Co-opting Culture

New Orleans has an immense appeal for artists, always has: visual artists, writers, actors, and especially musicians.

There something about the city that stimulates creativity. Maybe it’s the history, the mix of voodoo, Europe, the Caribbean, African-American culture, the wealth of natural resources, water, spiritual connections, the innate musicality of our people. Who knows? New Orleans has always been an inspiration to musicians.

Musicians from all over the world have traveled to New Orleans to experience our unique vibe. Many times they are so enchanted by what they find here that they put down roots. I know hundreds of musicians who heard the city’s music, visited us, perhaps lived here temporarily or came to a festival, and now call it home (Jon Cleary, Anders Osborne, June Yamagishi, Eric Lindell, Dave Pirner: the list is almost endless).

But they also come because there are so many other like souls with whom they can collaborate and from whom they learn. New Orleans musicians have roots so deep and make music so profound and soulful that they want to share it not only with the world, but with their musical brethren from the “outside world” who are drawn to the city to make their own music. We locals share what we have.

I like the musicians who aren’t tourists. I like the ones who not only can hear how great the music is, but who want to dig down and find out why and how New Orleans has become the most musical city on the planet. This usually means that they need to live here—and not for a couple of months (that still means you’re “visiting”). They don’t just pass through; they stay here for a spell and dig in. That’s when you’re going to become “one of us.”

Live here for at least a year or two, or more. Experience our traditions: Mardi Gras; second lines; food culture; the heat and humidity; floods; rampant alcohol consumption; Catholicism; blinding and inspiring visuality; the Quarter; parades and festivals that celebrate events as mundane (to us) as beignets, barbecue and voodoo (among thousands of other things); the river and swamps; traditional jazz and zydeco; the paradox of extreme tolerance and southern uptight-ness, conservatism and gay culture. The lists go on and on.

All of this is to say to musicians (and others) who think New Orleans is a cool place to live: it’s way more than that. Unless you can embrace and appreciate the traditions, and contribute positively to our culture without co-opting it—musical and otherwise—you’ll always be a tourist. We have enough of those. We need you to be a part of our community. And lord knows we need more creative people in the city. Just not ones who are in to co-opting the culture rather than contributing to it.




  • Spike Perkins

    Good article, Jan, but I’m a little frustrated that you don’t attempt to define co-opting culture. This is something that gets discussed among my peers a lot, a long with related issues of gentrification. I tend to think, as you do, that most of the musicians, (and others) who stay for a while do get it. If you stay in New Orleans long enough, it changes you. But the grumbling persists, and most people doing it are kind of vague about what the newcomers are doing wrong. Whether its rude hipsters (I haven’t met any, and who’s a hipster anyway?), trad. jazz musicians who cover artists well within the cannon, but play different tunes than the one the tourists request, even new Mardi Gras krewes that are deemed not sufficiently traditional. Is hiring a brass band and staging a parade for a wedding co-opting? Probably so, but the musicians are well-paid, and as long as they don’t stop participating in traditional neighborhood second lines as well, I don’t see the harm. I’ve now been here for 35 years, and I was pretty clueless when I can, but the people were welcoming, and I hope that never changes.


    Supporting new and independent musicians. A great resource to discover talent.