Gentrification, Infrastructure, & Music: Building the Music Capital Recap

By Jaylin Paschal

People say that "hip hop is dead" often. So frequently, in fact, that it makes me uncomfortable. We know that the culture of hip hop is alive and well, prevailing just as its always prevailed.

So when I think of hip hop being "dead," I don't think of the genre or of the lifestyle, but rather of the industry. And of course, not just the hip hop industry, but the music industry at large. I think of the ways policy changes, business plans, and government sanctions are killing the music communities we love (or claim to love.)

As someone passionate about music, I was happy to be able to attend Georgetown University's "Building the Music Capital" conference on October 29 to discuss politics, culture, and music. The conference focused on ways to nourish the music industries and communities around the globe, and specifically in Washington, D.C.

While discussing the problems restricting these communities, I was surprised (pleasantly) to see the issue of gentrification and "development" addressed over and over again. Gentrification was, in fact, identified by several conference panelists and speakers as the most dangerous agent in the killing of the music industry. Not only was the mere process of gentrification highlighted, but also the political and infrastructural chain of events which follow.

There is a tension in the music industry's fight for life which is apparent on the political, cultural, and social levels.

Government mandated music is just as bad as it sounds. And I don't mean censorship and limits on expression, although that would be bad enough on its own. I'm talking about New Orleans laws which say you can't play live music after a certain time. I'm talking about noise ordinances surrounding historical areas of outdoor concerts. I'm talking about government fining or arresting seasoned musicians for playing music where they've played for the last fifty+ years.

As gentrifiers turn historically black neighborhoods to predominantly white, as they've done with many in NOLA, they've complained about the cultural traditions of brass bands and have had these age-old customs regulated to their convenience. The whitewashing of black neighborhoods or "development" of music communities is displacing both people and culture--the very culture which attracts gentrifiers to these areas in the first place. It is this, if anything, that is killing the music and arts scene in America. These endangered music communities persevere in spite of government in many cases, rather than because of government's investment in justice, arts, or freedom of expression. Instead of seeing music as something to be cultivated, is it viewed as an element which must be legislated out or regulated in.

Effectively, gentrifiers are ruining native cultural ecosystems. It is the most basic level of the culture war: An attack on community.

But the infrastructural issues extend even further beyond new laws and regulations. Music education programs being cut in public schools, public music venues losing funding, the lack of metro or bus stops linking communities of color to music venues. The list of ailments goes on and on, spanning from housing to education to transportation to public safety.

What we need to do is begin to ask government officials what they plan on doing to rebuild and cultivate these dying communities. What we need to do is organize music/arts strategy as a priority in city ordinances. What we need to begin to do is remind the government that they work for us.  Not against us.