After Hurricane Katrina hit the city of New Orleans (NOLA), causing massive destruction in its infrastructure and leading locals to evacuate their homes, uncertainty and fear loomed over the city. While many officials thought about how to fix what was left broken, others were worried that the City would lose its musical identity and cultural contribution to the world – a part of what made it what it was. In response to this massive destruction, two entrepreneurs established a company to not only preserve the city’s musical identity, but also to empower its artists. Three years after Katrina hit, musician and artist manager Jay Pennington and multi-media installation artist Delaney Martin brought their company Airlift to life.
The Birth of Airlift
“Post-Katrina, [there] was a lot of uncertainty this about the town itself coming back. [For] artists who did really come back…the town sold up pretty quickly with RDC type folks in general, but there weren’t any audiences for those artists,” Pennington says. “You had plenty of people to play with, but no one to play for, which is difficult in a town like this where you could survive off music before Katrina, and so there was a little fear that a lot of artists might leave and have to go to Nashville or wherever else to make their way.”
Realizing that there was still demand for music and musicians in the City, Pennington says that they thought of an idea to give artists opportunities by thinking of “how do we [Airlift] make it so that people can go away and maybe make some money and come back and [not] have to leave. Maybe you leave short-term, you don’t have to leave permanently.”
The founders started working on projects that reflected their intention to bring the musical scene back to the City. If an artist from outside the City wanted to work with a New Orleans-based artist, Airlift would facilitate that and help bring the artist to the Big Easy.
“Our first project was with Big Freedia, who is a rapper from here, and a producer from New York who wanted to come down and do some projects in New Orleans,” Pennington says, noting that the company facilitated that relationship. Pennington states that the concept developed further: “When an artist wanted to travel, we would kind of support that, whether it was a visual artist or musician or what performative artist whatever, and that worked out really well…for a couple of years.”
The company started its project six blocks away from where it is now in a metal fabrication warehouse called Met Fab. “It was a really good example in my opinion of that kind of shift from a brick-and-mortar style industrial facility to an artistically driven facility that will [be] strong, and has [in its] past iterations such strong educational components [making an impact on] the city via musicians…so it’s a pretty nice shift,” Pennington says.
Airlift continued to evolve and became more than just a platform to connect artists residing inside and outside the Big Easy. In 2009, the house next door to Pennington’s was slowly falling apart, so the community started taking it down gently and saved all the wood. The community talked about what to do with that wood for a couple of years before they developed the idea of making it into something musical. From that point onward, the series of musical exhibitions and installations named MusicBox started.
“We liked that idea, so we did that from 2010 to 2011, but then the structures themselves made from an old house were not really viable, so we folded them hard and we started in again with an idea of building a transportable version of this so we can move it from place to place,” Pennington adds. “We went straight to the Historical District Landmark Commission and brought our model of the big house that we wanted to build straight to them and we said: “This is what we wanna do, we respect the architecture of the neighborhood, we respect the architecture of the original house that was here and we want to reflect that in the design. We are going to use this wood to build a sort of a memorial to the house that was here,” and they thought it was a great idea.”
The company created a movable house that can be transported from one place to the next, and the idea found its crowd. With MusicBox, the company managed to respect the city’s architectural history while innovating, allowing them to play music in an unprecedented way.
“We all obviously think that…what a lot of people see as blight has some beauty. We live in a swamp, what are you going to do? Things fall down, things fall apart and we thought it would be really beneficial to try to take this aesthetic and carry it forward as opposed to… [building over it] or whatever,” he says.
Success and Beyond
It is safe to say that the company has captured the resilient spirit of New Orleans. Airlift has a full season of programming that started recently. The company is planning to hold four or five concerts that focus on local artists this season in an attempt to build a strong base of local performers “…so that when we bring in outside performers to interact with us, there’s sort of some people here in town who have the language already down.” Pennington adds that for next season, Airlift will start an educational program that would allow them to work with schools and help develop musical schools that can be unique to New Orleans.
Pennington concludes: “I think overall, I see the City…continuing on this expansion phase. I don’t think I can even look five years down the road and tell you where we’re going to be because things have been changing so fast, but provided that the people who are moving into these areas respect the history and respect the traditions here, we should be able to grow in a pretty steady way and [remain] respectful of the culture.”