Tell It Like It Is

Cyril Neville's racial and musical theocracy

Tell It Like It Is
Photo By Aubrey Edwards

Walking up the driveway of Cyril Neville's two-story South Austin home is a humbling experience for someone who grew up with him being a landmark of uptown New Orleans. A product of the 13th Ward, Neville helped define the late-Seventies adolescence of children on both sides of the Mississippi with his vocal phrasings from the Meters' "They All Ask'd for You," celebrated at just about every crawfish boil and king cake party from Chalmette to Westwego.

Beginning a decade earlier as a singer and percussionist with his older brother Art's Neville Sounds and then with his even more famous older brother Aaron's Soul Machine, Cyril added an unforgiving street flare to a family torch set aflame as far back as 1955, when Art and another brother Charles scored an indelible hit with the Hawkettes' "Mardi Gras Mambo." Considering the full extent of their world-renowned musical legacy, it's only fitting that the majesty of the Neville Brothers' indigenous R&B sound has routinely closed out New Orleans' annual Jazz & Heritage Festival.

Largely inspired by the outlandish and brazen character of his uncle, the late Big Chief Jolly, Cyril Neville represents the true, gritty character of New Orleans machismo in all its multihued splendor. Through addiction and militancy on to fortitude and activism, the life of this particular Neville traces a struggle for clarity and justice within a devil's cauldron of racism. This is a man who saw his good friend and running partner Alfred "Jake the Snake" Rudolph die in the street when New Orleans policemen refused to call an ambulance for a head-wound Rudolph sustained in a street fight. In a separate incident, Neville himself was almost murdered when one neighborhood thug held him down and another slit his neck and shoulder with a straight razor. 180 stitches later, he emerged as a scarred precedent to the oft-shot, oft-indignant Tupac Shakur.

Despite widespread fame as a member of the Meters, the Wild Tchoupitoulas, and the Neville Brothers, Cyril has been stalked throughout his life by the ghouls of bigotry and discrimination. The rights to much of the Neville's treasure-chest catalog, for instance, were weaseled from the family's grasp during leaner times. Nowadays, when an Amerie tops the charts with a song that samples the Meters' "Oh, Calcutta!" someone else collects the clearance checks. Hard-earned bitterness is no stranger to Neville, who despite a native son's affection for New Orleans has been pushed to the breaking point by his hometown. Fleeing a hurricane of epic proportions, Neville's 57 years as a target of street rivals, music industry vipers, unscrupulous politicians, and corrupt cops has finally culminated in a permanent relocation to the relatively safer shores of Austin.

When Neville greeted me at his front door, the sunny, Central Texas spring afternoon took on a most surreal tinge. His dark, knowing smile, that of a shaman, fit precariously within the lush comforts of his newfound suburban neighborhood. This stout branch of the Neville family tree, the original singer of "Fire on the Bayou," finds solace in his new Texas digs, 500 miles from a Crescent City deep in crisis. Leading the way to his dining room table, a barefoot Neville introduced me to a collection of literature relating to his views on the New Orleans situation: several issues of Time magazine, Michael Eric Dyson's Come Hell or High Water, Kevin Phillips' American Theocracy, James Risen's State of War, Si Kahn and Elizabeth Minnich's The Fox in the Henhouse, among others.

The Neville Brothers at <i>Austin City Limits</i>, 1995
The Neville Brothers at Austin City Limits, 1995 (Photo By Scott Newton)

Since the hurricane ravaged his city, Neville has been the most outspoken of New Orleans musicians, serving as a lightning rod for those affected negatively by post-Katrina politics. Catching endless flak for wearing a T-shirt that announced "Ethnic Cleansing in New Orleans" onstage at a Madison Square Garden benefit last September, Neville was publicly chided more recently here in Austin by Dr. John drummer Herman Ernest III last month at the One World Theater when the ex-Neville Brothers collaborator repeatedly requested that "if anyone sees Cyril Neville, tell him to shut up." Long accustomed to harsh criticisms snapping back at his seeming inability to mince words, Neville fortifies his adversarial position with documented research. In other words, his are no mere rants, but rather carefully thought-out implications drawn along conscientious lines of argument and theory.

"A lot of what I've gotten in trouble for saying can be found in these articles," explains Neville. "And the books explain that the game being played in New Orleans is going to be played out in a lot more cities if people don't start paying attention to what's going on. I've said it before, and I'll say it again: We're the canaries in the mine."

