Feature image: Julian Basjel, Courtesy Omar Afra
It was a Saturday night in December 2017, and freezing droplets hammered the culture vultures crushing toward the red stage outside downtown’s Barbara Jordan Post Office. “We’re not gonna let a little rain stop us,” yelled frontman Trent Reznor as his Nine Inch Nails bandmates accelerated into “March of the Pigs” and the crowd at the third annual Day for Night festival erupted into kinetic chaos. Omar Afra could only beam at the beautiful misery of his creation.
When he threw the first Day for Night two years prior, the then-37-year-old wanted it to be a game changer. He’d grown weary of the type of music festivals, sprouting like dandelions, that he referred to as a “party in a field with beer and the Avett Brothers.” His event would be different. It would be a wintertime union of light and sound, novel for its integration of more than a dozen immersive light installations as well as dozens of musical acts.
And damned if he didn’t pull it off. Performers that first year, held at the post-industrial Silver Street Studios, ranged from New Order to the avant-garde Philip Glass Ensemble. Houstonians wandered the venue mesmerized.
Year two, the festival moved to an even cooler venue: the recently shuttered post office nestled against our iconic skyline, designed by the Astrodome architects Wilson, Morris, Crain & Anderson. And year three, the two-day event went to three days, and it wasn’t just a festival anymore. It was also a political summit, featuring lefty darlings like former U.S. soldier, activist, and whistleblower Chelsea Manning and Russian-dissident punks Pussy Riot. Twenty-thousand people purchasing tickets starting at $100 suggested Afra might be on to something.
The buzz surrounding Day for Night wasn’t just local. Curious national media reported back from down-South excursions with surprising-to-some facts like “Houston is a city known for its art.” In 2016 the New York Observer called it “the future of music festivals.” The next year the Chicago hipsters behind online festival bible Consequence of Sound crowned the event “festival of the year.” For seemingly the first time ever, in-the-know crowds from Brooklyn, Berlin, and Los Angeles were snapping up passes and excitedly booking tickets to IAH.
Through persuasion, charm, and lots of promises, Afra, an uber-networker, had drawn on his many connections to assemble the curators, bookers, artists, and muscle to execute his vision. This had all been possible because of the place he already held in the Houston arts scene. In the 14 years leading up to this moment, he had willed himself into becoming Houston’s undisputed cultural kingpin, racking up an ever-shifting portfolio that at times included music venues, a restaurant, a newspaper, a piece of a vodka distillery, and, of course, music festivals—first the much-celebrated Free Press Summer Fest, then Day for Night. As festival lookalikes proliferated across the country, Houston found itself a compelling standout. Houstonians themselves were delighted and also baffled, as an unfamiliar realization dawned: For once we were the cool kids in the room.
It was thanks to Afra’s silver tongue and, some say, near-delusional level of persistence that Houston, Texas, managed to land future Pulitzer winner Kendrick Lamar, then hot off his critically acclaimed album To Pimp a Butterfly, to headline the inaugural Day for Night, and to secure enigmatic artists like Björk and Aphex Twin to spin DJ sets for the follow-up in 2016. In 2017, just months after Harvey’s devastation, Houstonians happily shelled out for tickets to roam among artist Matthew Schreiber’s Mission Impossible–style pyramid of red lasers, and jam to acts including Cardi B, Thom Yorke, and Houston’s own Solange. While the lineup was compelling, the crowd’s excitement was, to a large degree, predicated on Afra’s reputation for throwing a hell of a party.
“He’s a visionary in a lot of ways,” said Chris Gray, former music editor at the Houston Press and current Houstonia contributor, who witnessed the promoter’s rise to prominence. “He saw what he wanted to do, and he figured out a way to make it happen.”
But in August 2018 Afra’s empire imploded. Two women—one of whom had done some work for Afra in the past, one of whom had been hoping to—came forward on Facebook with sworn affidavits accusing Afra of sexual misconduct. The allegations were widely reported in the local media and in online publications such as EDM.com, usually accompanied by a photo of a smiling Afra taken in happier times. Someone launched a change.org petition, “Remove Omar Afra as CEO of Day for Night & Cease all partnerships with Free Press Houston,” which stated, in part, “We stand with the victims of Omar Afra and the silence breakers of the #metoo movement.”
