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For Street Performers, Pandemic Leaves Them With Few Options: ‘Well, Now What Do I Do?’

For some, the pandemic has put a pause on their gigs. Others say that the crisis has forced them to reflect on why they became a musician in the first place.

Andrew David is still performing on the streets of Chicago during the pandemic.
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CHICAGO — Local musicians have struggled to find ways to continue performing and stay creative as gigs have largely dried up due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The crisis has shut down most of the city’s performance venues for months and indefinitely postponed events. Even public performances aren’t feasible because of the lack of foot traffic in popular areas.

Andrew David, 28, has kept singing anyway.

The singer, who is also known as Andrew Johnston, kept performing during the months-long stay at home order — even to empty Downtown streets.

Over the years, David has regularly sung in Downtown subway stations and busy intersections on Michigan Avenue. He said he has started singing in the South Loop, West Loop, Lincoln Park and Bronzeville during the pandemic.

Earlier this year, a video of David singing Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” circulated around social media. He has performed for national and local TV shows, including “America’s Got Talent,” “Steve Harvey,” and “Windy City Live.”

“It’s been a blessing to see the encouragement that it’s brought and also just the excitement that it brought, especially during quarantine,” he said.

For David, the pandemic has created an opportunity for him to reflect on why he began singing.

“I did have that moment where I was like, ‘OK, well, now what do I do?” David said. “When everybody wasn’t there anymore, and that’s when I started to … rethink why I was standing where I was, and then realized that the gift that God gave me — I need to spread it in different areas.”

For the founders of Chicago Street Strings, Hannah K. Watson and Leyla Royale, the pandemic has limited the number of gigs and other events they could have.

The pair of musicians formed Chicago Street Strings, a group of professional musicians for hire, after graduating from Columbia College in 2011 and busking together.

Watson said the two typically performed outside of the Apple Store on Michigan Avenue. Their outdoor performances allowed them to land spots in a band and contracts for private events.

Royale, who said she plays with bands around the city and at weddings, said the pandemic has stalled the number of performances she has been able to do.

“I haven’t gone this long before without doing something in front of people,” Royale said. “And I mean, I’ve played music my whole life, and I’ve spent a lot of time working as a tour guide in the city to and then all of a sudden to not have either of those options, it’s weird.”  

Watson said the pandemic cut down the number of private events at which their musicians would have performed.

“Definitely, this whole thing has severely affected our business,” she said.

Ashley Stevenson, a musician who spent years performing in the Chicago subway, said since the pandemic hit, she has had to “survive” in a totally different way. She released her own album in April but has not been able to travel and tour to perform her new songs.

Stevenson, who moved out of the city before the pandemic hit, said she hasn’t touched her guitar since finishing the album.

“I just feel like I’m not living the fullest out of my life because I can’t fully do what I love to do, so yeah, it’s impacting me a little bit,” Stevenson said.

Block Club Chicago’s coronavirus coverage is free for all readers. Block Club is an independent, 501(c)(3), journalist-run newsroom.

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