The day San Francisco went into a city-wide shelter-in-place to shield against the spread of the novel coronavirus, hip-hop busker Andrew Bernard hopped on BART, his primary performance venue.
“It [was] like a desert,” Bernard — known to fans as The Young Humble Billionaire — says. “No one was out there at all.”
Later that week, BART officials canceled extra commuter trains after a 90 percent drop in ridership. Bernard, like many performers in the city, can’t busk anymore. His performances aren’t considered essential services, and even if they were, he wouldn’t have an audience, which would largely defeat the purpose of his impromptu performances.
Normally, Bernard makes about $800 a week between busking and his other gig — helping people move on TaskRabbit. But now both have come to a standstill and Bernard fears he may end up out on the street. “If I don’t make anything happen, there’s obviously homelessness.”
Bernard has been jumping around from Airbnb to Airbnb since January. He says he used to live in Daly City, until he was forced out of his home of two years. Finding affordable housing in the Bay Area is difficult, to say the least, and while Bernard says he doesn’t like to worry, he is concerned that his current living situation won’t last long.
“That’s the main thing,” Bernard says. “I’m trying to avoid being homeless.”
Bernard moved to San Francisco from the D.C.-Maryland area in 2013 to study film at the Academy of Art University. That was where he discovered his love for music, and resolved to pursue it full-time.
He was inspired to busk while living just steps away from the Daly City BART station in 2018. “It woke me up every morning at 5 a.m. or 6 a.m. — when BART starts running,” Bernard says.
It was around the holiday season, and Bernard’s TaskRabbit moving gigs were slowing down. He needed to make rent, and, given his dream of becoming a professional musician, busking seemed like the natural next step.
When he started, the positive reception encouraged him to keep at it.
“People always tell me to keep going before I go to the next train,” Bernard says. “So that’s exactly what I did.”
Bernard’s busking career has had its difficulties: He says that the very first time he tried performing his music at Powell Street Station, he was confronted by police.
“I was surrounded by six BART PD just by playing music,” Bernard says. “It was my first night ever doing this, so I didn’t understand what the big spectacle was about.”
Then, in August of 2019, Bernard was arrested on BART while intervening in an altercation between two teenage girls and BART police officers. Around the same time, BART leaders proposed a ban on busking and panhandling. The plan was shot down in October by the Board of Directors.
Now, the global coronavirus pandemic threatens Bernard’s work yet again.
Despite it all, Bernard hasn’t thrown in the towel just yet, and he hopes to continue busking after the dust settles. Currently, Bernard says he’s getting aid via food stamps, and recently started a GoFundMe with a $1,000 goal. His music is about “positivity, inspiration, motivation” — themes that he wants to bring to BART riders and other listeners.
“I want to make you smile. I want to make you motivated,” Bernard says. “I want to make you happy.”
Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.