Seemingly all of the city’s creative community shared the women’s posts. Other types of allegations followed. Ultimately what was revealed was a troubled empire. Online, former employees detailed an environment at Afra’s businesses where, many claimed, they were lucky to get paid on time, if at all, and unprofessional humor and marijuana use were the order of the day. It was enough for some of his one-time investors to quickly foreclose on Day for Night, Afra’s alternative newspaper Free Press Houston, and other assets—all while revealing a long trail of unpaid debts, by some accounts totaling millions, owed to a laundry list of individuals and entities.
Afra immediately called the sexual-misconduct allegations “lies and fabrications” in a Facebook post, while also apologizing to his wife. As for his money troubles, he initially brushed them off, but he had plenty to say to Houstonia in an interview this April. “The music business is a g**damn casino,” he said. “There’s just a lot of risk.” Sure, and that instability indisputably played a part in the king of Houston music’s spectacular crash. But so did a #MeToo-style reckoning, poor business practices, a city striving for cultural relevance, and a set of dreamers and investors eager to encourage him—until, finally, some of them weren’t.
If you've had any ties to the local creative scene since the early aughts, you know Afra’s bespectacled, perpetually grinning face. You wrote for, or at least read, his newspaper, attended shows and events he put on, maybe even snagged a booking at one of his venues or festivals that launched your music career. In contrast with other places, the barrier to entry to your creative outlet of choice was pretty low: Just walk into a bar like Catbirds where Afra hung out, or knock on the door of the Westheimer bungalow Free Press operated out of for years. More often than not, Afra would win your loyalty with a handshake deal full of promise.
That openness bought Afra some elbow room. As he knew, the chance to contribute to an established creative outlet might persuade a fledgling writer or artist to work for free, or accept a six-month wait time to settle up. And if a festival is cool enough, vendors might not mind deferring payment until the next one rolls around. For years there were quiet complaints about his business practices in the creative community, but few gained traction.
It was in August 2018 that two young women, Phoenix Hamilton and Veronica Ramos, came forward to allege that Afra had abused his power to pursue them sexually. It’s hard to say what would have happened if they’d accused him a few short years beforehand—maybe it all simply would have blown over. But the allegations surfaced just as the #MeToo movement was forcefully holding powerful men accountable across the country. And in Houston music, almost no one was as powerful as Afra.
Hamilton and Ramos were acquaintances who had once worked together at a yoga studio, but they didn’t know each other well. They connected on Facebook after Hamilton posted to a private Houston-based women’s support group on the social network in October 2017, soliciting advice on how to handle an inappropriate encounter with an unspecified “very successful and prominent person.” Dozens of comments rolled in, but it was the one from Ramos that caught Hamilton’s eye; Ramos mentioned she also had been mistreated by a big shot in the local art and music scene. After they exchanged a few private messages, Hamilton learned it was Afra.
The two women were galvanized by the similarities in their stories and spoke with lawyers to explore their options. In December 2017 Hamilton filed a police report, with a supporting statement from Ramos. But the police declined to pursue the two incidents. If the women wanted justice, they would have to seek it in the court of public opinion. And so they set about writing their affidavits.
Hamilton’s statement would detail how, in early October 2017, Afra Facebook-messaged her to ask where she was working these days. The pair were acquaintances, aware of each other from parties and bars. The twenty-something told him the truth: She was between jobs, figuring things out, looking for some sort of direction after a fruitless stint in the service industry. “I wish I knew what to do with myself,” she wrote. “Life is a mystery. For me at least.”
“It absolutely is a mystery LOL,” Afra replied, as screenshots Hamilton saved from the conversation and shared to Facebook showed. Then came an offer: He might have some work for Hamilton promoting Day for Night—was she free to meet at Grand Prize Bar, a popular scenester hangout in the Museum District, for a drink that evening to discuss? She said yes to what she saw as either an informal job interview or the chance to forge a valuable connection.
“That’s why I felt comfortable meeting up with Omar—he’s a member of our community, a well-known member,” Hamilton later told Houstonia. “I never thought that he would try to do something to me.”
