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“The Resilience of the People is What Carries This City Forward”: Poet Sunni Patterson & Hip-Hop Artist Truth Universal Reflect on New Orleans Two Years After Katrina

StoryAugust 31, 2007
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We end today’s show from with a pair of spoken word acts from New Orleans: poet and performer Sunni Patterson and hip-hop artist Truth Universal. [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re broadcasting from New Orleans from the Lower Ninth Ward, so hard hit after this hurricane of two years ago you would think that it only recently happened, except for the tall marsh grasses that are almost completely covering much of the area.

As many of the homes were destroyed, grassroots groups here like People’s Hurricane Fund, as well as Common Ground Relief, are trying to save the houses from the destruction of the bulldozers, the damaged houses that people want money for to simply repair.

The destruction here, you don’t see as much on television. The French Quarter downtown, they’re doing much better. Here in the Lower Ninth Ward, many of the homes you still see destroyed. We went yesterday around the area, churches, schools still wrecked. Others gone entirely.

We’re joined right now by two people who have been dealing with this issue in their own way — through culture, through music, through art — Sunni Patterson and Truth Universal, two musicians. I saw Sunni yesterday at the Convention Center two days ago, where there was a ceremony on the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina hitting. You both come from New Orleans.

Truth Universal, talk about where you were the day Katrina hit.

TRUTH UNIVERSAL: I’m originally from Trinidad and Tobago, but I’ve been here since I was four. But the day the hurricane hit, I had evacuated to northern Louisiana, western Louisiana. Well, the day before, we left.

AMY GOODMAN: And when did you come back?

TRUTH UNIVERSAL: I came back in December — December after. You know, December ’05.

AMY GOODMAN: And what did you find?

TRUTH UNIVERSAL: Not much. Destruction. I didn’t come back to the city, actually. I actually lived in Gonzalez, Louisiana up until actually last month.

AMY GOODMAN: Sunni, where were you?

SUNNI PATTERSON: Well, I’m from actually right on the other side of the bridge on [inaudible] Street. And the day of, we had just made it to Houston maybe around 9:00 that morning and was just amazed to see what had happened. Of course, we were thinking that we would be back in the city Wednesday, you know, thinking we were just going on a little family trip at some point. And it’s like a million Wednesdays have come and gone since then.

I came back to the city maybe December, not for good. That was actually one of our first poetry readings and shows that we were just able to do after the storm, where poets from all over that had been dispersed, you know, were able to come back to the city. And what I found when I got back to my home was literally nothing. We had a sweet shop, my aunt’s house, my mother’s house, my house. And it was just rubble when we got there, you know?

AMY GOODMAN: I want to ask if each of you could share some of what you’ve been sharing with this city, as you perform all over. Truth Universal, let’s start with you. You’ve got some time.

TRUTH UNIVERSAL: Yeah, I’m an emcee. So I usually have music, but I’ll do something a cappella.

I’m on a come up,
but I keep my eyes on a bigger plan,
a Trinidad reside in a home of two trigger mans,
where the schools groom the youth to serve a life sentence
and choppers getting fired like they’re on The Apprentice_,_
almost illegal to try to get a piece of the pie.
The levees break, and they leave you to die.
The state’s sitting on billions,
the city’s still tired, it can’t afford to rent,
so my people’s still scattered.
Ain’t like we ever mattered,
so I ain’t surprised
both poverty level and black death on the rise.
The hoods stay flooded with guns,
'cuz we don't know who to sue.
Rich people want the land, they at the root.
Developer plans concealed like 9-MMs,
like the Rhodes Funeral Home, they dying to get in.
Coming live from where we ride
two-foot rims, and where diamonds
they make Africans lose life and limb.

AMY GOODMAN: Truth Universal. Sunni Patterson, you have a way of weaving the story of Katrina back in time centuries and forward. The microphone is yours.


So we know this place,
for we have glanced more times than we’d like to share
into eyes that stare with nothing there
behind them but an unfulfilled wish
and an unconscious yearning for life
though death rests comfortably beside us.
At night their moans are louder.
They come to visit the guards at the gate,
and they stay until morning
torturing their guilt-ridden insides.
The silent cries of the keepers are louder
than the booms that come from the guns
they use to occupy the space.

