Walton and Johnson perform blackface on the radio. (Feb. 2019. Vice)

On the drive out to my young daughter’s Montessori school in the New Orleans suburb of Chalmette each morning, she became fixated on some funny voices emanating from my radio. I’d randomly tuned into the Walton and Johnson show, a talk radio program featuring two white, male conservative hosts, plus three other disembodied voices: a lispy gay man (“Mr Kenneth”), a militant black man (“Mr Eaux”), and a drawling, self-identified “redneck” (“Billy Ed”). The political arguments were… colorful, while never truly heated. Whenever Walton or Johnson couldn’t wrap their mediocre heads around a gay rights issue, Mr. Kenneth was there to help explain. Billy Ed would of course bash Barack Obama incessantly—for instance, about the ex-president’s imaginary “communism”—at which point Mr. Eaux would pipe in with some American truth, like, “No one would be saying this if he wasn’t a brother.”

The show’s comedy definitely had a conservative bent, but while I disagreed with most of the politics on display, my daughter and I listened on, finding the wacky, energetic show fascinating. That is, until the day I realized that Walton and Johnson’s co-hosts didn’t actually exist, and that for 35 years, co-host Steve Johnson has been performing blackface on the airwaves.

Over the years, the Walton and Johnson show has grown more political, but its hosts began in the early 80s as a regular comedy duo, recording demo tapes of their act in Beaumont, Texas. In 1983, they landed their first real radio gig in New Orleans (where blackface is still sometimes regarded as acceptable under very particular circumstances). The duo, plus Johnson’s three characters, showcased wacky news stories, performed skits, and hosted celebrities like Charlie Sheen, Kinky Friedman, John Goodman, even New Orleans vampire author Anne Rice. Back then, the show was less mean-spirited and more goofy, immature, and schizophrenic.

“I grew up in New Orleans and in high school I became aware of their show, and it took me a while to understand it all,” admitted Eddie Martiny, IHeartRadio’s president of the Houston region, who started as a WCKW intern for the Walton and Johnson show. “I was putting up the hot air balloons at the remote locations when they were out broadcasting live, and I got to see how much they could draw: They were just on fire in New Orleans in ‘86. They’d say they were gonna broadcast from a restaurant, and… there would be a line wrapped around the building. It blew me away, and that actually sold me on [the business of] radio.”

Johnson’s schtick—a white man performing a “black” voice on the radio—has a long history. “The use of an exaggerated, stereotypical ‘black’ dialect was definitely part of the blackface performance tradition,” said Noah Arceneaux, a professor of media studies at San Diego State University. “Blackface performers began appearing on radio in the 1920s… The author Mel Watkins called this practice ‘racial ventriloquism,’ and there were many shows beyond the infamous Amos ‘n’ Andy that used this technique for comic effect. The character of Beulah, a black maid, was first done on radio by a white man, for example.”

Arceneaux added the blackface tradition lasted longer in England, with a TV show called The Black and White Minstrels lasting well into the 1970s. “And some would question if this performance tradition ever really ended, or if it just shifted.”


Martiny says Johnson never performed his character voices outside of the studio except among friends. At events, the duo maintained a sort of kayfabe, making up elaborate excuses for why their “co-hosts” couldn’t make it. “At one restaurant in Metairie [another New Orleans suburb], they hosted a night where people were asked to dress as their favorite Walton and Johnson character,” remembered Martiny, “and I couldn’t believe how many people dressed up as Mr. Eaux, Mr. Kenneth, and Billy Ed—but they also showed up expecting to meet them.”

While climbing the IHeartRadio ranks, Martiny sold the Walton and Johnson show to stations in Baton Rouge as well as its current home base of Houston, where the duo has flourished for over two decades. “Here, I put them on a heritage rock station replacing Stevens and Pruett, who were an institution. They did well there, but we ended up flipping that station to Spanish, because the Spanish population kept growing and we had three rock stations and we needed to diversify,” said Martiny. “Then two years later, I put them on my classic rock station KKRW the Arrow, and they did well on that station—until we flipped that station and made it hip-hop.”

These days, the show appears on around a dozen IHeartRadio stations in Texas, Mississippi, Georgia, Arkansas, and Louisiana for four-and-a-half hours each weekday.