According to her affidavit, Hamilton arrived at the Grand Prize patio at around 11 p.m. It was a still, humid Thursday night, and the pair talked about work and life and politics for an hour before Afra—who was then separated from his wife, under whose care his two children remained—polished off the last of his tequila and invited her to his nearby apartment to continue their discussion over a joint. Hamilton agreed to the invite, and soon, she said, they were smoking on his 12th-floor balcony before returning inside to the kitchen, where the conversation abruptly stopped.
Cornering her against the island, Afra, Hamilton alleged, seized her shoulders and proceeded to kiss her while she pushed him away and refused his advances. He let up on her shoulders and then cradled her against his chest. At last he released her, she said, and she rushed to leave as he offered her another joint and a job with Day for Night. She declined both, holding back tears on the elevator before sprinting into the darkness toward her car. Back at her apartment she turned on the shower to scrub off Afra’s scent. She was ashamed, and she felt hopeless.
In her own affidavit, Ramos described events that had taken place almost eight years earlier, beginning late in the evening on October 11, 2010. That night she had taken some concert photos at Fitzgerald’s, the Heights music venue Afra co-owned at the time, before meeting him at the Free Press Houston office to hand them off for publication.
It was there, she said, that, as the two waited for the photos to transfer while sitting on a couch, Afra hit a bong before lunging onto her, holding down her hands and kissing her face, neck, and mouth. She recalled Afra unbuttoning her pants and sliding his hands toward her underwear as she pressed her legs together. Ramos told him to stop, to think of his wife and kids, but, she said, he just laughed. She closed her eyes and prepared for the worst but he did stop, allowing her to sit up and leave.
After months of preparation the Facebook posts went live late one Thursday night in August 2018. In the immediate aftermath, the women received a lot of support. The moment was cathartic, but, at least for Ramos, it felt like only a partial victory.
“I felt that minimally, we deserve an apology—an acknowledgement of his actions,” she told Houstonia. “But that’s just super-wishful thinking.”
After receiving Houstonia's interview request in March, Afra hesitated. The internet, he said over the phone, was out of control. He’d been called a rapist, a cheat, “Dracula.” In follow-up conversations, he shared long thoughts on not wanting to reignite the powder keg of his life. He and his wife of nearly two decades had gone through some rough times, he acknowledged, but had patched things up, and he didn’t want to risk that. She and their two sons, he explained, are what’s most important now. “I’d rather have people think I’m a monster than lose my family,” he said.
Finally, though, he agreed to talk, inviting a reporter to his Afton Oaks ranch-style home to meet his two dogs and his wife, Andrea, before kissing her goodbye and motoring toward his chosen destination, Jerusalem Halal Meats, a grocery store and restaurant located among the jam-packed strip malls of Hillcroft.
“After all these allegations came out, this was my haunt, because it felt like, I’m safe here,” he explained as the automatic doors whooshed open. “This is my people. This is normalcy.” He greeted the friendly workers in Arabic before settling into one of the restaurant’s back corner tables.
He’d been coming here, he said, pretty much since his family immigrated to the States in 1979, to escape the Lebanese Civil War, when he was just a toddler. His dad had chosen Houston in order to get an engineering degree at UH, at times working at Burger King to make ends meet before going to work as a civil engineer amid the oil bust. Afra said that, as the youngest of three children, he learned to defuse familial disputes with natural humor—hence his boisterous, omnipresent laugh. High school Omar, he said, was something of a Ferris Bueller type, playing football, singing in choir, and generally on a mission “to be friends with everybody.”
He spoke freely to us at the table about those early days, detailing how he briefly attended UH himself before leaving at 23 for financial reasons, after his father succumbed to a lifetime of mismanaged diabetes. Not long afterward his mother lost the family’s modest April Village home under a mountain of medical debt. Such was the reward, he said, for a rule-following life filled with hard work. “That was kind of a big impetus for me: Maybe I can do something big,” Afra said. “Maybe I can push the envelope.” Afra soon settled into the Montrose scene, frequenting cafés and punk shows. Initially he taught guitar out of a music store, smoked pot, and, in his words, was generally a “knucklehead,” but he also started conceiving of his businesses.
