Meet Pell, The Rapper Repping A Resurgent, Post-Katrina New Orleans
“As an artist, you have to reflect what’s going on around you”
As a New Orleans native and Hurricane Katrina survivor, singer and rapper, Pell can empathize all too well with the victims of Hurricanes Harvey and Irma. His recent video for “Patience (NOLA Mix)” was dedicated to Harvey survivors, but also served to highlight a proud and resurgent post-Katrina New Orleans. The horn-driven rework of the original “Patience” draws from NOLA’s rich jazz history, with Pell employing a local brass band to give the track a Southern-fried feel. The video is also representative of his hometown’s capricious nature: The city was hit by a tropical storm during filming, disrupting the shoot and messing up a hairdo or two. NYLON sat down with the 25-year-old artist to discuss creating the video, his own experiences of Katrina, and the cultural happenings putting New Orleans on the map.
You shot the video in a tropical storm. What happened?
It's crazy. Nobody could have predicted that the weather would be the way that it was because obviously, we gathered up all of our resources around this day. I think it was cool that, given the circumstances, it actually enhanced the vision a little bit more even. We kind of fought through it in a way that allowed it to be a blessing in terms of visually; you could tell that it was New Orleans because of the way that the weather was so temperamental.
You reworked the track to exhibit old-school New Orleans influences. Did you grow up on that kind of music?
Yes. I think that it was stuff that I was listening to at a young age without even noticing it, because when you're younger, you're influenced by your parents. You don't go deep diving into music usually until you hit your teens. I feel like a lot of the stuff I was exposed to early on as a kid, I didn't know its importance, and I wasn't able to appreciate it until I left. Hurricane Katrina, me moving to Mississippi, me moving everywhere outside of New Orleans, allowed me to appreciate that sound.
Tell me about your experiences after Katrina.
The experience of evacuating was crazy. I think that nobody could have prepared for not coming back to a stable environment. It just so happened I was kind of blessed in the fact that my mom was from Mississippi, so I knew people. That allowed us to live a normal life until we were ready to go back to New Orleans. I didn't go back to New Orleans until post-college, but in terms of the people I knew when I grew up, nothing really changed. I love that about the city, because I didn't miss a beat in a lot of my relationships.
As a musician, do you feel like your platform should be put to use around issues like disaster relief or climate change awareness?
Definitely. There are a lot of different issues going on in the world that we do need to care about. I remember I was watching the Nina Simone documentary where she was talking about how, as an artist, you have to reflect what's going on around you and the times you are surrounded in, and I feel that that's especially true today because there's so much stuff going on you have to be vocal about. Sometimes I don't have the biggest voice or I don't have the best explanation of what's going on, so I have to take from other people in order for that voice to be greater. I think that it's mad important to talk about what's going on, not just to be current, but in order to shift the culture to pay attention to what matters.
What are the most important things coming out of New Orleans right now?
Tank and the Bangaz. Culturally, musically, she's it. Food-wise, I love District Doughnuts, even though I got sick as hell eating this doughnut that looks like a banana split with Oreos on top. I looked at it, and I automatically thought this was something I needed.
You also worked on La La Land. How did that come about?
I was actually working with—now a good friend of mine—who played trumpet on a lot of songs that we worked on together. I actually met him through Twitter because he had done a rendition of one of my songs, but we worked together a few times, and he reached out to me on behalf of Justin [Hurwitz], who was working on the soundtrack and the scoring for the whole film, and asked me if I would be down to do a rap verse to a song that was in the first scene in one of the cars. It was amazing, so that was a great experience. That was one of my highlights for sure in doing music.
You've been dropping singles for a while. Do we have an album on the way?
Oh, these next two months are about to be crazy. I do have a project coming. It's finally time for me to start releasing stuff consistently that aren't singles, like that are actually bodies of work, music videos, stuff like that, and it starts with this. I'm super-pumped about it because it took me long enough. It's actually a burden every day that it's not released, but it's gonna be crazy.