a belief system shared in many newsrooms across America, which argues that the lack of diversity among those in the media stems from not having enough qualified candidates applying for the respective positions. In his day-to-day experiences at USC, however, Hernandez sees plenty of evidence that contradicts this theory.
“There are a lot of people hiring in my industry, and still someone will say, ‘We can’t find a qualified woman or person of color for this job,’” he said. “I see first-hand at USC Annenberg that the majority of the student body at the journalism school is female. And we’re not an exception, most journalism schools are skewed toward female student bodies. So it’s a lie when someone claims that there is a pipeline problem.”
I ended up writing something to call out how people are saying that they’re hiring, and yet there’s this incredibly qualified student who is having trouble finding a job…I held them accountable, and a lot of folks responded.
Hernandez was inspired to address the issue when a student of his could not find a job that aligned with her specific interests, although Hernandez knew many people who were looking to hire young journalists at their companies.
“I ended up writing something to call out how people are saying that they’re hiring, and yet there’s this incredibly qualified student who is having trouble finding a job,” he said. “I held them accountable, and a lot of folks responded.”
When asked how industries should strive toward inclusivity, Hernandez linked the issue to one of communication, and noted how he is pushing minority applicants to put their name in the hiring pool.
There is data that shows that women and people of color are underrepresented in certain fields…Industries or organizations as a whole should make a commitment to training, recruiting and retaining these diverse perspectives.
“I’m a member of the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, and I’m overseeing their convention over the summer,” he said. “We’re doing a lot of hands-on training to empower Latinos to apply for jobs that they have historically been told don’t exist.”
Hernandez also wants to change the narrative from the inside, putting the pressure on media companies across the country.
“There is data that shows that women and people of color are underrepresented in certain fields,” he said. “Industries or organizations as a whole should make a commitment to training, recruiting and retaining these diverse perspectives.”
At SXSW, many of Hernandez’ fellow panelists are also being proactive about sparking change in regards to the issue. Nikole Hannah-Jones, a MacArthur Genius award recipient, helped found the Ida B. Wells Society for Investigative Reporting, an organization dedicated to progressing the careers of reporters of color. Lena Groeger has previously taught at the ProPublica Data Institute and Dan Nguyen is a lecturer at Stanford who specializes in public affairs journalism, programming, and visual design.
Thanks to the work of all the panelists as well as many others who are pushing for diversity, Hernandez, a veteran speaker at SXSW, asserted his undying belief that journalism, along with various other industries, will soon change for the better.
“I have hope for a more inclusive future in journalism like I have breath in my lungs, and I know I’m not the only one,” he said. “It’s not a new fight, but you can see from the panelists I’ve organized that we’re not waiting, we’re doing. We’re not reacting, we’re being proactive about this disruption. I see the future with my students who are women and people of color–they’re badass! The industry is going to evolve whether it wants to or not.”
For Professor Lisa Pecot-Hebert, the associate director of undergraduate journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, last year’s iteration of the annual SXSW festival wasn’t so much a travel destination, as a platform to share what she had learned from traveling through much of middle America just a few months prior. On a mission to better understand the individual people who are so often excluded from media coverage in favor of the country’s bicoastal regions, Pecot-Hebert embarked on an extensive road trip to gather the necessary data, eventually presenting her findings before a packed ballroom in Austin, Tex.
“Usually, since there’s so much going on at SXSW, people will stay for maybe a half-hour and then they’ll dip out, if there’s two things they want to see in an hour,” she said. “[At my session], no one left. It was weird, but rewarding all at the same time.”
The road to that joyous culmination point began in June 2016, when she initially filed her application to present at SXSW. After earning approval from the festival, Pecot-Hebert and her team began collecting quantitative data to prepare for the excursion, eventually setting off on the road trip in January and proceeding to meet as many people as possible.
Pecot-Hebert’s trip wasn’t politically motivated when she originally formulated the idea, but after the election of President Donald Trump midway through her preparation, the topic became somewhat unavoidable.
“When we were doing interviews, it was post-election, so even though we kept saying ‘we are not politically driven,’ we couldn’t let it go,” she said, “That’s who brought [Trump] in, so it became a little of a different story. Now you understand the power of Middle America, so for us, it was just perfect timing. Now I was getting the pulse on who these people are, and why it is that we almost ignore this part of the country, although the majority of the people in the United States live here.”
As she began meeting with individuals in states such as Nebraska and North Dakota, Pecot-Hebert found that her experiences differed somewhat from her expectations. One of the things that blew her away was the significant immigrant population that many residents brought up in conversations, which had increased diversity and altered the social landscape of the regions.
Even though people on these coasts are the ones elevated in most stories, media and the movies, we’re taking from what’s happening in Middle America,” she said. “The farm-to-table thing is so popular in places like New York where you’re paying $45-$50 for a plate, but [in Middle America] they live farm-to-table, it’s just what they do everyday.
“These churches would bring in refugees from Somalia, Kazakhstan, and all of these different places, and they would be merged into these lily-white, fairly conservative communities,” she said. “People were talking about the change in demographics, and it was fascinating to me. It took the story to a whole other trail where I didn’t think it was going, I even attended a candlelight vigil for immigrant families in Omaha, Nebraska, that was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever experienced.”
Pecot-Hebert noted how some idealized practices in more urban areas of the country are simply routine for many rural residents, such as the trend of “farm-to-table” foods that are often priced at a premium due to their healthier, more natural qualities.
“Even though people on these coasts are the ones elevated in most stories, media and the movies, we’re taking from what’s happening in Middle America,” she said. “The farm-to-table thing is so popular in places like New York where you’re paying $45-$50 for a plate, but [in Middle America] they live farm-to-table, it’s just what they do everyday.”
Feedback that Pecot-Hebert received on the media’s coverage of these regions was less than stellar, sentiments she heard from many during her months on the road.
“They think we’re doing a p-ss-poor job [in reporting],” she said. “They were like, ‘we know that you think it’s Little House on the Prairie, or that there’s no diversity and everyone is racist.’ They understood their own stereotypes, and wanted to show that they weren’t true.”
We create these characters in media around these stereotypes, like with Iowa, you’ll think of corn, or ‘guess they really love Friday Night Lights, all they do is play football…It may be true, but they’re also all of these other things; they’re doctors and lawyers, they watch the same news programs, they value diversity and the LGBT community
Many believed the solution to the disconnect is as simple as journalists reaching out to them for their opinion on the stories in the news cycle, and bringing them into the conversation. Pecot-Hebert agrees with the strategy, seeing it as a more accurate and rational method for the media to report on America.
“We create these characters in media around these stereotypes, like with Iowa, you’ll think of corn, or ‘guess they really love Friday Night Lights, all they do is play football,’” she said. “It may be true, but they’re also all of these other things; they’re doctors and lawyers, they watch the same news programs, they value diversity and the LGBT community. Any time there is a major news story, no one is going there to find that voice, sources are always from the same places. It’s not reflective of what America is, or should be.”
Pecot-Hebert was fortunate enough to learn their true stories first-hand, but believes others in more cosmopolitan areas can discover these facts for themselves by branching out of their news bubble and following more local news outlets whose primary focus is covering the people of Middle America.
“We have LA Magazine, which is awesome and I love it; why not go online and read a South Dakota magazine every now and again?” she said. “Or pick up something from Kansas City, and understand the difference between Kansas City barbeque and Memphis barbecue. It’s just about educating yourself, and being a good citizen of America.”