Last Tuesday, as it does each year around this time, the city of New Orleans turned into an all-out party. Mardi Gras, or “Fat Tuesday,” celebrates the last day before Ash Wednesday, which marks the first day of the Catholic season of Lent. The city’s population swells by about 1.4 million people, as tourists from across the country and around the world come to the Big Easy to feast on gumbo and “Po-Boys.”
The celebration is marked by its exuberance and excess, a 24-hour state of debauchery that ends with a 40-day hangover.
But for the Soul Rebels — an eight-piece New Orleans brass band that rocked Global Citizen’s New York office with a live performance last week — Mardi Gras is important as much for what it doesn’t showcase as for what it does.
“You don’t see when Fat Tuesday’s over, what Wednesday and Thursday and Friday look like,” the group’s co-founder and snare drummer Lumar LeBlanc told Global Citizen after the show.
Take Action: Call on US Congress to Support the READ Act
The real story of New Orleans goes beyond the colorful beads and lively music of America’s favorite party.
Roughly one in five New Orleans residents lived below the poverty line in 2014, according to the census — making it one of the major US cities with the highest concentration of poverty.
For the African-American community, the distribution of poverty is even higher than it is for whites. African-Americans make up two-thirds of the city’s population, but account for 84% of the population living in poverty, according to Brookings Institute, a nonpartisan think tank.
Most affected by the city’s economic hardships are women and children. One in four women in New Orleans were living in poverty in 2014, in comparison with less than one in five men. Nearly 40% (or two in five) children under the age of 18 also lived below the poverty line, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports.
“I still see that [poverty] every day, every morning, even during Mardi Gras,” Julian Gosin, one of two trumpet players in the Soul Rebels, told Global Citizen. “You realize there are so many people out in the street, so many people living under the bridge, living in tents.”
After Hurricane Katrina rocked the city in 2005, attracting national and international attention and shining a light on insufficient emergency preparedness in the United States, people began to notice the poverty racking New Orleans. But in reality, the poverty long predated the storm.
In 2000, “concentrated poverty” in New Orleans — or the percentage of poor people who live in neighborhoods where over 40% of all residents live in poverty — was 40%, in comparison with 30% in 2013. The city’s overall poverty rate in 2000 was 23%, compared to just under 20% in 2015.
“A lot of people wanted to say [the poverty is] because of Katrina,” Marcus Hubbard, who also plays trumpet for the Soul Rebels, said. “It’s not Katrina. Katrina made it worse, but it was already there.”
Visiting Haiti after the country suffered a debilitating earthquake in 2010, the group saw a similar phenomenon. Poverty that had existed unnoticed for centuries suddenly made the evening news after the cataclysmic natural event.
The Soul Rebels — all of whom are from New Orleans — realize that extreme poverty goes deeper than this, going hand-in-hand with other pressing issues, such as climate change, mental illness, and immigration.
The impact of Hurricane Katrina on the community illustrated the dangerous reality of climate change in low-lying coastal areas of the US.
“A lot of people just have to realize that it starts from the bottom, in New Orleans, and all of a sudden states start falling apart,” Hubbard said. “I think a lot of people are in the mindset that it’s not affecting me so I’m not going to worry about it right now.”
According to the National Resources Defense Council (NRDC), sea levels in the New Orleans area could rise anywhere from 1 to 4.6 feet by 2100. “If the impacts of relative sea level rise on wetlands are not checked,” the NRDC wrote, “metropolitan New Orleans could eventually sit on land almost completely surrounded by the open waters of the Gulf of Mexico.”
Globally, the link between climate change and poverty is clear. It is all-too-often the poorest people and countries who are most affected by climate change, and have the fewest resources at their disposal to deal with the consequences.
Being from New Orleans, the Soul Rebels are used to making these connections, even as politicians continue to doubt the real-world impacts of global climate change.
Music gave the group an outlet for educating others about the critical issues facing their community, just as it gave them a way to escape poverty.
“Music is pretty much a way of life in New Orleans,” Gosin said. “It’s helped us stray away from poverty that’s pretty heavy.”
“If it wasn’t for the arts we probably wouldn’t be here,” Hubbard said. “Everywhere we go from the United States to overseas we always promote music, arts, anything that can stimulate kids’ minds.”
There are a number of nonprofit organizations in the New Orleans area that aim to promote music education. From The Roots of Music to Make Music NOLA, these organizations are training New Orleans youth to be the next generation of Soul Rebels.
As the Trump administration threatens to dampen the arts’ education budget in the US, the role of music and art in creating a path to escape poverty will become even more important.
This is why, Gosin believes, art and music are more critical now than ever. In a time when borders seem to be closing, climate change accelerating, and homelessness still rampant in major US cities, music provides something politics can’t: hope.
“Through music there’s always a light at the end of the tunnel,” he said.