Author: Asad el-Malik is a PhD candidate at Columbia International University’s School of Intercultural Studies. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Field site: I am currently experiencing the lockdown in New Orleans, Louisiana where I have completed ethnographic research on African American Muslims. My current research is centred on the relationship of religious practices and psychotherapy.
New Orleans is a city where art grows like a rose through cracks in concrete. The city is plagued with poverty, inequality, violent crime and high incarceration rates. This is coupled with the fact that New Orleans is a politically liberal city in a deeply conservative Republican state. In the last fifteen years the city has faced the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, the BP oil spill, and COVID-19. The people of the city have made adjustments, adaptations, and alterations.
With the implementation of the stay-at-home order, artists in New Orleans have made the adjustment to social isolation and have incorporated social media to create new ways of engaging their audience, creating a sense of normalcy and cultural connectivity, and raising funds.
“Music is a part of everything in New Orleans”
Mayor Latoya Cantrell issued a stay-at-home order in mid-March effectively shutting down restaurants, bars, and music venues. The order also silenced many of the city’s musicians and bands. Without having venues in which to perform, musicians saw their revenue dry up almost instantaneously.
A popular DJ in the city took to Instagram and Facebook Live to provide entertainment to his fan base as well as to gain revenue. While spinning records in his living room, he also solicited donations via CashApp. After a few successful nights, with nearly a thousand people on his live feed, other DJs decided to replicate his success. I have observed at least six other popular DJs conducting live performances via Facebook and Instagram. These live experiences have now become known as “quarantine DJs”.
This new method of audience engagement appears to have its pros and cons. I spoke with one DJ that said spinning records via Facebook live diminishes the relationship between the audience and the DJ. However, he noted that the incorporation of social media and technology has opened new doors and revenue streams for all DJs. He was recently booked for a party in Atlanta, Georgia which will be done virtually.
Another DJ, who plays exclusively a local genre of music known as bounce, said that “music is a part of everything in New Orleans”. He felt that he was providing a cultural service to the people of the city as they dealt with the challenges of isolation.
Facebook and Instagram appear to be the main mediums that are used by the DJs. On Friday and Saturday nights my timeline is speckled with notifications that different DJs are going live. Each DJ has his or her CashApp information visible so that viewers can tip.
The months of April and May bring huge festivals to New Orleans. However, all festivals have been cancelled including the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival which typically draws about half a million people. The cancellation left many local bands without benefit of performing in front of the large crowds that the festival brings. In response to this, a local TV station decided to film local bands in their homes and broadcast the performances on television and on their website. They called the series Louisiana Rising and have filmed over 30 individual performances from various artists. Contact information and their CashApp is also made available.
Another group has taken a similar approach but with a uniquely different perspective. A group called Letters from the Porch also films artists from their homes but with a specific purpose of offering support to members of the medical profession.
“Letters from the Porch is a series of videos in which musicians and performers offer their gifts in gratitude to the medical community. Artists perform on their porch or on the sidewalk in front of their house either solo or with their accompaniment, maintaining proper social distance.”- Letters from the Porch
The videos are uploaded to the group’s website via YouTube and shared throughout social media. The artists offer original pieces of poetry and songs with the expressed intent of lifting the spirits of frontline medical professionals.
A Grammy-nominated group called Tank and The Bangas have also taken to social media in efforts to support other local artists. I spoke with someone close to the group who stated they worked with Billboard to organize a virtual concert to raise funds to assist out of work musicians. To date the band, through a series of virtual concerts on Instagram Live, has raised about five thousand dollars for local musicians.
Do you want the word? Pass it on.
I recently attended a virtual spoken word show curated by a group called “Pass it on”. The group typically organizes a monthly showcase of spoken word poetry and visual art but now does the show virtually. The show that I attended used Zoom as the platform.
I have attended several of the group’s in-person shows in the past. During the in-person show, the host would ask “do you want the word?” and the audience would respond “pass it on.” I was interested to see how the audience would interact in the virtual setting. When the host asked the question, the members on the Zoom conference typed the response “pass it on”.
I spoke with one of the organizers of the event and asked his thoughts about the virtual show. He stated that the last in-person show had an attendance of about 75 people and the virtual show had about 80 people. While he was happy with the participation in the virtual show, he expressed concern that the number of viewers fluctuated a lot throughout the show. However, he believes that the incorporation of a virtual platform with the live show would be a good idea because of the opportunity to include people who no longer live in the city of New Orleans. He speculated that one day poets in different cities could perform virtually at the live show.
Black Film Festival
The Black Film Festival is an event that has taken place for the last three years in New Orleans. This year however, the two week-long festival was forced to move entirely online. From March 29th to April 13th the festival showcased different films each night from independent black filmmakers. The films were broadcast via YouTube. Instagram Live was used to interview each filmmaker.
Overall, about 1,500 people viewed different films throughout this two-week period. The festival also partnered with the City of New Orleans Office of Cultural Development. The city saw the festival as an opportunity to offer entertainment to citizens as they traversed through this time of isolation.
Artists in New Orleans have found creative ways to utilize social media to engage their audience and support the community. Some have also found a way to supplement their lost wages. While the citizens of New Orleans confront the reality of quarantine and isolation, the cultural bearers of the city are playing an important role. During normal times the city is alive with sound, colors, and textures provided by an eclectic group of artists. These artists have now found a way to continue to provide their much-needed contributions.