It ain’t a mosh pit if ain’t no injuriesTravis Scott, Stargazing
Meena has loved Travis Scott since long before we started dating. Probably a lot more than you imagine. She listens to his song Goosebumps on repeat while exercising, and she’s always happy to share it with others and request it from club deejays. For some time now, seeing Travis Scott live and being in a Travis Scott mosh pit was at or near the top of her bucket list. I’m all about live shows from my favorite rock and electronic artists, and I can appreciate the thrill of being near the stage and getting carried away with the energy of the crowd. I can understand the idea that crowd surfing and leaving with a few bruises or a missing shoe can be part of what makes it fun.
I’ve had fun in mosh pits at smaller rock shows in the past, but of course, they can be dangerous and people need to look out for each other. Over the last decade, it seems that live performances for a large subset of rap and hip hop have increasingly taken on the aggressive crowd energy of hardcore and punk rock. That said, the “mosh pits” of hip hop seem to be more about the intense atmosphere and crushing crowds than the actual moshing/slamming from rock concerts.
But returning to Travis Scott, his concerts are known to be intense and he’s built his whole brand around this vibe probably more than anyone else in hip hop. He even calls his fans “ragers”. We almost went to see him a couple of years ago, but he broke his leg during a concert and canceled his subsequent show where we’d planned to attend. Then Covid hit, further delaying the bucket list event.
Cut to Astroworld 2021
We flew out to Houston, Texas the day before the festival. We were psyched and were near the front of the line when the gates opened at 1 pm the next day. The festival was held on the grounds of an old Six Flags theme park and had a theme park theme, complete with a Ferris wheel, rollercoaster, and other rides. After enjoying a food truck picnic and getting some booze, we explored the festival grounds, including getting to see a surprise performance by deejay Chase B in a huge dome tent. The crowd inside the dome was already a bit rough, and perhaps a sign of things to come. Once the performance started, people started cutting in line (with a few being willing to step over others who’d fallen) and throwing themselves at the front of the packed space.
We decided to skip the other performances throughout the day, but later we’d hear that the mosh pits even for artists like Don Toliver and Lil Baby were intense enough that people had passed out. However, all of this was merely leading up to the evening’s big show with Travis Scott, where more than 50,000 people would be in attendance.
We staked out our spot for the concert starting at 4:30 pm—four and a half hours before it began. That gave us a great location with only four rows of people separating us from the front of the general admission area. We were at one of the best possible positions (apart from the stage-adjacent sections for VIP ticket holders), and right at the epicenter of where we knew the mosh pit would be.
The crowd in front with us was an interesting mix. There was the skinny 6’6″ dude from Boston who we quickly made friends with, and another guy named Chris who’d broken into the festival grounds and had cuts on his arms, wrists, hands, and legs from jumping over a barbed-wire fence. This was his third Travis Scott show and ninth music festival he’d broken into, but he said this one had far more security and was a lot harder to get into than ever before.
Chris and others told us what to expect. Within two minutes of the show starting, Chris said, people would be passing out and getting crowd-surfed forward to concert staff. And when Travis brought out his special guest (people were guessing Drake or Kanye), things would get even crazier. But how could it get that bad within two minutes? Because, he said, they get dehydrated… they get stupid. What he didn’t explain at the time was that people would start crushing together long before the show started, so two minutes into the music was not two minutes after things got bad. But we came for the mosh pit, right? Meena and I understood we wouldn’t be in control of our bodies, and our best bet would be to go with the flow of the crowd, hold tightly to each other to not get separated, and enjoy the night for the new and likely intense experience it would bring.
Not everyone was as friendly. One young and petite woman on our left told her boyfriend she’d push people to the ground (a potential death sentence, she must have known) to get closer to the front if she had the chance. A burlier 22-year-old woman to our right (who we took to calling Rainbow because of her hair) was gradually making progress pushing forward at the expense of others. I knew this kind of thing was going to happen and figured the best way to stay safe was to let people who were determined to get through do so.
About an hour before the show, crowds from the left and right mosh pits (separated by barriers that allowed security and VIPs to pass) started a jokey feud about which side was best. That led to water bottles and beer cans flying dangerously between sides, and one guy within arms reach was hit hard on the back of the head. I kept an arm raised for protection, though with the crush of the crowd by that point, it meant I could never put it down again. Security in the front periodically shouted and looked for people who were throwing, but couldn’t identify anyone. At some point, the two sides made peace via heart-hand gestures that spread throughout the crowd and signaled a backdown. Great that they decided to stop stupidly endangering people for no reason. So far, nothing you wouldn’t find at a crowded concert elsewhere, except we were pushed more tightly together.
