Bringing a Horn to a Gun Fight: One Musician’s Culturally Relevant Response to Urban Violence

When music is the answer to violence

Shamarr Allen performs in New Orleans with the Martin Luther King Jr. Marching Band. Photo: From the video Bandhead, directed by Dark Brothers

A day after a shooting in a New Orleans park, a local musician retaliated.

Shamarr Allen, the New Orleans trumpeter, released Bandhead, a hip-hop driven track and video. His Nov. 23 release also features the Martin Luther King Jr. Marching Band. A day earlier, 17 people suffered injuries resulting from gunfire during a non-permitted gathering in a neighborhood park.

As usual, initial reports on the shooting had been quick to associate and hence blame the second line parade that occurred earlier in the day.

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Allen’s song is the kind of culturally relevant response to these violent streets that embraces black people, the culture, who we are and what we are supposed to be — while also repudiating the dead-end choices people make.

Allen, who has had his own brushes with the law, raps:

Deslonde Boy, trumpet save my life

And outside of moving boy; it’s the only thing I do right

I walked away from the game; no relapse in sight

Once I hit a hundred racks I quit the game on sight

See I’m done risking my life

Done risking my freedom

Done sleeping with one eye, ducking them people

Retain yourself a lawyer; you never know when you need ‘em.

That’s game the game don’t teach you cause the game’s set up to beat you.

His actions mark a stark contrast to Louisiana State Treasurer John Kennedy, who wrote earlier in the month in an op-ed unrelated to the shooting: “We’ve got to get the thugs, the dope and the illegal guns off the streets.” Kennedy went on in the piece to advocate for the law enforcement procedure called stop-question-and-frisk. Kennedy’s limited solution (It’s like Kennedy is not paying any attention to the on-going civil rights cases on that tactic) reflects his limited views of the “culture of violence.”

Ending the culture of violence in many cities will first require a common understanding what culture actually means. The disparate use of the word “culture” is on full display in New Orleans where art is heralded as the city’s greatest cultural achievement but the cultural organizing around art is often viewed as an accomplice for a violent people.

One thing is certain; cities like New Orleans are violent.

The aforementioned shooting occurred as hundreds of people congregated to participate in what was later reported as a music video recording in the Bunny Friend Park in the Upper Ninth Ward. Stemming from an apparent dispute, rivals opened fired at amidst a crowd of more than 300 people.

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In the same week, police arrested a man who confessed to shooting a Tulane University medical student who intervened in the armed robbery of a woman. Amidst the Bayou Classic weekend, of which approximately 200,000 people visit to partake in the interstate, football rivalry between Grambling State University and Southern University, a 26-year-old was shot and killed on the ever-busy Bourbon Street. In addition, robbers held up a half-dozen restaurants – all in a week.

But let’s not forget the other culture of violence. In New Orleans, the shuttering of housing projects, the Danzinger Bridge shootings and the firing of 7,500 employees ­— all in the aftermath of Katrina — should be considered violent. The poverty in which 39 percent of New Orleans children live should be considered violent. A criminal justice system that brands black men as felons and robs them of reasonable chances of achieving a middle class life has devastated New Orleans families and neighborhoods should be seen as violent.

Kennedy doesn’t acknowledge why communities have failed to jail “problems” away or how his violent policy response contributes to the culture of violence. The mass incarceration of black men helps create the conditions that keep streets dangerous. Martin Luther King Jr. taught us, “The ultimate weakness of violence is that it is a descending spiral, begetting the very thing it seeks to destroy. Instead of diminishing evil, it multiplies it.”

Not only do our so-called responses to crimes that are committed by the poor grow out of the same soil of violence, they also fertilize it.

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By incorporating the Martin Luther King Jr. Marching Band, Allen reinforces the notion that education and music are community activities that build the capacity of folk who need empowering. Allen provides the validation, exposure and messages that New Orleans needs to hear in the face of violence. It’s like Allen is speaking directly to the “all lives matter” set who asks, “where’s the outrage?” Allen replies, “Here’s the music; are you listening?”

Allen, like most black people, expects police to do their job – justly. That’s partially why we’re demanding police forces to respect black lives. Allen demands the same among those he feels confuse certain parts of black culture with negativity. Allen goes in on jazz great and fellow New Orleanian Wynton Marsalis, who has spoken out repeatedly against rap music:

Wynton Marsalis don’t like rap

So when he hear this he’s going to be disgusted.

Allen knows how criticisms of hip-hop follow earlier knocks on jazz and current misgivings of second lines – all of which are remixes of the thug stereotype. The attack on hip-hop is an attack on black men. I’m not sure if Marsalis will offer a direct reply. Nevertheless, the vigor which policing endeavors to bring people to justice must be eclipsed by cities’ efforts to bring justice to people. Communities need jobs, quality schools, accessible colleges, affordable housing, quality policing and affirming art. All of which are in short supply, which makes us a violent culture.

In a CityLab column, writer Brentin Mock asked, “Why is culture such an underrated civic tool?” adding, “The Bronx and New Orleans have demonstrated that … residents can organically develop armistice while enhancing quality of life for everyone at the same time.” The column points out how African American Mardi Gras Indians ended a history of gang violence by trading guns and knives for needles and thread. Black culture should be seen as the solution.

An understanding of the extent of violence in New Orleans and other cities will cause reasonable people to find ways to build upon urban musical heritage rather than shaming the people who create it.

Keep bringing your trumpets to the gunfight.

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Andre Perry

Andre Perry is the founding dean of urban education at Davenport University in Grand Rapids, Mich. and the author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City (2011).