Neither Walton nor Johnson nor their producer Kenny Webster has ever responded to my interview requests (I’ve tried for years). But if you believe those who’ve worked closely with the Southern radio duo over the last three-plus decades, no one has ever been offended by Walton and Johnson’s shtick. “I have some very strong conservatives talkers that work for me,” Martiny said when asked directly about Johnson’s blackface routine. “Some [hosts] are dealing with protesting all the time… people threatening to call our advertisers and not shop with them. But in my 20 years with John and Steve, I can’t remember even one time… I’ve never had any complaints about a white guy doing a black guy.”

Nathan Ales, who’s sold ads and done other work with Walton and Johnson for 30-plus years, and who considers Johnson his “best friend,” told me, “It’s satire. They stay in character, so Billy Ed is going to say things from that point of view, just like the black guy is going to say what a black guy would say; each character represents their group’s typical views. The gay character will argue with Billy Ed, and they’re all equally represented. Maybe that’s why people aren’t offended.”

Actual gay and black listeners, though, don’t necessarily agree. David Ahrens-Bryant, who’s both black and gay, moved to New Orleans from Detroit and had a similar experience engaging with the show. “I was listening on my way to work and it took about two days until I thought, ‘Something about these five guys doesn’t sound right.’ I went home and did internet research, and I was appalled. I haven’t listened since.”

More than a few black New Orleanians told me that, as far as racism goes, W&J are relatively mild. “Yes, I listened to Walton and Johnson. Making racist jokes don’t offend me, man,” said black New Orleans activist Anthony Straughter. “I make white jokes. Anybody can make jokes, they’re just jokes. That kind of stuff don’t affect me none.”

But others are genuinely offended. “I think some people in the South have this half-baked form of Stockholm syndrome, where they’re already so used to it they don’t care to change it,” argued Ahrens-Bryant, who says he also avoids the Zulu Mardi Gras parade due to the krewe’s blackface tradition. “But let me tell you how this would all go over in Detroit… The north isn’t a bastion of racial harmony by any stretch, but there are things that are accepted here that would get you killed in Detroit.”

DJ E.F. Cuttin is an outspoken black New Orleanian who grew up listening to Walton and Johnson after they replaced Howard Stern on his favorite station during the George W. Bush administration. “I never gave Walton and Johnson’s redneck-centric humor any real energy other than, ‘Yep, that sounds about white,’” laughed Cuttin. “I actually like the black character because he does say truthful shit.” Cuttin maintains, however, that Mr. Eaux and Mr. Kenneth’s mildly progressive remarks are actually the punchlines to jokes made for the benefit of Walton and Johnson’s conservative audience.

“The black guy usually just says shit [black people] say regarding racism, disparity, etc.,” Cuttin explained, “but though speaking truth, Mr. Eaux is usually saying it after stuff that doesn’t call for it, and that’s the rub.” The unspoken running gag of Steve Johnson’s Mr. Eaux character (who “met W&J while selling them a set of walnut handled steak knives from the trunk of his El Dorado,” the show’s website says) is that black issues are merely a cudgel that African Americans use to gain pity or free “Obama phones.” CLICK HERE to read the rest of this article at Vice. 

Or CLICK HERE listen to this sexist clip from their putrid show. 

 

 

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Jan Ramsey keeps music journalism alive in New Orleans (Columbia Journalism Review. Jan. 2018).

FROM HER OFFICE OVERLOOKING FRENCHMEN, New Orleans’s most musical street, Jan Ramsey commands OffBeat magazine, which has reported on the city’s music scene in painstaking detail for three decades, promoting musicians who might otherwise never receive a lick of press. Ramsey, who is 68, has recently let her trademark fire-orange hair go grey, but nonetheless radiates color in her quiet, messy office. Her handicap keeps her immobile; she doesn’t go out to the nightclubs much anymore, and only herthree young employees and her husband and publishing partner, Joseph Irrera, see the amazing outfits and accessories she wears to the office. On the day I visit her, musical-note earrings dangle from her lobes, a green scarab ring nearly eclipses her left hand, and a huge ceramic macaw hangs around her neck.

Ramsey gestures out the big windows onto Frenchmen’s typical late-afternoon crowd of tourists.

