By Samjah Iman
Abandoned houses, tenantless fields, neglected businesses, and the look of timeworn agony etched on some of the native’s faces are just a few indications that Hurricane Katrina left more than a small mark on this City. Many of the people here wear the remnants of the hurricane like a badge of honor – it’s their war story; for others, it was a nightmare that forever changed the trajectory of their lives. While some New Orleanians occasionally ponder on the horror caused by the travesty 13 years ago, one young man reflects on The Big Easy’s newfound notoriety, as a result of Katrina, that has caused an influx of non-native creatives to flock this way.
New Orleans bred rapper, producer, and visual artist Nesby Phips is no stranger to the creative community here in New Orleans. Having traveled all over the US performing his music, he holds strong to the old adage, “there is no place like home.” “New Orleans is where creativity is fluid and unrestricted.” boasts Phips.
Since Hurricane Katrina, there has been a major inpouring of non-native artists to this City (I’m one of them). Celebrities like Solange Knowles, who fled to the city in 2013, often brag about the je ne sais quoi New Orleans possesses. The Don’t Touch My Hair Singer was quoted in a 2016 Vogue article saying, “I really, really love it there [New Orleans]. It is also one of those things you can’t put into words, you can’t really put your finger on what is so magical about it.” According to Phips, the magic was in this city before Hurricane Katrina. It’s just that people from other places are just now starting to recognize the beauty in what New Orleanians simply refer to as living.
I sat down with Nesby Phips seeking answers on what he believes attracts us non-native creatives to his city, and why he thinks people are choosing New Orleans over any other major city.
Exactly when do you think the post-Katrina creative influx to New Orleans started happening?
I think it started happening in the last four to five years. In the beginning it was a brave thing to come to this city after the hurricane because there wasn’t life here. But recently, the word is getting out about the city. The allure about the city got out. Not that people weren’t visiting here at first, but between that, the internet, the popularity of the city and certain well-known artist tapping into the city…. the word just got out. But it’s been alluring, some people are just now catching on. Like Playwright Tennessee Williams who moved here from Mississippi said, “America has only three cities: New York, San Francisco, and New Orleans. Everywhere else is Cleveland.”
So, what do you think attracts creatives to this city?
Some people come down here looking for that sauce that we have, hoping it rubs off on them. The word also got out about the opportunity for creative people to come down here and live cheaper. For what a struggling artist in LA is paying for a one bedroom there, they can get a two-bedroom comfortably in an historic area like right off Frenchmen. And they can just sit in the street and play their guitar.
There’s also a proverbial dialect on your creativity when you’re from here…. just like West Coast rappers have a certain way they pronounce words; a New Orleans horn player has a certain way he plays his horn. The same thing for a painter here, we paint in bold colors. It’s colorful in our architecture.
Art is all around here. That’s how we see things here, colorfully. Look at a Mardi Gras Indian costume. We are colorful people. We are peacocks. People are drawn and attracted to it and some creatives come down here to emulate that. Some artist come down here and pick up on the New Orleans aesthetics and add it to their art work. I’ve seen artists who are not from here but moved here, then go out of town to perform and build themselves as a New Orleans artist. Because when one says that they are from here, it means something to the world.
Another reason people are attracted to this city is because after the hurricane, a lot of us were dispersed to different parts of the world. And when you go to other states talking how we talk, dragging your words like we do, cooking how we cook – you get everybody’s attention. And now they want to know what it’s like in our City.
So, people come here and get inspired and moved by New Orleans’ creative people and culture. And this is a way of life here. So, is it safe to say New Orleanians are creatives by default?
What people are referencing as creatives, it’s just us being expressive. The average Joe has a beat in him here. The average Joe got a song in him. The average Joe has a chant in him. The way we talk is very melodic and has a cadence with the whooooooaaaaaaaa. That’s a note. My daddy used to greet his friends by chanting, “where y’at, where y’at, where y’at lil daddy!” That’s how they simply spoke to each other…. sounded like they were rallying troops. There’s a rhythm to everything here. There’s a rhythm, there’s a taste, there’s a roux to everything we do. There’s a core ingredient to everything we do. It’s not flavorless here.
Do you think the allure of the city was there for creatives before Katrina?
Yes, but the world didn’t know about it. It was a hidden city. We weren’t apart of mainstream culture until after Katrina. Katrina put our name in the lexicon. It was in everybody’s mouth. We had our success with rap groups like Cash Money and No Limit before Katrina, and people knew what our street rap sounded like, but they didn’t know about the streetcars or the other history we have or the other talents we had like singer-songwriter Frank Ocean. If it wasn’t for Katrina, Frank Ocean would have probably not gone to California and jumpstarted his career.
Why would some creatives choose New Orleans over New York City?
There’s a lot of variables. New York is a metropolis. It’s Wall Street, garment district, diamond district, etc. There’s so many layers of commercialism laced into their culture. Down here, it’s just raw and its people. We go off of vibes more. There’s not a lot of money down here so we don’t have time to be pretentious. It’s organic down here and more pure. That’s the beautiful thing about it being a newly tapped in source. We got a long time before we run out of what we have. Everything about New York has been commercialized. We are just now having major commercial success that you can identify on a pop culture level. Everything just happens here naturally. It was just a raw place where beautiful stuff happens, and no one is there to bottle it up and sell it off. It doesn’t have that sleaziness to it……though it’s coming. Commercialism is inevitable. It’s like when they found the first oil rig, they kept digging everywhere for them. New Orleans is just another creative oil rig that they are going to hit.
Who are some of your favorite New Orleans-born creatives?
Definitely Aaron Neville……he has a cold, sweet voice. Mahalia Jackson for sure. No one sounds like her. I enjoy Frank Ocean as a songwriter. Jay Electronica is one of the greatest emcees and personalities to come out of New Orleans. He’s nothing short of a legend. Artist Ceaux Young…. he has a brilliant style of painting, and he’s a multi-talented individual. Lil Wayne is one of the best rapper/writers of all time. Currency has a crazy pen. Patrick Melon is one of the best photographers out there. Not only does he have a style, he has a specific subject he sticks to which is Black New Orleans. Artist B-Mike of Studio BE has made an imprint on culture, and he did it off of sheer drive.
What in New Orleans sparks your creativity?
I get inspired just by waking up and going outside. Getting out the house and brushing up against the other things that are around like hearing and being at the second-line or going to hear a horn. You got other cities where you can’t see live music seven days a week for free. Down here we have several options of it. It’s just in the air here. I’m a part of it. Everything has its own little twist on it here and that plus me being a creative already influences me. When you leave out your door in New Orleans, you see that everything has a rhyme, riddle, sway, and step to it. And that’s just what it is.
Check out Nesby Phips’ projects on all music streaming apps and stay tuned for his upcoming live album Therapy. @nesbyphips