New Orleans is magic. You either get that or you don’t, so I won’t waste time trying to pull the proverbial rabbit out of a hat if you fall into the latter camp. Unfortunately not all wizards are forces for good, and for every Dumbledore there’s a host of house elves scrubbing floors and cooking meals behind the scenes.
Harry Potter references aside, New Orleans is a city that has recently been in the spotlight. The political seeds planted by national attention over the removal of Confederate statues during the summer gave way to an autumn harvest that progressive groups like The New Orleans Hospitality Workers Committee and The New Orleans People’s Assembly hoped to capitalize on.
In the midst of this climate of urgent organizing for the rights of those who keep the gears of New Orleans turning, one group perhaps most necessary to the city’s influx of tourist cash and central to its soul has struggled to find the same unity as others. Many of the city’s musicians feel a sense of struggle and loss as the industry moves in a more standardized, commercial, and anti-union direction. To understand more about this unique scene I spoke with University of New Orleans jazz student, cultural activist, and drummer of Vexed Perspective, Joey van Leeuwen.
van Leeuwen has an impressive resume of incorporating music in activism. When speaking about a march he participated in with the New Orleans Hospitality Workers Committee he touched on the significance of brass bands during protests, “A brass band lends the credibility of New Orlean’s culture. It’s highly visible and it’s a traditional art form that carries with it a lot of power…brass band music is used a lot in protests here because it represents a freedom that simultaneously is engrained in tradition as well”.
The idea of tradition becomes striking in the context of the New Orleans’ music scene when one considers the history of the Big Easy. While van Leeuwen made it clear that musicians in the city are becoming more skilled as the years go by, it may matter less in terms of the cultural authority they have. According to van Leeuwen this is partly because the standardization of the music has allowed for musicians to become interchangeable, and thus more expendable. One need only look at the changes to iconic Bourbon Street to understand. “Bourbon Street used to feature jazz seven nights a week. There used to be jazz playing in every club. It wasn’t this top 40 music or whatever. That’s a new development.”
While there’s nothing wrong with top 40 (we all have our guilty pleasures) it’s important to understand that the change in genre that feels so complete on Bourbon Street, and has steadily expanded to other music centers like Frenchman Street, is linked to other dimensions of New Orleans. As van Leeuwen pointed out, “The artistic development of New Orleans mirrors the economic development, and not always in a positive direction. We lose all our power as working musicians. It’s not just our economic power, but our political power.”
This loss of power from the music community should probably not come as a surprise. In a city where artists still remember the days when clubs used to be licensed by unions (days sadly long gone), many musicians now feel the extreme opposite. Some venues such as Bamboula’s on Frenchman have experimented with the pay-to-play model more commonly associated with strip clubs than music venues.
While it may be hard not to feel the frustration that such a loss of status can cause, van Leeuwen urges musicians to remember not only their responsibilities as activists, but also the enormous power they hold as the culture-bearers of the city, “Artists need to take responsibility because we are also gatekeepers, each one of us. We hold the secret to understanding human emotions and how to bring people into feelings they may not have expected.” This comes in many forms. Van Leeuwen’s own band Vexed Perspective has a heavy focus on the global worth of all people, as made apparent from the seemingly endless array of styles that their music draws on.
Some people may think it’s hard for musicians to convey their ideas about the world. After all, a chord progression can only do so much. However, this overlooks the environment that musicians can create. It’s not just about the notes. It’s about the space they occupy. Even with van Leeuwen, it was impossible not to learn something broader about the world during our conversation. Little nuggets like this were espoused casually, “There are lots of people who couldn’t point to Myanmar on a map, that don’t know about this genocide that’s happening right now of the Rohingya people there, and we’re trying to bring awareness to those things while at the same time creating music that entertains people. Part of our mission is basically positive propaganda.”
After getting over my initial guilt at being one of the geography-dunces who had not heard of the Rohingya, I realized that conversations on topics like this are sure to ensue in spaces where bands like Vexed Perspective play, and that’s not something you can easily find in the politically-sanitized spaces of top 40 dominated Bourbon Street. While the future of New Orleans’ music scene may be far from certain, as long as we have artists like van Leeuwen and Vexed Perspective I’m more than happy to listen to positive propaganda.
Vexed Perspective is currently making an album to be released in summer 2018. Stay tuned to find their 2018 scheduled tour dates.
Follow Vexed Perspective HERE