The day before Hurricane Katrina changed New Orleans forever, Troy Sawyer of Troy Sawyer and the Elementz never could have imagined he’d be where he is today. “I’d planned to move to New York where musicians were allowed to be more progressive, tourists in New Orleans mostly want you to play traditional music and I wanted to expand my sound.”
His evacuation story is like so many others and he and his family went to Texas to escape the storm. “I normally ride [hurricanes] out, but it was something about Katrina that made me feel like I had to go. It was a Category 5,” he said. Watching The Oprah Winfrey Show’s coverage of what happened to his home made him thankful he left. “I’ll never forget, there were 10 of us all sitting around watching it. Seeing my people on TV suffering, knowing that could have been me, we all cried. It was emotional for everyone.”
The then-Southern University of New Orleans student transferred to the University of Texas in Arlington to try and continue his studies. His matriculation didn’t last long before he answered New Orleans’ call. “I had an older cousin, who I look up to, return to New Orleans and he kept trying to get me to come. I was completely affected by seeing so many people and my city struggling, I knew I had to go back home.”
When he returned to New Orleans, exactly six months after evacuating, he was greeted by something that didn’t quite feel familiar, “It looked like a cemetery.” The city was a shell of its previous self. And no people in the city meant there were no gigs for the lifelong musician. “I wasn’t able to play music professionally, so I got into construction. I came home to help rebuild my city and that’s what I did.”
While he was helping others get their lives together, he wasn’t so sure about his own future until his mother told him about a new program that provided housing for musicians. Musicians’ Village, the brainchild of Branford Marsalis and Harry Connick Jr., was the first large-scale construction project since Katrina was created to give affordable housing to one of the most important, yet most vulnerable groups in New Orleans, musicians.
Helping musicians rebuild their lives likely played an overwhelming role in the city’s recovery. “Without artists being able to afford to live here, there’s no New Orleans culture that tourists come to experience. There’s no way I’d be in New Orleans without this community.” Aside from offering a path to homeownership, Musicians’ Village provides support by creating community and giving access to resources like a recording studio for musicians.
If Sawyer had one complaint about his neighborhood it’s that companies have added it to their “Katrina tour” map. A “Katrina tour” is when people pay around $50 each to ride on bus and receive tours of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. The tours put everyday people living everyday lives on display like they’re animals in a zoo. Tour organizers make lots of money exploiting others’ pain, and damaging these people’s roads in the process. “It’s terrible, Sawyer says, if I’m headed out my front door and see a bus coming, I just go back in the house.”
Isabelle Cossart defends her Katrina tour enterprise in a BuzzFeed piece by saying, “I never allowed tourists to get out and take photographs in the areas where refugees in white hazmat suits came on the weekends to sift through the flood-soaked contents of their ruined homes.” Though these tours in the Ninth Ward are supposed to be illegal, Musicians’ Village and other neighborhoods are still being exploited by people who refer to New Orleanians, in their New Orleans homes, as “refugees.”
Sawyer says the new curiosity around New Orleans has changed the culture of the city. “Tourists used to limited themselves to Bourbon Street, but now that want the authentic experience of people who live here.” He says that and the influx of new residents who don’t honor the history of the city, have drastically changed the culture. “The areas that were just for [natives] feel very commercial now. There are so many people out to capitalize off of the organic culture of the city now.”
He calls the city “a new New Orleans,” but believes it will always maintain the essence of the people. As the city has changed, he notes his music has also changed and that the experience of evacuating, seeing his city and his people in pain can be heard in his music now.
While never considering Hurricane Katrina anything positive, the “nu-Jazz” trumpeter has been able to make the best out of his experience with the storm and the resulting opportunities. “I’ve grown in so many ways in the last decade. I’ve taught in schools and learned so much from that experience. I have a better appreciation for how some charter schools are more concerned with money than children. I’ve grown as a bandleader, making sure that every member has a hand in the creative process.”
Calling post-Katrina his “second time around,” he’s focused on always looking at the positives and although honest about life, he wants to find good, even out of bad situations. “My goal is to use my life and music to help the next person.”
For more information on Troy Sawyer and his band, visit www.troysawyermusic.com.