The 10th annual BUKU Music + Art Project in New Orleans was brimming with saavy, skilled, and resilient rappers from all corners of the Crescent City.
Following a two-year hiatus spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, the BUKU Music + Art Project returned to the port of New Orleans last weekend with one of its most prestigious line-ups to date. Anchored by a motley marquee, the festival wrangled Tyler, The Creator, Vince Staples, Kali Uchis, Tame Impala, Tierra Whack, Maxo Kream, Bas, Flo Milli, Baby Keem, Fousheé, and more, for its 10th-annual installment. But the top-billing performers were only half the tale.
Unlike the droves of regional festivals of a comparable scale that have emerged over the last decade and change, BUKU Project prides itself on tapping into the creative well of its hosting city. In addition to the A-list headliners, the festival brimmed with buzzing locals, making good on a commitment to bolstering the careers of young New Orleans artists that dates back to the year following its founding. In 2013, BUKU joined forces with the Upbeat Academy Foundation, a local organization providing the city’s youth with modern and comprehensive music education by offering them access to industry-standard tools and coaching. Equal parts incubator and guiding hand, Upbeat instills in its students a healthy balance of competition and collaboration, as well as the frequently overlooked fundamentals of the music business, preparing them to anticipate and respond to the quick pivots of an ever-shifting industry model.
The program’s alumni are saavy, skilled, and resilient rappers and producers from all corners of the city. And they were prominently integrated into almost every aspect of BUKU’s two-day, five-stage, resurrection between the Crescent City Connection Bridge and one of the many bends of the Mississippi River cutting through the city. But for so many of the locals performing at BUKU, the path to providence has been uneven and littered with structural setbacks. The women on the bill know this better than most. BluShakurx, a ’90s baby and Upbeat graduate from the 7th Ward who bounced from New Orleans to Lafayette and back again during the Katrina Era, is no stranger to this corridor of her hometown or how collective action is often a crucial component of individual prosperity. Surrounded by her producer, manager, and videographer, Blu recounted how women have been shut out of the city’s broader hip-hop mythos. “I try to make sure that women are on the forefront because a lot of people don’t take women seriously, especially down here,” Blu said, tracing the hurdles of a rapper who refuses to hyper-sexualize themselves to get noticed and drawing an analog to how No Limit’s Mia X is regularly erased from the label’s narrative. Conquering the stage just as the sun finally began its descent on the first night of the festival, Blu left a mark bold enough to resonate well after curtain call.
Rob 49, a native of the city who is quickly gaining steam as one of New Orleans’ preeminent rappers, was taken aback by the energy of his audience. “People that I wasn’t even expecting to know my stuff was knowing it,” Rob admitted through a beaming smile that continued to widen when informed of the two cops surveilling the back of the crowd who recited each of his songs. It was a good omen for the 23-year-old rapper as he readies himself for a nationwide tour in support of a new mixtape slated to drop in April. For Lango, the lone representative of nearby Baton Rouge at the festival, Friday’s early-evening performance was approached with stern urgency. The 26-year-old was initially slated to perform at BUKU in 2020, but the pandemic denied him that opportunity. “I’ve got a bone to pick with these motherfuckers,” Lango said jokingly as he gassed himself up for a long-delayed and much-anticipated debut, showing no nerves or reluctance just a few hours out from finally hitting the stage. As friends, family, and peers piled into the media tent, 504IcyGrl was overflowing with inspiration. Orleans. “A lot of our local artists have been doing things that none of us ever did,” she notes of the last few years of renewed attention and hope for the community of artists in New Orleans. “It feels like we won a championship or something,” the rapper said.
On the second day of BUKU, the love for and from the locals only intensified. Shaking off the sparks from an early set, Pell, $leazy EZ, and Kr3wcial, broke down a career highlight for their glbl wrmng collective. “It’s affirming. Anyone in the hip-hop game in any city across the world will tell you that the hometown is the hardest to hook. And I feel like we did not just hook our hometown with a hit, we let them know that we directly represent y’all. They appreciated that and they got behind us,” $leazy told us. “The community really showed out today. And that was even more special than being on that stage,” Pell added. Not even an hour after glbl wrmng’s performance, another Upbeat fellow flipped their time in the program into a dazzling debut. “I’m overwhelmed by the love I got from the people out there,” Odd The Artist said just moments after stepping off stage, echoing the gratitude and grace of so many independent artists we spoke with throughout our two-day stint in the Big Easy.
As the dust and blunt smoke settled and bodies cleared out from a (literally) explosive festival closer from Tyler, The Creator, beads, bottles, and empty packs of Backwoodz were all that remained on BUKU’s grounds. A gleaming skyline view of downtown New Orleans was, for the first time in 48 hours, presented in crystalline clarity. And it was hard not to consider just how much the very same expanse had endured over the years, how many social and environmental assaults it’s taken and how they’re only growing more frequent and more devastating. Residents don’t need a long memory to recount the innumerable repairs the city continues to undergo. Just days before we touched down at Louis Armstrong International, a tornado leveled a section of the southeast suburb, St. Bernard Parrish, and cut through the fabled 9th Ward.
But healing and rebuilding are a religion in their own right in New Orleans. Its reputation, which, depending on who you ask, can frame the city as either a singular point of origin for all modern music and food innovations or something that lives entirely, and almost mythically, outside of the timeline, is one of unmatched resilience and influence. And the sheer amount of cultural and architectural history the city has managed to preserve in the face of such perpetual destruction is a testament to the unbreakable spirit and immutable pride of its locals. It was all on full display for the 2022 edition of BUKU, offering the embattled southern outpost a moment of communal relief and celebration as it cheered on its own.
Get acquainted with sounds and artists currently defining the 504 in the playlist below and be sure to keep your ear to the ground for the announcement of next year’s line-up. You won’t want to miss it.