When people talk about Hurricane Katrina, particularly in the national conversation, they focus almost exclusively on New Orleans. That city, of course, bore the wrath of the storm’s center — uncovering a failing of local and national government and infrastructure before, during, and well after the hurricane, with effects from it still lingering to this day. But with the lens pulled back, the full story of Hurricane Katrina is not only about water and the dead. It’s also a story of the living, of place and displacement.
Think of Baton Rouge, which Katrina's weather impacted in less direct ways. In the days leading up to and especially after the hurricane, when New Orleans became uninhabitable, the population of Baton Rouge swelled, almost overnight. Tens of thousands of New Orleans residents made the short journey up Interstate 10 to seek refuge in Louisiana’s capital city, causing it to burst at the edges. The school system took in nearly 6,000 new students, causing immediate overcrowding. Traffic swelled, making navigation of the city nearly impossible. No matter how good a city’s infrastructure is, there is no preparing for an unexpected population increase that rapid.
There was also a swelling of violence. In the years after Katrina, while many of the evacuees settled into their new city and gave up on returning to their old one, the murder rate across Baton Rouge briefly soared, well beyond that of other cities its size. In 2004, homicides per capita in East Baton Rouge parish were at 14.5 per 100,000 people. By 2007, that number had jumped to 21 per 100,000. Residents and law enforcement insisted that this wasn’t simply due to the influx of new bodies in the city, but rather to the lingering state of crisis and uncertainty, where crime can thrive.
So the story underneath the story is about the weight one city can carry on its own. The edges of New Orleans broke open, and there was a flood, and those fortunate enough to escape the flood became a flood themselves, and pushed the edges of another city to its breaking point. Homelessness in Baton Rouge rose, briefly and dramatically, in the years following the hurricane. People were making homes wherever there was land not touched by the ruin of the hurricane and its memory.
In 2007, less than two years after the face of Baton Rouge shifted, the remix to Foxx’s “Wipe Me Down,” featuring fellow Baton Rouge MCs Lil Boosie and Webbie, was released as a single. The original version, released a few months earlier, was a Baton Rouge street classic, but got little traction elsewhere. Comparing the original version’s music video with the video for the remix, released months after the single began creeping up the charts, is an almost comedic endeavor. The original video is blurry and shot at odd angles, while various tags and ads tremble across the screen. In the remix, there is gloss, jewelry, all of the trappings of the mid-to-late-2000s rap video aesthetic. It is like watching the difference between a city that's trying, and a city confident in a light at the end of the tunnel.
Baton Rouge hip-hop has a small history, but it also has the misfortune of being positioned less than 100 miles from the storied music culture of New Orleans. This is particularly hard for rappers from the area, given the massive influence that New Orleans had on Southern rap beginning in the mid-'90s, when Master P relocated No Limit Records from the Bay Area back to his hometown of New Orleans and began working with local rappers, garnering immense commercial success. In 1998, Cash Money Records, which had been toiling away in New Orleans with little success since 1991, got a big break, signing a $30 million deal with Universal Records, in part due to the proven commodity of New Orleans rap.
“Wipe Me Down” was a song made by three born and raised Baton Rouge rappers who were all under 25 years of age at the time of its release, which means they were, in some ways, children of the rise of Louisiana rap music. Young enough to have watched the rapid ascent in the '90s, and old enough, by the mid-2000s, to want a small piece of that for their own city.
The song is absurd enough to anchor an inspiring sing-along, perfect for both club and car, and with enough nostalgic staying power to still be a point of discussion 10 years after its release. Though not overwhelmingly skilled, the rappers, Boosie, Foxx, and Webbie, find a home on the beat (produced by Baton Rouge legend Mouse on Tha Track) and work it for all it’s worth. It matters that this was a Baton Rouge song, made by a Baton Rouge producer and three Baton Rouge rappers who were icons within their city, in a time when Baton Rouge was in the business of recovering its own identity, waiting for someone to carry it to the light.
To tell someone say it with your chest is about a negotiation of confidence. If I do not believe in what you’re telling me, I won’t believe in you. It is not exactly a measure of volume — rather, a question of defined intent, articulated in a way that people can get behind.
The first line in “Wipe Me Down” is one of the greatest opening lines in all of rap music. Foxx says: “I pull up at the club VIP / Gas tank on E / But all drinks on me,” and he says it with his chest. It is the entire thesis of the song, distilled to a fine point: I don’t have much, but what I have is yours. For this, I think of what it is to grow up poor in one of your city’s worst neighborhoods and dream of money. To grow up with an eye toward gold while young black men who look like you and come from a neighborhood like the one you come from in a city just a highway away are covered in gold from rapping. To get close enough to afford some things, but still sacrifice others.
The thing I think people get wrong about the act of the stunt is that it isn’t entirely narcissistic. Or, at least, it isn’t always an act of self-worship. There is generosity in one who goes out of their way to look fly and raise the bar of the room they’re in. There is generosity in having some cash in your pocket and an empty gas tank, and a room full of friends who are harboring a thirst, with maybe less cash in their pockets than you have in yours. To grow up poor, especially with any proximity to wealth, real or imagined, is to think sometimes that money can save you. To think that money can pull you and the people you love out of the feeling of any grief, or sadness.
