In the days after Katrina, Cyril Neville hit every button possible. During “From the Big Apple to the Big Easy” benefit concert, he wore a handmade T-shirt that read, “Ethnic Cleansing in New Orleans.” A few months later during a promotional stop in Chicago as a part of Arlo Guthrie’s City Called New Orleans whistle stop benefit tour (for New Orleans), he gave an interview during which he declared, “A lot of things about life in New Orleans were a myth,” and though he never said what he meant, the words hit hard. He continued, “Would I go back to live? There’s nothing there. And the situation for musicians was a joke. People thought there was a New Orleans music scene—there wasn’t. You worked two times a year: Mardi Gras and Jazz Fest. The only musicians I knew who made a living playing music in New Orleans were Kermit Ruffins and Pete Fountain. Everyone else had to have a day job or go on tour. I have worked more in two months in Austin than I worked in two years in New Orleans.”
Those acts made him notorious in New Orleans, someone whose name provokes bitter, angry responses even today. The fact that there’s a lot of truth in what he said doesn’t seem to mitigate things. Katrina might not have been “ethnic cleansing” per se, but there is no plan to bring home the countless poor African Americans who were flown out of town and don’t have the wherewithal to afford a move home. With the demolition of projects, those that return will have a hard time finding a place to live. The projected mixed income neighborhoods that will replace the projects will offer 744 lower income units, down from the 4,600 that existed pre-Katrina. The recent election ushered in the first white-majority City Council in two decades, suggesting that African Americans are no longer the voting majority in the city.
It’s now two years later and Neville hopes to be in house in Gentilly in time for Jazz Fest, which he’ll play for the first time since Katrina in 2008. He has performed in the area a handful of times since the storm, including benefit dates as part of the Voice of the Wetlands All-Stars, Tab Benoit’s wetlands awareness organization. He’ll also be a part of our Best of the Beat Saturday, January 12 at the House of Blues. Now as ever, he has a lot on his mind.
How’s Austin treating you?
Pretty good, man. It’s a nice town. A lot of nice people starting with Marcia Ball. She was really, really instrumental in helping us get settled here. Not just us, but a lot of people. And Marcia and her husband are still doing things to help out individuals. It wasn’t just her giving money to large organizations; it was always in the individual’s hands who needed it.
I heard you’re working on your house here.
I’ve been working on the house since not too long after the storm. Like everybody else, we’ve been through the mill, man. We’ve been ripped off by unsavory contractors. We’ve had all the copper ripped from underneath the inside of the house, twice. That’s the road to recovery. I’m sure not alone in that. It’s not being made as easy as a lot of people outside of New Orleans think it’s being made for people to come home.
I don’t expect anybody to really understand how I’ve really felt. The last gig I played in New Orleans before Katrina was at the Ernie K Doe’s Mother-in-Law Lounge. When we went to bed [the night before the storm], they said that New Orleans had dodged another bullet. We get up the next morning, and the first thing I see on TV is the Mother-in-Law Lounge underwater. That just ripped my heart out. Then I recognized some people walking through that water. That was one of the most heart-wrenching experiences for all of us. This is an ongoing thing.
When we first came here, a lot of us were close around each other. Big Chief Kevin Goodman of the Flaming Arrows was here and Ivan [Neville] was here, a bunch of different people from New Orleans. We were living close to each other, the same way we were living in New Orleans. Then all of a sudden we’re all spread out all over again. This is an ongoing scenario, the aftermath of Katrina, you know?
The bottom line is that I’ve seen several places that have written that I left New Orleans. No, I was chased out of New Orleans by the storm like everybody else. Up until then, for 57 years, I lived and struggled in New Orleans by choice. Basically, the only thing that could have gotten me out of New Orleans is a disaster that destroyed everything.
I know you’ve have become the lightning rod since the storm, but you have done stuff like Voice of the Wetlands benefits, and you were on Arlo Guthrie’s City of New Orleans train, raising awareness, right?
Exactly. I was on that train and on that tour with Arlo Guthrie raising money for Katrina victims when I was interviewed in the train station at Chicago. Some of the things that I said were printed correctly, and some things were sensationalized, I’ll put it like that.
But you said them, right?
What I will say about that is, I’ve got big regrets for whatever hurt feelings from anything I said at that time. What I’m feeling and have felt is that that was the wrong time to say some of the things I said. But I had been saying those same things 10 years before Katrina ever came, and that doesn’t change the truth of what I was saying. But I reiterate that I regret any hurt feelings that my words may have caused. And not once, anywhere at anytime, did I disparage the people of New Orleans because I am one of the people of New Orleans.
I love New Orleans. Everything about me as far as an entertainer and as far as an individual is concerned, was forged right there in New Orleans. I came of age during the ’60s. I was 12 years old in 1960 when the second battle of New Orleans started for the desegregation of the schools. That was the pressure cooker that I came up in the ’60s and ’70s. Even though I caught holy hell, I still love New Orleans. That’s my home. Always has been and always will be. You can take me out of New Orleans, but you can never take New Orleans out of me. I still wake up at 3:30 in the morning almost three years down the line from Katrina wishing I could get up like I used to get up and drive to Orleans and Claiborne to get me some wings, or drive to the gas station around the corner and get me two Hubig’s Pies.
I’ve been in the process ever since of doing anything and everything I can to help people who want to come back home, come back home. At the same time with Big Chief Kevin and me and the other people, we’re trying to keep a sense of community wherever we are. That spirit of New Orleans; that is the root of the cultural gumbo, which is the Mardi Gras Indians and the social and pleasure clubs, all of that stuff we’re trying to keep that going wherever we are.
