Can't Go Home
Music television's first hard look at New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina might startle anyone who hasn't seen images from the drained city. The video for Juvenile's "Get Ya Hustle On" shows a Lower Ninth Ward laid waste by flooding. It looks, as Juvenile said after he visited the neighborhood, "like someone dropped a bomb, and it's the end of the world."
The video follows three young boys through residential ruins. They find a cardboard box with three masks: of President Bush, Vice President Cheney, and Mayor C. Ray Nagin. On the faceless side are the words "Help is coming." The boys put on the masks and go walking, Nagin behind the others, Bush dragging the box. In the periphery, residents hold up homemade signs: "You already forgot" and "Still here." When the boys reach a deserted drawbridge, they throw what's still in the box over the side. Empty water bottles tied to parachutes sail downward, landing in the dirt next to other debris. The children watch, and then disappear.
In an era when rap videos aren't supposed to be political, "Get Ya Hustle On" is dreamlike street theater. Yet it's also a document: Months after Juvenile shot the video with director Ben Mor in December, the Lower Ninth Ward looks pretty much the same. On the afternoon of February 27, my girlfriend and I drive over the bridge on North Claiborne into what looks like a ghost town. There are cars on fences, houses blown into the middle of the street, and no working stoplights for miles. Spray-painted signs include: "No bulldozing," "No trespassing," "R.I.P. Fats: You will be missed."
Elsewhere, New Orleans is alive. Rap radio advertises a Mardi Gras Bounce Back party and plays Juvenile's oddly mournful "Rodeo." Uptown students host "chocolate" parties, in parody of a recent statement by Nagin about keeping the city's black majority. A volunteer-run Common Ground relief camp in the Upper Ninth Ward offers "free lawyers" and other services to returning residents. But there's no equivalent federal effort. The Mardi Gras Index, published the following day by Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch, is a shameful document of a stalled rebuilding. In the face of inadequate levee improvements, shuttered schools, and other disasters, only 156,000 residents have returned home from a pre-Katrina population of 484,000. Some 75 percent of those living in flood areas were black. Half were renters.
"They're doing everything in their power to keep people from coming back," says Asali DeVan, a coordinator for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival, speaking about federal leaders in her shotgun duplex in the Tréme neighborhood. "It's just as simple as this: Right now, there are lights and power in St. Bernard Parish, which was hit just as bad as the Ninth Ward. You have to drive through the dark Ninth Ward to a lighted St. Bernard Parish. That's nothing but political. They don't want the people to vote."
This is what Barney Frank has called "a policy of ethnic cleansing by inaction," and the response from many liberals has been self-fulfilling pessimism—Tim Harford in Slate takes the failed tourist economy for granted, while Elizabeth Kolbert in the New Yorker conflates geological inevitability with manmade folly in sinking Louisiana. Many conservatives, meanwhile, shirk federal responsibility for the floods. Either way, the reality of the New Orleans that I knew when I lived here—that the overwhelming majority of residents worked, and worked hard, in exactly the kinds of jobs most needed to rebuild—seems lost on most American leaders.
And what do New Orleans rappers have to say? Not much. Juvenile lost a house on Lake Pontchartrain, and astutely sets the video for "Get Ya Hustle On" in the home-owning, blue-collar Lower Ninth rather than his Magnolia projects stamping ground. Yet his lyrics bond with the only day laborers hip hop romanticizes. "To all my people on them corners I consider ya as dogs," Juve rasps, adding, "I wish I could break a package down and send it to y'all." In case you were wondering what kind of package he means, he adds: "Everybody need a check from FEMA/So he can go and score him some co-ca-ina."
Dealers have families, too, of course. But pre-Katrina life in the N.O. was more complex than Juvenile's largely pre-storm Reality Check (Atlantic) would suggest, at least to judge by Nik Cohn's 2005 memoir Triksta: Life & Death & New Orleans Rap (Knopf). Though the late Soulja Slim is held up by many as a thug's folk hero (Juvenile dedicates his album to him, as well as to "the victims of Hurricane Katrina"), gangster rappers overwhelmingly work long hours at square jobs—in construction, roofing, teaching. Where are the bounce anthems for bricklayers?
On Mardi Gras morning, DeVan joins a parade outside her house as the neighborhood awakens to the sound of drums near St. Augustine, the oldest black Catholic church in the country. Congo Nation Big Chief Donald Harrison Jr., a jazz saxophonist from the Upper Ninth, leads the drummers in full black-feather dress. DeVan holds a sign with a photo of Harrison's late father, Donald Sr., a Big Chief of four Mardi Gras Indian tribes, who carried forward a tradition dating back a hundred years, in homage to the Native Americans who once aided runaway slaves.
In his own bit of street theater, the Big Chief acts out a confrontation with a man in skull makeup, mocking Death to his face: "I'll make the sun come out in the middle of a hurricane."
That afternoon, as we drive north out of New Orleans through a landscape of trees without branches, WWOZ-FM (90.7) broadcasts the street party from the Tréme. Amid clattering drums, a deep male voice leads the crowd in song: "Calling all my people/Come back home/New Orleans/Where you belong."
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