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8 Bars with Lolis Elie
Our guest is writer and filmmaker Lolis Elie.
8 bars with, is a series on Educated Guesses where we offer up 8 questions to a special guest for them to ponder and freestyle on. The questions aren't necessarily questions as much as they are prompts or linguistic ink blots meant to stimulate thought. The responses can be short and pithy, long and loquacious or somewhere in between.
Lolis Elie is a New Orleans-born, Los Angeles-based writer and filmmaker. He is the author and editor of several books specializing in history, culture and food, including, Smokestack Lightning: Adventures in the Art of Barbeque Country, Treme: Stories and Recipes from the Heart of New Orleans, and Cornbread Nation 2: The United States of Barbeque. His television/film credits include the PBS documentary Faubourg Treme: The Untold Story of Black New Orleans, and the HBO series, Treme. He was a columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, and he wrote lyrics to the jazz/rap track, “A Jazz Thing,” performed by Gangstarr from the Spike Lee film, Mo’ Betta Blues. He is a Contributing Writer to The Oxford American, and his work has appeared in a number of publications including The New York Times, San Francisco Chronicle and The Washington Post.
Elie is the son of Civil Rights lawyer, Lolis Elie, Sr., and he is a graduate of the New Orleans Center for the Creative Arts (NOCCA.), the University Pennsylvania, Columbia School of Journalism, and the University of Virginia.
1. Your Dad?
My father was a profound influence on me politically and aesthetically. He believed that the civil rights movement didn’t end when black folks got elected to high office or appointed to corporate boards. The fact so many black folks were still mired in poverty made clear to him that the work of the movement was only just beginning. He always noted that MLK’s last official act was to help the sanitation workers in Memphis. Can you imagine many of these so-called leaders giving a damn about sanitation workers in the absence of TV cameras?
Now that I’m a parent though, I have a greater appreciation for my mother. My father left us when I was 8, so 95 percent of the heavy lifting of parenting was done by my mother. I wish I had understood that better when he was alive and confronted him about it. “Every other weekend” ain’t parenting. It’s bullshit. If he didn’t understand that, he should have. And certainly men of my generation have no excuses for their absences.
2. New Orleans?
I used to say that I wasn’t especially patriotic, but that I loved New Orleans. Beyond empty slogans, what does it mean to “love” a country, a vast and varied expanse like the United States? I’m not sure. But New Orleans, I can understand. I can love. It’s a small city with an influence on world culture that belies its size. It’s a sophisticated city. When I travel and people know I’m American, they often say, “I want to visit New York or Los Angeles or Texas.” The ones that say they want to visit New Orleans demonstrate immediately that they have an esoteric sophistication that I admire.
Rudy Lombard wrote that everything distinctive about New Orleans culture derives from its African heritage. I think that’s an overstatement, but not quite an inaccuracy. Music, food, architecture—the city’s calling cards, all owe a lot to its West African citizens of yesteryear and today.
I wanted to be a jazz musician. I was a good student, but not a great musician. I studied and got competent as a guitarist. My jazz knowledge has served me well. But the main thing I took away from NOCCA was an appreciation of culture in general and the arts in particular. [Both] are as important, as political, and foundational as anything else.
4. A Jazz Thing?
Branford Marsalis was working on Mo’ Betta Blues. Gangstarr, the hip-hop group, wrote a rap that indicated they didn’t know anything about jazz. So Branford asked me to write some more appropriate lyrics. Being young-ish and arrogant, I agreed, though I didn’t listen to much hip-hop and didn’t know Gangstarr’s music. That was a lesson in a lot of ways. I thought my knowledge of the music and skill as a writer would make for good lyrics. But I neither knew nor respected the tradition. What’s worse, I never met or worked with Gangstarr. They were left to figure out how to say these writerly lyrics that really didn’t fit the rhythms and nuances of hip-hop.
So it goes …
5. Wynton Marsalis?
He really is a transformational figure. A lot of people in the history of the music could play very well. And a fair amount of people could write very well. But precious few people in any field have the breadth of vision that he’s had, in terms of trying to create an institution for the music, and have that institution be sustainable and replicable in a way that maximizes the possibility of jazz remaining viable and important in the future.
6. Smokestack Lightning/Treme: Stories and recipes?
Back to this idea of taking culture seriously. I wanted to do a book about barbecue that took this food seriously. I wanted to write about this popular American tradition with as much knowledge as anyone writing about any other food. I also didn’t want to just write about black folks, though we have been crucial to the development of barbecue. I wanted me, as a black writer, to be fair to all the pitmasters that I wrote about. But I also wanted to be the arbiter of what was good and true in this field.
The idea for the book came from Frank Stewart, the photographer. He and I were both working for the Wynton Marsalis band at the time. He grew up in barbecue-obsessed places—Memphis and Chicago. I knew little about barbecue traditions, so in many ways that book was my education.
7. Treme (HBO)?
David Simon told me, “Don’t quit your day job,” when he hired me as a consultant for “Treme.” He was too late. The Times-Picayune where I was working, had offered buyouts and I jumped at the chance. “Treme” is an incredible show in that it revels in culture. The show is about a place and its cultural icons in a way that no other show before or sense has embodied. The show also taught New Orleanians things about New Orleans. Eric Overmyer and David Simon could do that as the show’s creators because they aren’t from New Orleans. They studied and observed the city whereas locals would be like, “I know my city; I don’t need to study it.” Ah, but you do and we did.
8. Faubourg Treme (Doc)?
Dawn Logsdon approached me doing a documentary about the cultural continuity between Faubourg Treme in the 1800s and Faubourg Treme in the 2000s. Black craftsmen—musicians, writers, building tradespeople, were important in both eras. We started to make the film and then realized that the radical politics of the 1800s Creoles was largely unknown. These people were advocating freedom, democracy and equality when those things were the furthest things from the American mind. They had an all too brief flirtation with real democracy during Reconstruction. But then the federal levees gave way during Hurricane Katrina. What Dawn realized was that the questions of Reconstruction—who would be allowed to vote, who would be educated, who would own the land—were the exact same questions being asked and not answered in post Katrina New Orleans. That was a brilliant insight which gives the film the kind of timelessness that our earlier ideas might have lacked.
My sons are roughly 4 years old and 4 months old. So we have a long road ahead of us. My oldest is already headstrong and seems mostly immune to my preferences and opinions. But fatherhood gives you a voice in what can be a long if not eternal conversation. My sons and their children if they have them, might well be in dialog with my habits and beliefs for years to co
me without even knowing that they are doing X or not doing Y as an expression of the extent to which they agree or disagree with the values I’ve tried to instill in my family.
I’ve had young people in my life who I’ve cared about and whom I’ve tried to nurture. But having your own kids is a different thing. Half the time I’m excited about the future. The other half of the time, I’m counting the times they’ll have to look both ways in their effort to cross the various streets between here and adulthood.