Stay informed: Sign up for eNews Subscribe
Read Chapter 1


New Orleans, America, Music

... How much are we subject

to the metaphors we reference?

If we sing of mighty battles

will we conjure them?

New Orleans

the siege of New Orleans

Joan of Arc

in her 12th year

claimed to see God

Black boys

on bottle caps

heard voices

strangled in dance step

Sourced from the broken wind

of overgrown sea


within the waves


more black than white keys

Some songs we cannot sing

until we cross to the other side

New Orleans is at a crossroads

Music is at a crossroads

America is at a crossroads

-Saul Williams (2009)

Saul Williams's words, speaking of the power and possibility in creative work, the spirit, the natural world, human identities, and collective sensibilities, come from the liner notes of a 2010 CD titled Dear New Orleans. Released in August 2010 to commemorate the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina and to respond to the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, the album was produced by Air Traffic Control (ATC), a nonprofit organization supporting activism, advocacy, and philanthropy among musicians.

Dear New Orleans consists of thirty-one tracks recorded by some of the sixty participants in the "artist activism retreats" in New Orleans that have been sponsored since 2006 by ATC and the Future of Music Coalition (FMC), the latter of which addresses policy, legal, technological, and economic issues on behalf of musicians. These retreats have brought musicians from across the United States together with local musicians, organizers, community leaders, tradition bearers, and other artists. According to ATC, retreat participants' interaction with local artists and activists left them with the "feeling that their lives have been changed by what they have experienced in New Orleans and with a sense of empowerment for what they can accomplish through their music and activism." These collaborations have, in fact, led outside musicians to engage in philanthropic fundraising for and activism on behalf of New Orleans-based community and grassroots organizations. They have also inspired a number of musical collaborations among participants. These two sets of practices come together on Dear New Orleans. In addition to offering some compelling music, the album raises money for Sweet Home New Orleans, which supports New Orleans cultural workers, and the Gulf Restoration Network, an environmental organization dedicated to protecting coastal wetlands and other projects.

As a listener, I like the breadth of this album. The performances on it represent a range of genres-pop, jazz, country, RB, folk, rock-and a diversity of inspirations. Some songs are directly about the city or Katrina. Others are merely thematically connected to New Orleans or the storm. Others simply remind artists of the city or were performed live at retreat concerts. I also like the ways the fusion of genres comes together powerfully on successive tracks and within individual performances. Listen to the way jazz pianist Vijay Iyer's mournful, tense original instrumental "Threnody" sets the stage for "Where Is Bobbie Gentry?," singer songwriter Jill Sobule's haunting follow-up to Gentry's 1967 number one hit, "Ode to Billie Joe," sung in the voice of the grown-up ghost of the aborted baby that, according to some interpretations, is the object that the narrator of "Billie Joe" threw off the Tallahatchie Bridge. And dig Nicole Atkins and trombone-centric band Bonerama's version of Joe McCoy and Memphis Minnie's "When the Levee Breaks" (as appropriated by Led Zeppelin). With its loose and bluesy horn arrangements, its distorted electric guitar and trombone solos, and Atkins's fantastic rendition of Robert Plant's caterwauling, it is simultaneously a brilliant parody of classic rock excess and a politically on-the-mark recontextualization of this blues lament about the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. And to use a certain vernacular, it absolutely rocks.

As a writer, I appreciate what Dear New Orleans represents as it marks Katrina's fifth anniversary. The producers and musicians framed it as a response to New Orleans Times-Picayune writer Chris Rose's epistolary editorial "Dear America," published eight days after the storm hit. Rose expressed gratitude to the Americans who reached out to shelter the displaced and who sent resources or came in person to the city to rescue and rebuild. His letter was also a statement of local pride-in the place and its unique culture, and more importantly, in the people. It spoke of the resiliency of New Orleans residents and what they would offer the nation in the future. "So when all this is over and we move back home, we will repay to you the hospitality and generosity of spirit you offer to us in this season of our despair. That is our promise. That is our faith." And in response, five years later, "America" wrote back to New Orleans in the liner notes to Dear New Orleans, expressing our regret for the "super shitty things [that] keep happening to you" and for only writing when they do. America was thankful, too, for the city's music, even if we could not quite figure out what to make of it. But beyond just a "sorry" and "thank you" that were not quite adequate, America sent back some music "we made while thinking about you"-and some money.