“I can’t stand the cover bands that play at this restaurant down here,” Ramsey says. When I suggest that OffBeat may be partly to blame for Frenchmen turning into the new Bourbon Street by advertising it as a musical mecca, she surprises me by shrugging the comment off.

“Pretty much everybody in the music business in New Orleans loves Jan,” says Scott Aiges, who later became the Times-Picayune’s first official local Jazz and Pop writer, and today works for the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation. “But it’s also fair to say that you aren’t really in the music business in New Orleans unless you’ve had a fight with Jan at some point.” It also seems fair to say that, if Ramsey weren’t a fighter, the world wouldn’t still have OffBeat.

Ramsey studied business at the University of New Orleans, and famously finished her bachelor’s degree from a hospital bed after being hit head-on by a drunk driver—which is why she now depends upon a mobility scooter. In the mid-’80s, Ramsey, a New Orleans music addict since her girlhood, made it her mission to educate everyone she could about the business of music, and how much New Orleans music helped everyone’s financial bottom line. She joined music-advocacy nonprofits, and started a couple others.

“I think I pissed a lot of people in the music community off,” she says. “I was like this outsider coming in, even though I was born here. I was perceived as a dilettante.” Ramsey also felt people minimized her because of her gender. When she met Cosimo Matassa, the producer whose recording studio birthed Little Richard’s “Tutti Frutti,” he regarded her with skepticism, according to Ramsey. “I was wearing a suit and pantyhose and telling people what to do, and people didn’t like that,” she says. Ramsey’s traditional response to sexism in the music and media world? “Just watch me, motherfucker.” To read the rest of this excellent article at Columbia Journalism Review, CLICK HERE!

Or CLICK HERE to watch an interview/documentary with/about my spirit animal, Jan Ramsey.

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Fishing For Answers: How LA’s new Master Plan would effect fishermen. (64 Parishes. November 2018).

All photos by Rick Olivier

Recreational charter-fishing captains don’t elicit the same sympathies given to, say, fleets of weather-beaten men eking out a living harvesting oysters from the punishing seas. Over the last several decades, many have abandoned commercial fishing in favor of what seems like the easy life: Charter-fishing captains smile while working, and wear very expensive sunglasses. They make good money doing what they love, catching limits of redfish and trout before getting off work around noon, their polo shirts still clean. As such, they’re rarely who we picture when we worry for the worsening welfare of Louisiana fishermen.

But the state’s roughly 1,000 registered charter-fishing captains (up from 644 just eight years ago) represent a large, and growing, economy—especially when lumped into the bigger category of recreational fishing, or the behemoth, tourism—and they face as many struggles as anyone else whose livelihood depends upon Louisiana’s coastline.

Charter captains are currently still deciphering the newest Coastal Master Plan introduced by Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority (CPRA) in 2017. The Master Plan details 124 projects (79 restoration, 13 structural protection, and 32 nonstructural risk-reduction projects) that will hopefully build and protect more than eight hundred square miles of new land over the next fifty years. “In Louisiana, no two places are the same—there’s a lot of difference just within one or two miles,” Bren Haase of the CPRA pointed out, “which is why we expend so much effort in planning: there is no one answer or solution for our entire coast.”

Depending on whom you speak with in which coastal Louisiana town, the Master Plan’s projects will either ease fishermen’s woes, or deepen them.

Charter captains are split regarding the Master Plan’s five billion dollars’ worth of diversion projects, which fall under the restoration category. Sediment diversions, in this case, mean channels cut into levees and along the Mississippi River. These cuts allow river silt to flow into brackish and saltwater bayous and ponds where, for decades, the land has been sinking and the marshes disappearing. These Mississippi diversions do build the marshland up, but the accompanying fresh river water dilutes the salt water, which greatly effects ecosystems—for good and for bad, depending on your occupation.

Some charter fishermen appreciate the diversions for building back depleted marshes. Others despise the diversions for flushing away the salt water that redfish and especially speckled trout prefer. “At Salty Dog Charters, we catch bull redfish,” said Captain Markham Dickson. “Bull reds are big and they look good on Facebook, so we want to keep a good population out there.”  For these reasons, Dickson stands on the side of the salt. He takes customers far out east to Shell Beach on Lake Borgne, where a nineteenth-century fort stands crumbling and a giant metal crucifix pays homage to the 163 St. Bernard Parish residents killed when Hurricane Katrina ripped straight up the Mississippi River–Gulf Outlet (MRGO) shipping channel.

