- Associated Press - Saturday, September 30, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - In the summer of 2012, dozens of musicians and cultural stakeholders shoved themselves into Kermit Ruffin’s Treme Speakeasy, where they talked about the city’s enforcement of laws affecting live music.

From that meeting came an announcement that venues could continue hosting live music as they worked to get their permitting in order, remembered Hannah Kreiger-Benson. It was a victory, but that meeting also spawned something much bigger.

“The next Wednesday afternoon, a bunch of people came back,” she recalled. “There was this clear sense of potential energy in the room — kinetic energy — like what could be done if all this could be harnessed?”

Soon, a structure came into shape as more meetings were held, and Kreiger-Benson was asked to co-lead.

“Slowly, slowly, slowly, MACCNO took shape,” she said. “It really was this amazing coming together of people taking their time and coming on their lunch breaks, and, to everybody’s amazement, it really started to stick.”

MACCNO — the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans — was formed over those meetings, growing out of a reality in the shifting post-Katrina city that something in its cultural community was at stake. Now, the nonprofit is celebrating its fifth anniversary with a party and fundraiser scheduled for Sept. 29, but for the first time also faces a new political administration as New Orleans nears another mayoral election.

“What we talk a lot about now is, how do we make sure gains we’ve made are concrete?” said Ethan Ellestad, MACCNO’s executive director. “With a changing administration, a changing City Council, with staff-members coming and going, how do we make sure that the changes that are not quite formalized end up becoming formalized in some ways but are not limiting?”

Kreiger-Benson estimates about 85 percent of the organization’s first year was dispelling rumors about New Orleans‘ cultural community and the laws affecting it. MACCNO has continued to play that role at various points throughout its existence.

“It was always sort of piecemeal — if there was some sort of legal issue, if something was on fire, some sort of challenge … that was the need we were beginning to see,” she said. “This gap between (policy) and music and culture people.”

The organization’s first focus, then, fell toward zoning. Venues were facing issues at the time with music permitting, which then developed into a focus on a proposed noise ordinance. The ordinance would have lowered the city’s acceptable sound limits and changed how noise complaints are handled. But hundreds of musicians turned out to protest when it was scheduled for discussion in a City Council committee meeting, effectively squashing the proposal.

It was MACCNO’s first major victory.

“That incident gave us a major boost,” Kreiger-Benson said. “And, in some ways, it put us on the map.”

With that came more scrutiny. From the beginning, Kreiger-Benson and Ellestad focused intensely on vetting every detail of MACCNO’s communications, a process Kreiger-Benson called “an insanely concerted effort to be credible.”

“We were making our voice un-ignorable,” she said. “I was told early on that you can’t speak for anybody because musicians have no credibility in this town, which is an astonishing and tragic and true thing, at the time. That reprimand gave me a lot of fuel to think, well, we’re going to make ourselves credible.”

“It’s much harder to argue when we’re clearly correct,” Ellestad added. “You can double-check it. You can triple-check it. But we are correct.”

Over the past five years, other victories have come in the shape of zoning adjustments and the development of a street performers’ guide for the city. Still, challenges lie ahead as MACCNO’s three-person team tries to solidify issues they’ve only previously fixed through “a spit and a handshake.” They’re looking, too, at larger issues affecting the city’s culture-bearers.

“Who created most policy in New Orleans for the vast majority of its history? Wealthy white men. Wealthy white men are not the bulk of musicians in this city,” Ellestad said. “If we’re looking at the way we address these issues, we have to do it through a social justice lens, and I think increasingly our work goes that way.”

Renard Bridgewater, MACCNO’s community engagement coordinator and the latest staff-member to join the organization, pointed toward legislative action and communication with the city’s artists, musicians, Mardi Gras Indians and beyond.

“Regardless of who’s going to be in office, for us, it’s about continuously making sure those individuals are informed and they understand how any individual who takes over the mayor’s office or who sits on City Council … can affect their livelihoods,” he said. “If something occurs that needs their specific voice valued and heard … let’s make sure they know what’s going on.”


Information from: The Times-Picayune, https://www.nola.com

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