Sue Mobley is a member of the Organizing and Facilitation Committee for the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO). Sue talks about the New Orleans Noise Ordinance, struggles women of color face in music and why women are the backbone of NOLA music.
1. How have women of color impacted the NOLA music scene? What female artist(s) don’t get enough credit for her contribution to NOLA culture?
New Orleans has so many great women in music right now! The Pinettes Brass Band is amazing. Cellist Helen Gillet is innovative and incredible. Margie Perez, Michaela Harrison and Meschiya Lake are extradionary vocalists. There’s a lot of talent here, as always. Historically, women have helped to shape every aspect of New Orleans music and culture, and that’s still true today. Women rarely get credit for their contributions, however, there is an increasing academic interest in locating and highlighting women in music.
It’s still very common for female musicians to be asked, “So you’re a singer, right?” There are some phenomenal female vocalists in this town, and I think many of them wince at the tone in which that question gets asked. There’s an implication that singing isn’t work; there’s an assumption that you’re not capable of playing trumpet or cello. There’s a seeming reduction of the musician to something decorative, perhaps an acceptable feminine role, when this question is asked.
2. Do you believe women of color face challenges white artists and Black men do not face in NOLA?
Women of color are the backbone of the New Orleans music scene. Not only are many of them performers in their own right, but collectively women of color provide both the paid and unpaid support structure that allows this city to have a cultural scene. Women book gigs, schedule practices, manage touring, etc., usually in the capacity of mother, sister or partner rather than in a formal job. In many ways, that framing, particularly the unpaid aspect, is what makes it difficult for New Orleans’ cultural economy to demand the resources and too often the respect paid to more formalized industries. We have a larger culture that undervalues the work done by women, deeply undervalues the work done by women of color, and that is as true in the music scene as it is in education or healthcare.
3. Music and performance not only drive the New Orleans economy, but it’s how many musicians earn income. How does the proposed Noise Ordinance impact families of musicians?
We already have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the idea of throwing more young Black men in jail for making music makes me a little ill.
It’s hard to know what the final sound ordinance will look like at this stage. David Woolworth, the acoustician who Kristen Palmer contracted with to do a report on our current sound levels and issues, came up with recommendations that MaCCNO (Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans) felt were reasonable and thoughtful. The draft that came out of City Council right before Christmas reflected none of that work and would have dealt a real blow to a lot of individuals and families who depend on the cultural economy. More threatening, however, has been a running theme of the “anti-noise” crowd pushing for criminal penalties and exorbitant fines as part of any ordinance. We already have the highest incarceration rate in the world, and the idea of throwing more young Black men in jail for making music makes me a little ill.
4. How do you imagine the NOLA music scene five years from now?
I’m concerned for the future of New Orleans’ music scene. As MaCCNO has been working on policies around zoning and sound, we’ve often heard the disclaimer that New Orleans’ cultural community is too resilient to be truly threatened; it’s the “well it’s always survived, so we’ll make it through” approach. I don’t argue that our cultural community isn’t resilient, but in 1950 no one thought American manufacturing could disappear either. I also don’t think “survival” is good enough. Incomes in New Orleans’ cultural community haven’t risen in eight years, but the cost of living has skyrocketed. Gentrification is pushing communities of color, and particularly creative communities of color, further out of their traditional neighborhoods. Better policies for sound and better zoning for venues can help keep music in our city, but without a real effort to address incomes, equity, and housing, I’m not as confident we can keep our musicians.
Sue Mobley is a member of the Organizing and Facilitation Committee for the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans (MaCCNO), providing expertise on communications, advocacy, and political strategy. She was formerly Executive Director at Sweet Home New Orleans and has worked with New Orleans cultural community for a decade in various roles at Habitat for Humanity and the New Orleans Musicians’ Assistance Foundation. Her academic background is in political science and anthropology, and she sadly is not a musician, due to a lack of talent!
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