As we got closer to the start of the concert, the crowd in the back got more aggressive with pushing forward. We were swaying back and forth. Every time they pushed, we’d push back as a group, which was necessary to prevent the masses from progressively taking one inch after another. And the music hadn’t even started yet.
Thirty minutes before the show, a countdown timer was shown on stage—yet another opportunity for the crowd to crush forward. We were in a human wave that was being pushed in all directions. First forward, then back. Right, and then left. Sometimes in all directions simultaneously.
A guy in the front row got righteously angry at the crushing and turned around to yell at the crowd, shouting that “y’all niggas need to back the fuck up and stop treating each other this way.” He was mad and trying to do what he could to protect the people in the front. But Rainbow girl decided this was the time to be a social justice warrior and yell at him for using the word nigga while being white (like her). She disgustingly tried to prod some black dudes nearby to teach him a lesson, but no one took the bait. We were already seeing that, although most people around us were friendly and just there to have a good time, there were enough self-centered people that I think it’s fair to say this wasn’t universally the nicest crowd.
Then the music started
…and the crowd went wild. I don’t even know where the space came from for people to start throwing their arms and bodies around, but we all found a way. Although there was definitely a thrill to being a part of that energy, within seconds I knew it was time to start backing away. I didn’t mind if it remained intense, but surely being a little further back and having more room to breathe and avoid overheating would be worth a slightly worse view. So as the crowd kept pushing forward, I pushed backward while holding onto Meena and letting others slide in front. At first, it was working, albeit slowly. As we moved back several rows, at each new spot I overheard conversations from new people saying they should crush forward when others pushed back, which by that point showed they were willing to be reckless and weren’t thinking about how others could be hurt. That being said, there was no violence and no stampede.
Aside: In a Wikipedia article about crowd crushes, it talks about journalistic misuse of the term “stampede”, and quotes people saying that its use in the context of crushes is the result of “pure ignorance and laziness … it gives the impression that it was a mindless crowd only caring about themselves, and they were prepared to crush people.” In reality, claims Wikipedia, “individuals are directly crushed by others nearby who have no choice, and those who can choose how to move are too distant from the epicenter to be aware of what is happening.” That definitely applied to many at the mercy of the crowd that night, but not to all. There were enough people around who were not concerned about the effect on other people and only focused on moving forward.
During the first couple of songs, we weren’t yet trying to escape the mosh pit altogether. At the time, I was just looking to get away from the very front where we were, expecting that the further back we got, the better it would get. At each step, I just wanted a little more breathing room. But as we got further back, the crush kept getting worse. Not necessarily because it was worse in the back, but likely because it was getting worse for everyone. Later, I’d realize that waiting just a few minutes more before we started backing up could have led to a much more dangerous situation, and much more difficulty getting out.
Before long, we’d gradually changed from backing up to trying to get out and had turned ourselves around away from the stage. Fortunately, at no point did we panic. Meena and I regularly gave each other looks of reassurance, and I’d kiss the back of her head to let her know I was still with her and doing okay. We held onto each other the entire time.
Chaos without moving
As things continued to get worse, more and more people around us began to panic. Many were worried about passing out. “Please help”, others would beg. One guy pleaded for help by holding up his inhaler and telling the crowd around him that he had asthma. But no one had the power to let anyone through. People started grabbing necks and pulling hair in an effort to hold themselves up. Some of the most aggressive people were those trying to protect their friends or partners, who they were scared for. Ten minutes into our escape, there were maybe 50 people around us who were all facing away from the stage, all trying to escape, with none of us making progress.
Occasionally, people started chanting “help” or “stop the show.” I joined in the chants. But it never lasted long, since by then we already knew it was hopeless. Our shouts between songs weren’t working and songs were immediately continuing one after another, offering no reprieve to even make an inch of progress. The nearby camera crew who could see and hear us were unmoved. The music kept playing.
Keep in mind, many in the crowd (including myself and Meena) didn’t know how bad it really was. Most people wanted to help each other and would do what they could if you got their attention, but they just weren’t physically able to let anyone through. Everything we were seeing, hearing, and feeling was at least partially normalized for us based on what we’d heard about Travis Scott’s shows going into it. The two of us certainly never thought anyone would die. We didn’t see anyone on the ground, and although we could assume some in the crowd had passed out, we expected that to happen and hadn’t actually seen anyone who had. Meena and I were looking at it as a new intense experience that would pass and that would be interesting to discuss later. We were pretty uncomfortable, sure, but we could still breathe and didn’t feel in immediate danger, though we realized how dangerous it would be to fall over, or if things got a little worse. We kept our spirits up throughout, which helped us not panic and try to be reassuring to people around us, some of whom were much more panicked and begging for help.
