Facing the gray muck of New Orleans on a November morning, six-foot-high coffee stains marking the scars of the toxic waters with the words of Mark Oliver Everett in my ears: “It’s a beautiful morning/the sky is black as ink/The city’s sleeping still/soon they’ll wake up to the stink.” Refrigerators are everywhere, the new canvas of choice for graffiti and conceptual artists (“Gift for FEMA,” “Free hot food inside”), and the stink is most definitely waking us up. Other revelations indeed. “The garbage trucks are coming/to take your shit to the dump/ You’re smelling pretty now/such a pretty little lump.” The piles of debris are everywhere. Everyone’s laptops play downloads of “George Bush Don’t Like Black People.”
New Orleans, Louisiana
Irma Thomas’s “Back Water Blues” breaks my heart every time I hear Our New Orleans. She gives the Bessie Smith song an air of desperation, destruction, and human failure. The lyrics feel ripped out of the newscasts.
Little Rock, Arkansas
What does it mean that the Meters got their biggest airplay ever this summer, right before the Feds wrote off New Orleans as an entertainment expense? What does it mean that Ziggy Modeliste gave Amerie’s “1 Thing” the hottest air-drum solo since “Wipeout,” right before the wipeout? What does it mean that the Meters sample was “Oh, Calcutta!” written for the same Jacques Levy who once got his name in the songwriting credits for Bob Dylan’s “Hurricane”? How did such a sad song get so much sadder as the year went on? Why does Amerie sing like she felt it coming? Must be that 1 thing that’s got her tripping.
Brooklyn, New York
Mannie Fresh’s The Mind Of . . . is almost a comedy record, over-the-top wacky, and even though he makes fun of himself for doing it (just like he makes fun of himself for everything else), Mannie incorporates Southern soul music at least as beautifully as Kanye does. I also love the parts that go beyond Cash Money electrobeats into even bouncier Take Fo’ Records–style Ninth Ward party music, even (I swear) second-line Mardi Gras gumbo r&b territory, Lee Dorsey or “Hey Pocky Way” or “Iko Iko” or whatever it is. And though it’s only a coincidence that I voted for two New Orleans hip-hop albums the year of Katrina, I think Lil Wayne’s album is soul music too: celebratory and warmhearted (and catchy catchy catchy) before and after he finallymentions the hurricane, even during the get-money-fuck-bitches parts.
Sunnyside, New York
The hurricane that ate the Gulf Coast was horrible, and the fuckups that followed were mind-boggling. But it did have three welcome side effects: (1) We found Fats Domino, in body and in catalog. (2) Randy Newman’s song about Calvin Coolidge being a dick entered the discourse. (3) We were guaranteed a string of jaw-dropping response albums by the N.O. hip-hop contingent.
I wish I had something to say about Katrina. Much was said of the musicological/ historical devastation—key recordings, documents, venues, early instruments, etc., all giving insight into the roots of American music—but I’m not a musicologist. It scared me how little I cared about these losses—I’m not a pop-as-ephemera type, and I’m not on some “fuck the music, what about the human loss?” bit either. It’s less “how little I cared,” more “how little I knew,” and as a supposed music lover, my numbness embarrassed me.
All apologies to the Cash Money crew, but New Orleans has been dining out on its old stories since Ernie K-Doe’s mother-in-law was in pigtails. Having to relocate isn’t the worst thing that could happen to a musician. Is it any accident the most relevant Katrina song was written 30 years ago by N.O.-leavin’, L.A.-lovin’ Randy Newman?
Silver Spring, Maryland
Katrina made visible the underbelly of racism and poverty that New Orleans’s tourists’ Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest high-lifing failed to comprehend.
Two weeks after the levee broke, the New Birth Brass Band gave Katrina a New Orleans funeral in Houston, while Rebirth Brass Band played for the evacuees in Minneapolis, covering TLC’s “Waterfalls,” dedicating “It’s All Over Now” to Katrina, and riffing on the Gilligan’s Island theme (in homage to the late Bob Denver) as if to admit that there are worse things than surviving. “Katrina took my house, my car, every material thing from me,” said trumpet player Shamar Allen. “But the one thing she can’t take from me is my music.”
Peter S. Scholtes
My seven-year-old loves Kelly Clarkson, yet after Katrina she got deeply into New Orleans r&b, particularly Huey “Piano” Smith and Gris-Gris-era Dr. John. Stuff like “Sea Cruise” gave you hope that no matter how dire things were, the city of New Orleans, cradle of so much music, simply has to come back. We are not the same nation without it.
On my last night in New Orleans, I went for a stroll on Bourbon Street and experienced for the first time what it meant to be in a genuine music town. Live music poured out of every single bar on the strip. Cover versions of songs by artists as diverse as Rage Against the Machine, Tool, Young MC, Blondie, and Ike and Tina Turner could be heard. And never too far away were the sounds of jazz. The music of New Orleans has not been silenced. Thank God.
Los Angeles, California
Only a fool would fail to realize that the elegance and good humor of a man like
Allen Toussaint is an indictment of the blindness and total lack of culture displayed by George W. Bush. Bush is still there; America’s greatest city will likely never come back.
Hurricane Katrina and Kanye’s exuberantly upchucked analysis of Bush’s racial sympathies were what rocked my world the hardest in the ’05. Kanye’s more ambivalent attempt at reconciling his diamond collection and its weight in mutilated African children spoke volumes about the moral quicksand hip-hop’s been flopping around in since beats became synonymous with bling.
The government left an entire stadium full of black people to die. And it was broadcast on national TV so we could all watch. And we only get one rap song? And it’s an MP3?
Brooklyn, New York
Kanye doing “Jesus Walks” (and bearing down hard on “victims of welfare living in hell here, hell yeah”) worked; his triumphant “Touch the Sky” on the next telethon not so much. When David Banner played a Katrina benefit, he reached back to Mississippi: The Album, maybe the most relevant album of 2005. But nothing captured the problem better than the Game performing “Dreams” on the same broadcast: I can’t imagine all the homeless in Houston and here in Memphis and scattered all over the region were much interested in his desire to “fuck an r&b bitch.”
It was no surprise when U2 began performing “One” during the Katrina concert. But after Bono finished the first verse, the song went places it had never been before. Emerging from the shadows at the back and bringing the kind of comfort you only get from someone you’ve missed more than you realized, Mary J. Blige looked into the camera and asked—-her voice thick with a thousand others, all hard as fists—”Did I disappoint you?” With that she unlocked a rage in the song that Bono—even Johnny Cash—never got to. A verse later, the series of questions about forgiveness and raising the dead and playing Jesus made the song’s unnamed “you” plain as day. Because these weren’t questions anymore, they were indictments. And Mary was sending them directly to George’s door.
Ann Arbor, Michigan
My African spirit was murdered in the aftermath of Katrina, as my lost city was left prey to Bushite “benign” neglect and real estate carrion eaters. Kanye removed a few rusty arrows from my Brass Ankle corpse, but the ghosts of Marie Laveau 1e, Indian Jim, Lafcadio Hearn, Robert Tallent, Professor Longhair, and James Booker still parade through my mind. When the levees broke, so did my Creole, bluenote spirit, and I doubt it can ever be made whole again.
Kandia Crazy Horse
Greensboro, North Carolina