Well-practiced at lobbing florid soundbites, Afra continued recounting old chestnuts about his early life. But when the topic switched to more recent events, the conversation took a turn for the truly bizarre. Changing social mores, PC culture, and online groupthink, he asserted, had devolved into what he often calls a “circular firing squad” not unlike China’s Cultural Revolution, during which undesirables were purged in pursuit of ideological purity. The implication appeared to be that he and the festival had fallen victim to a similar “leftist purge.”
Pressed on the details of the sexual-misconduct allegations, he had almost nothing to say beyond denying that he’d done anything illegal. In multiple conversations, he seemed far more interested in how the allegations came to light than the claims themselves. Which former colleagues had goaded the women into speaking out?
That’s not to say Afra wasn’t ready to confess to some things. He’d done a lot of thinking these past few months, he said, and took some responsibility for the ways his businesses had crumbled.
“The accusations, that’s ancillary to this story,” he said. “All of it could have gone away from my undercapitalization; all of it could have gone away because somebody busted their ankle at one of our festivals and is suing us for the Taj Mahal. Any one of these hundred things could’ve ended the whole thing.”
He acknowledged, in his own oblique way, that he was a less than perfect boss and businessperson. He just never imagined things would go so far.
The foundation underpinning Afra's self-described “house of cards” was Free Press Houston. The publication debuted in 2003, not long after his father’s death—launched, Afra claimed, with a $700 tax refund—as a Bush-bashing, antiwar, free monthly paper funded mostly by ad sales to smoke shops and tattoo parlors. The group of contributors, including his wife, pumped out edgy cartoons of Vampire Carolyn Farb sitting on a gilded throne and fired off typo-ridden political screeds.
As at other outlets, including the Houston Press and CultureMap, staging events soon went hand in hand with running a publication. In 2005 Afra oversaw the inaugural Westheimer Block Party—his very first festival, and the spiritual successor to the long-defunct Westheimer Art Festival—under the auspices of FPH. Over the years both local talent and big-time artists such as St. Vincent, Dead Prez, and HEALTH would come to play the biannual celebration that emanated from the intersection of Westheimer and Taft. This was, to employ one of Afra’s many boilerplate sayings, “a period of Camelot.”
By August 2009, though, the Block Party had outgrown the block, and a new level of ambition birthed Free Press Summer Fest at Eleanor Tinsley Park. Tickets started at $7, and Broken Social Scene and Of Montreal headlined alongside early versions of local mainstays like Fat Tony and Wild Moccasins. Everyone involved “faked it until it kinda worked,” Afra later admitted, writing receipts for vendors on paper towels and painting an overly flattering picture in advance press. And it did work—estimates varied, but something like 7,500 people showed up that first year alone; a Houston Press review declared the weekend “a self-esteem shot in the arm” for the city, one that had “the potential to define the music climate in these parts for years to come.”
Along the way Afra made other big moves, like taking over at Mango’s, the erstwhile Montrose music hall, before, in 2010, annexing the much larger Fitzgerald’s, where he worked with local talent booker Pegstar to secure bands. Afra knew this arrangement would prove crucial for building relationships with acts that would play gigs at the mid-sized venue before swinging back through town for festivals like FPSF. Meanwhile the venue’s lucrative liquor license, Afra said, proved to be an opportunity to bolster the ledgers—for all of his business endeavors.
“I was taking advertising revenues from Free Press and pumping them into Fitzgerald’s, and Fitz was buying advertising in Free Press,” he explained. “It was very incestuous. We had a bunch of people involved, and we all needed each other to succeed.” This was the same calculus behind Lowbrow, his short-lived Montrose restaurant, incorporated in 2013 under the tongue-firmly-in-cheek legal name “Faustian Bargain, LLC.”
In 2012 FPSF attendance maxed out at nearly 100,000 sweaty, paying guests swaying to Snoop Dogg and Willie Nelson along Buffalo Bayou. The thing was huge, and Afra was a media darling. But the festival wasn’t without its flaws. Shoddy planning and rapid growth meant FPSF, held at the height of Houston summer, ran out of bottled water in 2012, and crowds taxed the too-few Port-o-Potties to their limit. And in the years after the historic drought ended in 2013, perennial thunderstorms and multiple last-minute relocations to NRG Park forced some to question the wisdom of a festival held in a flood plain during the rainy season. But such was the city’s goodwill and excitement that these issues were largely overlooked in favor of ingenious marketing and so-dumb-it-just-might-work ideas like a massive paint slide that accompanied ever-bigger musical acts.