People in places like Haiti and Nigeria know exactly what New Orleans is currently going through. Corporate imperialism is just as brutal on these shores as it is overseas. Now that a U.S. city is so clearly being subjugated to some overseer's ill-natured conception of compliance, the hope is that Americans will finally wake up to its own poisonous influence. Focused, deliberate, pontificating like a living encyclopedia of background information on the New Orleans situation, Neville proudly inhabits a reality most Americans would apparently rather ignore and neglect out of existence.

"What happened during Katrina was not an evacuation as much as a roundup and a forced displacement," insists Neville. "It was the height of arrogance, greed, conceit, and disdain for a people who you think are less human than you. As that wind blew through New Orleans and that forced migration took place, that was the end, or at least a lot of people want it to be the end, of African-American political power in New Orleans."

Why it's considered such a stretch for anyone to connect the dots between a boldfaced legacy of oppression and gentrification of black neighborhoods in New Orleans and the marginalization of poor blacks post-Katrina defies common sense. Life in the Big Easy has always been dictated by barriers between white and black. It's no secret that the economic disparity between the two communities serve as a study in violent inequality. Of course, rich whites have been eagerly debilitating poor blacks in New Orleans like a favored pastime. Ku Klux Klan sympathizer David Duke almost became governor of Louisiana only 16 years ago. To anyone paying any attention, no degree of racism in New Orleans should be considered surprising under any circumstance.

"The carving of New Orleans wards for political and economic gain is something that goes back at least to the Forties," says Neville. "At one point, Claiborne Avenue was one of the richest African-American thoroughfares in the United States. So they put the Claiborne overpass through it. There were two rows of oak trees where you could walk in the rain and not get wet on Claiborne Avenue. People picnicked there, people had birthday parties, christening parties. Every carnival, that's where the Mardi Gras Indians would make a straight shoot from uptown all the way downtown and back. Naturally, they tore down all the trees, put an overpass through there, and killed that entrepreneurial area of the city.

Cyril Neville at the New Orleans Social Club's <i>ACL</i> taping, 2006
Cyril Neville at the New Orleans Social Club's ACL taping, 2006 (Photo By Scott Newton)

"That's the other point that a lot of people missed in what I was saying. It's hard to put into words what it was like on a day-to-day basis living in New Orleans as an African-American, because it's a proven fact in this country that no matter how high you climb up the social ladder or how many degrees and how many letters you have behind your name, if you're black, you're black, and regardless of what you think of yourself, you can get broke down right quick. You could be on your way home from a great meeting – you just did a great thing for your company and everybody is happy. You're in your Porsche on top of the world and then you get pulled over and called the big N and brought back to reality of where you are and who you are to the society that you're coming up in.

"A lot of those people that we saw in the Dome and at the Convention Center had been written off a long time before Katrina. A couple weeks before the storm hit, the oldest masking Mardi Gras Indian, Big Chief Tootie Montana, died at a meeting at the New Orleans City Council protesting how the chief of police and the city itself had been treating our culture, which since 1841 had been happening out in the streets from neighborhood to neighborhood."

Big Chief Tootie's dramatic passing not only foreshadowed the post-Katrina mayhem at the Convention Center, it put into stark relief why Mardi Gras Indian traditions are so threatening to the white establishment of New Orleans. It's the union of African-American and Native American movements that could potentially set back decades of divide-and-conquer imposed by the white establishment. These are the insights proffered by Mike Davis' recent article in The Nation titled "Who Is Killing New Orleans?" which Neville calls a detailed look into an agenda to transform his funky hometown into a homogenized casino waterfront.

"The powers-that-be only want a certain element back as far as black people are concerned," maintains Neville. "But the spirit of New Orleans is African and it ain't going anywhere. I guarantee any convention they have in that Convention Center and anything they have in that Dome will be haunted. People already don't understand that the Dome was built on top of a whole neighborhood. They've got a whole African-American cemetery underneath that Dome. Louis Armstrong's house was taken to the dump, chopped into pieces, and set on fire and a new parish prison was built on where he grew up."

Taking issue with rosy optimists that equate the survival of the French Quarter as signifying the eventual resurrection of the city as a whole, Neville's own diverse musical endeavors paint a more accurate picture of New Orleans as a center of Creole culture. Historians concede that the port city birthed jazz by way of pioneers including Jelly Roll Morton and Buddy Bolden, but that's merely the tip of the chocolate-and-cream snowball. If Dave Bartholomew and Fats Domino weren't central figures in ushering in the rock & roll era, then throw that music history book in the trash where it belongs. By way of uptown's Dew Drop Inn alone, which from 1945 to 1970 hosted a Zulu's share of ground-breaking performances, a rich roux of blues, gospel, R&B, and funk thickened first and foremost for locals rather than tourists.

