Close to midnight on October 22, Morikeba Kouyate was walking a friend home near 72nd and Racine when three men jumped them from behind. Two grabbed the friend and demanded his money, and the third pointed a gun at Kouyate. “I asked him if he wanted my wallet or something,” Kouyate says. “He said, ‘No, I just want to kill someone tonight. I don’t want nothing, but I’m going to kill you.'” Kouyate tried to wrestle the gun from his attacker; as they fought, the two accomplices fled with his friend’s wallet, and the friend ran to a nearby bar to get help. The gun went off, and a bullet went clear through Kouyate’s left thigh. He saw blood, but he continued to struggle with the gunman. “It was very painful, but I was fighting for my life,” he says. When his friend came back with some patrons from the bar, the assailant fled, but not before shooting Kouyate again, in the right ankle.

Kouyate, a Senegalese kora player who’s lived in Chicago since 1991, knows he’s lucky to be alive, but his troubles aren’t over. His injuries have kept him from performing since the attack, and he probably won’t be able to work for another three weeks. He’s racked up more than $25,000 in medical bills so far–and like millions of American citizens and residents Kouyate has no health insurance. A November 1 benefit at Rhythm raised about $1,000, and a second benefit, featuring the Muntu Dance Theatre of Chicago and many other performers, will take place Sunday, December 7, at the Chicago Cultural Center.

This weekend concertgoers will help out other artists in need: Tortoise, the Eternals, and Hypnotic play at the Abbey Pub Friday to raise money for Sweet Relief Musicians Fund, started by singer-songwriter and multiple sclerosis sufferer Victoria Williams to assist musicians with their medical expenses.

“[The bands] are playing for an organization that they could theoretically benefit from at some point,” says the organizer of Friday’s event, Sarah Dandelles, who manages the dance program at the Old Town School of Folk Music and produces concerts there. In 2000 and 2001 Dandelles worked for the city’s cultural affairs department, producing and stage-managing shows for the Summerdance series and the World Music Festival. Last year, after helping singer Chris Mills, her boyfriend at the time, run his Powerless Pop Recorders label, she began looking for other music-related projects. A friend suggested she put together a benefit concert; another friend, Reader art director Sheila Sachs, proposed Sweet Relief as a recipient. Sachs had organized a smaller benefit for the fund at Schubas two years earlier. The idea appealed to Dandelles: “Most of the people I know and work with, either musicians or dancers, don’t have insurance. I listen to people complain about it all of the time, so it seemed like the perfect thing.”

According to the 2000 U.S. census 14 percent of the population is uninsured, but the figure among musicians may be much higher. Last year the D.C.-based Future of Music Coalition conducted an online survey about musicians and insurance; of the more than 2,400 musicians who responded, 44 percent said they didn’t have health coverage. As recent van accidents suffered by Dub Narcotic Sound System, Kingsbury Manx, Ester Drang, and the Exploding Hearts (three of whose members were killed) demonstrate, touring can be dangerous; driving oversize vehicles long distances on a tight schedule with little sleep sounds like a recipe for disaster. And the physical strain of playing an instrument can lead to health problems: local bassist Ryan Hembrey developed a repetitive stress injury about four years ago that prevented him from playing at all for a year. Even now he’s no longer able to play upright bass without pain.

For the most part musicians are freelancers, a category of workers for whom finding group coverage is difficult. This includes artists with record deals; labels like Bloodshot, Thrill Jockey, and Touch and Go usually can’t include musicians in the group plans they offer their office employees because most insurance companies will cover only workers on the payroll.

Bettina Richards, owner of Thrill Jockey, put together a group plan for her roster about three years ago. Artists who recorded primarily for the label could have received coverage for a monthly premium of $127. “Everybody came back to me griping and moaning, or wanting me to pay for them,” she says. “It completely fell apart.” For the plan to work, half of the eligible musicians would have had to participate, but Richards couldn’t get nearly that many to opt in. “It’s a sad commentary that a $127-a-month expenditure is extremely difficult for many musicians to cover,” she says.

But even some who can afford it don’t have it. Recording engineer and Shellac front man Steve Albini suggests that the instability of a career in music discourages artists from obtaining coverage. “A lot of bands don’t know what’s going to be happening to them 12 months from now, so it’s difficult to commit to a regimen of paying for group insurance or anything binding in that sense,” he says. “People don’t think about it because they’re busy taking care of the day-to-day.”

“You just don’t think about it at a certain age and at a certain level of responsibility,” says Rob Miller, co-owner of Bloodshot, who didn’t get insurance himself until he was in his late 20s. His label has also searched unsuccessfully for ways to insure members of its roster. According to insurance broker Jeff Sopko, who created Thrill Jockey’s aborted plan, United Healthcare is the only one of the top dozen companies he deals with to aggressively pursue policies covering nonpayroll employees.

Albini points out that there are plenty of alternatives for musicians who can’t get group insurance through their label or their day jobs. Shellac, for instance, incorporated, which enabled it to establish its own group policy. Bands can also register as partnerships or associations, and professional groups like the American Federation of Musicians and the National Association of Recording Arts and Sciences also offer insurance plans. Many musicians have individual policies, which according to Sopko can be less expensive than group plans, but there are drawbacks: the coverage is usually less comprehensive, and there are no caps on rate increases. For group policies of fewer than 50 members Illinois law limits rate increases to 68 percent.

For many musicians, however, health insurance remains something they’ll worry about later; members of all three bands on Friday’s bill are currently uninsured. Eternals singer Damon Locks, 35, was covered through a day job he gave up about five months ago, but since then he’s gone without. “I haven’t organized myself to get insurance on my own,” he says. “I know it’s going to be expensive, but it’s easy to put it on the back burner.”

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Andre J. Jackson.