Dear New Orleans performs an economy of obligation that has surrounded the city over the past several years, of political and moral failings needing to be rectified. Something we know all about, at least if we are willing to read against our own forgetfulness and many of the accounts offered by the corporate media. We know, then, about the damage caused by the winds and the rain, as well as the more devastating surge of water that overwhelmed the levee system and flooded 80 percent of the city. And the long-standing knowledge that the levees might fail, and the federal government's failure to maintain them despite that knowledge. And the deplorable conditions Katrina victims faced at the Superdome and Convention Center. And the delays in the arrival of active duty troops and National Guard personnel to rescue them. And the rapes and murders. And the exaggerated reports of rapes and murders and the concomitant "elite panic" that made the rescue efforts such a disaster as they put less focus on rescuing victims than on protecting others from them. And the police and vigilante killings. And the cluelessness of President George W. Bush and his mother. And the 1,800 plus officially counted dead in the immediate aftermath and the many more who died later from inadequate medical care, stress, or grief. And the suicides. And long-term and permanent displacement. And the innocent and minor offenders lost for months and years in jails and prisons. And the difficulty people have had extracting money to rebuild from governments and insurance companies. And the toxic FEMA trailers. And the unscrupulous contractors. And the diminishing workers' rights, the scaling back of environmental regulations, and other manifestations of "disaster capitalism," in which elites use a crisis to lessen state protections and further their market-friendly political agenda. And the closure of structurally sound Charity Hospital and public housing projects. And gentrification, planned and unplanned. And high rents. And the failures of the social safety net and the criminal justice system. And the fired public school teachers and a privatized public school system that still fails families without financial means. And joblessness and poorly paid jobs. And ultimately, as many of these phenomena attest, the ways poor people (especially black poor people) have been most dramatically affected by these things while being blamed for their own suffering.

But five years after the storm, this musical exchange also marks an important economy of inspiration and a horizon of possibility rooted in the heroic deeds of New Orleanians who have tried with varying degrees of success to bring their city back as they knew it or wanted it to be. And rooted also in the work of outsiders who have expressed their care for and dedication to the city. As Rebecca Solnit notes, disasters bring out the worst in some human beings but some of the very best in others, especially in a world defined increasingly by "private life and private satisfaction." "Disasters," she continues, "in returning their sufferers to public and collective life, undo some of this privatization, which is a slower, subtler disaster all its own." And there seems something particularly special about the ways many New Orleanians have risen to the occasion of Katrina.

We saw this public response begin immediately with citizen rescuers-the "Soul Patrol" of working-class black men from the Seventh Ward, Cajun fisherfolk from the surrounding countryside, and others from as far away as Texas-who brought their boats or found someone else's and navigated the floodwaters to save people when the government could not or would not. We subsequently saw it in the efforts of those who stayed, those who soon returned, and those volunteers from across the nation and beyond, who quickly began feeding, clothing, housing, and administering medical care to the needy in the wake of government and established aid agency failings. We know this has not worked smoothly. We know about the heroic deeds of local activists but also about the schisms that tore apart some organizations. We know about the activists who moved to New Orleans and acted with grace and virtue but also about those who did not listen to local concerns or acted as if establishing their activist credentials was more important than serving the community in which they settled. And about the artists whose representations have been haunting, beautiful, and inspiring, but who took bread from the mouths of local colleagues. And about the rents that the well-meaning transplants helped raise. And so on.

