The Culture

What We Lost in Austin Bombing Victim Draylen Mason

He was a highlight of Austin’s creative community and, in death, a spotlight on the city’s problems with race.

Draylen Mason
Draylen Mason, 17-year-old victim of the Austin bombings. Illustration by Gary Kelley

Adeila Owens’s father woke her up early in the morning of March 12. He told her he had seen something about her friend Draylen Mason on the news. “You need to check on Dray,” he said. “I think something’s wrong.” She was 18 and Dray 17, and they had become close friends playing bass in the Austin Youth Orchestra’s symphony. So Adeila did what teenagers do: she sent Dray a text message asking if he was okay, then went back to sleep. A few minutes later, her orchestra director texted her and woke her up again. It was bad. In fact, Dray was the victim of a bombing. Now wide awake, Adeila checked his Facebook page. “I just kept seeing like ‘RIP, RIP,’” she remembers. “And I was like, ‘No, no, no, no, no, no.’”

By the end of the day, much of Austin would be repeating a version of Adeila’s reaction, desperately trying to deny reality. Draylen Mason had committed the sin of curiosity, opening, with his mom, a package found at the front door of their home. His mother survived the bomb blast, but his injuries were too severe.

Dray’s murder was the second in a string of bombings by a self-described psychopath who would strike again later that afternoon. Dray, like Anthony Stephan House—the first victim, who had been killed ten days earlier—was African American. In a city in which less than 8 percent of the population is African American, it seemed impossible to explain two consecutive package bombs targeting black families as anything other than racially motivated. The victim in the third explosion, though, was Hispanic, which complicated things but still gave the impression that people with dark skin were under attack. When a fourth explosion went off in a mostly white suburb on the other side of town, the argument got muddled. And by the time Mark Conditt blew himself up, nobody knew for certain what his motive was.

Regardless, the bombings forced a conversation about race in Austin, and Draylen’s murder became a powerful symbol. By his very nature, he had crossed lines drawn long ago on Austin’s racial and cultural map, and his future lay before him like a golden road.

He was a phenomenal musician who played with classical orchestras as well as mariachi and jazz bands; he knew Bach as well as Vicente and Miles. He had already been accepted into several prestigious college music schools. He was also a phenomenal human being, a sweet, positive person who went out of his way to help others and shore them up, whether they were friends, teachers, or orchestra mates he had just met. His talent was prodigious, his spirit infectious.

All across the city, people who had never met Dray wondered how he could end up a victim. “I just don’t understand,” says Adeila. “I’m pretty sure Dray’s never even told a lie unless he was trying to hide a surprise from you. He was like the light of his community. He thought everybody was a beautiful person until proven otherwise. Every person he met, after just two seconds was like, ‘Wow this kid is amazing, I need to talk to him more.’”


Draylen Mason Bass
He was a confident player, with a rich, deep tone. Courtesy of Austin Soundwaves
Draylen Mason drinking coffee.
Draylen told friends he had big plans for his life, including becoming a neurosurgeon. Courtesy of Austin Soundwaves
Left: He was a confident player, with a rich, deep tone. Courtesy of Austin Soundwaves
Top: Draylen told friends he had big plans for his life, including becoming a neurosurgeon. Courtesy of Austin Soundwaves

Draylen William Mason was born on May 26, 2000, and raised by his mother, Shamika Wilson, and grandmother Sandra Young Jones in the Pecan Springs/Springdale neighborhood in East Austin, out past the old airport and before Highway 183. It’s a quiet area, far from downtown, with tree-lined streets and sixties-era ranch houses, most of them occupied by elderly African Americans, many of them on fixed incomes. The neighborhood looks much like it did 30 years ago, without the gentrification taking over much of East Austin. Until the bombing, Draylen’s streets had known little crime or violence.

His family had deep roots in East Austin. Draylen’s grandfather Norman Mason was a dentist with a longtime practice on East Martin Luther King, Jr., Boulevard, who often provided free dental care, meals, and a place to stay for UT football players. Norman’s wife, LaVonne, helped found local chapters of both the Urban League and The Links, a community-service group of black women. Governor Mark White appointed her as a regent of Texas Woman’s University. The Masons were longtime members of Wesley United Methodist Church, one of the oldest in the city.

