On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina made landfall in Louisiana ultimately killing 1,833 people and causing $105 billion in property damage. It was the costliest storm in American history and one of the top five deadliest. Much of the damage occurred in New Orleans where the storm overwhelmed protective levees and left 80 percent of the city underwater. The communities that were most vulnerable to the storm were, unsurprisingly, poor Black neighborhoods.
Listening and Learning from Lyrics
As discussions turned toward rebuilding the city, familiar narratives of resilience were imposed on the people who previously lived in the wards and public housing projects. These narratives asserted that neighborhoods that have been systematically neglected for decades should “bounce back” in the same way as wealthier neighborhoods. Stereotypes of these neighborhoods as wastelands of poverty and crime may have helped sell the idea that the wards and projects needed to be torn down and replaced including some that were not damaged by the storm. However, the stories that the communities themselves were telling through the lyrics of “bounce rap” songs, a style of music that originated in the Black communities of New Orleans, illuminate a different side of life in the projects. The lyrics revealed the importance of the family and community support networks and mourned their loss. The voices of community members were not considered when those communities were demolished in the name of resilience, but the voices were there nonetheless.
Bounce rap emerged in the 1990s as a way for the Black New Orleanians to cope and react to the racism, systemic neglect, and insults their communities face. Bounce rap is hyper-local. The song lyrics and the names of the rappers specifically refer to neighborhoods such as 10th Ward Buck and 5th Ward Weebie. I sampled lyrics from 147 songs to identify themes within the music. Sixty-five songs that were recorded pre-Katrina between 2000 and August 2005, and 82 post-Katrina songs were recorded between September 2005 and 2010.
At the outset of my research, I expected that the lyrics would contain themes of inequality, violence, and poverty—similar to other genres of rap music. But those themes were relatively minimal in the post-Katrina music. There was also relatively little mention of the storm, although there were prominent exceptions. After two years and several rounds of thematic analysis I was still stuck with the question of why these themes were missing. Solving the puzzle of why outsiders portrayed these post-Katrina neighborhoods as a hell on earth while people from these places avoided that kind of negativity led me to question how outsiders continue to perpetuate marginalization through their characterization of Black spaces.
This realization also led me to confront the hypotheses and assumptions I was bringing to this research as a highly educated White woman who lived in New Orleans at different periods in her life before and after Hurricane Katrina. Several events exposed for me the way that narratives of resilience are continuing a colonialist mindset (1,2) in disaster scholarship. One pivotal moment occurred at a conference where a group of accomplished White women scholars had presented their work where they had successfully “built resilience” in Indigenous communities of color. I found myself asking how they concluded that the groups they studied needed or wanted to be resilient in the ways they decided.
Those kinds of questions were never asked of New Orleans’ poor, Black communities and that lack of engagement is reflected in the lyrics of 5th Ward Weebie’s "Katrina Song (F*ck Katrina).”
- 5th Ward Weebie, he back and we soldiers. / I’m reppin New Orleans till the day that I’m over. / Mississippi people y’all feel where I’m at, / same sh*t, same story, so it’ time to bounce back.
The lyrics evoke Weebie’s personal identity as a New Orleanian and a member of a community that is used to endless struggle but will not quit. In the last line he brushes off the hurricane as nothing more than his community had dealt with before—same sh*t, same story.
Rapper Mia X wrote “My FEMA People” about the destruction of her community but also as a love letter to her city. “We were left for dead, for vultures, all through the city,” she wrote but a few lines later continued: “Where my people? Y’all my people. I got love for my people. That’s right, 504 represent… New Orleans, I love you.”
Gotty Boi Chris wrote about the demolished housing projects in “Hustlaz At,” name checking the Iberville, Calliope, Melpomene, and St. Bernard housing projects and saying “a party ain’t a party” if each of those projects “ain’t in it.” 5th Ward Weebie and Big Choo also grieved the loss of poor, Black wards and projects in their song “Dip it,” mixing references to dancing with memory of the demolished communities.
Bounce rap provided a positive voice for the projects celebrating the city and Blackness despite institutional neglect and ongoing patterns of racial exclusion. It reflects a lived experience that defies the narrative that was imposed on those communities from more powerful white-led institutions and actors.
Cultivating Cultures of Resilience through Resistance
Bounce rap is only one of the ways Black citizens resisted the conditions that were imposed on them post-Katrina. They were not vulnerable because of some condition inherent to poor, Black people but because the still dominant White culture has rendered this population group vulnerable due to centuries of institutionalized racism. To quote a 2014 paper by Evans and Reid, “there is no resilience asked of those who can afford to take flight.” Resilience is often only demanded of those with the fewest resources. Black New Orleanians had no other recourse than to resist with their own culturally appropriate tactics.
As disaster researchers we need to be careful not to reproduce narratives that portray poor communities of color as inherently fragile while ignoring the role that institutional racism and neglect plays in creating vulnerability to disasters. We should also pay attention to how our discussions of “building resilience” in communities to which we do not belong can marginalize the people we are trying to help. Resilience is not something that can be imposed by White scholars on communities of color. Resilience, as well as resistance, is already present there in unique forms if we take the time to listen and learn.
About the Special Collection
This special collection of Research Counts grew out of a longstanding collaboration between the International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters (IJMED) and the Natural Hazards Center. Our commitment in this special collection is to bring key findings and ideas from recent IJMED articles to a broader audience of emergency managers, disaster risk reduction professionals, and policy makers in the hazards and disaster field.
This Research Counts article was written by freelance science journalist and editor, Zach Zorich. It is based upon the following publication:
Baker, Natalie. 2020. “‘His Game is Called Survivin’: A Resistance to Resilience.” International Journal of Mass Emergencies and Disasters 38(2): 216-233.
Natalie Baker is an associate professor of strategy at the National War College. Her research focuses on the importance of social order in instances of disruption. Examples include large-scale crises like disasters, war, or interpersonal trauma. She studies alternative forms of social order, such as criminal governance and spontaneous collective altruism after disasters. In addition, Baker works in collaboration with the Medical College of Wisconsin and Marquette University to study posttraumatic stress in veterans.