Silence on Sundays: the toll COVID-19 takes on second line culture

Sundays in New Orleans is for second line culture -- by definition that means getting together. But in the times of the COVID-19 pandemic, the streets are now silent.

by Chelsea Brasted
April 1, 2020

Cover photo: Matthew Hinton

Scroll through the thousands of posts on Brandon Shelly’s Instagram feed, and you’ll see the buckjumpers, musicians and community folks he spends his Sunday afternoons in New Orleans.

Shelly’s account, @Itchy_videos, is an exultant homage to the most visible celebrations put on by the city’s social aid and pleasure clubs: second-lines. And for the first time, Shelly was supposed to be one of them this season.“I had been working out so I could get my dance on, and preparing myself,” Shelly said. “I paid my money and stuff, but right now, it feels like everything is a big loss.”

 

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More Than Loss Of Second Lines

“Everything is a big loss”

Shelly is not alone in his disappointment: With the state’s mandates shutting down nearly all social gatherings as the coronavirus hits particularly hard in the New Orleans area, life as we know it has effectively ceased. For those in social aid and pleasure clubs — and for fans of their second-lines — this means particularly quiet Sundays. But more than that, it has meant the loss of loved ones. At least one of the community’s most visible proponents: Ronald Lewis, who was president of the Big Nine Social Aid and Pleasure Club and founded the House of Dance and Feathers, died while ill from the coronavirus. The Zulu Social Aid and Pleasure Club has also reported that three of its members died after testing positive the virus; another two members who died are believed to have contracted it, as well.

The community’s last outing came March 8, just days before Mayor LaToya Cantrell announced the first ban on public gatherings that effectively canceled the St. Patrick’s Day Parade and Super Sunday when Keep N It Real took to the streets.

 

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Shelly was there. His videos capture the fancy footwork, music — and, of course, the outfits. Shelly was looking forward to showing off his own when he came out with Revolution, a club that, before the coronavirus, would have second-lined March 22.

“When I second-line, ain’t no clothes coming back. I’m going to dance out the boots, I’m going to dance out the jeans, I’m going to dance out the shirt and I’m going to dance out the hat,” Shelly said.

Like Shelly, local filmmaker E. Buckles has also captured the second-lines on camera. Though he only started attending the Sunday events in his adulthood, they quickly left their mark on the born and raised New Orleanian.

“It changed my life, changed my style as a filmmaker,” Buckles said. “Ever since then, I’ve grown with it.”

Missing The Sun

“We’re an outside culture, so to take the sun and the beautiful energy of the city away from us does a lot to us.”

Hearing his friends have the same disappointment at having to stay under wraps on what would have been Super Sunday, the annual event tied to St. Joseph’s Day when Mardi Gras Indians hit the streets, Buckles scrolled through some of his old footage to cheer himself up.

“I was missing the culture. I was missing being outside. I missed seeing just the spirit of New Orleans,” Buckles said. “We’re an outside culture, so to take the sun and the beautiful energy of the city away from us does a lot to us.”

He found the joy there so infectious, he decided to share the videos online. The reaction, Buckles said, blew him away, and he hopes some of that energy can be put toward the clubs and street vendors that make it all possible.

 

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“It’s time for us to look at them and think about them,” Buckles said.

Getting Ready

“That’s part of the culture: Getting ready.”

The original state mandate for social distancing was due to expire April 13, but President Donald Trump issued additional guidelines extending that until at least April 30. Prior to that change, the next second-line on the calendar would have belonged to Ole and Nu Style Fellas.

“I want to come out sometime when it’s hot,” said Ole and Nu spokesman Askia Bennett, who said his club thinks carefully about their outfits, considering “the material, the way it shines from the sun.”

“You get into the fall and you’re looking at clouds, a rain possibility, it’s cold,” Bennett said.

For now, they’ll have to postpone, likely until the fall. It’ll be a tough loss to see their date come and go. But whenever they can be back, Bennett is sure Ole and Nu will be ready.

“That’s part of the culture: Getting ready,” he said, adding that the health of the community comes first.

“I’d rather be safe than sorry. … But that day hurt me,” Bennett said after the Super Sunday cancelation. “I live for Sundays.”

Chelsea Brasted is a New Orleans-born journalist and a West Banker by choice. She most recently served as The Times-Picayune's city columnist. You can follow Chelsea's work on Twitter and Facebook, and you can contact her through her website, ChelseaBrasted.com.

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