On The Town

Reflections on Astroworld, 1 Year After the Catastrophe

One year later, the 2021 Astroworld Festival tragedy still doesn't make sense.

By Amarie Gipson November 1, 2022 Published in the Fall 2022 issue of Houstonia Magazine

A memorial for the victims of the Astroworld Festival tragedy outside NRG Park.

Image: Marco Torres

"See you on the other side,” read the jumbotron on the stage hours ahead of Travis Scott’s headlining performance at the third annual Astroworld fest in November 2021. What was intended to read as an otherworldly invitation into a new musical era turned into a bad omen. One year later, it’s still too soon to fully grasp the gravity of one of Houston’s most controversial tragedies.

As the two-day festival approached, I braced for what I knew would be a wild weekend. On the morning of Day One, I’d heard from my coworkers that hundreds of people had already broken in, so I arrived at NRG Park anxious as I made my way through the checkpoints.

I took the first hour to get the lay of the land: the rides, the food, the games, the merchandise, and, most importantly, the performances. Named after Six Flags AstroWorld’s Texas Cyclone roller coaster, the designated “Thrills” and “Chills” stages were brimming with fans. An intergalactic tune pulsated from the Chills stage alongside a countdown clock in anticipation of Scott’s headlining set. I could feel the energy intensifying with every step I took throughout the grounds.

From late afternoon to sundown, my friends and I roamed, rode rides, laughed, hung out in a lounge, and caught great performances by Toro y Moi, Lil Baby, and SZA. When sundown finally arrived, every festival attendee made their way toward the Chills stage for Scott’s show. By 9 p.m., we found ourselves in a crowd packed so tightly we could barely move. As Scott finally emerged onto the portal-esque stage, I found myself gasping for air.  

After the first song, my friends and I muscled our way to the back of the crowd for some relief. The energy remained tense, but after some time I stood silent, watching Scott in complete awe.

The energy was unlike any other performance I’d ever seen, from the sound quality to the lighting to the background visuals. It was by far his best yet and, at the time, seemed an apt conclusion to Astroworld (2018) and a perfect prelude to the Utopia (forthcoming) era. At that moment, watching the performance made me proud that a full-length studio album about my city would make it all the way to the Grammys, late-night television, the Super Bowl, and beyond. Scott’s talents made me proud to be a young, creative, Black Houstonian; I never could have imagined that my perception of him would soon be tainted by an unthinkable tragedy. 

It’s harrowing to know that hundreds of people were panicking, suffocating, and some even dying while I was having fun, or at least trying to. To have returned home that evening shaken up from my panicked experience of escaping a compressed crowd, only to find that many met a much different fate, is still disorienting. I can’t help but think that had the local authorities encouraged Scott to tell the crowd to spread out, things might have turned out much differently. 

But I was one of the thousands of people in attendance who had no idea of the tragic outcome until afterward, so I trust that if he had known, Scott would have stopped the show. This isn’t an attempt to mitigate the severity of the harm that took place; I simply offer that we evenly distribute the blame. The American impulse to dump hatred and blame on a single Black person is all too familiar. We should be wary of pinning a whirlwind tragedy on one person rather than seeing it as a logistical, structural, and cultural failure.

An extreme lack of forethought and contingency planning resulted in thousands of traumatized people and Scott’s head under a pop-cultural guillotine. This situation has pushed me into deep reflection, not only on the tragedy but on the way rage culture walks a fine line between catharsis and violence. One year later, the tragedy of Astroworld 2021 has yet to make sense. 

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