To then get money, especially rapidly, is to find out that isn’t true. It’s all a myth, especially if you are of any marginalized group in America. The only answer is to dispose of that which will not save you. What Foxx was really saying, I think, is that it doesn’t matter how one gets home in a room full of people they love. You make your home wherever you and your people stop.
As someone who grew up with no money, I know what it is to want to show someone, anyone who will look, what little you have earned. Whether it’s drinks, or jewelry, or some combination of both. Whether it’s donating to a school or throwing a fistful of dollar bills to the sky. I believe all of these to be noble acts. This might seem like hyperbole, but I mean this. I say it with my chest, as I might on a night when I know my money is good in a city I love. The act of stunting, when it gets you free, is also charity.
At the end of his verse, Webbie, the youngest of the three rappers, boasts, “This chain hit me for a couple grand / Oh, no, I ain’t complaining / Just watch how you wipe my chest.” It strikes me now, that the best way to show off is to hide that which you are showing off in something else: a joke, a memory, a warning. I once knew someone who wore a thick gold rope and kept it tucked into their shirt, so that the weight of it rested against their bare chest, but the unmistakable thickness of it could be seen around their neck nonetheless, like an opulent snake. It occurred to me that this, perhaps, was truly the way to show off: Keep most of what you have at a whisper, but keep just enough so loud that it won’t be forgotten.
Many years ago, I found myself in New Orleans in the early fall, not long after Katrina blew through the city and the water, in some places, was still high. It was settled, done with its wildest moments, but still dark and mostly unmoving. I remember making the trip to New Orleans because it felt like the vague Right Thing To Do. I was young, and didn’t consider what I might do there, if I would be a burden to a suffering city with my aimless wandering. Many of my college friends planned trips to go south and “help,” which, I realized when I arrived, mostly looked like an exercise in witnessing: to see the damage up close, to stare, take it in, and to leave without actually doing much beyond sighing for several hours at a time, wondering what could be done. An older and wiser version of myself would have, I hope, chosen another action. But in September 2005, I stood on a curb in New Orleans while water pushed itself over my feet and onto the bottoms of my jeans, which were baggy and heavy, and hung thick over my sneakers so that the bottoms of them were immersed in the dark brown water.
Everything in the music video for the “Wipe Me Down” remix is large and colorful. Eras of rap fashion tend to move so fast and become so comical to look back on immediately after they’re done that the video, released in the spring of 2007, already feels like it is from an era that can barely be remembered. From 2005 until about 2008, the entire aesthetic was about how much of your body could be folded into something two, or even three times, too large. I wore extremely tall tees despite not being tall by any stretch of the imagination. My pants, too, were almost clownlike in how much of me they consumed.
In the “Wipe Me Down” video, there are airbrushed shirts swinging to the knees of the people wearing them! There are women dancing in outfits that aren’t coordinated at all, and some are wearing what looks like heavily modified pantsuits! Boosie is wearing brightly colored polo shirts that are also too big, but at least he dressed up for the occasion! They are all wearing gold like they just discovered what gold was! Webbie’s pants are so low, the waist is visible even with his tall tee dangling far and long!
The thing our parents would always say to discourage us from wearing our pants baggy and low was that we’d never be able to run away from anyone. I most love the "Wipe Me Down" era of rap fashion because it didn’t consider the need for escape as a barrier to being the flyest person in the room. Of course it is absurd to look back on now, but in the moment, it felt like the most extreme reaction to young black people being told, for years, to wear clothes that fit as a means of acceptance. Young rich black people in 4XL t-shirts and jerseys, belted pants still being held up by a hand, and no one feeling the need to run from anyone or anything.
Somewhere along the way, when established rappers began to take fashion more seriously, clothing started fitting around bodies better. Pants didn’t sag as much, shirts didn’t hang as low. And immediately, the era of hiding yourself in what adorned your legs and torso seemed foolish. We became our parents almost overnight, laughing at pictures of ourselves from less than a year earlier. And why wouldn’t we want to wear clothes that would allow us the freedom of escape? And why wouldn’t we want pants high and well-fitting enough to not become victim to a small and merciless drowning?
In The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison writes, in part, about the human investment in objects and material things as a way of tipping the scale of the righteous vs. the wrong, of poverty vs. wealth, of what gets you through the day vs. what doesn’t. In the second chapter of the book, the narrator focuses on the history and makeup of the home that the Breedloves live in. A focal point of this section is the description of the sofa. The Breedloves purchased the sofa new, but the fabric split down the back before it arrived, making the sofa look tacky and worn down. The store didn’t take responsibility, meaning the Breedloves had to continue making payments on the damaged sofa. This is most striking because of the relationship we are to understand them desiring with the sofa: something large and new, signifying status and a financial freedom that the Breedloves did not possess, but desired nonetheless.
