The non-profit advocacy group for New Orleans' music and culture community has a benefit coming up Friday at Three Keys to help pay for its work.
Who can forget those crazy days of 2012? We all sang along to Fun.’s “We Are Young” because we were, and “Call Me Maybe” by Carly Rae Jepsen because we might. A fresh faced Supreme Court upheld Obamacare, and Sean Payton had a season to get good at sudoku after being suspended for his role in “Bountygate.” That summer, a series of shocks rolled through New Orleans’ music community when The Circle Bar was cited for not having the proper permit to present live music, Siberia had trouble getting its live music permit, and Mimi’s in the Marigny dealt with noise-related issues. Zoning seemed to be the enemy of live music, and people had had enough.
That September, a rowdy community meeting at Kermit Ruffins’ Treme Speakeasy sewed the seeds of the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, also known as MaCCNO. The fledgling organization involved members of the music community advocating for the community, and at first it was fractious with a Facebook page dominated by a burn-it-down mentality from musicians and music supporters who saw their community as under direct, premeditated attack. They were unified in their desire to protect New Orleans’ music culture, and that gave MaCCNO something to build on.
The organization became a player in the noise ordinance debate that flared up in 2013, and it has continued to advocate for the city’s music community since. On Friday night, MaCCNO will celebrate its fifth anniversary with a fundraising party at the Ace Hotel’s Three Keys with performances by DJ Soul Sister, The Stooges Music Group, Cyril and Gaynielle Neville, The Bayou Saints, Chuck Perkins, and DJ Quickie Mart. The $15 in advance/$20 at the door ticket price will help MaCCNO continue its work.
MaCCNO began with ad hoc leadership that fell to Hannah-Kreiger Benson when someone else who helped her compile a mailing list backed out. “I have a fairly rare combination of traits,” Kreiger-Benson told My Spilt Milk in 2015. “I make a living as a musician, but I also have this love for nerd things and zoning laws. It’s been pretty much a full-time job for 2 1/2 years.”
Now, MaCCNO has three staffers. Kreiger-Benson is program director, Ethan Ellestad is executive director, and Renard Bridgewater is community engagement coordinator. The creation of an actual staff and Board of Directors has stabilized the organization, and that stability has made it easier for MaCCNO to respond in a considered, deliberate way that reflects historic values as well as longer-term vision. At first, Kreiger-Benson was trying to attend City Hall meetings, talk to politicians, talk to the music community, and write grants, all while maintaining a career. Once the load was better distributed, MaCCNO was able to strategize rather than simply react.
“A lot of it in the beginning phases was specifically in regard to pushing back against the crackdown on music venues and noise ordinances,” says Bridgewater, who also performs as Slangston Hughes. MaCCNO also did advocacy and mediation for musicians and street performers, and while that continues, the members had to ask themselves, “Who do we want to be as an organization?”
“It came to a point where we had to retool and refocus that energy that was created in 2012 and funnel it into something that would be viable for everyone,” Bridgewater says.
Now the project works to take traditions, norms, and unspoken agreements that exist in a host of culture-related arenas and reduce the uncertainty associated with them. That frequently means serving as an intermediary not only between the police and the performers but within the performer community as well. “Jackson Square, Royal Street—real estate for everyone is very cutthroat in those areas,” Bridgewater says. “Someone has been specifically looking at a spot or holding down a spot for umpteen amount of years, and they expect to get to that spot, and you have new blood coming in. It’s a pay-dues situation, getting those street performers to understand certain social customs.”
The unspoken—and sometimes spoken—bottom line for many of MaCCNO’s early, unofficial voices was that New Orleans’ creative class was right, and anyone who blocked it was wrong. Now, that point of view is more attenuated. “A creative has a lot of stake,” Bridgewater says, and because much of New Orleans’ culture grew out of resistance, its role in resistance has to honored today. Still, he says, “We’re going to err on the side of the law.” When a musician is using a more powerful amp or more dangerous prop than is allowed, “we’re going to push those individuals in that direction.”
MaCCNO’s job has been to take the social agreements and informal arrangements that have governed culture in New Orleans for years and turn them into policy. It uses history to shape the future, but tradition is not the last word. “It’s been happening, so why should it cease or continue?” Bridgewater asks rhetorically. “Just because it was doesn’t mean it can’t be better. It’s about being able to push culture, but being able to push it in an appropriate way that allows everyone to function.”
MaCCNO plans to hold teach-ins with street performers this fall to help them better function in the New Orleans ecosystem, but funding is crucial to help make its activities possible. Grant money helps pay for staff salaries and some MaCCNO activities, but finances force the organization to move strategically and realistically. Fortunately, MaCCNO’s stability has made it a more effective voice, and the last five years have given its staffers time to develop the relationships that make the organization more of a player in the city’s decision-making process.
“We’ve developed a better capacity for the work,” Bridgewater says.