RHYME SCHEME: Slam poet Staceyann Chin headlines a benefit for the New Orleans Women Artist Collective.
A home is more than a structure, more than a safe place to lay your head. It’s community, continuity, and belonging.
“How do we get through to a people who have gone through so much?” asks New Orleans slam poet and musician Sunni Patterson. She lost her Ninth Ward home to Katrina, evacuating to Houston with only two dresses. Now back in New Orleans, living in the Tremé, she’s addressing the effect of the storm on her own life, and on her community. “We need basic things — food, clothes, and shelter — but what about the emotional aspect and the spiritual aspect?”
Answering those needs is the two-pronged mission of NOWAC, the New Orleans Women Artist Collective. A collaborative with strong Boston ties — co-founder M. Tye Waller lives in Roslindale — the organization will host its third local benefit, a women’s-poetry-slam contest March 29 at the Milky Way in Jamaica Plain. “Dangerous Divas” will feature slam star Staceyann Chin as well as New Orleans’s own Patterson and Asali DeVan; there’ll also be a slam segment open to all (sign up atwww.nowac.org).
Formed after Katrina to assist women artists in their “journey back home,” according to its mission statement, NOWAC performs the very practical outreach of home rebuilding; it also provides outlets for such artists to create. The original goal was to help Angelamia Bachemin, a former Berklee School of Music professor and friend of Waller’s, rebuild her New Orleans home last December; NOWAC has since gone on to repair the plumbing for Sister Andaiye, of the musical group Zion Trinity. Ongoing projects include restoring the homes of Charmaine Neville and Mother Tongue’s Dorise Blackmon and retiling singer Irma Thomas’s bathroom.
“How would you feel if you had to go on the road without a home?”, Waller asks. “I want to help them rebuild, get that home base, and from there they can jump off and do their music. They can jump off and do their art. Be the person they were prior to the flood — get back to some sense of identity.”
For Patterson, whose sleek slant rhymes capture the sounds of the city, the aim is to re-create community through words and music. “You have people who lived in the Ninth Ward for years who had never gone past Canal Street. So to be displaced, to be exiled to a city hundreds of miles away is traumatic. My aim is to focus on the spiritual.”
That spiritual aspect, for Patterson, may be conveyed through the sounds of home. “How now do we celebrate a wedding? How now do we celebrate a funeral? We could grow up here all our lives and hear second-line music all day. But when you hear it, it brings a sense of home and community. It don’t get no better than this!” To revive that spirit, she says, her new poetry “has this extra New Orleans swagger to it.”
DeVan, a teacher as well as a poet, didn’t lose her Tremé house. However, the Tremé, which she notes is the oldest African neighborhood in America, lost so many people that the community has been changed, if not shattered. “It’s like I live in a different place.”
These changes, she adds, have influenced her work. “I write a lot less poetry now and more prose, more short stories in an attempt to document and capture the way New Orleans was before.” Although she still performs older poems, verses imbued with political and social conscience, the new work is important to her. “I’m trying to define precisely what it is that we’re trying to recapture and preserve. Because it will never be that way again.”
“DANGEROUS DIVAS” | Milky Way Lounge and Lanes, 403-405 Centre St, Jamaica Plain | March 29, 7 pm | 617.524.3740 orwww.nowac.org.