"The music that people come to New Orleans to hear wasn't nurtured in the French Quarter. It was nurtured in the lower 9th Ward and in the 8th Ward, and the 7th Ward, and the 6th Ward, uptown in the 13th Ward and places that you would call the ghetto. But it was our ghetto, so we were cool with it. In fact, Irma Thomas recently made a comment that I'm glad she made because if I said it everyone would be jumping down my throat. She said, 'New Orleans didn't make us, we made New Orleans.' That's truly the way I feel.

Cyril and wife Gaynelle
Cyril and wife Gaynelle (Photo By Aubrey Edwards)

"Leading up to the hurricane, I was already in the frame of mind that the New Orleans that I loved and grew up in was already gone. I've tried to take my kids to see the places that I used to play. Well, they're gone. The majority of them are slabs on the ground. Or all that's left is a building that's all boarded up. So to me, the New Orleans that I knew disappeared around the time that the Dew Drop finally closed."

Ever since the Meters enjoyed the likes of Stevie Ray Vaughan and Edgar Winter sitting in with them at the Armadillo World Headquarters in 1976, Neville has recognized the similarities between the sister scenes. Adopting Austin as his new stomping grounds was a natural and immediate decision for the funk aficionado, not just for aesthetic reasons, but for financial opportunities as well.

"The quality of life for the majority of the people in New Orleans was in shambles," says Neville, shaking his head. "Where I lived, we were all – I don't care who – one or two checks from the poor house. I always say I was living ghetto fabulous because I was living in Gentilly. My front door was on Arts Street. My back door was on Music Street. I had a pool in the yard and a basketball court for my kids, and all the rest of the kids in the neighborhood were always hanging out at our house. Some of the best rappers in the city, my son being one of them, hung out. One of the things I miss more than anything else is those kids. I see my son missing his friends. He's going through changes here. He would have had only two classes left to go to in New Orleans, but because of where we're at, he winds up struggling to graduate. And he's not by himself. ...

"As far as the youth are concerned, when I was coming up I could pinpoint exactly who my leaders were. Kids nowadays don't have that. Well they do, but not in the same sense as when we had Martin Luther King, Coretta Scott King, Rosa Parks – that ilk of people all across the line who were in that struggle called the Civil Rights Movement.

"In recent years a lot of young people have become leaders for themselves, and I've learned many things from them. One of my favorite records is The Black Album by Jay-Z. I love that he's talking about entrepreneurial expertise. Russell Simmons is another one of those young guys that took the cards they were dealt in life and turned everything around on this society. Kanye's another one. And look at Ice-T, who went from gangsta rap to playing a cop on TV. Those are the true leaders, like Queen Latifah and all of these people who came into this thing with a frame of mind of 'I ain't getting beat.' So my son and my daughters have people like that to look to and emulate, even the Cash Money guys from New Orleans and Master P. Mary J. Blige, that's another one. They're the leaders in our community now, and when they talk, young people know that they're talking on their behalf. Erykah Badu, same thing. When those people speak, kids feel about those people what I felt about Malcolm X."

Bridging the gap between funk and rap, as well as art and politics, Cyril Neville stands tall as a fulcrum point between like-minded cultures. Long before KRS-One infused his boom-bap with dancehall chatting, Neville was incorporating reggae rhythms into his second-line repertoire. Bringing their fight from the turf to the club, the Nevilles followed the lead of their beloved Uncle Big Chief Jolly to expose their neighborhood's reverence for Native American compassion. It's that ease of sliding in and out of different musical costumes that makes the Neville's legacy as relevant today as it was during the Black Power movement.

Having contributed a stunning vocal rendition of the Impressions' "This Is My Country" to the New Orleans Social Club's Sing Me Back Home project recorded here in Austin (see "Texas Platters"), Neville sees no end to the eloquent phrasing of his contentious social observations. Along with his wife, Gaynelle, and their band Tribe 13, regular appearances at local venues including Threadgill's and Flamingo Cantina become platforms for Cyril's artistic lobbing of loaded indictments.

"For people like Herman Ernest who didn't like what I was saying before, just wait until you hear this new record of mine. And as far as anybody who would take the things I say about New Orleans as a personal attack, I feel like Bob Marley felt. If the cap fits you, go ahead and put it on your head. I hope you look good in it." end story

The Neville Brothers throw down at the Glenn at the Backyard Friday, April 28, with special guest LZ Love. The New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival ( begins the same night in the Crescent City.

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