The familiar noise of freeway traffic overhead and sirens in the distance were recently interrupted for homeless residents by the pulsing sounds of popular local musicians performing inside the New Orleans Mission.
Hit Me America, an organization that pairs songwriters and musicians with a live audience to produce a hit song, teamed up with the nonprofit organization to give an audience of homeless patrons an uplifting opportunity to exercise their creative talents.
“The mission is more than just a shelter, it’s more than just about food and clothing,” said David Bottner, director of the New Orleans Mission. “It’s really about change.”
Bottner said he jumped at the chance when songwriter Ewell Smith and producer Steven Scaffidi presented the idea.
“Anything we can do to entertain our guests, take their mind off their plight, even if just for a moment,” Bottner said, “is so worthwhile. When we can do that, we speak to their heart and we give them hope.”
The mission, Bottner said, aims to address the three “Rs” among homeless: to rescue them from the streets, help them recover, and re-engage them into the community. This project, Bottner said, easily fell under the re-engagement component.
“We find labor for them, we teach them to paint and do carpentry,” Bottner said, “but we have not been able to reach the artistic side of them.”
Smith, a frequent volunteer at the mission, said occasionally he’ll walk under the bridge and talk to the homeless. On one of those walks, he was given a poem written by a homeless man he knows as Jason. Taken by the artistic talent of the homeless poet, Smith encouraged Scaffidi to visit the mission with him, and the idea for the project was born.
“It was like a lightning bolt,” Scaffidi said. “I said, ‘Let’s do (Hit Me America) at the mission and get the homeless people involved,’ and there was a 10-second silence and then Ewell says, ‘That’s brilliant!’ ”
The homeless were treated to performances before the timer was set for the one-hour brainstorming, songwriting event began. Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. led artists on stage that included Eli Seals, John Autin, TJ Zino, Todd Adams, Reed Alleman, Dustin Hymel, Doc Miles, Blaine Babineaux, Terry Gillis and Wanda Grant as he held the microphone out to the homeless audience and asked them to shout out their lyrics.
“Hard times don’t kick me no more!” a voice yelled, and Rockin’ Dopsie Jr. turned to the band and said, “Give me a blues in E-flat.”
As the band began playing, a woman in the audience contributed, “We’re all God’s homeless children, wandering in this place, unless we give our lives to him, we’ll never know his grace.” Her lyrics were met with rounding applause.
“That’s the song, people!” Ewell yelled out.
“Play that thing!” Scaffidi told the band, and later, “We need two more verses and a chorus.”
The jam session produced the track “Hard Times Don’t Hit Me No More,” and it was recorded last month at Rabadash studios in Covington, with 100 percent of the royalties from sales benefiting the New Orleans Mission.
“Even if it’s just one person, and even if it doesn’t bring them to ‘American Idol,’ they will still be recognized for a gift that God gave them,” Bottner said, “a gift that now they get to use that’s just been hidden under a bridge.”
London Howard was one of the participants of the event. He has eight months left before he graduates from the mission’s one-year spiritual-based program, which he credits for saving his life.
“I sold drugs. I did so much time — I spent 11 years of my life in prison,” Howard said. “I never have to go back again. It cost me a fortune to work for the devil, but God is free.”
A live video recording of the song being performed at the mission is online, and the Hit Me America single, “Hard Times” by Eli Seals, Rockin’ Dopsie Jr., Ewell Smith and the Mission Disciples will be released at www.hitmeamerica.com.