But we also couldn’t move, and for maybe 20 minutes we weren’t making any progress despite being part of a large group that was mostly facing away from the stage and trying to get out with us. I became resigned to the idea that we weren’t going anywhere and considered turning our bodies back toward the stage to at least try to enjoy the show a little more (not that we’d be able to see anything with the crush of humans around us). But getting out seemed like the best way to help others, both by keeping the momentum going that way and by freeing space for others. Going straight backward just wasn’t working, though. Someone suggested we go diagonally to our left, which seemed to make sense since I knew the barricades were closer in that direction and we wouldn’t face the crush of people still trying to get in from our right. But no, after some time, we hadn’t gained even an inch since that direction was a human cement wall. (I’d later learn that might have been the most dangerous area because of the unfortunate barrier design the organizers had set up. The crowd surging from the stage’s left to the front gradually forced others into the back corner where they were ever more densely trapped, with no escape.)
That’s when I saw a space that had opened up a little behind and to the right of us. We pushed toward it and were met with both shock and involuntary relief. Two women were collapsed and passed out on the ground. Just enough space had opened up around them that the temperature cooled and the fresh air allowed breathing normally again. Several people were already on the ground with them, trying to do what they could. They moved the heavier woman off the other one, tried to check their pulses, and turned them on their sides. Others shouted at the crowd and pushed people back so the women wouldn’t be trampled. Occasionally, a person or two would try to push around them anyway, but the crowd was managing it and looking out for them. Things were under control. But there was no way to clear a lane to actually get them out.
Nevertheless, finding those collapsed women was a turning point. The tamer crowd there and the open air around them allowed cooling off, breathing normally again, and finally seeing how far we were from the barricades. As we pushed back into the crowd, we started making more progress, and it was only another 10 minutes or so until we got close to the chest-high fence at the back of the pit. There weren’t enough staff nearby to help much, though. Security was overwhelmed but doing what they could, whereas the camera and sound crews seemed to either not see the cries for help as their problem, or maybe they’d been desensitized from prior Travis Scott concerts that were almost but not quite as rough. Some concertgoers were actively helping out, and one reached over from behind the barrier to carry Meena over. I couldn’t immediately follow her as there were others who needed help more, so I kept pushing forward until I got to the barrier. At that moment, a guy on the other side asked for my help to lift his partner. After she was safely over, I asked him to help me, too.
Outside the pit
Once out, it was a night and day difference. No more crushing. Plenty of air. The crowd was acting calmly and keeping some distance from others. In fact, most people were not aware of what was going on in the pit. You might expect there was a mad dash over the barriers and out of the pit, but it was more like a steady trickle. Most people who needed help couldn’t get to the back barriers in the first place, and by the time you got there, there was already a little more room to breathe so it wasn’t dangerous in the same way. With the new vibe on the other side, things seemed like they’d be okay. Maybe there wasn’t an emergency after all. Maybe everyone just needed to do what we did, and they’d be okay. I forgot about the two women on the ground, back in the crowd. (Meena, to her credit, told me later she’d immediately told security about them once she got out, and they said they knew about them but couldn’t get in and had to wait for medical staff.)
As soon as I reconnected with Meena, someone asked for help carrying out a man who had passed out. I immediately grabbed his legs and together we carried him about 100 ft. down the mostly open walkway away from the crowd. By that point, he was conscious again but still mostly couldn’t stay upright on his own. Someone from the medical staff approached us and took him from there.
Meena and I still hadn’t realized the severity of what was going on in the crowd. Yes, we saw the women on the ground, but we knew people passed out at many concerts like this and the crowd was taking care of them. Yes, the production crew hadn’t paused the show despite people begging for help, but it seemed like folks were able to make it out (even if very slowly) and they were going to be okay. We had no sense we were at the site of an unfolding tragedy, but then, most of the deaths that night happened after we’d already gotten out. We found a comfortable spot in the crowd behind the sound and camera stages and enjoyed the rest of the show.