“I started fishing Shell Beach when it was salty,” Dickson said. “Then [in 2009] they dammed the MRGO, which lowered the salinity.” Still one of the saltier areas within driving distance of New Orleans, Shell Beach now sits in the projected potential impact area of the Master Plan’s scheduled Central Wetlands Diversion and Mid-Breton Diversion, which will allow hundreds of thousands of gallons of fresh water into the Shell Beach area each second.

“While the fresher water does create more hydrilla plants, which keeps the waters nice and clean,” said Dickson, “on the banklines where you would catch redfish, you are now catching largemouth bass and a lot of brim instead.”

Captain Ron “Ahab” Broadus, who has explored the massive, complex Delacroix marsh system east of the Mississippi for almost thirty years, prefers to put his clients on speckled trout. “You can always catch redfish all year around in Delacroix,” he claimed, explaining that trout are much pickier hunters, who follow the salty water for breeding reasons, and also because salt clarifies the water, making prey more easily visible. Freshwater and silt diversions, of course, muddy the waters for the sake of building land.

In 1991, Louisiana built the Caernarvon Diversion fifteen miles south of New Orleans with support of Breton Sound oyster fisherman who were convinced that the salt influx would eventually kill off their industry. From 1992–1994, research by the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources Coastal Restoration Division showed a net increase in marshland of 406 acres, but the structure—a freshwater diversion, not a sediment diversion—successfully freshened the water.

Then in 2012, the Mississippi broke through the natural levee on its own, creating the Mardi Gras Pass, which still pushes river water into Breton Sound. “The river over time has started eating away at Mardi Gras Pass, where now it’s like a hundred feet wide, and something like thirty feet deep,” said Broadus of the pass. “So much freshwater is being pushed straight from the Mississippi, and there are no controls.”

The oyster industry recently spent two hundred thousand dollars creating a study, hoping to gain approval from the Louisiana Department of Natural Resources and the US Army Corps of Engineers to close up Mardi Gras Pass. That may be a tough sell, since Mardi Gras Pass has already been proven to be building land, and is substantially benefitting several upcoming Master Plan projects in the area, including the Breton Sediment Diversion and the Breton Marsh Creation project, which is expected to create twelve thousand acres of marsh in Uhlan Bay.

Like many fishermen who prize the saltwater, Broadus would rather see sand dredged from the river to rebuild land in the marsh—a much more expensive procedure. Either way, he understands that something must be done. “If I get a guy I took out last year, and helped him and a friend bring home seventy-five trout and fifteen reds, and now this year the only thing you can offer him today is redfish, they’ll say, ‘We’ll wait.’ So the freshwater is having an economic impact.”

Just inland from the coast and near to New Orleans, Lafitte, Louisiana, already often looks, smells, and tastes like freshwater. “In Lafitte we always have less salt, and yet we still we have a little bit of everything: oysters, shrimp, crabs,” attested Captain Maurice d’Aquin, who’s helped tourists catch reds and the occasional speckled trout in Lafitte for several decades. “Some of the best fisheries are where that brackish and that saltwater mix, so you have two types of water and two types of game fish competing for the same two types of bait.”

And so, d’Aquin also welcomes the scheduled Mid-Breton and Mid-Barataria diversions, recently fast-tracked for permitting, with two more diversions (Lower Breton and Lower Barataria) still in the planning processes for the area. “Wetland loss has the biggest impact on the charter captains’ way of living,” said d’Aquin. “Out here you see it directly. After one storm, you can see that we’ve lost forty or fifty yards of coastline. Fishing camps on the edges that I stayed at back when I was a kid are already gone. We are soon gonna be fishing open bays, and it’s just not gonna be the same.”

D’Aquin is happy to focus on Lafitte’s abundant redfish, which don’t seem to mind the fresh water—whereas trout already generally avoid Lafitte’s abundant fresh water most of the year, especially in the warmer months. “The trout will still move in to some of these fresh water ponds though,” d’Aquin said with confidence. “Lake Salvador is pretty fresh, and trout will move in there when it’s winter and they’re looking for warmer, deeper water.”

Down the coast to the east of the Mississippi, residents of Buras, Louisiana, don’t worry as much about losing the marsh.

