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The Astroworld tragedy forever changed how one music critic thinks about festivals

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

While rapper Travis Scott performed song after hit song at his Astroworld Festival in Houston for a crowd of about 50,000, hundreds of fans were crushed, stomped on, struggling to breathe, and at least eight people died. Scores were injured, and police in Houston have opened an investigation. Joey Guerra was there as a fan, but also as a journalist. He's a music critic for the Houston Chronicle, and he joins us now. Welcome.

JOEY GUERRA: Thank you. Thank you for having me.

CHANG: Well, thank you for being with us. You wrote an essay about how you learned about the events. You were at the concert, but I understand - it sounded like you didn't understand the full details of what happened until a while after you got home. Can you just talk about how you learned and what went through your mind as you were learning about what had happened earlier that night?

GUERRA: I got home, and then I came to sit down to start writing. As soon as I sat down - it was so strange. I got a text from my sister-in-law, and she said, are you home? So I just responded, yeah. And then she said, are you OK? No, she said, just checking if you're OK. And I said, I'm OK. Why? What's wrong? And then she said, no, I'm just checking because we're hearing things about this concert. Because she said my brother's friend was a police officer and had been telling him. Then I started looking on social media, and that's when I started seeing, you know, people who were there saying things and these horrific videos. And it was just disbelief. Still, today, it feels surreal that I was standing there watching this show as this was happening.

CHANG: Yeah, surreal. I mean, can you just describe for people the scale, the size of the event, so they can understand why you could literally have been there and not have known remotely what had happened while you were there?

GUERRA: Absolutely. I mean, this is a big event. I think they estimated the crowd at 50,000. It's an outdoor festival. There were two stages. There is no way on Earth that anybody in the back could know what was happening. The people around me were watching the show, singing along. You know, there were food concessions behind me - people in line, buying food. Nobody had any clue this was going on.

CHANG: You wrote about how this whole experience has got you rethinking everything when it comes to - not just live events, but music, especially, you know, during this tail end of the pandemic. Can you talk about that?

GUERRA: I was very nervous to go to this show. You know, I've kind of held off as long as I could covering live shows because of COVID, you know? I don't want...

CHANG: Yeah.

GUERRA: ...To get sick. I don't want to get my son sick - you know, those types of things. So this was a big step, I think, not just for me. But for a lot of people, this was their first show in a long time, much less their first big event like this. So you know, moving forward, it absolutely makes me think twice. It makes me nervous about going out to cover an event like this.

CHANG: What about how Travis Scott's music might be regarded after all this? I mean, there are obviously so many people who love Travis Scott's music, who look up to him. And I mean, how do you think his fans will relate to his music, take in his music, after all of this?

GUERRA: If someone hasn't been to a Travis Scott show, it's really kind of hard to accurately describe what that is like. I mean, every time I've seen him - I think I've probably seen Travis 10 times at this point - the exchange of energy between him and the crowd is - it's honestly remarkable. You feel it, even if you're not participating in that. You literally feel it in your body - this kind of jolt of electricity and, you know, adrenaline. You know, it just kind of courses through the whole venue.

And these fans of his - a lot of them are young guys, 16 to 21 years old. They stand in line at merch booths for three hours to get a T-shirt. I mean, they say Travis Scott saved my life. Travis Scott gave me a sense of belonging, you know? Travis Scott made me a part of a community. Will that change? I mean, I think it will change for some people. But I think that bond is so tight that it's still going to be there for a lot of people. I mean, there's a lot of blame right now being placed on him. But I think as we move forward and we learn more and we find out more and we see what the promoter and the organizers' true roles were in this, I think there will still be a good portion of people who really still feel connected to him.

CHANG: Joey Guerra of the Houston Chronicle, thank you so much for being on our show today.

GUERRA: Thank you so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.