Sacramento community activist and political hopeful faces hard feelings over pop-up music group
For many, Chinua Rhodes is an exciting candidate for trustee of the Sacramento City Unified School District. He’s widely hailed as an engine of public service—serving as a city parks and recreation commissioner, a community organizer, youth advocate and housing strategist. His motto is “South Sacramento pride,” and more than a few people say they’re inspired by his vision for that reemerging neighborhood.
But drama surrounding a relatively new concert-throwing organization led by Rhodes recently spilled online—and into the public sphere.
Rhodes is the head organizer of the Sacramento chapter of Sofar Sounds, a London-based music company that hosts surprise shows in unexpected places. Fans of Sofar say it connects aspiring artists with genuine music lovers in a way that clubs simply don’t. But critics say that its low performance fees, set by the global headquarters, devalue the work of artists.
While Rhodes has drawn praise for the unique Sofar shows that he and his team of volunteers have put on—including the ways those events bolster small, struggling businesses—there have also been some bumps in the road.
SN&R spoke with several musicians who claim it took months to get paid by Sofar, as well as former volunteers who describe a lack of basic organization.
Such issues have become political not only because of Rhodes’ school board run, but also because Sacramento Sofar Sounds administered one of the city’s highly sought $25,000 Creative Economy grants.
Rhodes says the concerns have recently been addressed, and that he and his team are growing and learning. Some of his supporters told SN&R that they don’t see criticisms of Sofar Sounds as particularly relevant to the work Rhodes is trying to do to elevate South Sacramento. But as the old saying goes, “all politics is local.”
It’s a lesson Rhodes is learning as he continues to argue that Sofar can be a positive force for the arts and community in the capital city. “It’s that human connection,” he said. “It’s inclusive, and it’s bringing people together around something that breaks down walls.”
Public service may be in Rhodes’ blood. In 1975, his grandfather, Herbert Rhodes Sr., became the first African-American director of the California Department of Parks and Recreation. As a city parks commissioner, Chinua Rhodes led the effort to rename Richfield Park for LeVar Burton, hoping a tribute to the Meadowview-grown actor and literacy champion would inspire young people of color.
“It’s really about letting people in the south area understand what comes out of the south area,” Rhodes said. “The south area is very much rich with culture and knowledge. … It’s not something to be ashamed of, it’s something to be celebrated.”
A former musical artist, Rhodes also sees concerts and spoken-word performances as a way to spread positive energy. He says that’s why he worked to bring a branch of Sofar to Sacramento two years ago.
When word spread about Sofar with Rhodes at the helm, Natasha Newman signed up to be a volunteer. “Helping to cultivate that type of experience in the city that I love was what I was there for,” she said.
But during the more than five months that she volunteered for Sofar in 2018, Newman gradually soured on the organization. She says she was tasked with creating sets and decorations for shows, but generally given little to no resources, direction or support from Rhodes and Sofar’s leadership.
“You’d hear, ’Oh yeah, we can make that happen—we can make that work,’” Newman said, “but there was never any follow through.” The lack of planning led to stress for volunteers, she said.
Ashley Berni, one of Sofar’s primary volunteer organizers between May 2017 and October 2018, had to deal with even more confusion. She says she booked most of the performers, managed the sound engineers, found places to store equipment and got all necessary paperwork to the bands. That included submitting many invoices to Rhodes so performers could get paid.
What happened on the other end of that process would ultimately lead to a breaking point for Berni.
Singer Tatiana LaTour performed with her band for a Sofar concert in South Sacramento on Sept. 30, 2018. Though her contract stipulated the group would be paid its $100 fee within two weeks of its invoice being submitted, LaTour said it took nearly seven weeks.
“We were going on tour,” she remembered. “We needed the money; and so, it was stressful. … I mean, it was like emails and emails and emails [to get paid].”
Aubrie Arnoux’s group, House of Mary, performed for Sofar Sacramento in March 2018. Arnoux says it took more than four months to get their money. She said she told Sofar’s leadership, “I have a lot of friends who are musicians, and this isn’t cool, and I’m going to be totally honest with people.”
Andrew Hansen says his band, Sunset Scenarios, is stilled owed its fee from a show in mid-October 2018. “If you’re not paying your artists, that’s pretty bad,” Hansen told SN&R. “It’s almost like a form of exploitation if you think about it.”
Rhodes points out that more than 270 artists have performed for Sofar Sounds in Sacramento, and only a small group had payment delays. He also says that Sofar’s headquarters recently simplified its processes, which he believes resolved the issue.
No performer who spoke with SN&R had evidence that Rhodes was responsible for the delayed payments.
Generally, local chapters submit invoices to Sofar’s London headquarters, which issues the payments. Payment problems have been reported in other cities, too. But Berni said trying to get Rhodes to fix the problems in Sacramento burned her out.
“There was no sense of urgency,” Berni said. “Like when I was saying, ’Hey, you’ve got this artist from L.A. who is five months behind on getting paid, and they might have missed a payment on one of their bills because they were banking on you paying them.”
Last week, the back courtyard of New Helvetia Brewery was filled to capacity for poetry and music. This is what fans of Sofar say makes it special: Great art wrapped in a last-minute surprise draws people who want to share an experience. No one talked during the performances, or looked at their phones. Total strangers hugged and exchanged numbers at the end of the evening.
For the artists and concertgoers that night, Sofar delivered on its promise. And that’s good, because it was one of the few organizations to receive a Creative Economy grant in 2017. Only 57 projects, or 12% of the applications from artists and groups, received funding and just 13 received the largest version of the grant, $25,000.
Announcing the program in 2017, Mayor Darrell Steinberg called it a “renewed commitment” to supporting the value of local creatives.
But one local creative who doesn’t feel valued is photographer Michael Andrews. He said he stepped forward to photograph Sofar shows in Sacramento on the guarantee that, though he wouldn’t be paid, it would be good advertising for him and likely lead to paid jobs. Instead, Andrews says, Sofar repeatedly used his photographs without crediting him and later refused to help him contact the bands he’d been shooting. Andrews also says when he tried to correct photo crediting on Instagram, a Sofar leader—he doesn’t know who—blocked him.
“The difference between what was said would happen and what happened were polar opposites,” Andrews said.
The city has a private consulting firm tracking the success of its Creative Economy grants, though its mainly a self-reporting system. City officials said they have received no complaints against Sofar.
In New York, however, Sofar came under scrutiny in 2019 for possible labor law violations. It has also been criticized by artist advocates for charging $15 to $30 a ticket, but only paying bands $100 for their 20-minute sets. CEO Jim Lucchese told Billboard in September that the company is getting new investors and revamping to address these concerns.
Meanwhile, Rhodes says he’s staying focused on both a commitment to the arts and a promise to help rebuild South Sacramento. He describes similarities in those goals.
“Right now, we look at a [school] system or model that’s built on silos, and we have an opportunity to reimagine that model, to one that connects youth with great education,” Rhodes said.