White goes on to explain how the two DJs found each other: “I started listening to Melissa’s show at least 20 years ago. On a Saturday night, whatever me and my roommates were doing at the house, we would always tune into the Soul Power show. Melissa’s kind of a legend. We finally made a connection and I started subbing her radio show when she was out of town. Over the years we’ve played together countless times, we talk music, records and everything else.” Their likemindedness is evident throughout our conversation. It’s refreshing to hear DJs with an effusive, unbridled enthusiasm for their home city. Rather than adhering to an outside aesthetic of what their city represents to garner popularity, or play ‘what the people want’ from New Orleans, they’re on a quest to dismantle the pigeonholing and reductionism surrounding what New Orleanian music really means, both to inside and outside listeners.
New Orleans musicians and creatives face a struggle when it comes to developing culture and getting new music out there. Coming from a place with such a rich and well-known history, it’s sometimes difficult to break away from the image of what New Orleanian music should look and sound like. This is a notion that will be familiar to any sort of jazz fan. I once met a music journalist who thought that all jazz performance was merely historical reenactment (I know), and it seems that in a place so crucial to the development of jazz (and many other genres) this purist ideal is even more prevalent. Weber says: “There are some old-schoolers or hard-liners that will say that contemporary New Orleans music is not New Orleans music, and it is time to change that narrative.” White adds (referring to Weber’s academic work), “Melissa, you’re in this work every day so you experience it, I think, in an extreme way, it’s definitely an old-guard kind of protection of a certain version of New Orleans that might not have even been historically true, but is sort of the tale that’s told to the outside.”
The damaging effects of attempting to perpetuate a certain image of the city, the one that music fans might glimpse through books or documentaries, or students through academic literature, is illustrated by a key point that Weber makes about Mardi Gras Indians (also called Black Masking Indians) in New Orleans. She says: “What about the 79rs Gang? That’s a synergy of the traditional Mardi Gras Indian music with contemporary sound, done by young people in their own way. I’ve seen some postings where people are saying that it’s not real New Orleans music, but it’s created by the Black Masking Indians themselves! We don’t need to tell them what their music is.” The extract on the 79rs Gang Bandcamp page reads “Big Chief Romeo from the 9th Ward and Big Chief Jermaine from the 7th Ward put their territorial differences aside to make beautiful music,” describing the friendship between two wards and inspiring togetherness, their newest album combines traditional Mardi Gras sounds with modern production. Adapting traditional music for the present day–perhaps out of personal expression, perhaps out of conservation efforts to popularise (even more than already) traditional music for new generations–couldn’t be more New Orleanian in spirit, yet those negative voices are still out there.
These purist ideals are also hurtful for the New Orleans club scene, which despite having a huge impact internationally, is overshadowed by the notion that New Orleans is for jazz and second line and thats it. White says, “With New Orleans rap music and bounce, then we have a lot of hardcore New Orleans rap like Cash Money and No Limit. Now people know it more, but these are all part of the same organic origins of New Orleans music. New Orleans music has constantly evolved and changed and grown — it’s a dynamic thing but it’s not always necessarily reached as wide.” One can only hope that this discouragement is ineffective against new artists and ignored by record labels.