And we know this place,
for we have seen more times than we’d like to imagine
bloated cadavers floating through waters of a city gone savage,
foraging the land for what can be salvaged.
But what can be saved when all is lost?
It happened in August, twenty-nine days in.
We are now five days out of the only place
we knew to call house and home.
Few things are certain:
one, we have no food;
two, there are more bodies lying at the roadside
than hot plates being distributed
or first aid being administered
or recognition as a citizen.
Fourteenth Amendment, X, refugee, check.

And we know this place.
It’s ever-changing yet forever the same:
Money and power and greed, the game.
They suck and devour the souls of the slain.
What a feast for the beast at their table of shame
with napkins around necks that catch the blood that drains
from the flesh they chew, it’s hailed again.

And we know this place, all too well,
dank with the smell of death and doom.
It hovers, it smothers, no growth, no room,
no pretty, no please, just grey, just gloom,
just burned me of hope, and it died too soon,
just juckin’, just jiving, just living, we just fools.

And we know this place. It’s decked in all its array and splendor,
golden streets with good intentions
capture our attention, gadgets and inventions
pesticide the food supply, flu-like symptoms,
diabetic condition, a cancer in the system,
held on hold, it’s a pistol to the temple.
Go run to the churches, tell reverend it’s simple.
Good works and good deeds is what equals redemption,
but tell me, please, Jesus never mentioned,
how do churchmen get extensions on freedom,
while children are being fondled
from the altar to the streets, then back to the sanctuaries?
It’s kind of scary, ain’t it?
to know that both the prophet and the priest practice deceit,
then come to the people and claim peace, peace,
come to the people and claim love, love.
But where is the peace, huh?
Where is the love?
Where that balm in Gilead
that can heal the wounded soul
or make the half-man whole?

I swear, we know this place,
because we have vowed before never again to return,
but here we are, back in the desert,
dry mouth and thirsting for waters from Heaven.
But come, come, children, rally around,
and maybe together we can make a sound
that will shake the trees or rattle the ground,
make strong our knees,
we’s freedom bound.

And we know this place.
Reclaim the crown.
Hold onto the prize,
never put it down.
Be firm in the stance,
no break, no bow,
got to forward on, Mama,
make your move now. Forward on, Papa,
make your move now.
Forward, dear children,
’cuz freedom is now.

AMY GOODMAN: Sunni Patterson. Truth Universal, just take it from there.

TRUTH UNIVERSAL: On that note:

The forecast said
expect more than wind and rain rocking the trees.
And you know we got to see, so we opted to leave,
do the evacuation usual, I suppose, half-a-rustin’,
by ambush with two days of clothes.
Next day, man governor stand before me
Category Four evacuation mandatory.
We got soaked like the words the weatherman’s spoken,
like with [inaudible] in ’65, the levees had broke.
Seven to ten feet below sea level in most sections,
can’t reach fam, aint’ no cell phone connections.
On news, I just view women, children and dudes
stranded on roofs with no water or food,
while the response time lacked,
because we was black,
too busy thugging in Iraq.
Where the government at?
Moving snail’s pace, thousands displaced,
with no home,
for shelter, forced to enter
Convention Center and Dome.

AMY GOODMAN: Sunni Patterson, can you take it from there?

TRUTH UNIVERSAL: Of course, she can.


