PHOTO BY ALEX WOODWARD
Baby Dolls parading in 2017.
While the New Orleans Saints kicked off their 2017 season, a crowd filled the Carver Theater Sept. 11 to hear how eight mayoral candidates plan to protect musicians and artists as the city and its cultural communities brace for another bout.
Moderator Lolis Eric Elie said music and cultural policy is "one of the most important and least discussed aspects" of the campaign. Candidates largely agreed that a lack of affordable housing as well as inequitable event fees and unsustainable payouts for gigs have threatened artists' and their families' abilities to live in New Orleans.
All candidates agreed to change the fee structures for parades and events for social aid and pleasure clubs and masking groups and echoed a “music is not a crime” mantra, though each had different ideas for ensuring protections for musicians and workers in a cultural economy and how they’d be represented at City Hall under their respective administrations.
Hosted by The Ella Project, Offbeat Media and The Recording Academy
, the forum was part of a movement among advocacy groups that have begun to shift from proactive rather than reactive policy — compared to previous administrations, which were met with fierce opposition throughout debates over the noise ordinance, permitting and street performance controversies, and the proliferation of new residents displacing longtime locals. Panelists at the forum asked the candidates not only for their takes on issues facing the industries bringing in significant tourist dollars but how they plan to fix them.
Asked what current city policies affecting musicians are “problematic,” candidates pointed to a range of problems, from the dormant noise ordinance and its application and rules governing street performers to housing and the costs of living and working as a musician.
LaToya Cantrell — who voted against an updated version of a sound ordinance in 2014 — said the one on the books is unenforceable “and when it is, it’s heavy-handed.” Desiree Charbonnet agreed (“I don't even know why it's there if it's not enforceable,” she said).
Ed Bruski cautioned against the impacts of gentrification — “people coming to our city and changing our culture” and “people moving next to a bar and complaining it’s too loud.”
Tommie Vassel said workers in the cultural economy face disparities that significantly impact their incomes. Vassel argued visitors can hire a second line at a lower price and with significant police protection, compared to the permitting and costs faced by social aid and pleasure clubs to parade in their own neighborhoods.
“Musicians have been neglected,” said Troy Henry, who repeated calls for better organization among musicians, who he says “hold all the leverage.” Henry said the city should help musicians organize — not necessarily as a “monolithic entity,” but as a means to get out of cycle of “musician poverty” by treating musicians as small businesses that can access business development resources the same as any other.
“The industry has been devalued,” said Byron Cole, who argued for musicians to earn a guaranteed pay and challenged the racial biases in selective enforcement of music-related issues like permits and the street performance curfew. “We have to discuss that there's a color line in how the city treats performers.”
Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s administration has asserted an existing curfew for street performers (from 8 p.m. to 9 a.m.) won’t be enforced, as it’s likely unconstitutional for singling out musical instruments rather than any other sound-making thing. When asked whether candidates agreed that the curfew should be lifted, several discussed the city’s curfew for children under age 16 — though they agreed musicians shouldn’t be arrested for playing music.
(Michael Bagneris says curfew arrests reinforce the school to prison pipeline. “By and large it's a parental problem, not a criminal problem,” he said.)
Candidates had different ideas for reducing fees for parading and masking groups and how other city organizations could help subsidize their costs.
“We should be giving more on that front end to make it easier for them to be a part of the culture and also to live,” Cantrell said.
Charbonnet said the New Orleans Convention and Visitors Bureau should “chip in” for those permits. "It's a drop in the bucket for them,” she said.
“We've been treated by city like walking ATMs,” Henry said. "We're being fee-d to death."
Bagneris said he’s want to “totally relieve” social aid and pleasure clubs from those expenses and pitched the Jazz & Heritage Foundation as their potential funding mechanism.
Bruski said those fees should be lowered but have meaningful, visible impacts, like paying for street sweepers to clean up after parades.
But significant and enshrined reform at City Hall between officials and the “culture” they lean on to drive the economy may require liaisons in city government, candidates argued.
Charbonnet said the city’s Office of Cultural Economy needs a person running it “to speak your language” and who “knows what you're going through.” Charbonnet said the people, not the mayor, should serve as ambassador to the city’s culture.
Cantrell said the Office of Cultural Economy should remain but “be retooled,” with liaisons as go-betweens for masking groups, second lines and krewes.
Vassel said he’d select a committee representing cultural groups to work with him at City Hall, and Bruski said he’d call for a volunteer-run committee. Cole said the office should be dissolved and bureaucracy removed between City Hall and music and cultural groups.
In the middle of the forum, Black Men of Labor co-founder Fred Johnson advised candidates to “take some time outside your schedule” to better understand the communities they represent. “You can't govern something you don't know about,” he said. “I don't see our leaders supporting the culture you like to flaunt.”
He warned of the pervasive influence of new residents who moved to New Orleans under the pretense of “I love it” but who call the police “when the band strikes up.” But when they need a band for a backyard party, “Guess who’s playing?” he said.