Then in 2016, tragedy struck. An 18-year-old girl’s heart stopped after she ingested tainted ecstasy at FPSF. Free Press quickly published a letter expressing condolences, but combined that with another announcement: Afra had quietly sold his stake in FPSF to C3 Presents, the Live Nation subsidiary that runs Austin City Limits, for $1.2 million, the previous year. All proceeds from the sale had been directed toward the first Day for Night, which had made its debut six months earlier, in December 2015.
Social media blasted the announcement as tactless, and bloggers framed the previously unknown sale as FPH “selling out.” But Afra ate the criticism. After all, this was an opportunity to create something collaborative and cool and filled with musical artists such as Janelle Monáe, Death Grips, and Amanda Lepore, all of whom performed that first year.
Such a vision required outside money. Records show that Afra offered local investors virtually unheard-of terms, pledging near-immediate repayment on a $250,000 loan plus a 40 percent return. At least twice he offered equity in FPH, his core business asset, as collateral, according to court documents. This all coincided with the sale of Lowbrow and Afra’s exit from Fitzgerald’s as he consolidated his personal and financial energies to focus on Day for Night.
Meanwhile, for all the praise it drew, the new festival was plagued by the same logistical mishaps as its predecessor. Toilet banks overflowed inside the dilapidated post office, and some said the 2016 VIP package, which cost more than $700 and promised a meet-and-greet with Björk that never happened, was a scam. “Festivals are like making pancakes,” Afra told the Houston Press at the time. “The first one’s a turd, and they get better from there.”
The same cannot be said of his financial picture. Day for Night, which Afra said cost between $6 and $7 million to produce, was unprofitable all three years from 2015 to 2017, and Afra explained that it was his longtime relationships with vendors that allowed him to “keep the ball bouncing” from one festival to the next. As he remembered them, the conversations often went something like, “This thing is so good and I’ve worked with you, Omar, for 10 years. F*** it, you owe me $125,000? I’ll wait 18 months.”
As for outside observers, they were perhaps too dazzled to pay attention to rumors that Afra wasn’t paying his bills. Local media trumpeted a UH economic impact study that found FPSF had netted a whopping $14 million for Houston’s economy in 2014. Another study reported Day for Night 2016 had raked in nearly $20 million for the city. In human terms, it took as many as 3,000 people to put on these two- or three-day festivals, and scores of writers, illustrators, photographers, and marketers got their start at Afra’s businesses year-round. But without Afra holding it all together, everything would quickly fall apart.
“My overpromising,” he later told us, “hurt a lot of people.”
Amanda Hart counts herself among those hurt. Around 2010 she was working a shift at Montrose’s Black Hole Coffee when Afra approached her with an opportunity. “I didn’t know who he was, but he figured out who I was,” she told Houstonia. He offered her a freelance writing job.
At the time Hart was editor of The Egalitarian, Houston Community College’s student newspaper, where she’d made some right-wing enemies railing against the burgeoning Tea Party. Afra dug the work and brought her on to pursue social justice topics at Free Press. The agreement was that she would write one longform print story and three online stories for $300 a month—a crucial supplement to her other gigs as a barista and nanny—and she delivered some of the paper’s most heavy-hitting pieces, documenting human trafficking in Houston and covering the 2012 janitor strike. Hart loved her work—minus the fact that she soon had to take on the additional job of getting Afra to pay her.
“There was never a day I was paid on time,” Hart said. “I was always trying to track him down.”
Begging was usually the first step. From there Afra might dispatch her to Fitzgerald’s to pick up cash at the bar. Another time, in 2012, amid Afra’s personal quest to erect an FPH-sponsored statue honoring legendary Houston comedian/counterculture hero Bill Hicks, Hart was PayPal-ed her allotment from the statue’s donation fund. (Houstonia confirmed with the fabricator, Statues.com, that the bronze monument currently sits half-finished in a Utah warehouse, because of insufficient payment; Afra said he continues to seek outside funding.) Once, after hearing that her daughter’s rent was late, Hart’s mother barged into the FPH office and demanded Afra cut a check (he obliged).
