The musicians who provide the soundtrack for the city’s subways have been silenced by COVID-19.
Ridership fell 90 percent this March from last year, leaving few riders to hear the music or tip the people who play it. Many musicians who busk underground to supplement low-paying jobs have been thrown off track at the worst possible time.
For Naveh Halperin, a Brooklynite better known as SubwayDJ, the crisis came right as he was gaining his own viral momentum. The full-time busker was responsible for the karaoke afterparty that broke out in the Atlantic Avenue-Barclays Center station following a Celine Dion concert in early March. It made him an internet sensation.
“When people were joking about how all the people involved would get coronavirus, it still felt like just a joke,” says Halperin, 30, who has been towing his speaker, a microphone and laptop around New York for five years, using music to instigate spontaneous parties among strangers. “Now I’ve had to stop performing in the subway because what I do is try to bring people together with music, the exact opposite of social distancing.”
He misses more than the money.
“Before COVID, I would spend entire days approaching random people and trying to start parties and karaoke sessions,” Halperin says. “For me, that’s my joy and purpose in life.”
Mel Mendez, 30, a barista and singer-songwriter who goes by the stage name Wumxnn and uses the pronouns they and them, has been performing in the subway for more than 10 years. They had learned to avoid playing during the after-school rush hour and how to take advantage of Fridays, when many riders have cash from getting paid.
“You know, it’s hard out here for musicians and creatives on an entrepreneurship journey…” Mendez says. “Right now we’re being challenged in ways we never imagined.”
The last time they performed in the subway was mid-March. By then, tips were down to only a fraction of what a normal Friday’s take would have been. A few days later, Mendez boarded a near-empty No. 4 train on the way to a rehearsal.
“I wanted to busk on my way there. But, to be honest, I didn’t even see homeless people,” they say. “After that, I decided I’d stay home. If I were to stay out there and get infected and, God forbid, I don’t pull through, that’s my entire life for a couple of dollars. That probably isn’t worth it right now.”
Mendez, who isn’t getting paid while the coffeeshop they work at is temporarily closed, is surviving on savings.
Riders say it’s difficult to imagine a subway without performers, many who have become fixtures at their stations.
“I love the fella that always plays ‘Somewhere Beyond the Sea’ on the saxophone at the Broadway-Lafayette stop. It brings a tear to my eye every time I hear it,” says Andrea Torres, 23, a film publicist at a Manhattan-based firm. “New York wouldn’t be the same without these performers. They’re absolutely woven into the fabric of the city.”
Rachel Williams, 31, a grants assistant who lives in Brooklyn and commutes to Manhattan, says she finds herself slowing down to hear performers she connects with, like the one often played the electric violin outside of the A, C, and E entrances in Penn Station.
“He became a calming presence in my daily routine,” Williams says. “He always seemed to really be enjoying playing, and I loved that more than his music.”
Like many listeners, Mendez sees soothing qualities in music, making chaotic commutes easier to navigate.
“If you love what you hear in the subway, it’s something that changes your whole mood for the day,” they say. “I like to think of music as being this very cleansing component in the subway. We’re energy cleaners down there; we change, and we bend all of the energies to create an experience for people.”
Mendez has given thought to the first song they’ll play once they’re able to perform again underground and cleanse the energy of a New York dulled by the deadly virus: “Talkin’ ‘bout a Revolution” by Tracy Chapman.
“I want it to be something that expresses that we are in this together. And that we can come out of this together.”