So I’m from a stock
that pitch cocktail bombs and hand grenades.
We pour cayenne pepper around the perimeter of the building
to keep the police dogs at bay.
I’m like the Panther Party
in the Desire Housing Projects in New Orleans.
I’m about to turn the gun on the National Guards.
Take a long, long look.
I’m a cook in the kitchen
asking the missus to taste the dinner
take a long, long sip,
'cuz death ain't always this good.
It’s eyes popping out their sockets.
It’s a lifeless body rocking backwards and forwards.
It’s a boy stabbed forty-seven times
in front the church house.
It’s a man forty-three years old,
who’s stuffing his penis in a nine-year-old girl’s mouth,
and all don’t always taste good
just don’t sound like something I want to eat often.
I hear them say
it was like a train came through the room
left mama so depressed she was unable to move
until this one day.
It was like a few months after the hurricane.
Husband and child found the trinity bloody in bed.
His wife, his son, his other daughter was dead,
and on the end table there was a letter that read,
it said, “I couldn’t stay here,
not for one minute longer,
and it made no sense for me to leave here alone, ’cause who would take care of my babies
with their mama gone?”
I’m telling you, death ain’t always good.
It will leave you fending for water and food.
It will riddle up your body in the Audubon Ballroom
They’ll El-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz you,
crown you king, then dethrone you in a Lorraine Hotel.
They’ll disfigure your body to where folks can’t tell
if you Emmett Till or not,
tell the mama, “Keep that casket open,
let all the world see it ain’t just burning in Mississippi.”
Hell, it’s hot wherever you be,
from the rooftop to the cell block,
step on up to the auction block,
and bend over,
touch your toes,
show your teeth,
lift her titties,
examine his balls,
now, this damn near sounds like a hip-hop song,
but it’s slavery at its peak,
it’s a circus for all the freaks.
They’ll warn you, “Caution when you speak,”
can’t afford the truth to leak,
but will say “Blessed are the meek
and are the ones who make peace
and are the ones who are persecuted
for the sake of righteousness,”
for we say theirs is the kingdom,
earth is their inheritance.
So no matter how treacherous,
they’ll try to trap us in them trenches,
and they’ll dig deeper ditches,
but all that matters is this.
It’s like which side will we pick,
or which path will we choose.
It’s either win or lose,
'cuz death don't come in vain,
not for us to remain enslaved
or our spirits to remain in cages.
It comes so we might be courageous
to fulfill our obligation to our God and all creation,
stand in determination,
able to look death right in the face
and say we made it,
we made it,
we made it,
we made it.

AMY GOODMAN: Sunni Patterson, Truth Universal are our guests. Truth Universal, you can take it from there.

TRUTH UNIVERSAL: Can I? [inaudible] follow Sunni.

I still can’t believe it,
even with the water receded.
[inaudible] water line came home to a 2:00 a.m. curfew.
Before there wasn’t peace,
not streets flooded with beasts,
Homeland Security and military police
always on patrol.
This defeats the whole free American theory.
Sunni, they’re in complete control.
City’s so diminished, but we ain’t finished.
Hard to say life goes with half the Ninth Ward gone.
Engineers say faulty levees and coastal erosion
left us susceptible, but people heard explosions.
In this case the mayor’s race a joke,
Landrieu’s parents ran tanks on black folks.
Now, Nagin got rich, a political whore,
used to be poor, but don’t care about the people no more.
Put those two [inaudible] before those at the Dome,
some almost killed,
and say we use the same timeless model to rebuild.
The best example of gentrification that I’ve ever witnessed,
look to [inaudible] on CNN,
but now we on the list.

I’ll stop right there.

AMY GOODMAN: Do you have hope here in New Orleans, two years after the storm?

SUNNI PATTERSON: Certainly. Certainly. We have to have hope. And to have hope, we have to be brave. To have faith, we have to be brave. Cowards can’t have faith, and cowards don’t have hope. And I don’t think New Orleans is a city of cowards. I know New Orleans is not a city of cowards. And the reason I say that is because a coward says that nothing can be done. A coward says that to have hope is useless. A coward says that. But the strong and the brave know that the mighty hand of the most high is strong. And the brave know that the mighty spirits within the people, that the resilience of the people is what carries the city forward.

So I’m glad to say I’m of this stock that can come forward, that even in the midst of hearing stories that we’ve heard today, that even in the midst of all of the tragedy and the chaos, that the spirit is so triumphant, you know, that we can work to make things happen, that we can work to make things move, that, you know, our minds are strong and intact. We might be crazy every now and again, you know, but the main thing is to have hope, is to have faith, is to have love, and know that we’ve overcome so many things. Like our elder says, you know, we’re products of the ones that they couldn’t kill, and we’re here because we couldn’t be killed. That’s the only reason why we sit here right now, because we can’t be killed. What type of DNA is that to have that run through your body, that in the midst of all of these Middle — and this was no different from Middle Passage or anything else, the same tactics.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Sunni Patterson and Truth Universal, thank you. Thank you very much.

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