Three consciences of New Orleans: Kanye West, Lil' Wayne and Wendell Pierce
As artists continue to respond to Hurricane Katrina, three voices embody what we think and feel about the damage and its aftermath
"Some Hope and Some Despair" was the title of a fanzine produced by the late Austin musician Lance Hahn. A good punk music and culture 'zine, its title reflected its world view.
That's not a bad summary of much of the popular art about Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath: There's a little hope and a lot of despair.
An Austin production of "Porgy and Bess" referenced Katrina-ravaged New Orleans. Josh Neufeld's graphic novel "A.D.: New Orleans After the Deluge" is top-flight comics reportage, while the recently published "Dark Rain: A New Orleans Story," by writer Mat Johnson and illustrator Simone Gane, is a noir involving a thinly disguised private security firm that of course bears no resemblance to Blackwater.
The nonprofit activist group Air Traffic Control and the Future of Music Coalition have produced "Dear New Orleans," a digital benefit compilation for the people of the Gulf. It includes such artists as My Morning Jacket, Indigo Girls, and the Wrens.
But over the past five years, three entertainers have embodied what we think about when we think about the destruction of the levees and the aftermath. They expressed what many were feeling watching footage of people trapped in the New Orleans Superdome - the babies without diapers, the elderly without water. It looked as if an entire population was being written off.
Two are global music superstars who aren't from New Orleans, one is an actor who is. One was the first to speak his mind on national TV. One rapped about it over and over. One told his family's story, then returned to the city to create fiction that might resemble real life.
As time moves on, it is hoped, those hope and despair ratios will switch.
Katrina hit on Aug. 29, 2005. Within hours, images of the devastation were seen around the world.
On Sept. 2, NBC Universal broadcast the Concert for Hurricane Relief, a celebrity-packed benefit concert. Participants included Faith Hill, Tim McGraw and organizer Harry Connick Jr. Hosts included Hilary Swank, Richard Gere, Lindsay Lohan and Glenn Close.
But the only thing anyone remembers is Kayne West, though they don't remember the first half of his speech, which was very much not on the teleprompter. Here's some of it:
"I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, `They're looting.' You see a white family, it says, `They're looking for food' … So anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can help - with the way America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible. I mean, the Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way - and they've given them permission to go down and shoot us!"
No, what they remember is him standing next to Mike Myers, who was looking a little scared, like he expected the crack of a sniper any second. Myers read something scripted, then West, as if to sum up what he just said, blurted, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
The comment resonated as widely as anything he ever rapped, produced or Tweeted.
With its ability to turn on a dime, hip-hop moved first.
West's comment inspired "George Bush Don't Like Black People" by Houston's the Legendary K.O., perhaps the first post-Katrina protest song.
It fused the melody of West's "Golddigger" with lines such as "Hurricane came through, (expletive) us up round here/ Government acting like it's bad luck down here" and "People lives on the line, you declining to help/ Since you taking so much time we surviving ourselves."
Some singers turned to the past. Many, including Marcia Ball, covered Randy Newman's downright visionary "Louisiana 1927," often morphing the lyrics to suit the storm.
Some songs were a little more obtuse. Jimmy Buffett's "Breathe In, Breathe Out, Move On" urged calm: "If a hurricane doesn't leave you dead/ It will make you strong/ Don't try to explain it, just nod your head/ Breathe in, breathe out, move on." (No, thanks, Jimmy.)
Only hip-hop stayed on-message. Consider Brooklyn rapper Papoose's brutal "Mother Nature" ("How can I rap about my life and claim honor?/ When people out in New Orleans don't have water").
The most direct indictments came from New Orleans-native Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., aka Lil Wayne. Check out his 2006 mixtape cut "Georgia Bush" ("This song is dedicated to the one wit the suit/ Thick white skin and his eyes bright blue. … The white people smiling like everything cool/ But I know people that died in that pool/ I know people that died in them schools.")
Wayne's 2008 cut "Tie My Hands" is less direct, but alternates between despair ("Some say tragedy's hard to get over/ But sometimes that tragedy means it's over") and hope ("Yes I know the process is so much stress/ But it's the progress that feels the best").
He even pulled his own Kanye earlier this year at a press conference for a Haiti-benefit remake of Michael Jackson's "We Are the World." "I think it's amazing what's been done for Haiti, but I also think it's amazing what hasn't been done for New Orleans." He didn't take questions, but everyone pretty much knew where he stood.
From Bunk to Batiste
For folks who watch a lot of HBO and a little CNN, one actor has represented post-Katrina New Orleans with honor and guts: Wendell Pierce.
Most people first saw Pierce on HBO's "The Wire." Pierce played the smart, extremely funny Bunk Moreland, a first-rate "murder police."
But Pierce is also a New Orleans native who grew up in Pontchartrain Park, the first black, middle-class subdivision in New Orleans, an area nearly destroyed by Katrina.
It took Pierce's parents nearly three months to return to his childhood home. "When we pulled up to the house, I'll never forget my father saying, `Well, maybe it's not that bad, maybe it's not that bad,'" Pierce said in the CNN documentary "New Orleans Rising." "And then he got out of the car, and he broke down, because he knew it was."
In Spike Lee's 2006 HBO documentary "When the Levees Broke," Pierce talks about having to tell his father that, after 50 years of insurance premiums, his house would not be covered - Pierce and his siblings essentially had to tell him en masse so they would be able to stop him from hurting himself or anyone else. "The insurance companies: There's a special, special circle in hell for them," he says. It's among the most powerful moments from anyone you might be able to call a celebrity. (Pierce also participated in Lee's sequel, "If God is Willing and Da Creek Don't Rise," which recently debuted on HBO.)
Earlier this year, Pierce appeared in the first season on "Treme," the new series from "Wire" producer David Simon. The series has received mixed notices. Some think its meandering style could make it more powerful than "The Wire"; some find it exhausting and its focus on stereotypically New Orleans music tedious. You would be forgiven for thinking, watching "Treme," that no rock or country and very little hip-hop was produced in New Orleans. (I would love to see a character based on, say, Mike Williams, singer of the wildly influential New Orleans metal band Eyehategod, a junkie who didn't have a car when the storm hit. He and his girlfriend "acquired" one five days later, were arrested on drug charges, and Williams detoxed in jail - David Simon, call me.)
But even naysayers love Pierce, who plays trombone player Antoine Batiste. A player who bounces between his ex-wife (Khandi Alexander) and his girlfriend (Phyllis Montana LeBlanc, a New Orleans non-actress who was nevertheless a riveting interviewee in "When the Levees Broke"), Batiste is the musician who lives hand to mouth, especially since the hurricane smashed his house to bits.
In "New Orleans Rising," we see Pierce as the newly minted president of Pontchartrain Park Neighborhood Association, a group trying to spur development in his old neighborhood. Pierce doesn't come off as merely the public face (the dude's not that famous). He seems like the real thing - a concerned citizen who decided to organize on behalf of the place he loved, talking to banks and builders, the city and the players. He's in this for the long haul. "Pontchartrain Park is a labor of love," he says. "It is my community. It is my home. And I would do every and anything to make sure it's restored. I need to rebuild because we are a family. Nothing counts so much as family."