The thing is, much of what you said has been proved right.
You’re going to print yourself saying that?
This is not the first time this happened. We went through this when they pulled the St. Thomas and part of the Magnolia. I grew up in the Calliope Project. The Dixie Cups come form the Calliope Project, Master P and his brothers come from the Calliope Project. I just saw on the Internet a video of a lady walking with her baby in a stroller through what’s left of the St. Bernard Project describing what it was like before the storm and how much she would like to have that again for her children, and looking at those places boarded up like that and knowing that the money that was spent to board those places up could’ve been spent to bring people home, why aren’t people as angry about that as they are with me? When people talked about looting, what about the millions of dollars that were supposed to come to the people of New Orleans that were diverted to all of these corporations, and everything that has not really done what they said they were going to do for the people? Where is the outrage?
It seems like people would rather complain about you than to talk about how our government has subcontracted out the job of rebuilding the city.
Is it my fault, or is anything I’ve said in any article at any time the cause of all of those people sleeping in tents across the street from City Hall or underneath overpasses? Did anything I said cause millions of dollars to disappear? I just hope that the present administration, the board that they have now, and the new government that they have now does the right thing for the people.
Do you think people were upset because you, as a New Orleanian, sounded like you had given up on the city?
As I said before about that, at the point I was being interviewed, I was on a tour raising money for New Orleans. The question was: “What happened to your home?” I lost everything; there was six feet of water in my house. The next question was, “Are you going back?” Motherf…Go back to what? I just told you I had six feet of water in my house. I lost everything. Basically having said that, I’ll say again, anything that caused any pain for anybody, I regret that. But it still doesn’t change the fact that the playing field in New Orleans for local musicians has never been easy. It isn’t even now, it wasn’t before the storm, and nobody wanted to talk about before the storm and nobody talks about it now.
What do you mean?
I was involved all the way back in 1983 or ’84 with a group called New Orleans Musicians Organized put together by me George Green, Roger Poche, and Charles Moore to teach local musicians the business. Basically, that’s how long me and other cats had been getting involved with our own situation, trying to forge better relationships with club owners and just trying to get a fairer shake. That evolved later on into something that myself, Tuba Fats, Anthony Lacen, and Fred Sheppard and some of the other cats from Treme Brass band and from Rebirth were doing a thing called the New Orleans Music Cultural Preservatory on the third floor at the Fontainebleau building. Basically myself, Tuba Fats, James Andrews, and a bunch of other musicians were getting together, not just to teach about notes, but those older guys would sit there and talk to the younger guys to tell them how things were when they were coming up in the music business in New Orleans. What to look out for, what to sign, what not to sign, and things like that. The playing field has never been even. You can go all the way back to Louis Armstrong days; you can go back even before then.
Is the situation regarding pay for musicians that different here from other cities?
If you’re local, it doesn’t make any difference where you are at; you’re local. There are no mechanisms locally to help you get to the next level. You’re in the same boat people are in everywhere. You have to build yourself to the point where you are attractive enough to draw crowds other than where you live. It’s no different anywhere. It’s like the same thing with the stuff about the jobs in America that no Americans will do, so you have to get other people outside of America to do them. When in reality, if you paid Americans, or anybody for that matter, a decent wage, you wouldn’t have that problem.
Do you think people don’t understand what is happening or don’t want to understand?
I think it’s a combination. You have a lot of people who care but can’t do anything about it other than write into their congressman, which is a good thing to do. Then there are other people who are in organizations that are striving to do things to make change that are being met with resistance from all sides. Then there are people who always sit back and say when you guys get it together, I’m in.
I wonder if people don’t want to deal with the knowledge that the government has got out of the helping business.
What we’re talking about is not just happening in New Orleans. It’s not just happening in this country; it’s happening all over the world. We’re just living in those times, and there needs to be a spiritual revival because that is the only thing that will bring people together to the point where we can see past skin color, we can see past class, we can see past tax brackets. Then we will be able to come together and as Martin Luther King said to live like a family because if we don’t we die together as fools.
New Orleans, since Katrina, has had a good chance to guide the rest of the nation as to how do you treat your people after such a traumatic experience. After such a traumatic experience, there was an armed round-up disguised as a rescue and (people were) scattered to the four winds to the point where almost three years later, a lot of people who may have wanted to come home haven’t been able to come home. It’s an ongoing ass-whipping.
One of the most interesting features of the recovery is that almost all significant rebuilding has taken place through people. Either neighbors or grass roots efforts around the country.
Some of those efforts were even being thwarted in the beginning. The bottom line is that America, New Orleans, and Louisiana are in a position to show the rest of the world what forgiveness, what redemption, and what healing is and starting with our culture. There is nothing more beautiful than New Orleans culture. Like I said when we first came here, “Uh oh y’all, the gumbo done spilled into the chili; y’all better look out.” Mardi Gras 2006, we had a Mardi Gras here in Austin with Big Chief Kevin of the Flaming Arrows. Ever since then, we’ve been coming home every Mardi Gras. I’ll probably be there this year with the Wild Tchoupitoulas.
Nothing ever changed about me; I’ve been the same all along. The same stuff I’m saying now, I was saying before the storm, and if it’s the truth, I’m going to be saying it. The truth don’t die for nobody.
Published January 2008, OffBeat Louisiana Music & Culture Magazine, Volume 21, No. 1.