The AstroWorld Tragedy
On 5 November 2021, a seemingly fun and enjoyable music festival ended on devastating terms following a human crush that led to the death of ten audience members and hundreds of injuries. The AstroWorld festival, founded by rapper Travis Scott in 2018, resulted in tragedy as victims were left unable to breathe as Scott performed. The magnitude of such unnecessary loss of life sparked outrage, and left many wondering: How did this happen? Who is responsible? And most importantly, what are the ramifications for those involved? Furthermore, this event called into question the relationship between celebrities and the rest of society. The actions of some public figures - such as the Kardashian/Jenner family, Travis Scott and Drake, during and after the evening drew further scrutiny that has implications for the assumptions society holds about parasocial relationships.
The chaos began early in the morning with reports of the first breached gate at 8:30 am - over four hours before the scheduled start of the event. From there, the timeline is shocking:
Maria Ornes, 2021
This timeline draws a startling picture of a complete systemic failure in regard to human safety and life. The tragedy left eight dead at the scene with another two succumbing to their injuries in the days following the concert, including a nine-year-old boy. Scrutiny of the venue’s safety planning and precautions reveal negligence and unpreparedness at every level. Within AstroWorld's 56 page event operations plan, the potential of a crowd surge and mass casualty event was not explored, despite ample descriptions of different scenarios regarding adverse weather. Crowd control management staffers were only urged to notify security or a supervisor if crowds display “threatening or disruptive behaviour”.
In the immediate aftermath of the festival, involved parties tried to address the situation through various means. All attendees were issued refunds and were offered free counseling services. Additionally, Travis Scott personally paid for the funerals of the victims. As shock and disbelief turned to anger and a demand for answers, investigation into the causes of the chaos is ongoing. Multiple lawsuits have been filed against performers Travis Scott and special guest Drake, as well as event organisers Live Nation and other vendors. Together these lawsuits seek over $3 billion for damages suffered. One suit representing 125 plaintiffs, seeks $750 million in damages and is directed at the two performers. Other suits, such as one seeking $2 billion on behalf of 282 plaintiffs, are also looking to hold event organisers Live Nation and subsidiaries accountable.
While the implications for the national event organiaing corporation LiveNation have not fully developed, the clear lack of preparedness for such an event will draw scrutiny to their practices. This aspect will play out in the courts; however, unlike organisations, celebrities often escape legal liability for event disasters. Nick Rozansky, an attorney at Brutzkus Gubner Rozansky Seror & Weber, highlighted the difficulty of holding performers like Travis Scott accountable and blamed the legal burden of proving Scott engaged in “specific conduct that incited the incidents”. In other words, what role did Scott’s actions play in the outcomes of that evening? Some public figures, like Public Enemy’s Chick D, have been outspoken in their support of Travis Scott, instead placing blame on LiveNation, as Scott “is a performer, an act, not a concert promoter.” Despite Scott performing during the incident, he has a highly invested managerial role and stake in the organisation of the festival as its founder. Whether or not Scott oversaw any planning for the event has yet to be revealed; however, as the official founder and face of its brand, it is impossible to ignore Scott’s potential liability. Furthermore, his actions during the show have been called into question for their lack of empathy and morality and as a sign of past, present, and future conduct.
The day after the event, Scott, Drake, and their entourages reportedly went to a strip club and spent $1 million dollars before being informed of the mounting death toll and social media fallout, and promptly exiting the venue. The following day Scott commented, saying “I could just never have imagined the severity of the situation” and expressed his devastation. Viral videos of the event flooded TikTok and Instagram and enraged users as clips revealed Scott singing while seeming to stare at a lifeless body in the crowd. His continuation of the performance as ambulances failed to reach victims less than 40 feet from the stage may seem unimaginable. Organisers only ended the set 40 minutes after the declaration of a mass casualty event, the prompt evacuation of all VIP guests and the surprise arrival of Drake.
While those close to the rappers claim neither of them knew of the severity, or the mass casualty designation, the seeming acceptance of potential injuries and compromises to audience safety must be acknowledged. Scott’s behavior both during and after AstroWorld has drawn extensive scrutiny, largely due to his past of encouraging and inciting unruly concert environments. In 2017, he urged fans to jump from a balcony and assured them those below would catch any willing to do so, resulting in the partial paralysis of an audience member. Similary, in 2015 and 2019, he was cited for encouraging his fans to storm the venue and rush barricades at his concerts. In fact, on the weekend of AstroWorld, in a since-deleted tweet, he encouraged everyone to try and sneak in if they were unable to buy a ticket. Scott’s behavior during the festival as well as his history with these situations opens up the possibility of potential personal legal liability.
One reason for heightened anger following the tragedy is the main section’s (where most of the fatalities occurred) proximity to the VIP section. Celebrities in attendance, including Travis Scott’s girlfriend Kylie Jenner, used Instagram to tag AstroWorld and share clips of the performance and ambulances driving through the crowd. Despite insisting not knowing of the severity at the time, the Kardashian/Jenner clan has faced backlash for their hasty and safe exit from the secluded VIP section, as well as for keeping their promotions for the event on social media hours after news of the fatalities began to arrive. The fallout has continued with performers Drake and Scott delaying releases of new music, cancellation of appearances at other festivals and delays and cancellation of brand sponsorships such as Scott's Dior collection collaboration.
In the months following the tragedy, Scott has faced backlash for his method of outreach to the victims' families and seemingly flippant attitude toward his behaviour, even as he hopes to return to the festival scene at this year's Coachella. Most recently, Scott announced a new Event Safety initiative titled Project Heal that hopes to honor the victims’ memory. This is in coincidental timing with the first trial hearing proceedings of the Astroworld cases and the implementation of a gag order by Judge Kristen Hawkins. Hawkin’s argument stated that the
“willingness of attorneys to give interviews and independently post case events to social media will only serve to increase the volume of pre-trial and in-trial publicity. The court further finds that an order restricting extra-judicial commentary by counsel for the parties is necessary to preserve all parties’ right to a fair trial by an impartial jury”.
The next hearing date for the case, which represents over 387 lawsuits, remains to be set as attorneys categorise the many cases into those concerning deaths, bodily injuries, brain injuries, and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Regardless of the legal outcomes, the blatant disregard for life displayed by those arguably most responsible; at any degree, whether a minor injury or fatality, should unnerve all of society. While the lawsuits continue, the personal implications for those associated, due to their action during/after the festival, should be grave. While legally there may be limited options in regards to punishment, there should be ramifications. Future performances of Scott and Drake must be strictly evaluated and potentially face limiting factors such as insurance coverage, venue capacity limits and stricter guidelines. In order to prevent such a horrific incident from happening again, the severity of the fallout must serve as a lesson to future event performers and organisers that they are responsible for their fans’ safety.