Photograph by Lena Ostroy-Harp
The BART train stopped at MacArthur and a small group of young people entered boisterously, like the lunch bell had just rung. One of them grabbed the bar on the roof that is used to keep oneself balanced when there are no empty seats, and lifted their feet off the ground.
Then, another person pressed a button on their boom box and a beat set in. Badum, crash badum. And heroically, the person holding the bar flipped right underneath it. Most of us caught our breath and looked up from our phones, waking up from a drowsy commute. Using BART as a creative platform was an ingenious idea, providing a significant income and automatic audience. These dancers create what many people consider to be a distinguishing part of BART culture in the Bay Area.
Those who perform publicly, for donation, are called buskers. Most buskers depend on the money they make performing to get by. “I make more money busking than I do at my minimum wage job,” one busker, newly a mother, said. However, because it is an unconventional way to make a living, there are many people who do not tolerate street performance. Almost every busker will have a story of being spit on – literally and metaphorically – at least once in their career, and the legality of busking varies from place to place. San Francisco is a city known to embrace street performance as part of its culture, but other places will prosecute the artists.
A busker named Cornell said that in some cities buskers will get arrested. With no boss, no dependable salary, no set work hours, no insurance or office, and the requirement to make your voice loud in a public space and hope it sounds good, busking is an occupation that demands bravery.
There are street performers who have grown up on the streets that don’t have formal training, but are self-taught and busk as opposed to begging. There are also street performers with masters in music, who have long histories of education in performance and the arts.
However, there are far fewer female buskers than there are male. “My daughter,” said Cornell. “She’s one of the coolest drummers. And she’s female! That’s one thing you don’t see.” Within the community of buskers, an effect of societal sexism is that women often feel too vulnerable to perform on the street, and that they do not have the right to make themselves heard. When women do perform publicly, the gender wage gap extends to busking, and they are at a higher risk for sexual assault.
“This is a very musical city,” Cornell said. “When it comes to live music, people love it. This is California. This is the sunshine state, they appreciate it! And that’s a blessing.”
Live music is an integral part of placemaking, which is what makes a location stand out on a map. And in cities who promote busking, music changes the scene entirely. “I feel like it puts everyone in a very good mood,” said Sophia, an employee at Fourth Street’s Amour Vert. “Especially when they’re eating at Betty’s. And I feel like it uplifts everyone and allows them to have a great day. I honestly love it.”
After fourteen years of busking, singing, and songwriting, Emeal Wilson has lots of advice for future street performers. “Believe in yourself, trust yourself, and don’t give up. Perseverance is what makes you successful,” he said.