I own more sneakers today than any one person should. Some would suggest that a person only needs three or four pairs of shoes to make it through a year: a couple good pairs of dress shoes, one good pair of sneakers, and perhaps a pair of casual shoes that fall somewhere in the middle of the dress-shoe/sneaker spectrum. I have considerably more than that. I used to say this with a lot more pride than I do now. I’ve become more conflicted about it as I age and think more about the ethics of how things are produced, or the ethics of growing up poor and now living in close proximity to people who are growing up poor, or the ethics of spending large amounts of money on that which doesn’t secure a future for yourself and whatever imagined offspring might exist for you.
I consider all of these things, and yet, I still have several sneakers. I still love the seeking out and purchasing of sneakers. I still feel the same satisfaction that I did as a young child, purchasing my first pair of Jordans with money I earned on my own. In my particular part of the Midwest, weather was unpredictable, even more so than it is in most places. In Central Ohio, especially if you were a child in school all day, sneaker choice was important. You could wake up to sun, and walk outside to a muddy rainstorm. For this, I always purchased black sneakers for myself. If I could only afford one good pair of shoes per year, I’d want the pair that I could keep clean the easiest, even in the most unpredictable moments of weather.
White shoes, for me, were the signifier. White shoes were my un-torn sofa, new and sitting wide in a living room. To own a pair of white sneakers meant that you had enough money to have options. That you could, if you wanted to, keep a pair of sneakers in your closet for a special occasion and wear the other pair when it rained, or snowed, or wasn’t perfect.
My senior year of high school, I got my first pair of white sneakers — all-white Nike Air Force 1's. I kept them in the box for weeks, taking them out only to try them on in the safety of my own home, away from the elements. When I wore them, I felt like a different person.
I am also from an era where people were killed for sneakers. Yes, it does still happen now, of course. But in the '90s and early 2000s, there was such fear around big sneaker releases that there were tricks to the process: wear an old pair of sneakers on release day and keep the new ones in your book bag. Dress down, so no one will suspect that you’re hiding expensive shoes anywhere. In our twisted and sneaker-obsessed youth, I think we found some small corner of that thrilling. To own something that another person would kill for.
The first day I wore my all-white Air Force 1's outside, it did not rain. I checked the forecast tirelessly the night before to make sure of this. When I got to school and stepped out of my car, I accidentally brushed my foot against my tire, scuffing a long and permanent black mark along the side of the shoe. And that was it. The torn fabric down the back of my sofa. My one signifier, tainted. Now simply a dirty sneaker.
It is fitting that the chant that runs through the “Wipe Me Down” hook is anchored by “shoes.” The whole point of someone wiping another down, it seems, is in the performance: If I know I’m fresh, I don’t need to tell anyone out loud, but lend me a hand and make sure people know I’m on point. The thing I love most about sneakers, perhaps the thing that keeps carrying me back to them, is that there is no confidence I have found like that which comes with something on your feet that you can believe in. Lord, let me walk into every room as confident as the shoes on my feet make me feel.
“Wipe Me Down,” on its face, is an exercise in boasting from three young rappers who just got money, but surely not as much money as they would have you believe. But that’s the trick of it: They could have you believe anything. The song is about doing whatever it takes to fake your way into the rooms that people might otherwise kick you out of. And beyond that, it was just a hell of a lot of fun.
The ride was short-lived. Foxx still trudges away on the underground scene; he's released more than a dozen mixtapes since 2009, though none to any notable commercial success. Webbie found some commercial success with his Savage Life album series, the second one, 2008's Savage Life 2, offering up another Boosie-assisted hit in “Independent.”
Boosie, arguably the most naturally gifted of the three, lost what could have been his most promising years to prison behind 2008 drug charges. He spent five years in the Louisiana State Penitentiary, from 2009 to 2014. He released one album, Incarcerated, from behind bars in 2010. During this time, also in 2010, he was indicted on federal first-degree murder charges for the murder of Terry Boyd. If convicted, he would have been staring down a maximum sentence of the death penalty, but a life sentence seemed likely, in part because of the fact that prosecutors leaned heavily on the sometimes violent content of Boosie’s lyrics and the fact that he, at the time of indictment, was involved in several other cases. In 2012, he was acquitted of the murder charge due to a lack of evidence. Upon his release, he dropped the album Touch Down 2 Cause Hell in 2015, after changing his name to Boosie Badazz. The album was both critically and commercially successful. Boosie now raps with a clarity that comes with both adulthood and, I imagine, incarceration. Still draped in gold, he is now more introspective, considering things like heaven, family, faith, and the future.
Baton Rouge has also, in many ways, recovered. Homicide rates have dropped in recent years, as have the rates of homelessness. When visiting it last year, I talked to longtime residents who praised the city’s ability to balance itself out after a hard decade. People were in love with their homes again. People finally stopped looking backward.
For all three of the rappers at the center of “Wipe Me Down,” but especially for Boosie, the song feels like a brief and bright moment, with comical fashion, which burned out as quickly as it arrived. But there is something special in that, too — in three young black rappers, trying, in a moment of peril, to put their city on the map. To build themselves bigger than they were. From the sneakers up.