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Let Me Charitain You: Measuring Artists' Impact on the Gulf – From Kanye to Treme

To mark the sixth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina this week, we're highlighting articles and artwork from GOOD's New Orleans Issue, originally...

“George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Whether or not you agreed with Kanye West’s assessment of the form president’s flyover response to Katrina, there’s no denying those seven words demonstrated exactly how potent a punch an artist can deliver—especially an A-list rap star on a live feed. Of course, if we’re relying on the Louis Vuitton Don to tease out the systemic failures of a national catastrophe, we’ve got some real problems on our hands.

That’s not to say artists haven’t had a powerful and lasting effect on the Gulf Coast over the past five years. Brad Pitt’s Make It Right and its LEED Platinum homes have helped transform the Lower Ninth Ward, U2 guitarist The Edge’s Music Rising foundation has donated thousands of instruments to local musicians, and the financial and housing resources provided by Sweet Home New Orleans, a nonprofit organization designed to help keep New Orleans musical traditions alive, have all made measurable impacts. They have helped people in need while keeping the media’s glare on the recovery efforts when the million-dollar checks have stopped making headlines (or headway).

There’s also no denying that in this era of perma-catastrophe, you can drop a roster of “charitainers” into a hot zone for a Live Aid–>

“Let’s be honest, not many creatives are willing to get a boat and look for survivors to fish out of the water like Sean Penn. Nor should they be expected to.”

“The problems we’re trying to tackle here are billion-dollar problems, and if we get a $300,000 infusion we’re thrilled,” says Sweet Home New Orleans’s director, Jordan Hirsch. However, he notes, “the most beneficial actions I’ve seen have come from artists who physically came to the city, really took some time to absorb what was going on, and then crafted a response that made sense for them and the work that they do.”

He cites efforts by the Indigo Girls, Jon Langford, and the Moldy Peaches’s Kimya Dawson as great successes because those artists have a solid grasp on web outreach and fan participation. The Indigo Girls auctioned off opportunities to perform with them in New Orleans and took their time investigating which organizations would be best served by their donations. For his part, Langford created visual art for the charities he worked with, while Dawson peppered her website with blogs and links about her efforts. Let’s be honest, not many creatives are willing to get a boat and look for survivors to fish out of the water like Sean Penn. Nor should they be expected to.

“The biggest thing to consider is return on investment,” adds Hirsch. One of the best returns on investment in his mind has been the work of the HBO drama Treme—a show about the eponymous New Orleans neighborhood, which is considered the heart of the city’s musical culture. In this case, the show’s producers have employed a revolving cast of local jazz musicians as actors and helped to license and sell their music through its website. It also put a lot of sympathetic faces in place of the abused, most notably with the compelling turn by Clarke Peters as a displaced Mardi Gras Indian battling against the criminal insurance industry and equally criminal federal government’s refusal to reopen the housing projects. (Today, there are still 60,000 blighted homes in the city, the most in America.)

Despite all that, the Treme co-creator and part-time New Orleans resident Eric Overmyer admits, “I don’t know that television shows have social or political impact.” He may be right. Despite being picked up for a second season and fawned over by critics, the show has seen a steady decline in ratings since its premiere, which garnered a respectable 1.1 million viewers. At the end of the day, it’s a show about New Orleans culture, not public policy, but poignantly plucked heartstrings can lead politics.

“I think what’s remarkable about the recovery—both in a good and bad sense—is that it’s largely been generated by individuals, volunteer groups, church groups, and some celebrities,” says Overmyer. “The government response on all levels has been remarkably slow, and one of the big questions we’re going to be dealing with in the second season is: Where did all the money go?”

Hey, somebody’s got to do the due diligence. With oil spilling into the Gulf of Mexico, any misuse of Katrina funds doesn’t seem to be a priority with the current administration. But unless the feds plug the leak and hold BP accountable for every penny of damage, don’t be surprised if another A-lister—or maybe Kanye himself—delivers Obama his own verbal haymaker. Should Treme make it that far, it’ll have its say, too.

Illustrations by Rebecca Rebouche.

This article originally appeared in GOOD Issue 020: The New Orleans Issue, on newsstands now. Read more from The New Orleans Issue here.

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