“The marsh is gone,” declared Captain Ryan Lambert, head of Cajun Fishing Adventures. To read the whole article at 64 Parishes, CLICK HERE.

Or CLICK HERE to watch a news video about Louisiana’s latest Master Plan. 

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Why We Shouldn’t Nominate New Orleans’s Mayor Mitch Landrieu for President (Vice. April 2018).

Until last year’s removal of New Orleans’s Confederate statues made national news, Mayor Mitch Landrieu was largely unknown outside of his city. Today, he’s the latest Democratic flavor of the month. Landrieu followed up the release of his new book, Standing in the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Faces Down History, with a few victory laps of the lecture and talk show circuits, fromThe Week to 60 Minutes to the Daily Show, where mentions of his possible 2020presidential run were met with applause. He’s also set to receive the John F. Kennedy Profile in Courage Award in May.

As a New Orleans resident, I know the statues couldn’t have been removed without Landrieu—even though the energetic and righteous protest group Take Em Down NOLA is widely considered to have spearheaded the recent movement. Others trace the fight farther back: “That anyone would think Landrieu told us to care about this is insulting… Black leaders have been talking to me about this issue since I joined city government in 1977,” said City Councilperson James Gray during a contentious debate on the day of the vote to remove the offending statues. “I am the descendant of slaves—not free people of color, slaves—so I don’t need Mitch Landrieu to remind me to care about this.”

Landrieu surely won’t end up in prison like his predecessor Ray Nagin, and he has done a few good things while in office, like help get marijuana arrests down to almost zero (arguably a much bigger blow for racial justice than taking down the statues). And his speeches around the monuments’ removal were admittedly some of the best I’ve ever heard from a politician.

But Landrieu is not the president America needs. Dig past the statue issue, and you’ll find that Landrieu is known around town as the New Orleans mayor who aided and abetted a massive wave of gentrification. While he would clearly like to be remembered for removing New Orleans’s racist symbols, many locals will remember him for the following catastrophes:

Airbnb

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina flooded 80 percent of New Orleans and displaced 600,000 households. In the following years, as locals struggled to return to their city, Airbnb was invented at just the wrong time.

New Orleans’s status as a tourist destination has made Airbnb popular with tourists visiting the city. As a result, for almost a decade, New Orleans’s famous shotgun houses have been getting bought up and turned into amateur hotels, often by out-of-state, absentee (white) landlords, damaging the fabric of neighborhoods and forcing residents to deal with tourists literally in their backyards.

Landrieu and his administration have seemed mostly oblivious to how bad Airbnb has been for New Orleans’s tender post-K housing market, not to mention its (black) culture. Following years of inaction on the issue, the City Council voted in 2017 to legalize Airbnb’s fauxtel scam and create a permitting process, but that hasn’t solved the problem. Locals have been evicted from their homes in droves by greedy landlords who can make more money off nightly rentals than yearly leases. As the value of homes used as hotels spikes, that raises the assessed value—and thus property taxes—for locals around them. And because the Landrieu administration hasn’t improved the city’s bleak poverty rate, many New Orleanians can no longer afford homes in their own neighborhoods.

“Treme was too expensive, when I was putting my heart and my soul and my energy into trying to get my family back home,” said singer John Boutte, most famous for penning the theme song for HBO’s Katrina drama TremeThe Treme was America’s first black neighborhood where free people of color could purchase land. After Airbnb hit the Treme, Boutte chose to relocate 30 minutes away, onto New Orleans’s Northshore (which isn’t in New Orleans at all). “I lived in Treme all my life, and I know the real value of those homes,” Boutte told me. “There’s a big bubble right now, man.”

In 2015, The New Orleans Advocate reported a shift in New Orleans’s black population from the city to the suburbs—a change that cannot be blamed on Katrina alone, but on the combination of Katrina and Airbnb. Only now are Landrieu, Mayor-elect LaToya Cantrell, and other officials considering taking further action against laws governing Airbnb properties—which seems a lot like discussing the fire while standing in its smoldering ashes.

Cameras, Cameras Everywhere

There’s existed no question that Landrieu couldn’t answer with more cameras of one sort or another. Mayor Nagin installed New Orleans’s first 30 traffic cameras, and they quickly started producing revenue for the city in the form of traffic tickets. Landrieu has doubled and tripled that number, and today the city makes over $15 million a year off its poverty-burdened citizenry via those traffic camera tickets.