In 2012 Draylen, in the sixth grade, began attending East Austin College Prep, a majority Hispanic, tuition-free public school that was walking distance from his home. EA Prep pushed its kids hard, with the goal of getting them to college. Draylen, a black belt in karate by age 10, enjoyed the challenge and threw himself into advanced classes. And he turned his passion to music.

A nonprofit called Austin Soundwaves had just set up a music program at EA Prep based on El Sistema, an orchestral education curriculum designed in Venezuela to bring classical music training to poor children. The first ensemble was an orchestra, and Draylen began playing the stand-up bass, also called the double bass. For centuries, the bass has held the same position in orchestras that it holds in jazz and rockabilly bands, laying the foundation so that other instruments (especially guitars and violins) can play the melodies—and get all the attention. This didn’t bother Draylen, who liked holding down the bottom, liked propping up his peers. Bassists are considered to be more relaxed and casual than other players. But they have to be good. “If you don’t have a good bass player,” says William Dick, longtime conductor of the AYO symphony, “you’re sunk.”

Draylen was good—really good. His teachers realized that he was naturally gifted (“he could hear everything intuitively,” says director Patrick Slevin), but they were pleased that he was diligent, too. Draylen read music theory books and practiced all the time, sometimes finding an empty classroom to rehearse in. He had a distinct look, with dark glasses and no hair on his head and no eyebrows. When he played, his face was set in determination, but afterward he joked with orchestra mates and smiled constantly.

Soon Austin Soundwaves also set up a chamber music ensemble, a mariachi group, and a jazz band. Draylen played in all of them. “He never needed sheet music in the mariachi band,” says Hermes Camacho, one of his teachers, “he always did it by ear.” Draylen was the most talented kid in the school, but he enjoyed helping the other kids too. “He was a friend, first and foremost,” says Slevin. “Some of his best friends struggled with music, but he never looked down on anyone. He never had that mentality that a lot of kids have, ‘I’m better than everyone, I’ll just phone it in.’”

Draylen wasn’t just a music nerd; he also liked science, math, and English. He was well aware of who he was and where he lived—in the black part of Austin. In 2013, when he was in eighth grade, he began to write an essay on racial profiling for a contest by the Hispanic Bar Association. He worked hard on what he wanted to say, and won. “Have you ever been judged by the color of your skin?” he read at the award ceremony. “As a young African American male, I am afraid that I will be judged by what you see and not by the potential of who I can be.”

Draylen performing.

Dray’s potential seemed limitless. The black kid at a mostly Hispanic school began venturing to the mostly white west side of Austin to play in the various AYO orchestras, starting with the Sinfonietta, which mostly featured junior high kids. He was a confident player, with a rich, deep tone.

As he got older, he grew more sure of himself as a musician and began playing other kinds of music. He picked up the electric bass and in 2014 began playing with the Soul Tree Collective, an east side nonprofit that put young musicians together into a group to learn to play old soul and R&B songs. He was shy that first year, recalls director Charles Phillips, but not the second. By the time the group played at the Urban Music Festival in March 2016, “He’d figured it out, where he wanted to be, how he wanted to be seen.” Dray loved jazz and began playing with a local jazz-funk group called Ayuma Experiment. Unlike other classically trained musicians, he was learning to improvise, to play what he felt. And he started learning other instruments—the guitar, cello, piano—to challenge himself.

Meanwhile, at AYO he worked his way up to the symphony. It was there that he became friends with fellow bassists Adeila Owens and Matthew Rasmussen. Often the conductor would work with the violins, violas, or cellos while the bassists cooled their heels. Dray, Matthew, and Adeila would talk about what colleges they were thinking about applying to, or they would pull out their iPhones and share memes or take videos of each other. Adeila talked with Dray a lot and grew to depend on him.

