New Orleans rapper Slangston Hughes is balancing two careers — as a musician and an activist for the music community.
As community outreach coordinator for the Music and Culture Coalition of New Orleans, a big part of his job is working with street musicians, which can be hard on a schedule. He spends some days in MaCCNO’s office on the phone and in meetings, but he may also be on Frenchmen Street after midnight talking to brass bands.
On Friday night, Slangston Hughes (real name: Renard Bridgewater) will be part of a night of live hip-hop at Three Keys in the Ace Hotel. He and his band Fo’ on the Flo’ will open for Detroit rapper Black Milk, who’ll perform with funk band Nat Turner.
Bridgewater’s a hip-hop classicist and believes in the importance of turntables to the sound of rap, but performing with a band allows him to interact with the band like another musician and shape, maybe even extend, the moment in a way that’s harder to do when locked into the pop song format by a DJ.
“I can take a cover of Lil Wayne or Future and drop that on the hook on one of my original songs,” he says. “There’s so much versatility and creativity I can achieve within the music and within the performance with the band.”
He has a new track, “Free,” due out next month. “It’s two verses (is) on what freedom looks like to me,” he says. “It’s the overall, internalized struggle that people who look like me have dealt with for so many years. I’m speaking my truth to that.”
Once that single is out, Bridgewater will move on to record an EP with Fo’ on the Flo’ some time this fall. He has the songs, some of which he has performed with the band for a few years now. When he gets in the studio, he’s driven to get the job done and done well. The challenge is time.
Bridgewater has to balance his hip-hop career with his work for MaCCNO, which has taken on the role of intermediary between New Orleans’ music community and city government.
The organization began in 2012 when The Circle Bar, Siberia and Mimi’s the Marigny all dealt with problems presenting live music — problems that created the feeling that the music was under attack.
In September, MaCCNO celebrated its fifth anniversary, and its role has become less reactive and reactionary since the early days.
“A lot of it in the beginning phases was specifically in regard to pushing back against the crackdown on music venues and noise ordinances,” says Bridgewater. “It came to a point where we had to retool and refocus that energy that was created in 2012 and funnel it into something that would be viable for everyone.”
For Bridgewater, specifically, that means working with street musicians to help them improve their relationships with the city, the police, and sometimes each other in a business where the spots they play can affect the money they make.
He works to make sure that musicians aren’t taken advantage of but that they’re not taking advantage of others either. That frequently means dealing with the countless unspoken rules that govern street performers’ professional lives, many of which evolved before any of the current generation of performers in the French Quarter were born.
Street musicians can become competitive for locations since some spots are more lucrative than others. There are no official rules that govern who plays where, but the community knows that musicians have to pay their dues to move to prime real estate — something new performers don’t always understand.
Bridgewater and MaCCNO also have worked to get street musicians to see themselves as part of a community with French Quarter musicians and residents to reach better long-term results, even when those musicians have been relatively free to play when and how they wanted.
"It’s about being able to push culture, but being able to push it in an appropriate way that allows everyone to function,” he said.
The challenges his two gigs pose are very different, but Bridgewater sees how they have fed each other.
His experience as a musician helps him understand the musicians he works with, and working with MaCCNO has opened some doors that were previously closed to him. His material draws on hip-hop’s tradition of critiquing the structures of power, and working with street musicians as they deal with the police, business owners, and city government has sharpened his thinking.
“It has driven the social commentary to a new level because I have a new lens to see things through,” Bridgewater says.
Slangston Hughes and Fo’ on the Flo’ opening for Black Milk with Nat Turner
WHEN: 9 p.m. Friday, July 27
WHERE: Three Keys in the Ace Hotel, 600 Carondelet St., New Orleans
INFO: threekeysnola.com, (504)-900-1180