Ultimately, Dear New Orleans begins to map a space of collaborative artistic production and a broader economy of civic engagement in and around New Orleans that remains contradictory and uneven. This space has shifted from the incredible highs and lows, the rawness that defined the immediate post-Katrina period, into something more prosaic. The city is, of course, in many ways still reeling from the catastrophe. The past several years have been extremely difficult, especially for the displaced, the poor, the female, the young, and the elderly, the people who lost family members to the flood and to the state or criminal violence that followed. It is worth noting that Amnesty International reported shortly before Katrina's fifth anniversary that displaced New Orleanians (particularly low-income people of color), as well as some of those who had returned to the city, continued to experience human rights violations because of a lack of access to affordable and adequate housing, racial inequality in reconstruction projects, a lack of reasonable health care, police misconduct, and a dysfunctional criminal justice system. Yet things have been made better for some in the city, and not just for the elite. Optimism and levels of civic engagement exceed that of most places in the nation.

On the cultural front, though many worried that neighborhood-based cultures-Mardi Gras Indians, social aid and pleasure clubs and their parades-would disappear along with working-class black residents of New Orleans, these groups have reconstituted themselves and have played an important role in the reconstruction of the city through their public rituals and explicit activism. Major artists and even some previously underground performers, like transgender rap artists Big Freedia and Katey Red, have received national media attention. So in many ways we see a city whose unique culture is not only surviving but in many ways blossoming despite and in some ways as a result of the disaster that was Katrina. Indeed, New Orleans has much to teach us at a moment when, as Saul Williams puts it, we stand at a crossroads.

My initial reaction to what I saw happening in New Orleans was, like that of many others, one of outrage. The lesson of the storm indeed seemed to be, as Michael Eric Dyson put it soon thereafter, "The deeper we dig into the story of Katrina, the more we must accept culpability for the fact that the black citizens of the Big Easy-a tag given the city by black musicians who easily found work in a city that looms large in the collective American imagination as the home of jazz, jambalaya, and Mardi Gras-were treated by the rest of us as garbage." Moralizing about New Orleans has proliferated. Often called the most African of U.S. cities, New Orleans has functioned in the political imagination post Katrina much like Africa. As V.Y. Mudimbe describes the representational function of Africa, New Orleans often operates as a "sign of something else." Following Paul Theroux's description of contemporary affinities for Africa, post-Katrina New Orleans is often seen as an "unfinished project," where people can ennoble themselves by acting upon it. Over the past seven years this moralistic ennobling has sometimes taken reactionary forms, as in the we-told-you-so accounts of black savagery and the errors of big government in the immediate aftermath of the storm. One infamous example was Representative Richard Baker of Baton Rouge telling lobbyists, "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn't do it, but God did." But we have also seen the righteous performances of the Left, in which the traumatized, displaced, or dead bodies of New Orleanians have been the cudgels with which we symbolically beat down the racial, heteropatriarchal state, the interstitial power of Empire, and other evils. While my affinities lie with the second moralizing project, I recognize that it can obscure and silence some residents of the city, and that it does not always enable a very good understanding of the complexities of people's lives, their cultural movements, or their own analyses of the conditions they face.

One must, of course, try to come to terms with the ways the twin evils of exploitation and neglect have long helped to constitute New Orleans. Outrage remains an important motivation for writing and activism. But moving politically and analytically into the future also requires paying attention to insistent expressions of humanity. Watts's photographs do this. Some evoke the pain and the destruction, but most show "the beauty and fragility of the race, the ironic humor of everyday life, the dream life of a people." In other words, they help us to not be overly consumed by outrage about what happened to this city and its residents in the late summer of 2005 and its aftermath.