Whenever Hart spoke up—which was frequently—Afra’s favored response, in person and over email, was that she was being “too emotional.” That made her furious, of course, but she stayed for the opportunity, going on to also work stages at FPSF and run the merch table at Day for Night. “This is a résumé builder,” Hart remembered thinking. “I’m going to keep doing it so that I can get other work.”
Elizabeth Rhodes came on as managing editor in March 2016, after a stint at CultureMap. She’d grown up with Afra’s newspaper, and for a while it was “dreamy” to have the freedom to write about whatever she wanted—not to mention steer a Houston publication as a woman in her twenties. She was paid on time, in full, for about six months, she said, and given control over a stable of freelance writers.
Then, as the second Day for Night approached, paychecks started arriving in hundred-dollar chunks—sometimes only after she demanded them. Rhodes was lucky enough to have some financial support from her parents, but still: “I’ve never had to ask another boss to get paid, and I’ve never been told I couldn’t be paid in full repeatedly,” she said.
As the paper’s only full-time editorial employee, Rhodes was responsible for commissioning the stories that filled the publication; the deteriorating pay situation put her in an impossible position. “I guess, why would you employ someone you can’t pay?” Rhodes said later. “It’s as simple as that.” She left her dream job in December 2017, right after Day for Night, exiting journalism for marketing. That same month Hart stopped working for Afra, too, returning to her job as a labor organizer in San Francisco.
When Hamilton and Ramos came forward with their affidavits last summer, they had received support from other former FPH employees, including Hart. Both Hart and Rhodes were quick to chime in on Facebook with their own issues with their former boss, in particular his finances and related business practices. Then, in the days following Afra’s ouster, their articles—a huge chunk of their professional published work and, therefore, careers—disappeared from the Free Press site. Afra denied tampering with the archives, and some of the women’s stories remain preserved by the Wayback Machine, but Rhodes and Hart said they suspected it was retaliation. “It was as if I never worked there,” Rhodes said.
Today, in many ways, the Free Press they knew no longer exists at all. Online publishing paused with the allegations, and in August 2018 creditors forced a foreclosure on FPH Chicken Holdings, LLC, which included the rights to Day for Night as well as the newspaper. The company was auctioned off in a downtown conference room of lawyers at Pagel, Davis & Hill, P.C.
The winning bid—just $50,000—handed the keys to Steve Harter, a local investor who’d thrown in nearly a million dollars to kickstart Day for Night and who had been trying since February 2016 to get back the $850,000 he’d loaned Afra, according to statements by Harter and the law firm. With Afra out of the picture, and with equity in the paper pledged as the only collateral, Harter had forced the foreclosure before buying the property. “So far the only positive externality of my loans to the DFN Festival is that my children enjoyed attending the shows,” he wrote in a scathing post-sale statement.
The auction did little to resolve Afra’s outstanding business debts, which, according to Harter, amounted to millions. After the sale was announced, so many people reached out to the law firm that oversaw it for Harter that the lawyers issued their own statement noting that the foreclosure sale had not wiped out Afra’s various debts. He still owed Harter about $670,000, the statement contended, and they advised creditors to contact their own counsel to pursue collection.
There were artists left hanging, too. Hart had served as a point of contact for Nine Inch Nails, who were never reimbursed for their more than $50,000 in merch sold at DFN 2017. And as recently as April of this year, a representative of the electronic duo Phantogram was still emailing her in pursuit of $3,312.59 for T-shirts and records sold at the last festival. The plea was one of many in a long chain, the tone firm but helpless: “Can you please help us resolve?”
Sitting at his corner table at Jerusalem Halal, Afra, now 41 with a graying beard, throws up his hands in a moment of sincere gratitude. Although he’s had to face hard conversations with his wife, kids, and mother—the last of whom he initially tried to hide the news from—none have wavered in their allegiance. “A lot of people don’t have the support system I have,” he says. “I have the luxury of being able to push forward and continue on with my life.”