Landrieu’s love of surveillance extends beyond the traffic cameras: On his way out of City Hall, he unveiled an unprecedented $40 million citizen surveillance program that would have required cameras outside all 1,500 of the city’s bars, nightclubs, restaurants, and stores selling alcohol—and all of the cameras would have fed into the city’s newly-upgraded 24-hour monitoring center.

Under immense public pressure, the City Council eventually abandoned that part of Landrieu’s “safety plan,” but proceeded to post around 100 red-and-blue blinking cameras around the city, many right outside of surprised homeowners’ windows. Chuck’s Sports Bar, the Hangover Bar, and other watering holes received the obnoxious blinking cameras as punishment for perceived bad behavior. A whopping 150 more such cameras are planned for this year.

In this and other ways, Landrieu has been to New Orleans sort of what Giuliani was to New York. Except without the drop in crime. To read the rest of this piece at Vice, CLICK HERE! 

Or CLICK HERE to watch this video of New Orleans’s writer Michael “Quess” Moore explaining to the mayor that he shouldn’t take credit for others’ accomplishments. 

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The Gangster Whisperer (Medium. Jan. 2018).

View story at Medium.com

New Orleans-born Matthew Randazzo has thrice served as a personal ghostwriter to criminal gangsters. Call him the gangster whisperer.

Or, these days, call him an environmental lobbyist — the occupation he fell into after the third gangster in his book trilogy dramatically derailed his literary career. Randazzo’s experiences extracting the truth from gangsters has made him especially well-suited for this career finessing egomaniacal politicians.

The gangster whisperer is the fifth Matthew Randazzo in his Sicilian Catholic Cajun family. Matthew the First and his wife rolled with the now-extinct French Quarter mafia. Randazzo has researched his namesake and found that, “His wife was arrested for bootlegging. And he seemed to be the most prominent Sicilian in that part of the state, winning election after election for the Italian fraternal organizations and such. It’s hard to pin down the hierarchy of gangsters at the turn of the 20th century — it’s hard to even call him a gangster or criminal, since he was never arrested and charged with anything.” But Matthew the First did die in the same 1917 mafia war in which many other Randazzo family members were wounded. “That’s the beginning of my family history,” Randazzo said. “So, even as a young kid, I was always fascinated, because I carried the name of that guy.”

Matthew did not, however, set out to collude with criminals himself.

As Randazzo filled our conversation with twice the facts your average person might try and fit in, it became easy to believe he could talk his way into anything. I believed him that, at 18, he’d flipped through a publisher’s guide for a phone number, then proceeded in that one phonecall to convince a publisher in New York to put out his as-yet-unwritten first book. Though he didn’t yet posses the writing chops to actually pen a good book, the ease of it all gave him even more confidence; he was meant to do this. With that in mind, he kept alert, looking for the perfect subject to document.

After Hurricane Katrina, Randazzo felt on a mission. “I felt a real sense of wanting to memorialize my hometown,” he said, “because it wasn’t going to be the same place I grew up in.” As soon as the floodwaters receded, he began searching through the wreckage for a subject that would do justice to the wounded city of his birth.

“So when I met Frenchy,” he says, “it was just obvious.”

Randazzo first met up with the former French Quarter pimp, Frenchy Brouillette in a flooded-out office building in Metairie. On this soggy hellscape, Frenchy blended in well. “He was this elderly man, still powerfully built, ponytail, eyes watery like he’d been shitfaced for six decades — which happened to be the case,” Randazzo remembered. Frenchy claimed to have been the rare Cajun in the French Quarter Italian mafia, and the wingman of the original New Orleans “Godfather,” Carlos Marcello. “In this thick Cajun accent, he made all these extravagant claims about his connections, and how he’d made tens of millions of dollars and partied it all away. He seemed like a true French Quarter bullshit artist.” But in his meticulous research, Randazzo uncovered no bullshit. “I found record of him being surveilled with Carlos Marcello,” he said, still sounding surprised 13 years later. “Lee Harvey Oswald had really been Frenchy’s associate, and Oswald’s attorney had been his roommate, and his cousin really was Edwin Edwards, the four-time governor of Louisiana.”

