U2, DJ Spooky remix race and the American South

I've been avoiding reading the "New Orleans" issue of Rolling Stone, though it's been sitting here for weeks. There's good stuff here, no doubt. But I opened to a story about Sean Penn in NOLA (who cares), then flew into a shaking rage over the column quoting all the religious fanatics (the disaster was God's will, they say), then skip something about a CNN guy and scan "Music From a Lost City," an appreciation of New Orleans music culture that from all appearances, with its black and white photos and old musical references, could have been written 20 years ago.

I don't claim to "know" this still-living city more than Rolling Stone, and I don't presume to instruct anyone how to mourn what's been lost. I lasted barely as long as Degas did in New Orleans, living in the building next to his old one on Esplanade between 1994 and 1995. But I left being aware, at least, of the depths of my gaps in knowledge: As I've written, the city is part public party, part secret society, and tough for white northerners to truly enter. (Though my colleague Katy Reckdahl moved down there from Minneapolis and seemed to possess the charm to bypass all the secret codes of race and family, having a baby with a black trumpet player and happily dismissing my insistance that the place was dangerous.)

Frankly, I'm just happy to see Christgau mention Mannie Fresh, and if none of these funeral speeches mentions the ReBirth Brass Band, the Stooges Brass Band, the Soul Rebels, or any of the other modern second-line groups after the Dirty Dozen, maybe that's a sign of my own neglect as well as the profession's. Like every other city, New Orleans was overflowing with vibrant and weird local culture for years, and the Stooges (who drew only dozens at their Minneapolis show last week) had toured before, but I missed them. Rolling Stone should run a photo of those guys along with the one of the Young Tuxedo Brass Band (though I'd swear that's the Eureka Brass Band in the picture). Even if they don't, it's not some huge cultural injustice. New Orleans local music, like local culture across the country, was long invisible to the national media, and still is. Not just the bounce rappers but the eccentric punk bands like (and I'm going back a few years) Blacula, or the goths bicyling around town, or the weirdo pizza parlors that popped up in the early '90s, or the Magnolia projects dwellers (where the Nevilles and C-Murder came from), or the drag queens, or the just-hanging-on CD stores, or the endless subcultures within subcultures. New Orleans could feel like an endless series of after-parties and after-after-parites in which fewer and fewer people were invited. The black clean up crew in the building where I worked as a security guard asked if I was British, and when they spoke to Mr. Brimmer, the old junk man who came by every night, their rapid patois became impenitrable. One of the black cops I worked with was arrested as part of the New Orleans 8, the corrupt police guarding crackhouses. ("You want to know how a cop affords a truck like that?" said one of the other guards, looking out at the SUV on the street. "Good credit.") And the cop who replaced him was a white guy who assisted the FBI sting. Their worlds were equally alien to me, and the white cop had that racism that never admits it's racist: He would talk about "they" a lot, but when it came down to it, he said, the issue was self-respect. New Orleans, I keep telling people, was abandoned long ago, and many inner cities are going the same way. I'm rambling.

Klan in Birth of a Nation.jpg
I found out something disturbing earlier this year, while combing through hundreds of local newspapers from 1915-1916 to research the history of the Varsity Theater--tonight's venue for DJ Spooky's "remix" of D.W. Griffith's The Birth of a Nation (which also opened in 1915). Turns out Griffith's racist totem was hugely popular in Minneapolis, as it was across the U.S., enjoying a long downtown run with prominent advertisements in daily papers. A founding work of cinema, The Birth of a Nation was also an influential piece of white supremacist propaganda, based on the book The Clansman by Thomas F. Dixon, Jr., which heroized the Ku Klux Klan for protecting white women from black men. The ranks of the KKK swelled as a result of the film's success, as did the popularity of "movies" (then still taking quotes). By 1923, the Pioneer Press was reporting the presence of a KKK unit in St. Paul, and a University of Minnesota's homecoming parade had included a KKK float (read more here). Tonight's belated "response" of sorts features the great illbient turntablist Spooky orchestrating a live, three-screen, multimedia re-imagining of Griffith's silent "classic." By now filmmaker's primary claim on history is seen mainly by film students (MN Film Arts' Search and Rescue project recently unearthed a print at the U of M) and others curious about the work's anti-inspiration for Spike Lee, so this event (featuring new imagery and music) might actually be a good way to see the picture for the first time. Showtime at 7:30 p.m. at the Varsity Theater in Dinkytown, with an after-party at the same club featuring Spooky, DJ Nikoless, and Dessa's duo with Jessy Greene, Urban Ivy. See Complicatedfun.com for a complete Sound Unseen festival roundup, and the official festival site for a full schedule.

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