George Washington Carver High School looms over neatly mown athletic fields and smooth asphalt in New Orleans’s upper Ninth Ward. The empty, beige campus looks so tidy on a sunny Sunday morning in November that it’s tough to imagine kids digging into the grass with their cleats, or filling the air with shouts when the doors open after last period. It hasn’t had time to show the wear and tear of everyday life — ground was only broken to rebuild Carver in late 2014, nine years after it was badly damaged during Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. The pristine school stands in stark contrast to the land across the street, once part of the massive Desire housing development and now, mostly, a brown and green and grayish tangle of overgrown foliage and slumping houses.
It’s an uncolorful scene, especially for New Orleans, until about noon, when the school doors open and out rolls the Nine Times Social Aid and Pleasure Club to start its second line — an annual parade that lasts about four hours and covers half a dozen meandering miles through the neighborhood and back again. Club royalty ride on a couple of small floats, sipping from oversize mugs coated in black rhinestones and wearing the parade’s official colors, black and purple, on sequined vests, satin sashes, and feather boas. The old-school bounce rapper Cheeky Blakk, born and raised in the lower Ninth Ward, hollers and bellows on a wireless mic. The rapid-fire bounce beats from her float clatter under the honk and thump of Da Truth Brass Band, whose members march behind clusters of men and women on foot.
Watch MTV News's mini-documentary on this year's Nine Times second line, directed by Zac Manuel and produced by Lily Keber:
The most visually arresting of these is a phalanx of men wearing the leather coats and berets associated with the Black Panthers, who once had a community stronghold here in the Desire neighborhood. They march in regimental step, holding up either their real fists or signs painted with stylized images of fists, and two slogans: “Black Lives Matter” and “All Lives Matter.” The lavender sashes slung across their chests say “Trayvon Martin” and “Philando Castile” and “Alton Sterling,” plus many other names that never made it to the national news, and are clipped at the bottom by rosette-ringed photographs of the dead. Some of the faces in the photos are white, and some wear police uniforms.
Hours later, after the parade has looped through the Ninth Ward and back again, Tonisha Ambeau sits and relaxes in a small park with the rest of the Selective Ladies marching club, who paraded with the Nine Times for the first time this year. They all wear the same photo on their purple brooches and sashes, which are spread out on the grass now after the long walk; their friend Stacy Howard died of cancer, not gun violence, Ambeau says, but from the roundness of her shiny cheeks in the image, you can still tell it was way too young. When Ambeau talks about the parade's dual theme, she leans on the "All Lives Matter" part, framing the divisive phrase in unifying terms: “To me, it’s not about black or white — we need to come together as one, bring values back and stop the bullshit,” she says. “It’s about respect, and you have to give it to get it.” But when she writes in my notebook, she writes her name, her number, and “BLACK LIVES MATTER, NO MATTER WHAT.”
Later, on the phone, Da Truth Brass Band trombonist Lamar Heard offers some thoughts on how paraders approached the secondary theme of “All Lives Matter” — a slogan coined in rebuttal to “Black Lives Matter” with the intent, many feel, to deliberately decenter the blackness that is the point of the original phrase. Heard sees it differently. “We want to bring awareness to the people behind the badge who lost their lives in the line of duty, and also to the people wrongfully killed by police,” he says. “It’s mainly to show that we do care about our police departments, the people who do work for us and help us out. Because we’re the people, regardless of whether you’re part of the community or whether you work for the community.”
In October, Heard played behind members of multiple social aid and pleasure clubs, churches, and local advocacy groups at the Second Line for Equal Justice, a parade intended to publicize the struggles of New Orleans’s public defender’s office, which had stopped taking serious felony cases in January 2015; it was too underfunded and understaffed to provide adequate representation for poor defendants facing huge sentences in America’s most incarcerated state. “That’s what the second line started from,” Heard says. “Community service. Something to bring awareness to the community.”
It’s unusual for a traditional Sunday SAPC second line to take on a political theme, but not strange at all for one to acknowledge death. The annual parades as they are today evolved from jazz funerals a hundred years ago, give or take, within spitting distance of the era of slavery. When a body was borne to its final rest, the hearse, band, family, and funeral home personnel made up the first line of the procession. The second line was the rest of the mourners and crowd following along. The band played slow dirges from the church to the burial — and when the departed was “cut loose” at the graveyard, the musicians would shift to joyous, upbeat sounds for the return march.
Today’s social aid and pleasure clubs, at least one of which parades every Sunday between around September and May, can be linked back to the 19th-century African-American benevolent societies that raised money for members’ health care and burial costs. They rose amid and in response to a particular New Orleans combination of systemic racism, corruption, and poverty — a messy lack of infrastructure which, mixed with laissez-faire cultural politics that allowed for the retention of African and Caribbean practices, created a need and a space for the clubs and their second lines. It was DIY community support and a vibrant vessel for cultural preservation combined.
“It draws a lot of people of different races, all walks of life, young and old, black and white,” says Gerald Platenburg, a member of the Nine Times who marched and danced in Black Panther gear. “It’s a good place to get your point across.”
