It was a Monday afternoon, and I slipped into an Uber. My driver was wearing a 4:44 baseball cap.
I queried, “Hey, did you read the Jay-Z op-ed piece in the New York Times on Meek Mill?”
He replied, “Umm, don’t be offended, but you don’t look like a person who’d be familiar with Meek Mill!”
After I dismissed the chic art world uniform and explained to him that the love for hip-hop was a way to connect with my teenage nephews, we pondered together Mill’s unjust prison sentence for minor infractions related to his probation. Jay-Z leveraged his megaphone to call out a criminal justice system bent on severely punishing black men and keeping them incarcerated.
We continued the hip-hop thread and bandied about who were our favs. Both of us, being of middle age, gravitated toward Kanye, Kendrick, and Jay-Z, their lyrics morosely self-reflective and socially impactful. We were less impressed with the party music of Future and Migos, rappers coming out of the Atlanta scene.
We were now on a first-name basis.
“Karen, where are we headed?”
“Well, Donnell, do you have a couple of hours, and we can tour the city through your eyes? But the first stop is Crescent Park. I want to see the bridge by David Adjaye.”
Daylight was just beginning to fade as I climbed the steep staircase. It was at once practical—the bridge’s high arch easily cleared the railroad traffic underneath—and poetic, a reminder that getting to the top is often a chore. As I descended, I was welcomed by the river and stopped to watch a lone skater on the wharf’s pier.
When I returned to the car, Donnell had already mapped out a short journey to take me through the Lower Ninth Ward via one of the main concourses, St. Claude Avenue, and then along the gridded streets of the newish homes near Jourdan Avenue where the levee broke during Hurricane Katrina.
Painted in light pastel tones and simple patterns, many of Brad Pitt’s Make It Right Foundation-redesigned houses in the Lower Ninth Ward have awkward silhouettes and sit on heavy concrete stilts. It’s not quite a ghost town, but it’s not fully inhabited either. At the intersection of Jourdan Avenue and N. Johnson Street, we both got out of the car and examined what we hoped would be a more enduring floodwall, part of the $14.5 billion hurricane protection system.
Donnell reminded me that many of the black homeowners in the Lower Ninth Ward had passed their homes generation upon generation, and when the flood destroyed their property, more than 50% were not in a position to rebuild, and instead left and never returned.
The streetlights had turned on, and Donnell suggested one more stop.
“How would you like to meet the big chief of the Yellow Pocahontas tribe?”
“I’m tripping! Yes, yes, yes! I just saw an exhibition of suits by Darryl Montana at the Jazz Museum.”
Donnell made a couple of phone calls to set up the visit to Big Chief Shaka Zulu. He was still working in his gallery, Golden Feather, and I decided this was the right moment to reapply my lipstick.
In French colonial Louisiana, the first people enslaved were Native Americans. Later, enslaved Africans and native people covertly traded goods, shared information, and eventually intermarried. Many black individuals who escaped their indentured existence found refuge in these indigenous communities hence the term “Black Masking Indian.” The first New Orleans Mardi Gras parade took place in 1837, and in 1885 approximately fifty Plains Indians in native dress marched unannounced in the procession. It was an act of celebration and defiance. Tribes consisting of both Native Americans and Africans began to form, and later, rivalries were centered on whose big chief donned the grandest suit.
As we pulled up to the gallery, Donnell pointed out Congo Square across the street. During the 18th and 19th centuries, enslaved Africans were allowed to congregate on Sundays, and in 1817, an ordinance was decreed that their gatherings had to take place in a designated location—Place des Négres, informally referred to as Place Congo. Here, markets were set up, and displaced Africans sang, danced, and played music, allowing ethnic cultural tradition to remain part of their lives.
As we entered the modest space, part workshop, part gallery, Chief Zulu greeted us. I may have read too much into the situation, but his preternatural calmness belied the immense responsibility he was shouldering. Former Big Chief Darryl Montana had inherited the esteemed post from his father, Allison “Tootie” Montana, considered the dean of all chiefs. Tootie disavowed the violent history of Black Masking, which was once used to settle disputes among rival gangs, and refocused his attention on sustaining the tribe’s heritage and presenting it to a wider public. Chief Zulu was the first chief chosen outside of the Montana family to lead the Yellow Pocahontas tribe in four generations. He concentrated on sharing details of suit-making: the long hours, the labor of love, the intricate bead—and featherwork, the significance of the patches, and the storytelling woven into the suits. The gallery is a vehicle for supporting the expenses of the annual ceremonial garment.
When we left, Donnell pointed to the gallery’s storefront window where a colorful save-the-date poster announced the performance Voices of Congo Square on April 20, 2018 at the Orpheum Theater. As it turns out, Chief Zulu and his wife are the directors of this new musical and dance production that celebrates African Carnival traditions. Donnell designed the logo, and he and his wife, Verona, run a small marketing firm called Verbal Slick.
“We are dreaming of an eight-city tour. Chief Zulu is our client, and that’s the reason he agreed to see us tonight!”
“Well, that’s what I call serendipity.”
Serendipity is like jazz—it’s all about improvisation. By chance, I found a guide, and together we encountered a city filled with resilient architecture such as a Cor-Ten steel bridge, dozens of houses on stilts, and 133 miles of reengineered walls that promise to be indestructible. How apropos—in a city synonymous with its music—that Donnell and I began on the beat of Jay-Z and drumrolled our way to Chief Zulu. Two African American men building platforms, albeit of different scales, that demonstrate a kind of cultural resiliency. Hip-hop, just fifty years ago, was a rebellious, counter-narrative musical form. It’s now an industry juggernaut, employing thousands and creating a system in which African American rappers can obtain and maintain economic success and independence. Chief Zulu is part of the Mardi Gras Indian Council, a multi-tribe effort to organize and find ways to participate in the New Orleans tourism economy. The Council recently received a $500,000 grant from ArtPlace America to establish a hub for archiving and educational activities. Voices of Congo Square is an artistic expression of self-preservation and self-determination. And that makes it quite hip-hop.
Karen Wong is the Deputy Director of the New Museum in New York and traveled to New Orleans in November 2017 to see the citywide triennial of contemporary art, Prospect.4.