SAVE OUR SOUND, FOUR YEARS LATER
Steve Biko said it best: greatest weapon of oppressors is the minds of the oppressed. Nonetheless, when it’s properly stimulated. Greatest weapon of the oppressed is a mental that’s been liberated. — Truth Universal “The More Things Change”
Nearing its 300th Anniversary, New Orleans has seen culture and policy debates both evolve and regress in a cyclical fashion. For example, although there are reports of street performances taking place during the early 1800s, this culturally-perpetuated tradition still remains a point of contention for buskers, law enforcement agents, city officials, and French Quarter businesses and citizens. Efforts to limit street performance pop up every few decades as well. More recently, similarly to the way the [Stacy] Head/Landrieu ABO Surveillance Ordinance was introduced in early December, an ordinance was introduced by Council members Head and Kristin Gisleson Palmer on December 19, 2013 that would have not only lowered permitted sound levels throughout much of the City, it would also have allowed noise complaints to be taken at the source of a sound-producing business’ property line (i.e., the property line of a bar or music venue), not from the complainant’s residence — which would have made it much easier to shut down any business for a noise violation and make hosting live music virtually impossible for many neighborhood clubs. In response, the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO) held meetings, disseminated information on why and how this ordinance would be harmful to the city’s creatives, and organized a collective resistance of various stakeholders to this piece of policy. The proposed noise ordinance was “toxic, non-inclusive, and poorly written” says Hannah Kreiger-Benson, MaCCNO’s Program Coordinator. “Things that seem innocuous or even good can be meant to silence people” she warns.
“It’s around people not getting paid what they’re worth and that frankly being something the city should own”
Musicians were already feeling the financial brunt of these political actions before the ordinance made it before the City Council. In a city where both service industry workers and musicians are still not earning a living wage, while $7.4 billion is accrued annually in tourism dollars, buskers were losing out on regular income. “Even just the conversation about the noise ordinance was impacting the way businesses were allowing live music to take place” adds Tamah Yisrael, artist rep and manager for Yisrael Records. The Yisrael Trio, a contemporary jazz group of Yisrael siblings, saw their relationship and financial opportunities with the French Market and surrounding areas impacted by the omens of what the sound ordinance brought with it. “We would do a few of those bars and venues on that street [Frenchmen]. People were fearful and my musicians were young. Their fear of hiring a younger group of musicians brought in a whole lot of stuff.” As a result, many musicians found themselves adapting to a new ecosystem, one which required some creativity to navigate and survive despite the obstacles presented. “It’s around people not getting paid what they’re worth and that frankly being something the city should own” said Sue Mobley, a former member of MaCCNO’s Planning and Advisory Committee.
With the Vieux Carre Property Owners Residents and Associates’ support (VCPORA), one of the oldest neighborhood advocacy organizations in the City, the City Council’s Housing and Human Needs Committee looked to pass the sound ordinance on Friday, January 17, 2014. In direct opposition, MaCCNO organized not only several speakers to provide public comment during the City Council meeting, but also a rally outside of City Hall where several hundred musicians mobilized and demanded the ordinance be withdrawn. “Twenty-four hours out from the planned rally and Council pulled the planned ordinance,” explains Mobley. “There was a moment where we [Hannah, Ethan Ellestad and I] were on the phone and Ethan suggested we cancel the rally because we had gotten a concession.” This created a bit of dilemma. Should MaCCNO celebrate their hard fought victory or continue on according to plan? At the urging of a fellow colleague, the coalition stayed the course. “It was a good call in a moment of uncertainty. We were out in Duncan Plaza the next morning and 500 people showed up” said Mobley. Like the image of Tracey Porter’s 4th quarter pick six in Super Bowl XLIV, we’ve just about all seen Michael DeMocker’s photo of Glen David Andrews leading a second line through City Hall. Each musician went single file through the metal detectors, brass instruments and all. Curious city employees came out of their offices and took part in the celebration. When asked about how that moment came to be, Mobley said she mentioned City Hall was public property to the Treme-based trombonist and “that was a valuable lesson. Don’t make jokes to Glen unless you mean it. I looked up two seconds later and he had moved the band and we were heading into City Hall.”
For many, the MaCCNO rally and accompanying second line changed the dynamics between constituent and political representative — drawing parallels to the various forms of resistance we’ve seen for the past year. Alex Woodward explains, “There’s two isolated things; there’s people and there’s government and everything in the middle just goes away. Here was a very physical vibe so when the band’s leading up to the doors, it became very real and actualized that sentiment of, ‘Oh, I have a stake in this. I’m getting my voice heard and then actually going and doing it.’ This kicked down any sort of cobweb between the people and the people who are representing them.” Similar sentiments of the Council’s disconnect were echoed by Yisrael: “I don’t think that they embraced the notion of what this proposal was doing to the community. I don’t think they understood the gravity of what the community around this issue looked like.”
Interestingly enough, almost four years later, we find ourselves in a similar predicament with an ordinance that will not only directly affect musicians and small businesses but ultimately, the city as a whole. An addition to the Mayor’s $40 million Security Plan announced this past January, the Head/Landrieu Ordinance looks to install 1,500 NOPD cameras outside of all ABOs (Alcohol Beverage Outlets), providing 24/7 surveillance footage that will be held for a minimum of two weeks and can also be used by the FBI and Department of Homeland Security. The rally and withdrawal of the VCPORA-supported sound ordinance by City Council members in 2014 provided a small victory that has been described as an “unusual and iconic moment.” Yet, “This is another example of where the process and the content are both terrible. It’s deeply harmful. The Head/Landrieu Surveillance Ordinance creates the same feeling of bewilderment” says Kreiger-Benson. Often, advocates of stricter regulations on street performance, live music, and public safety proclaim how much they love culture or provide anecdotal evidence about relatives that once played an instrument or performed with a band. In an attempt to provide a glimpse at the alternative, Woodward says “It’s this cycle and I don’t think there’s a common ground, but I want to say they’re well intentioned, but I know they have personal interests whereas an entire community has community interests.” Only time will tell if common ground can be reached between the creators of our culture and its benefactors. Ultimately, the more things change, the more they stay the same.