Village Mentality Drives Music Industry's Disaster Relief

Donnie Estopinal sums it up best when asked about the music community’s response to times of trouble: “It can’t just be ‘take the good times and do nothing during the bad.’ ”

Many of his industry colleagues agree, especially in the wake of this summer’s series of natural disasters, from its devastating hurricanes to the deadly earthquakes in Mexico. For artists like Diplo and Pitbull, managers such as Scooter Braun, whose clients include Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande, and promoters like Estopinal, who heads electronic music event promoters Disco Donnie Presents, things have been far from business as usual.

An American Red Cross aid worker surveys Hurricane Irma damage in Big Pine Key, Florida. Photo by Marko Kokic for The American Red Cross

An American Red Cross aid worker surveys Hurricane Irma damage in Big Pine Key, Florida. Photo by Marko Kokic for The American Red Cross


When Hurricane Harvey struck the Texas Gulf Coast, Estopinal thought he would have to cancel Disco Donnie Presents’ annual Halloween weekend-timed Something Wicked Festival, which is held at Houston’s Sam Houston Park racetrack. Only weeks ago, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) occupied the racetrack as a storage area, and horses rescued from the floods were sheltered there. But both on an economic level for the city and in order to create a sense of normalcy for music fans that attend each year, the consensus was that the event had to happen.

“We got so many emails saying ‘Don’t cancel!’ ” said Estopinal. “We had the festival planned already, all the artists lined up, but we decided to change it from a big fun event to a big relief effort.” Funds, including personal donations from headliners Above & Beyond, Tiësto and Marshmello, went to the Salvation Army, Houston Food Bank and Habitat for Humanity.

Stepping up for a benefit is one thing, but actually stepping into the floodwaters on rescue missions isn’t usually in the normal purview of artists. After Houston rapper Trae tha Truth was rescued, he went back out in a boat, repeatedly taking stranded people and animals to safety. He even took food and water to local prison inmates.

Similarly, Estopinal, who lives in San Juan, Puerto Rico, had his own post-hurricane problems to deal with and has had a frontline view of the island’s recovery from Hurricane Maria. “It’s bad, progress is slow,” he relates. Still, he didn’t hesitate to load his boat with supplies, even a generator, and ferry it all to the devastated British Virgin Islands in the wake of the neighboring islands devastation from Hurricane Irma, as well as Maria.

“People have absolutely stepped up to help their fellow musicians. It’s a village mentality providing assistance directly.”

“The destruction I saw,” he says. “It’s maddening: the suffering. You think ‘What can I do to help?’ I was there in San Juan; I could bring stuff over there ... It’s personally rewarding to help. It’s just like when we do shows: we make people happier. People were just happy that someone cared.

“If I needed help, I hope my friends would help me,” he adds. “I summer on the BVI. I’ve had so many good times there, you have to give back.”

Not every artist can be in the thick of recovery efforts, but there has been no shortage of hands-on-deck for awareness and fundraising. Before Something Wicked, September’s star-studded Harvey benefit, the Hand In Hand live telethon organized by Scooter Braun and East Texas native Bun B, featured Beyoncé, Justin Timberlake, Drake, Justin Bieber and Blake Shelton.

In October, the "Deep From the Heart: The One America Appeal" concert in College Station, Texas, united five former U.S. Presidents and featured performers such as Lyle Lovett, Robert Earl Keen and Sam Moore of Sam and Dave fame. It raised funds for relief efforts in Houston, Florida, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Moore, who lives in Florida and performed at SXSW 2006’s post-Hurricane Katrina salute to Louisiana, is yet another musician who saw a hurricane’s wrath firsthand and wanted to help, even at 82 years old. “We aren’t going to get down on our knees and cry that there’s nobody doing nothing for us. I feel I’m here to do what I can: I can sing and help bring food clothing to people who have lost so much,” explained Moore on the day before the One America concert. “We’ve got to do what we got to do. As long as you’re doing your share, it’s something, whatever that is.”

That sentiment has also extended from these high-profile efforts to the broad range of grassroots campaigns led by various artists and labels from across the musical spectrum. Together, they have organized benefits, made donations and issued special releases to generate money to benefit victims in Texas, Florida, the Caribbean and Mexico.

For some, Katrina’s 2005 strike on New Orleans and vicinity, which affected so many local musicians on a personal level, galvanized disaster aid and action within the music community including Estopinal, who saw the devastation firsthand. Katrina also focused the Recording Academy’s MusiCares, which provides health services to musicians in need, among other things, on disaster relief.

“Katrina impacted a large part of our community. Our original budget of $1 million grew to $5.5 million,” says MusiCares’ Senior Executive Director, Debbie Carroll. “After that we immediately built an infrastructure to quickly implement aid. That infrastructure was already in place for Harvey and Irma. We’re able to distribute help to people in the music community quite quickly. These are people who don’t have many resources.”

While MusiCares funds are only allocated to the music community, it does alleviate strained resources of other charities. The summer’s events might have stretched MusiCares budget, too, had the music community not stepped in with special donations: “People have absolutely stepped up to help their fellow musicians,” confirms Carroll. “It’s a village mentality providing assistance directly.”

“The government has plans in place, but the government can only do so much,” adds Estopinal, emphasizing the importance of private efforts.

“It’s not about politics, we’re all together for disaster relief,” insists Moore.

If you would like to get involved in ongoing relief efforts, SXSW has worked with the Red Cross to set up a donation link for our community to contribute.

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