Ultimately, the possibilities of political and creative collaboration in the music and the affirmative content of (at least some of) Watts's photos encourage me to examine the ways that New Orleanians have "reinvented life" in the seven years after the storm and the levee breaks. As a writer, I am compelled to frame this story less as an argument for the necessary survival of a special place, as many fine works have done, than as an analysis that builds from the confidence one can find in the activism and cultural acts of New Orleanians in recent years. Even with all the difficulty and contradiction, such expressions perform the ways in which the city and its residents are surviving and have been since the moment the storm hit. Such practices now reflect less what was and what happened and more what is becoming.

To try to tell this story via music is like a dance on bottle caps: staccato, slippery, and precarious. People have long talked about the relationship between music and the social. Some of us have asked how history is sedimented in sound and lyric, how music reflects the complexities of political moments, and how it might point to utopian and dystopian futures. We have considered how music inspires people to imagine a better, or at least a different, world and about how people sometimes use it to try to change the world. But even those of us who are invested in music and social possibility recognize, at least if we are honest, that it is difficult to say with certainty what specific pieces, movements, or genres actually mean and do. Musical expressions are generally quite complicated. They often contain contradictory and ambiguous sentiments created by artists, producers, recording engineers, and businesspeople; and their diverse listeners hear them differently and selectively across time and space. This is true even when talking about music with lyrics carrying a relatively straightforward semantic meaning, let alone when considering music full of complex imagery and innuendo, or without lyrics at all.

Writing about power and possibility in New Orleans music brings with it a particular set of challenges. One stems from the depth of investment that artists, businesspeople, boosters, activists, politicians, and everyday people have in defining New Orleans as a musical city. We are thus faced with the challenge of separating fact from fiction regarding what music actually accomplishes and how it may actually relate-as opposed to mythically relate-to the specific needs, circumstances, and aspirations of the city's residents.

The HBO television series Treme, for example, the most prominent dramatic representation to date of New Orleans post Katrina, contributes to this phenomenon by portraying the city's predicament and recovery primarily through the lives of musicians and other cultural workers. As some have argued, such a focus, as well as the narrative needs of television entertainment, leads to a less than adequate treatment of complex social arrangements with deep historical roots that continue to unfold in the present. These include the profound and multifaceted racial and economic marginalization of large segments of the black population.16 It also potentially reproduces a flawed sense that multiracial musicians' networks-composed of people who often live very difficult lives, to be sure, but who are also cherished and privileged in a symbolic if not financial sense-may be seen as a sufficient reflection of the broader community's struggles for recognition, normalcy, and even survival.

One should instead stay attuned to the way traces of the contradictions that have defined the city's post-Katrina recovery are embedded in New Orleans music and also to the ways that music has served as one vehicle for creating these contradictions. We can examine how post-storm jazz funerals and second line parades have helped heal people and convinced them to stay in or return to the city. We can also look at the ways musicians are participating in progressive political projects. But another part of the story is how the New Orleans tourist economy is fundamentally exploitative in the wages paid to musicians and others and how honoring musical traditions following Katrina has served as cover for draconian political acts and social policies. We also need to contend with the ways that the production and consumption of New Orleans music facilitates an economy of cross-racial and cross-class desire that cherishes traditional culture bearers but can also ignore or breed hostility toward the needs of those members of poor or colored communities who are not engaged in such cultural work and whose presence-their assumed drain on resources, their criminal behavior-is read as a threat to everybody else's good time.

Adding to the challenge of mapping these contradictions is the fact that the fluidity and complexity of music scenes and audiences alike make it analytically dangerous to indulge in neat assumptions about how local music represents particular identitarian or political sentiments. Musical scenes bleed into and inform one another, artists are in dialogue across genres, and audience tastes are hard to pin down. Tom Piazza describes "the surprises that lurk so often around the corners of someone's seemingly straightforward identity. It is a lesson that one has to learn continually in New Orleans." Yet it is precisely this indeterminacy that allows the story of this city to be embedded in the music. As Billy Sothern has remarked, "Here, the cultural synthesis of past and present creates a vibrancy and originality in our music that defies simple categorization, makes life interesting, and locates the culture squarely in New Orleans." And on that last point Treme is quite incisive, as its creators represent, on camera and via its soundtrack, the multiple genres and hybrid expressions, the vast array of performance sites and spaces, and the diverse audiences that make up the New Orleans music scene. It is to the show's credit that it showcases, playing themselves or in character, not only prominent jazz and brass band musicians, but also venerable RB stars like Irma Thomas, ex-underground rappers like the aforementioned Katey Red and Big Freedia and up-and-comers like Ace B (playing Lil Calliope), genre-bending bands like Bonerama, and those, like pop rock vocalist Susan Cowsill, who work in genres seldom included in celebratory genealogies of New Orleans music.

