Culture and Conquest

The cover story of April's Antigravity Magazine was my interview with New Orleans bounce rap legend Ricky B. He and Bigalow were great company, and rather than type up the interview as we talked (as I usually do) I recorded the audio of the conversation, and then transcribed it.

This entailed hearing a recording of my own voice for the first time in a while, and it was humbling to say the least. Whether it's cause or effect, part of being a writer is that I express myself best in writing, ideally after two or three drafts. I don't like public speaking (listening to it or doing it), I'm not a live performer as such-- I like to be at my desk, at a keyboard, writing. I know this is not an experience unique to me, but hearing how I sounded on that recording was horrific. Stammering, adenoidal, ineloquent to the point of incoherence... it was one long wince. What I'd remembered as a very natural, comfortable and informal conversation sounded on tape more like a Sasha Baron Cohen skit, where the tension is just how terrible the interviewer can get before the interview subjects catch on they're being pranked.

Regardless, since the bulk of my recent non-fiction entails savaging people and things I find terrible, it was rewarding to write something positive, and try to help elevate the profile of a musician I admire.

The bigger reward, though, was seeing Ricky B perform later that month at the Blue Nile, joined onstage by the Stooges Brass Band... and Big Chief Brian Harrison Nelson of the Guardians of the Flame. In a time when culture is treated as a disposable commodity, seeing the love and respect that the Stooges had for local hip-hop pioneer Ricky B-- a man many of them had grown up listening to-- was a reminder of why New Orleans is worth fighting for. This is a city that values culture, that respects and celebrates its history. Then, when Big Chief Nelson emerged onto the already crowded stage, resplendent in his feathered suit and attended by a retinue of other Indians, an already awesome moment crossed the threshold into something transcendent.

It is moments such as those that allow me to believe New Orleans can survive the onslaughts of capitalism and modernity, just as she's survived poverty, exploitation, centuries of occupation by various imperial powers as well as the disasters-- floods, oil, destruction of affordable housing-- that those powers have wrought. I'm a New Orleans exceptionalist: I really do believe this city is different.

Many have thought they knew the secret to resisting the crushing homogenizing superforce of global capitalism, and history has so far proved all of them wrong, with a couple notable exceptions (mostly in the mountains of Afghanistan), but my belief in New Orleans is not rational. It's a religious conviction, grounded in the power she seems to have over those who live here, grounded in the feelings I experience in a good second line or at the Blue Nile that night in April. It's a belief that exists outside of economics, outside of politics. I believe she cannot be conquered.

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