essence fest, new orleans: obama speaks, jazz keeps quiet

A schoolyard basketball court under a strong sun isn't the best place to discuss race and politics in America, certainly not for two middle-aged white under-the-rim players wilting a bit from the heat. But that's what I found myself doing yesterday, in between games, sharing with my buddy some of the details of my last trip to New Orleans, for the Essence Festival.
(My piece in on Barack Obama's appearance at the Superdome Thursday night is here.)

Anyway, one thing led to another and said buddy ended up advancing the idea that issue analysis and electorate-segmentation by race is no longer useful or even accurate -- that there is no black vote or voice, per se (I'm paraphrasing him here, so apologies to said friend). His logic went that the races are commingling biologically to a point where things are literally "no longer black and white"(he said that part, I'm sure), and that divisions and coalitions along the lines of income, class, region, religion, and profession matter as much or more.

I will admit that a recent academic study that found racial bias in the calling of fouls during NBA games seemed nothing more than badly skewed statistical silliness (like I said, the basketball court doesn't lend itself well to such discourse). But I know that especially during my time spent in New Orleans, I've met a while lot of black folks who are quite sure of their distinct identity as both a potentially empowered voting block and as clearly designated focus of disenfranchising efforts. I'm not sure where I'm heading with all that, and likely toward little more than trouble, but that's what came up when we put the ball down.

One thing the Essence Festival -- a three-day conglomeration of concerts, seminars, book signings, and merchandising - makes clear is that there are some 20,000 attendees and a convention center full of marketers, not to mention politicians and activists who are banking on the fact that there is a black market to be courted for votes, social and political activism, and product promotion. And the presences (or not) were telling, if unsurprising. The two leading Democratic candidates were there; not even a flyer for a Republican was in evidence. Sony was there, Apple absent.

brought the love, but not the jazz

Though the return of the Essence Festival to its customary home, New Orleans, was widely celebrated (it had relocated to Houston last year due to post-Katrina problems) and despite the fact that the Superdome was filled with music for three nights on a main stage and four ancillary lounges, largely and conspicuously absent was jazz (or New Orleans music of any style, really). Save for the Rebirth Brass Band (at the Chevy Superlounge), there were no New Orleans bands booked. And though a few smooth-jazz/fusion artists (Najee, Rachelle Ferrell, Pieces of a Dream) were booked at Superlounges), there was no real jazz to be found.

This is neither oversight nor conspiracy. Ask any jazz-label marketing manager or music promoter: By and large, jazz does not appeal to the black audience (and when it comes to marketing, analysis along racial lines still means a great deal). It's a curious fact with many threads of meaningful explanation, worth delving into at another time. And it's a fact that was all the more pointed in the beleaguered iconic city of jazz culture.

Though I have no aspirations to become a political reporter (I've little stomach for such coverage even as a reader), I do think there's real value in analyzing campaign-stop appearances in New Orleans, too see which candidates are willing to place the future recovery needs and the scandalous inaction and mismanagement to date near the top of their agendas, as well as just to hear who among the field can articulate the situation with clarity, compassion, and purpose. (I'll try to post tomorrow about Hillary Clinton's appearance at an Essence Festival seminar, the day after Obama's speech). I hope that New Orleans will emerge as one important litmus test for at least the Democratic candidates: If we challenge then enough on these issues, maybe we can assure that New Orleans lands squarely on the Oval Office to-do list.

July 9, 2007 9:47 AM |


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