At the 50th New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, hip-hop will stand in its rightful place alongside jazz, blues, gospel, R&B, rock ’n’ roll and funk, as a genre emblematic of this city’s musical diversity. Together, two key figures in New Orleans hip-hop—rapper Curren$y and rapper/producer Nesby Phips—will share the Congo Square stage to showcase the chemistry the two have nurtured since attending Eleanor McMain Secondary School together.
It will be Nesby’s second performance on that stage, which he opened in 2016. The multi-faceted creative was a featured painter at Jazz Fest that year. “I did a live painting at the Blues Tent that morning and then left to perform. I felt mad important,” he tells me.
Though Phips released an album called Therapy in 2018, and still performs with his band, THE GRïD, from time to time, he has expanded his work and become far more than just a musician. He’s working on starting his own publishing company “specializing in music of the African diaspora, specifically from this region,” he tells me.
He’s also an advocate with an entrepreneurial lean, who can frequently be heard speaking on panels about topics like music licensing, and his plans to create “a pipeline for New Orleans, to the global economy.” He says brands that come here during festival season to promote themselves need to do more to help the city. “Coca Cola coming down here for a fest, they need to spend some money on Mardi Gras Indians, and put them in their ads. ’Cause in the world of gentrification, there needs to be an authority figure on what goes and what stays, how to treat and respect what’s here. There’s a lot of talk about improving the economy down here from a municipal tier. I kind of don’t give a fuck about that. I don’t give a fuck about what ordinance they about to put in place or grant or budget. I’m about to get out there and shake hands and kiss babies and bring money to New Orleans. We got to own ourselves…we’re exotic, we’re rare. And the only way we’re gonna get the most value out of it is if we mobilize that value and that exoticness and learn how to package it up and ship it out. Even if you have to actually get in that bottle yourself and ship yourself to Vancouver, Germany, Philly, or wherever you gotta go to get your full value. And bring those experiences and that money back to the city.”
It’s impossible to listen to Nesby talk about investing in the community without addressing issues of gentrification and displacement in New Orleans. “People will come from a foreign land and they’ll see something beautiful, and what most people do with pretty things, they’ll pull it from its roots for their satisfaction of that moment, that temporary pretty vase on a desk for the week…flower dies, we’ll get him another one. Ain’t got so many out here so we can’t let them do us like that. We’ll get washed out like San Francisco real easy if I’m not out here doing what I’m doing. I owe it to the culture. I am obligated to give out this type of knowledge, which I’ve acquired over the course of my career.”
When he performs with Curren$y (a.k.a. Spitta), Nesby will be reminding fans of that career. The two have collaborations for decades, both before and after Spitta’s years with Young Money Entertainment. Nesby has produced for and collaborated with Curren$y on records including “Prioritize (Beeper Bill),” “Lost in Transit,” “The Seventies,” “Wave Race,” (from The Phipstape) and more.
“I always hold Curren$y in high regard, even though he’s my peer,” says Nesby. “I always revere his authenticity,and how he built his career off of that.” Their relationship, which he says goes beyond music, has an unspoken synchronicity. When I ask him what their performance will consist of, he tells me they haven’t discussed it at any great length.
“We gon’ do what we do,” he says with a smile. “We’ve talked in brief… we live in the moment, but we know what to do. That’s the cool thing about our relationship. Every time I see him, I tell him I love him. But we don’t hang out every day. When it’s time for it, we connect. That’s how we connected in the beginning. The majority of the time we did music, we weren’t ever in the studio together. I sent him a beat, he’d rap on it and put it out, and we got famous…we go in there and put it down and get the fuck out of there.”
Nesby and Curren$y’s appearance at the golden anniversary of Jazz Fest is characteristic of what Nesby calls “a very inclusive festival.” Since childhood, he’s attended plenty of Jazz Fests, thanks in part to parental guidance. “My mama loved Jazz Fest. A lot of my taste for New Orleans comes from my mama,” he tells me. “My favorite thing to go get was meat pies. She loved meat pies.”
He continues, “Every year, I would get a leather African pendant at Jazz Fest. It was the only place I knew to get them, because I was too young to go to stores and get them. Every year I’d re-up. I kept an African pendant through all of elementary [school] because of Jazz Fest. Even as a second or third grader, I was a super Black man.”
When I ask him whether today’s Jazz Fests have lost any of the nostalgic feel of years past, Nesby reminds me that, despite things like higher ticket prices, it’s still incredibly important to the city. “It’s definitely a local thing because so many locals work it,” he says. It’s also the place where he got to see Mystikal perform, when he was a kid. “I saw him on the Congo Square Stage, which was dope. He had this whole Michael Jackson interlude. It was corny as shit but it was very entertaining—especially to an 11-year-old in the crowd.”
Twenty-seven years later, he’ll be performing on the same stage, preserving the legacy of hip-hop at Jazz Fest. “Us being there is them doing what’s right,” he says of the organizers’ decision to include Curren$y and him. “We needed to be represented on that platform because this is a folk-style fest. But ‘folk’ has taken on a whole new look. Folk got Airpods now. Folk got tattoos on his neck. It’s juxtaposed in so many ways. Just be ready for it. It’s going to get even freakier.”
Saturday, April 27
Congo Square Stage, 3 p.m.