The contemporary Sunday second line is all about life, and on a nice day, it’s one of the great enduring pleasures of New Orleans. The humidity in the air makes it feel soft, and in the late fall, it carries the fragrant tang of sweet olive trees in bloom. The brass bells of trombones and trumpets catch the sunlight, throwing shine everywhere. Vendors hustle wheeled coolers in and out of the crowd with crazy speed and skill, exchanging beer, sodas, and water for bills. There’s also usually at least one enterprising guy pulling a wagon where frozen daiquiri machines churn on generator power, not to mention the folks with rows of gleaming bottles lined up on the hoods of cars or the beds of pickup trucks parked off to the side, hawking mixed drinks. Spicy clouds of grill smoke signal chicken wings, hot sausage, pork chops, and tinfoil pans of jambalaya cooking and staying hot. Car clubs park their neon hot rods in line along the route. Creole-cowboy clubs clop by on horses, in leather vests and hats. Motorcyclists and ATVs rumble alongside, sending up peals of smoke from burnt rubber at strategic intersections.
Stroll along in the right spot at a second line and you’ll feel your body buoyed up on fat waves of sousaphone, pushed forward by the boom of the bass drum, vibrating to the hyperactive rat-a-tat of bounce music. Club members and attendees alike swarm the structures in their path, climbing onto roofs, porch overhangs, cemetery walls, the tops of cars, and metal utility boxes to show off their moves. It’s mass embodiment of joy, a wave of humanity swallowing the streets, claiming them for celebration and pleasure.
That November day in the Ninth Ward, even the men in black leather can't hold their Panther salutes still for long with the brass band thunder pushing at their backs — soon they're pumping their fists to the beat, then all-out dancing. Hundreds of people walk alongside and behind the parade, which sprawls and rambles along its lengthy route. In the thick crowd, it's easy for a casual reveler to miss the standards, sashes, and banners that declare the Black Lives Matter–All Lives Matter theme. Few people I ask seem aware of it — although one white NOPD officer tells me, “I didn’t know, but I agree, black lives do matter. All lives matter, but in this city, especially black lives. It’s our biggest group, as far as minorities, and until we all pull together, we’re not gonna solve our problems.” The DJ float slides by as he's speaking, blasting “That’s My Juvie” by Magnolia Shorty — the early Cash Money rapper killed in a volley of bullets in her car five days before Christmas in 2010.
Divorced from the traditional church-to-grave route, modern Sunday second lines are mapped around locations of significance to each club: the resurrected high school, a neighborhood bar, the home of a prominent member, the wild weeds or rebuilt mixed-income housing where massive projects once stood. The routes tell stories about communities, announcing who they are and what they value — which is surely political in and of itself, with or without an overt battle cry. It’s radical as hell for hundreds of bodies to celebrate being black and alive in the streets, and to totally disrupt the everyday processes of a city while doing it — stopping traffic, making noise, dancing, and affirming a vital connection to history and heritage. (The second-line tradition, although its colorful imagery is routinely used to prime the pump for the tourism-driven economy in New Orleans, hasn’t gone unthreatened, by the way. In 2006, the ACLU stepped in to challenge a massive hike — as much as 500 percent in some cases — in fees charged for the police escorts that are required in order to parade.)
“Most white Americans will associate large masses of African-Americans in the streets with protest, or what gets called rioting,” says Matt Sakakeeny, a professor of music at Tulane University who in 2013 published Roll With It: Brass Bands in the Streets of New Orleans, an in-depth look at the contemporary era of brass band and second-line culture in New Orleans. “So there’s a power of the image and the feeling of taking over the streets that [is] so contested.”
In this sense, Sakakeeny links the public display of second lines to the lunch-counter integration protests of the ’60s, which challenged Jim Crow simply by occupying space. “It’s not a protest, but its power is buried and implicit," he says. "What does it mean for black New Orleans to take over the streets? Every aspect of the sound and the presence of what’s going on is such a projection of racial pride — to dress up, look fine, and have roaring music, it’s such a show of self-pride and self-worth. There are other aspects besides the words where politics reside.”
He notes that one of those places might be the death of Stacy Howard, the young cancer victim honored by the Selective Ladies’ march. Illness and access to health care are by no means apolitical or race-blind in Louisiana, where a 2012 study found that life expectancy in the zip code that includes New Orleans's upper and lower Ninth Ward was around 57 years old — about 20 years under the national average.
“The world being in so much chaos, we had to pay attention,” Gerald Platenburg tells me. And although the parade’s exuberance might have obscured its solemn theme for outsiders, he feels that plenty of people noticed. “People came up and told us thank you, that it didn’t go unrecognized.”
Would he choose a political or activist theme again for the club’s annual Sunday in the streets?
“I don’t want to say we would next year, because we always try to do something different,” he says. “But it depends on where the world is at. If it’s in a bad place, we might try to do the same kind of thing in a different way.”