Not unlike Randazzo, Frenchy was charming and eloquent in that particular New Orleans way. New Orleans natives are quick to give you TMI up front, so getting them to open up isn’t the problem. Getting the truth is sometimes trickier. “Frenchy could be hard to interview, mostly depending on how long he’d been out the night before,” Randazzo said. “Sometimes he would meld stories that I would have to disentangle. He’d be drinking cocktails and would start a story, then remember another story, which would soon bring up this other great story…” CLICK HERE to read the rest of this piece at Medium.

Or, CLICK HERE to watch a video about Frenchy. 

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How DJ Rusty Lazer Helped Break Bounce (Music Box Remix feat. Big Freedia and Nicky da B)(Medium. Jan. 2018).

Jay Pennington sits, today, more than alive, children running around him with drumsticks, pounding on every part of the wondrous Music Box art installation that he helped conjure. Slabs of metal and glass bang and tinkle, and a low-end sawtooth wave unfurls slowly from a speaker high above us. When the wild sounds crescendo, dead leaves fall lightly down from the enormous trees that shade the Music Box compound. Pennington’s journey has brought him through musical heartbreak, death and grief — in helping finally break New Orleans bounce rap to a national audience, Jay Pennington was nearly broken himself — but then finally, here, to this magical musical village.

Over the racket, in a calm voice befitting his long grey mustache, Pennington tells me the story of his small but essential roll in finally smuggling bounce music across Louisiana state borders. “Bringing bounce to an outside culture via the music industry directly is next to impossible,” he explains. “It’s hard because bounce is more like the blues: you play other people’s songs your way, you sing it your own way, and it’s your song now — doing bounce means you’re violating copyright laws and limiting your career dramatically.” Bounce is also famously, lovably foul-mouthed, and so far more bounce records have been sold out of car trunks than via major record labels.

In 2010, Rusty Lazer’s journey began with the creation of a short, simple path around bounce music’s decades-old challenges.

*

Like many refugees in that year after Hurricane Katrina, Pennington found himself flung across the globe on a forced adventure — in his case, working as a professional art installer in Berlin, Switzerland, Miami, Tokyo and other beautiful, non-flooded cities. During these travels. Pennington met up with other New Orleans street musicians. “We’d go play a show, trad jazz usually, and then after it was over I’d just plug in my iPod and start playing New Orleans music: brass bands, bounce. And people just ate that shit up everywhere I went. It didn’t matter that the lyrics were in English; I guess ‘Azz Everywhere’ sounds cool even if you don’t know what it means.”

When Pennington finally returned to New Orleans in 2007, he rushed to tell the queen of his findings overseas. “I was the queen for a secondline [parade] group at the time in New Orleans called the VIP Ladies,” recalls Big Freedia today. “Jay came up to me while I’m sitting on top of this convertible, wearing all white on a hot sunny day, being the queen that I am and waving my hands. And he hollered at me at the secondline with all those black people — he was like the only white dude out there. He walked alongside the car for a minute, told me what he wanted to do, and we exchanged information.”

The next day the duo broke bread while Pennington told Freedia of a project he’d just started with some friends, called New Orleans Airlift, an artist exchange program between New York and New Orleans. “I told Freedia, ‘People outside of New Orleans need to see you,’” says Pennington. “’The music is so powerful without you even there, how much more powerful would it be if you were there with me?’”

New Orleans is full of major music stars that rarely leave the city. When she met Jay, Big Freedia was already a huge celebrity among the city’s African Americans. A spectacular combination of man and woman (with no particular pronoun preference), Freedia commanded the mic, led her dancers, bounced her ass, whipped her hair and, block party by block party, club by club, she’d taken Black New Orleans over. “At the peak at club Caesars we were probably packing in 1,500 to 2,000 people at $20, $30 tickets,” Freedia tells me.

But Freedia admitted to Pennington at the time that she’d had trouble expanding outside of New Orleans, especially when it came to getting booked at “straight clubs” in places like Houston or Atlanta. Even in New Orleans at the time, very few white people had experienced the undeniable power of Big Freedia. “Outside of the city, a lot of people expected that because Freedia was gay that she should play for gay audiences,” says Pennington, “but that’s never been her plan.”