Despite promises from Harter’s law firm that it would pursue further legal action to recover Afra’s debts, that has yet to happen. Two lenders for The Great Texas BBQ Fest, a one-off music and food event Afra staged last summer, as well as two Day for Night fuel and production vendors, have pending civil suits seeking remuneration. All told, no criminal charges have been brought against the entrepreneur, either for his business practices or the allegations that led to it all coming down. “The universe led me out by the nose of an industry that I probably should have left,” Afra says, “and never would have willingly left.”
Meanwhile the rest of Houston remains divided on how to navigate the Afra-shaped lacuna. Some, including a portion of Day for Night’s core team, have never put much stock in the accusations. Many others have long since withdrawn all support. But it is notable that even among his most vocal critics, there is reticence: More than a dozen former employees and contractors ignored or actively denied interview requests for this story. And while Houstonians frequently lament the sudden lack of local music festivals, most are loath to discuss the reasons for said absence.
Ramos says that her experience with Afra cast a long shadow in the intervening years. She ran from the memory of that night, pinballing from Dallas to Africa, where she served in the Peace Corps for years before returning home. Even though she once dreamed of being a concert photographer, she says that now she can hardly bear to use a camera and, since going public, is constantly looking over her shoulder.
Hamilton says that an onslaught of social media comments compelled her to delete her profiles. She’s since fled Montrose and, as she describes it, gone into hiding. After spending nearly her entire life living within the Loop, she’s considered leaving Houston altogether. Yet neither woman says she regrets stepping forward.
“I knew that an apology was not going to happen, but minimally I’d be able to get the word out so that other women knew about Omar,” says Ramos. “With this information they get to choose if they want to do business with this man, or if they want to be alone in a room with this man.”
Adds Hamilton: “I sacrificed my comfort in Houston and the Montrose community to do this, but it was worth it. Even if nothing ever came of it, and even if Omar keeps living his life and doing what he does, at least we did the right thing. We spoke up, and we just hope that other people do the same and take it into account when working with him. That’s the main message that I want to send: You can’t do that here in Houston.”
As of this writing, Free Press has been rebranded and relaunched as online-only Byline Houston. The future of Day for Night, part of the sale that included Byline, remains unclear, although it’s worth noting that the post-sale statement explicitly left the door open to a reborn festival experience; publisher John Mills-McCoin, who would likely oversee that effort, declined an interview request. At least one former Day for Night collaborator confirmed that he’d been contacted for preliminary conversations about staging an event in Houston.
The current festival landscape is not pretty. In 2018 the cookie-cutter In Bloom Music Festival, the rebranded and corporatized FPSF, was met with resounding ambivalence before shuttering completely. Middlelands, a rowdy EDM festival held in 2017 on the Texas Renaissance Festival grounds, showed promise for a repeat before decamping to Waxahachie. And despite early hints of a sequel, Travis Scott’s Astroworld Fest is far from an established presence; only Freaky Deaky, the Halloween EDM blowout, has announced a lineup for this year. Some rightfully question whether a Houston festival can thrive without Afra’s outsized personality behind it.
“If it’s not him, it’ll make a difference,” says Gray, the former Press music editor. “He did bring a very unique vision to what he wanted these festivals to be, and up to a very great extent, he was able to pull it off for a long time. I don’t know if he overreached or was overtaken by other things, but yeah, the fact that neither Summer Fest nor Day for Night exists, it leaves a huge hole in Houston’s calendar.”
Afra says he’s planning to stay out of the picture. He’s been lying low since last summer, leaning hard on his siblings and his wife, a popular gardening consultant with a new book out. Lately he’s begun to dust off his salesmanship—always his most marketable skill—as a consultant for local businesses, including a friend’s idea to start a business selling CBD products for both humans and pets in the Bayou City. Sometimes he just relishes his open schedule. “There’s definitely an upside,” he says.
Sure, he thinks there should be another music festival for Houston, but Afra and his collaborators, he points out, are “already staring down the barrel of bad knees.” Cool is the province of 20-somethings, he adds. The next generation of Montrose knuckleheads should take the reins.