“You’re still smart, a grade doesn’t define you,” he’d tell Adeila if she got a bad grade on a test. And he’d tell her about his mother. “She keeps me going,” he’d say. He told Adeila that he had big plans. “I want to play music, but I really want to be a neurosurgeon,” he said. He told her he wanted to help people.

In 2014 Camacho took Dray to the Sacramento Youth Symphony Chamber Music Workshop. Dray was 14, and everyone else in his class was three years older. They were playing a difficult modern composition, one with dissonant parts and challenging rhythms. Camacho remembers asking the teacher how Dray was doing. “He looked at me incredulously. ‘Are you kidding? He’s the one kid I don’t have to worry about in rehearsal.’” Last summer Dray went to Michigan to spend a week at the Interlochen Bass Institute, one of the most prestigious summer programs in the country. He also went to Los Angeles and got to play with Oscar Meza of the L.A. Philharmonic, which is like a basketball prodigy getting to go one-on-one with Tony Parker. Dray posted a photo of the two on his Facebook page.

He began writing music with Golden Hornet, an Austin nonprofit “composers laboratory” run by pianist Graham Reynolds that merges classical music ideas with rock-and-roll attitudes. For the annual Young Composers Concert, each student works with a professional mentor, and the results are played by a professional ensemble. Draylen wrote “Hell Fire,” which was performed in July 2017 with eight other student works. The other kids’ pieces, full of trilling flutes and lonely piano arpeggios, all revealed their composers’ influences, usually hours spent sitting in high school orchestras or watching movies. Draylen’s composition, a sonic assault pushed by riff and rhythm—careening, stopping, starting again—revealed different influences. This was hypnotic, arresting music composed by a kid who knew something about bands, about blending genres and hearing sounds that aren’t written on the page.

“It was a great piece,” says Reynolds, who has written film scores, operas, and ballet music. “It was hard to resist.” Reynolds was impressed by Draylen as both composer and player. “He didn’t come off like he was 17. He came off as a young professional. He had a high level of competence on his instrument, a strong musical brain, plus focus and positive energy—all the things you want when you put together a band.”

Other instructors were also impressed by Dray’s overall musical command. “Dray had it,” says William Dick, his conductor in the AYO Symphony. “A lot of kids have the talent, a lot have the artistry, a lot have the discipline, a lot have the personality. He had it all.”

One reason Dray got better and better was that his teachers challenged him, especially those at Austin Soundwaves. “We were always hard on him,” says Camacho. “We saw how brilliant he was, we were always raising the bar for him higher and higher.” A few days before Dray was murdered, he and four faculty members played a Mozart quintet at a school concert. “He was playing the cello part on his bass,” remembers Camacho with amazement.

Last fall Dray applied to several prestigious music schools, including North Texas State University, the UT’s Butler School of Music, and the Oberlin Conservatory of Music, the country’s oldest music academy. On his Oberlin application Dray wrote, “I am a musical servant whose gift is to touch and convey a composer’s feelings and messages through my own playing.” More than 1,500 hopefuls applied to Oberlin; Dray was one of 130 invited to enroll.

But the invitation was delivered two weeks after he was murdered. He never knew.

Within a day of his murder, Draylen’s name and face were in newspapers and on websites around the world. A few nights later, on the last night of SXSW, Bill Murray dedicated the mournful Scottish lament “Loch Lomond” to him. Journalists and activists began using his name, along with that of Anthony Stephan House, as a symbol of the presumed racist intent of the bomber. The boy who wrote an award-winning essay on racial profiling had seemingly been murdered because he was black.

“I was crushed,” says his former bandleader Phillips about hearing the news. “Crushed. He did everything he was supposed to. He got good grades, was never in trouble, very well spoken, respected by his peers and his elders. I saw him as a future leader in the community. It hurts.”

When Slevin first heard about Dray’s death, he couldn’t speak because the words he wanted to say didn’t make sense coming out of his mouth. Camacho went into the first practice without Dray at Austin Soundwaves and was stunned by what he heard. “The orchestra literally sounded empty.”