From where we were standing and with several rows of people in front of us, we couldn’t see into the mosh pits, instead only seeing the very tops of the heads of people there. The show was genuinely amazing now that we were able to enjoy it, and no doubt at least 95% of the crowd including everyone around us was having a good time. Drake came out and the crowd went even wilder. The stage, pyrotechnics, fireworks, music, and more were all top-notch. Meena and I reassured each other that we didn’t feel in danger at any point while we were in the pit, though we acknowledged that things could have been worse. We weren’t calibrated on the severity of the situation, and we knew that although Travis Scott’s shows were always intense, they hadn’t been worse than a number of other popular hip hop festivals.
At one point while Drake was on stage, I saw three people stand up over the mosh pit crowd and start dancing. Neither of us could figure out what they were standing on. Was it the barrier that was holding the crowd in? Nah, that was too narrow to dance on. I guessed there was a stationary object in there we hadn’t seen earlier. Only later would we learn from the news that they were dancing on top of an ambulance that was trying to reach people in the crowd. (An extreme example of people not looking out for each other, and I hope those particular people are arrested.)
After Travis performed Goosebumps (which he ends all his shows with) to crazy visuals, lasers, and fireworks, the crowd very quickly started thinning out. I was relieved to see the mosh pits open up like that. Everything seemed okay. We went to ride the nearby Ferris wheel (and admire the huge mass of people below us) before walking back to our hotel. The vibe of the departing crowd was normal and happy. No one we saw seemed to be aware of the tragedy that soon would be written about in newspapers around the world. That said, we did notice from our Ferris wheel birds-eye view just how many ambulances had their lights on in front of the medical tent behind the stage.
The next day
The next morning, we read the news coverage. Eight people had died, 11 went into cardiac arrest (at least one would later be declared brain-dead), and hundreds were treated for injuries. The second day of the festival had been canceled, and we had messages from friends, family, and coworkers asking if we were okay. We were confronted head-on with needing to reset our understanding of what we’d experienced, and just how dangerous it had been. How lucky we were to have started backing out right when we did.
Many people immediately assigned blame to Travis Scott, the crowd, or the event organizers. Many articles called it a stampede, which it definitely wasn’t. There was no space for that. I will say that many people quick to assign blame did not seem to have the full picture. The truth is that it was hard for most people there to tell what was happening or the extent of the problem. Travis definitely could have made things better by telling the crowd to chill out and make space, or by pausing to help people get out. You can find videos of him doing that at prior concerts, but that night he failed his fans when he could have helped more than anyone. That said, it’s hard to know what he knew and what he could see (the show was at night, and much of the affected parts of the crowd were not able to move or be heard). Organizers could have had better contingencies, better crowd management, or shut the show down, but then, there were a lot of staff on hand compared to similar events (even if some of them ended up being overwhelmed and ineffective). Some members of the production crew seemed to be callous and indifferent, but prior to the results of the ongoing investigation, it’s not obvious how much of a difference they could have made. The crowd was not without fault, but of course, most people were just there to have a good time and had no control over what was happening. The police probably did more than anyone by identifying early that there were problems and insisting to the producers that the show be shortened by 30 minutes (which no doubt saved lives). It’s understandable they were cautious about shutting the performance down entirely, fearing a riot or greater violence (given that this was a very young and excited crowd). But why couldn’t they have insisted on pausing the show and getting people out before continuing? Maybe then they wouldn’t have needed to shorten it.
One thing that I think hasn’t yet received nearly enough attention was the crowd barrier design. Two mosh pits (left and right) were set up in front of the stage, both of which only let people in from one side and had no way out through the back.
It’ll be interesting to learn more when everything comes to light. My guess is that we’ll learn lots of things went wrong, and any one of them on their own wouldn’t have been enough to cause all the problems. I’d also guess that this show will be a turning point for hip hop festival culture and that organizers and artists will start paying more attention to crowd safety.
Shortly after the show, lawsuits started coming in, Travis Scott refunded all ticket holders, a makeshift memorial for the deceased was set up at the festival site, Fortnite removed Travis Scott items from their store, Apple Music scrubbed their social media of posts promoting the event, and TikTok went crazy with bogus claims of people being drugged en masse in the crowd and the concert being a satanic sacrifice.
For our part, with the second day of the festival canceled, Meena and I went to see Houston’s NASA Space Center. I cried during their video about constructing the International Space Station in fucking space. We then flew home with sore bodies, a few bruises, and our complex emotions over having enjoyed a night where too many people found themselves trapped in hell.
A note on tone: I tried to write this straight, without a lot of commentary, so people can form their own opinions. I’ve also tried to avoid any unearned attempts to make myself look good.