There are clearly modes of writing about music that play into the aforementioned distortions, but some post-Katrina authors have showed us how music can be deployed to explode neat, problematic narratives and assist in the process of remembering complicated histories and understanding the present and future through them. Clyde Woods calls the confrontation between the forces of oppression and social justice that we are forced to confront again in the post-Katrina era "the dialectic of Bourbonism and the Blues." And he shows how various musical expressions, from the colonial to the present, not only can be placed within this dialectic but also bear the traces of this history. The singing, dancing, and drumming at Congo Square, the blues, second lines, brass bands, jazz, Mardi Gras Indians, gospel, RB acts, and hip-hop all emerged out of a complicated social and cultural matrix and provided a mechanism from the eighteenth century to the present by which black New Orleanians in particular could challenge in direct and subtle ways the conditions and acts that threatened to dehumanize them. And Ruth Salvaggio shows us how music can disrupt the process of the intentional and unintentional forgetting of the traumas of the past. Building on comments by clarinetist Sidney Bechet, she describes the "long song," which is both carrier of and metaphor for an enduring cultural memory, rooted in the racial and sexual regimes of slavery, that cannot be fully repressed. "It's a song that keeps breaking through the seams of a tidy history built on selective erasures and national amnesia. We can keep tracing this song farther and farther back because it always precedes history.... [I]t is a song about a problem that won't go away, about a pain-wracked body that keeps reemerging throughout history, or in sweltering attics after a flood."

As one writes about New Orleans music in the present, one must confront the return of history in often unexpected ways in the post-Katrina moment. Watts's photographs address historical return, and I have found myself looking to them for evidence of the ruptures that expose multiple pasts brought to bear on our present and future. These images ask us to consider multiple layers of local history and the exposure of this history and its contradictions by Katrina. And there are the chaotic aspects of this history, too, evident in photos that show the helter-skelter ways that New Orleanians' life histories were jumbled together inside houses and tossed into the street by the water and reconstruction workers in the weeks after. Sometimes clarity about the past with present-day import can emerge from such chaos. For example, while peering into the bedroom of a busted home in the Lower Ninth Ward in 2006, the elegant framed bed and nightstand, forced upward at a slant by rubble that had floated into the room and settled underneath, reminded me (albeit in a distorted form) of the working-class elegance I came to know as a boy in the homes of grandparents and great aunts and uncles. It was a memory that spoke against the denigration, romantic victimization, and intrusive surveys (yes, we were implicated) of the neighborhood's fate while demanding a different way of telling their story. But the massive debris fields in the Lower Ninth, exposing as they did the complexities of people's lives, also remind the historian (of music, of other things) that to convey the story of history's return is tremendously difficult. But we must try.

So music, for better and for worse, is my vehicle for trying to write about New Orleans as a place and an idea. It is also my analytical and theoretical frame. I try to tread carefully because of the complexities of the scene, the political and cultural noise surrounding the music, the dangers of giving it too much attention, and the scholarly tendency toward distortion. But I enthusiastically take this on because I know that dissonance can be productive and quite beautiful. I am simultaneously jaded and naïve, but that seems the correct perspective when writing about New Orleans, its residents, its culture, and the ways they might help us choose the best direction to go as we stand at the crossroads.