Freedia’s plan, as she has explained it to me over the years, has always been world domination. “So, I first took Freedia to New York because I knew people there who threw parties with a huge mix of people,” Pennington says. “I had her playing punk rock shows with straight kids, gay kids, black, white, Puerto Rican kids, Asian kids. People who, it didn’t matter what kind of band came on; they just wanted to be into things.”

During New York’s Fashion Week, Freedia rocked eight shows over nine days, starting with a performance alongside famous, young Baltimore rapper Spank Rock. A human pocketknife, Pennington also DJ’d these shows he’d booked and served as defacto tour manager. The punk rock, sleep-on-the-floor lodging arrangements Pennington set up in New York caused Freedia’s touring partner, Sissy Nobby, to leave immediately for New Orleans after just one show. But Freedia stuck it out. “After the first show of that trip to New York Freedia was like ‘I want to do this, what we’re doing, together,’” Rusty remembers.

Pennington’s friends from Bust feminist magazine and also Fader music publication came to the shows to watch Freedia rule the New York crowds with the same ease that she controlled her New Orleans fans, and both magazines immediately gave New Orleans bounce music glowing national coverage. Though Freedia always managed to look uniquely stylish (partly thanks to her hair-stylist mother), a marketing director for American Apparel who’d seen Freedia perform during Fashion Week, invited the duo down to the store to take all the clothes and shoes they wanted for free.

Freedia seemed to cover as much ground and gain as many fans in those nine days as she had in 12 years hustling in New Orleans.

Naturally, Jay and Freedia continued to hit New York again and again. On side trips to Los Angeles, the duo made fans out of rapper M.I.A., singer Lady Gaga, and transgender performance artist Amanda Lapore. Within that year, the Scion car company agreed to release Freedia’s first national EP. “Then the New York Times picked up the story of sissy bounce,” remembers Freedia, “and from that I started to get a real buzz all over the world.”

It did shock a few of her longtime local fans when, with the help of a new white manager, Freedia suddenly began packing rock n’ roll clubs full of white kids who, in earnest, began learning to twerk. “But it wasn’t about what my circle had to say, it was about what I wanted to do,” asserts Freedia when I ask if any of her (black) friends expressed cynicism regarding Jay. “If they wasn’t down to roll with me, they had to get rolled over. This was about me and Jay’s vision.” To read the rest of this piece at Medium, CLICK HERE! 

Or CLICK here to watch an episode of Diplo’s show, Blow Your Head, about Rusty Lazer. 

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What Happens to Prison Inmates During Hurricanes? (Vice. Sept. 2017).

As strained local governments struggle to care for their citizens during disasters and evacuations, prisoners are often low on the list of priorities. That means it’s likely that any big hurricane that hits the Gulf Coast will result in a slew of human rights abuses, both reported and unreported, at Southern prisons.

Back in 2005, when Katrina hit New Orleans, prison guards abandoned prisoners in locked cells as the floodwaters rose chest-high. Several thousand of those inmates were eventually rescued, but then miserably housed on a broken piece of interstate, directly exposed to the Southern summer sun.

But it’s unclear whether prisons learned much from Katrina.

Harvey touched down as a Category 4 hurricane in Texas on Friday, August 25. The next day, as floodwaters rose, the state began evacuating some 7,000 prisoners, addicts in treatment, and people in halfway houses—but thousands of other Texas prisoners remained behind, and some lacked adequate food, water, or bathrooms, say their families.

Rachel Vergara’s husband remained in the Beaumont’s medium-security federal prison, which did not evacuate. When her husband began sending her SOS emails from inside the prison, she started a Facebook page in hopes of attracting family members of other prisoners around Houston. The wives she met online began forwarding her their husbands’ emails from the week after Harvey, with plenty of worrying details. (I am not publishing the inmates’ names to protect their identities.)

Beaumont’s water system was damaged, resulting in backed-up prison toilets and undrinkable tap water. Inmates were given two bottles of drinking water a day, according to one email, and some went more than ten days without a shower. Occupied cells definitely flooded, according to another. “Prisoners are defecating in trash bags to prevent the excruciating smell of their own human feces,” CLICK HERE to read the rest of this article at Vice.

Or CLICK HERE to watch a video of prisons in Houston preparing their prisoners for Hurricane Harvey. 

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