When artists become famous on the backs of great tragedy, what suffers? Do they lose agency over their message, with the commodification of art and culture becoming more important than the intent of the original work?
Brandan “BMike” Odums, a 29-year-old mixed-media artist, tries to confront these questions in his work. The New Orleans native co-founded 2-Cent Entertainment LLC in 2005 as a grassroots media collective using hip-hop culture and emerging technology platforms to tell stories aimed at community advocacy and change. In 2013, he started the 2-Cent Summer Session, a camp that provides young people with media education and incubates new community-minded artists.
Meanwhile, Odums’ own work has tremendous public and critical acclaim. Project BE, a 2013 graffiti mural series, involved Odums surreptitiously putting up stunning portraits of black socio-political and artistic heroes like James Baldwin and Malcolm X all over the infamous and hurricane-damaged Florida Avenue public housing complex in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward prior to its demolition. He continued this thread of work with #ExhibitBE, the largest graffiti gathering in the South inside a five-story abandoned building that attracted over 100,000 visitors last year.
We caught up with Odums on the phone between his many mural-painting stops. In this edited and condensed interview we talk about the genesis of 2-Cent, the context of his work in a “recovering” New Orleans, and how officials and opportunists have manipulated the city’s collective happiness against it.
Describe your experience with Hurricane Katrina. Were there any specific events that planted the seed in launching what eventually became 2-Cent Entertainment?
BMike: When Katrina hit, I was a student at [University of Louisiana]. A few friends of mine were playing with the idea of creating content that spoke specifically to our individual needs. That’s why we called it 2-Cent, it was like we were putting in our two cents. We were really inspired by Dave Chappelle and “Chappelle’s Show,” as well as wanting a connection with our elders. What Hurricane Katrina did was make everything that much more real, in terms of understanding things like the idea of neglect, racism from a structural point of view—all from a real-time perspective. We wanted to create from that perspective, speak a certain truth. Katrina also forced us to take it seriously—after Katrina, everybody that was a part of this group from college were all displaced in different areas, and we needed to make an effort to come back together for that purpose alone. Our work became super-intentional during that time.
How do you view the changes to New Orleans’s creative scene during Katrina and the ten years since?
There’s been beneficial and destructive changes. We have to start with the idea that in the city of New Orleans—and I would argue in most cities—the culture that was created typically come from the poorest communities. You can make that connection in New Orleans when you look at the food, the music, Mardi Gras Indians, or whatever it is you love about New Orleans culturally—you can argue that it exists in the poorest communities. So one thing that changed post-Katrina is the huge, blatant attempt to restrict the amount of affordable housing, and in turn, reduce the amount of poor black people who are able to live in the city. It’s almost comical, how hypocritical it is that in one breath, you praise the beauty of the culture of New Orleans, but in the next breath, you want to eliminate those same cultures from coming back to the city. But that has always occurred even before Katrina. But Katrina helped speed up this process, which affected the amount of people who can create and live.
The beneficial part has been that there were a lot of people, with good hearts, who came to New Orleans with the intention of trying to do good things. They would create projects with better access to capital, and initially, it would be about them and these new organizations. But as a result of the intentions of their projects, they would connect to existing projects. Someone might come, for example, from out of town and start a new thing that receives a lot of attention. But then, people would focus on the fact that organizations who have been doing similar things for thirty or forty years next door weren’t getting attention. That has forced people to appreciate even more the things that have existed here.
You work with young people in New Orleans. Do you feel, from them, a sense of hope about the future and their ability to pursue their livelihoods in the city?
Yeah, something that resonates with young people—and is also a double-edged sword—is that people in New Orleans traditionally learned how to thrive regardless of the situation. To make a little out of a lot, to make beauty out of pain, is embedded in who we are. There was an idea that New Orleans was the home of the happiest poor people, and there’s a lot of truth to that. We’re going to be happy regardless, because to have a good life in New Orleans doesn’t require a lot. On a lot of these streets, you can hear musicians play, and not have to pay a dime. There’s a certain access to a happy lifestyle that exists regardless of how much money you have. From that perspective, New Orleans people are always able to look at the bright side or keep a smile on their face. When you speak to young people, or to any people in New Orleans, you see that neither Katrina nor anything that happened after that is going to stop them from being loyal to the city that they love.
But that’s a double-edged sword, because a lot of people take advantage of that attitude. A lot of people make a lot of really bad decisions on behalf of poor people because they know that, at the end of the day, it’s the Big Easy, and nobody’s going to be outside of their window with an upset mob.
What kinds of decisions?
Well look at what they did to the education system! We became a part of a huge experiment, post-Katrina, and there was no secret about it. All of a sudden, people decided to experiment on the children of this city with something they thought would work. It’s open-ended whether or not it worked, but it’s the fact that they were able to pull that off and do something that probably wouldn’t happen in any other city — to fire every single teacher…I don’t know anywhere else that would have worked. Not that people weren’t upset, but people aren’t dependent upon being upset to live their life. Most of the work I do with the summer camp or any youth program involves shaking that attitude off — we can’t think that this is normal or acceptable. We have to demand more, get mad, demand something.
Let’s talk about your work. Project BE was easily your most publicly-visible work, getting recognition that most artists in New Orleans don’t. Did you get a sense that people would respond in the ways that they did?
All of the artists involved, we knew that there was going to be a curiosity about the project, that it wasn’t going to be compared to anything else and that it wasn’t normal. I think, because of that, we didn’t know what the response would look like, but we knew that we were tapping into something new and that the work was important enough that we wanted people to pay attention.
But for me, the amount of attention that was received was definitely exciting and still is a huge moment in all the involved artists’ individual lives. To be a part of something that means so much to so many other people is amazing.
Explain your latest mural project, the one that you’re working on now.
This project comes from the same spirit as what it cook to create Project BE, this idea that art has power and that there’s room in the public space to change the images that people identify with. It’s damaging to a community psyche when the only images allowed in the public space are advertising, so I try to take public spaces and allow them to be used to connect to the people in that community. This project involves taking a large space in New Orleans East—which is, next to the 9th Ward, probably the slowest to gain back what it lost from Katrina — an old movie theatre that hasn’t been touched since Katrina. We partnered with two organizations, the Peace Keepers and RushCard, to create a wall of peace. Not only is New Orleans East slow to recover, but it’s one of the areas experiencing a spike in violent crime. We want to speak a message of peace and include the people of this community. It will be painted up, larger than life, so that people will be able to feel excited about and connected to this space and community.