AISD counselors were brought to AYO’s first rehearsal without Dray, and they encouraged the students to write notes to Dray’s mother on colored sheets of paper. Up in a corner, the surviving bass players sat, crying and hugging each other. At one point Adeila pulled out her phone and showed Matthew a video she’d taken during Dray’s last rehearsal. While the rest of the orchestra had worked on Schubert’s “Unfinished Symphony Number 8,” Adeila filmed Dray making melodramatic faces in time with the music. Adeila and Matthew laughed for the first time all day. They called conductor Bill Dick over, and soon he was laughing too.

Courtesy of Adeila Owens

A week later, Golden Hornet held its third young composers concert and dedicated it to Draylen. The ensemble played the songs of nine teens—and then Graham Reynolds said a few words about Dray. “He was exciting to work with,” he said, “and fun, and I felt I’d be hiring him for gigs in a couple of months.” Then the group played “Hell Fire,” which sounded even more relentless now that Dray was dead. The program notes contained Draylen’s thoughts about the piece: “‘Hell Fire’ is a story about a man who is dealing with his inner demons and battling between himself and the voices in his head.”

On March 27, two weeks after Dray’s murder, EA Prep held an extraordinary vigil in its giant school auditorium. The room was packed with several hundred people, while a couple dozen men and women stood along the back wall. Many in the crowd were students, along with their parents, but other attendees were clearly men and women off the street, curious about Draylen. The ceremony, which lasted two hours, was structured like a musical score, with seven movements, each given a theme connected with the letters in Draylen’s first name: D was for devoted, R for resilient, A for artistic. Within each movement were four or five sections, each with a teacher or student talking about Dray, either live or on video; videos of him playing music or talking; and live music from the school and faculty orchestras. Students read one of his poems (“Grandma’s hands have touched Obama and MLK”) and pieces of a couple of essays. In one of them, written early in his senior year, Dray wrote how much he loved EA Prep: “I’ve been used to a sheltered, nurturing environment for so long that I’m not ready to leave.”

Many of the presenters spoke through tears about Dray’s own nurturing ways, his determination to make others feel important, his abiding happiness and refusal to be despondent or let others be that way. “He always tried to make me smile,” said teacher Jacqueline Vidal. Dana Wygmans, Dray’s bass teacher for five years, could barely get words out, she was crying so hard. “Saying Draylen was ridiculously talented is not an exaggeration,” she said in between sniffles. “What I found striking about him was his passion and curiosity for music and art. He felt music very deeply and he wanted everyone around him to share this experience with him. His passion can teach us so much, not just about music but about life and love. I want to be more like Draylen.”

Walking out of such a remarkable event, it was impossible not to wonder: did Conditt know that Draylen was such a beacon—at his school, in his community, in his various orchestras, in wider and whiter Austin? Did the bomber follow the boy home from school one day to see where he lived? Did he know of Draylen’s family? Or did he just pick a house in this neighborhood at random? Maybe the attack wasn’t racially motivated at all.

The bombings—and the reaction to them—shone a light on some of the cracks in Austin’s hip veneer nonetheless, cracks that reveal deep divisions over race and opportunity. Dray was the only African American in the AYO symphony, for one thing. Why is it that the only black kids who seem to benefit from many of the resources around Austin’s famous creative scene are the ones with Dray’s supernatural level of talent?

“Dray was very proud of his race,” says one of Dray’s teachers. “He would have been proud to see how he is being used as a vehicle for black equality.” Austin has always been a deeply segregated city, and blacks have always protested about the attitudes of the police, politicians, and UT leaders. Many blacks have left for the suburbs or other cities. White Austin has, at best, been complacent. Now Austin has lost another African American, this time violently, this time a gifted teenager.

Camacho, who wept for fifteen minutes upon hearing of Dray’s death, is determined to turn it into something good. “I’ve heard people say things like, ‘It’s such a waste.’ But it’s not a waste. Draylen inspired so many lives, we owe it to him to fulfill what we think he was going to do—to be friendly to someone the way that Dray was, to jump into a piece of music at a moment’s notice like he could, to take chances like he did.” To talk as a community, finally, about Austin’s problems with race.


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