"Everyone is getting older, growing nearer to the inevitable. Death and art are intertwined—creation and destruction." —"Every Rapper is Going to Die & So Will I"
Death wasn’t on the mind as I parked my car on a street corner swallowed by the night. Broken glass crunched underneath my Nikes, a reminder this wasn’t a place to leave valuables visible. It was a nearing midnight, a quiet, uneventful Tuesday evening on Atlanta’s Edgewood strip. Even the aggressive homeless carried a much calmer air. The sidewalk was almost completely deserted, different from Saturdays when it’s crowded by intoxicated bodies wobbling from bar to bar. As I walked toward Mothers, a popular spot where friends planned to gather for celebratory birthday shots, a few panicked faces began to rush by. A voice shouted, “Someone has been shot,” and the words lingered in the air as a small circle of people became visible a few feet from my destination.
By the time police and ambulances arrived there were whispers of his last breath being taken while waiting for help. No one could say exactly what happened. From what I could gather, a young man was outside smoking, wearing a smile, before four bullets pierced his physical temple.
Police swarmed the area while an armed shooter hid. A plotline in CSI: Atlanta was playing out in real time. Edgewood wasn’t the best area, but it was young and fairly hip. It's where you go to celebrate a birth, unwind after a long week of work, and hear some of the best DJs in the city. Occasionally, you’ll see cocaine lines done in bathrooms and car windows shattered in backstreets, but never murder.
Having such an unfortunate event occur on the eve of A3C's annual hip-hop festival was a heavy realization. The young man was probably going to attend, maybe even perform. The sun would rise and swarms of people from the city and out of town would walk the same street where his soul departed, where his blood would dry―completely oblivious that a man lost his life just hours before.
It was impossible not to think about Las Vegas, about the deadly mass shooting with no equal in American history. Life is fragile, and the unpredictable circumstances that have taken the lives of many cause us all to ache. I still pray for all those families, knowing how hard it would be for my own if something were to happen to me during something so extravagant. That night I had a toast for the blood he spilled and for mine that continues to flow.
To life and to death, the cycle no mortal can avoid.
On the second day of A3C, I awoke to messages of a second shooting, outside of a different venue. No one was hurt, but the news made my heart sink. I was going to attend, even promised a few friends I'd be there, but too much was happening to make it there in time. Even when no one is hurt, you don’t forget the panic that runs through your veins when gunshots are heard.
I can still recall the first time I attended an event where the sound of gunfire shook the entire venue. Glass broke as bodies moved together in unison, hitting the ground like a massive tidal wave hitting the shore. It’s a moment of blinding fear, panic, and uncertainty. You lay there for a few silent seconds that feel like a few lifetimes, hoping it’s over before rising to your feet.
I still see some of those same faces who were on the ground with me that day at different shows and showcases, not allowing one night of madness to stop them from seeing music live and in the flesh.
Over the duration of A3C’s five-day festivities, any lingering fear brought upon by the shootings were diminished by pure joy. Every smiling face seen erased those eyes of panic. For every old friend you hug, every new friend you make, it warms the cold chill of paranoia. Every performer that moves you dispells any thoughts about staying home. It’s like rediscovering how it feels to have fun; a childlike innocence of blissful distraction.
A music festival has the potential to draw you into the moment and take you away from everything that is occurring outside. You don’t think about the horrors, the tragedies, the sad realities devouring the world. You don’t forget—you can never forget—but the weight of the world gets a little lighter when you're cooking to Lil B or watching IDK mob with fans in the rain. Just for those few days, A3C was an escape into a Disney World for hip-hop heads, a Chuck E. Cheese for music lovers.
This is why violent acts that occur in such a sacred sanctuary feel like an attack on a church. It takes the lowest of scum to harm people where love and joy radiates. Music is an escape. Simply putting on headphones and listening to your favorite album is a magical experience, a form of exhaling. That same feeling of escape with hundreds and thousands of people. It's beautiful.
There was a moment during Nas' headlining performance last weekend where I stopped watching him and just looked out at the people. Everyone with a twinkle in their eyes, mouthing the words to “Life’s A Bitch” in unison. They were engrossed, mesmerized, and overflowing with excitement. The same happened hours prior, on a completely different stage, but with AZ performing his verse. “Life’s a bitch and then you die,” we all sang. We all exhaled.
“Hip-Hop Lives Here" has been A3C’s slogan for the last few years. I’ve always felt it was a bit cheesy, but this past year is when I truly felt its truth. You feel hip-hop in the conference center and in the panels, in the festival grounds and in the small showcases, in the after parties and studio sessions. Exchanging music industry stories over Edgewood Pizza and discussing Kendrick’s impact on culture at Waffle House. Watching as Jimi Tents and Michael Christmas argued who was the better rapper and speaking to Your Old Droog about the state of hip-hop while Kirk Knight attacked the stage. Sitting in the strip club speaking with Smino, and the next day watching as the clouds departed right before his charismatic performance.
I never imagined seeing Young Dro rap his verse to “Ain’t I” and Playboi Carti perform “Magnolia” minutes later. I’d be lying if I said I didn't get a thrill watching a venue full of youngins lose their minds over Lil Xan, Ski Mask the Slump God, and Lil B, but my weary body couldn’t even stay long enough for Lil Pump to likely send the roof to Mars. (I have my rappers and the kids have theirs, even if who they choose to listen to need to invest in real engineers.)
Everywhere I turned, hip-hop was captivating someone, holding their undivided attention, and I couldn’t help but wonder what Kool Herc would think if he was in attendance. How different things look from the days of spinning records in the park. This is what it’s about, right? Uniting people under the umbrella of hip-hop. To gather and enjoy this culture that we all love and adore. There aren't many spaces that allow us this kind of communion.
It’s special when love and light overtake any darkness that attempts to eclipse the beauty of music. We won’t live forever, we might not see tomorrow, but I'll never regret any moment spent where every heart is beating for hip-hop. Even if the escape is only temporary, even if it comes with some risk, there’s an unforgettable reward of just being in the presence of legends, adoring fans, and incredible lovers of culture.
Nothing is going to change the fact that life's a bitch, but A3C has been one of the purist escapes from reality that I’ve experienced throughout this depressing year. The escape may be over, but the memories will be cherished. Sometimes that’s all we have: warm memories and the hope that more are ahead.
There will always be dark nights, but cheers to better days and the hip-hop that will take us there.
By Yoh, aka Yoh3C, aka @Yoh31