New Orleanians, Visual Arts

Beaucoup power: Meet the artist behind the unique billboard in Treme

New Orleans artist / musician / rapper Nesby Phips has rented the billboard to share a message.

If you’ve driven past Rampart and Barracks lately, you might have noticed a striking billboard: it isn’t colorful, it doesn’t feature images, and, most surprisingly, it isn’t selling anything.

New Orleans artist / musician / rapper Nesby Phips has rented the space to share a message. With clear, bold, white words on a black backdrop, he has spelled out, “If you Black then you rich and got beaucoup power.” There’s something mysterious to the phrase, words suspended in air, but there’s also something that doesn’t need to be explained: this is a statement of empowerment, a sentence that can make you feel confidence, pride, warmth, or solidarity, a sentence that feels like truth.

Nesby Phips and I meet up to talk about the billboard the morning after the Superbowl and within the first moments, I get a sense of who he is and how he walks through the world.

When asked which team he was rooting for in the game, he says, “I was going for both ‘cause they both have New Orleans guys playing for them: the Tampa running back, Leonard Fournette, is from here and the safety, Tyrann Mathieu for the Chiefs is from here, so it was a win-win.”

The more we talk, the more Nesby’s spirit of openness, collaboration, and goodwill comes through.

 

How did the billboard come into being?

“It was an opportunity that came along through a public art collective. All of this has been serendipitous. It literally started with a lyric, then one day I made t-shirts, then a few months later, I made a canvas, then I had a billboard, now I’m hunting down more billboards. I’m connected with people as far as Senegal and Morocco through this project. We’re just seeing where it goes.”

 

Tell us about the song that you wrote the lyric for. 

“There was an African record that a European DJ/producer had remixed. The beat was jamming.

It’s called the Cos-Ber-Zam Ne Noya – Daphni Mix. My little brother, a music executive out in Atlanta, refers to a certain quality of song, regardless of genre, if it makes you move, he calls it the boogie. This boogie right here: it was a simple 1-bar drum loop and it had these chants going over it in an African Dialect. It was jammin ‘and I wrote to that, ‘If you black then you rich and got beaucoup power.’ I didn’t realize that the lyrics would come back to me. I felt renewed and powered up by them, as if it was some sort of mantra, which it is.”

 

Since the track hasn’t been officially released yet, do you mind sharing the lyrics to the full verse with us?

“The path is real / It’s hard to follow

Them tough pills / Be hard to swallow

Do you best / If you love yo momma

My run on paper / Got beaucoup commas

Put ca-goo on em / Dat voodoo got em

My Gris Gris bag / Got beaucoup powder

If you Black / Then you rich / and got beaucoup power

(If you Black / Then you rich / and got beaucoup power)”

 

When did the line first come back to you?

“Two months after I wrote it, I DJed this Roc Nation event with Lawrence Parker, everybody calls him L A W. He did a New Orleans time capsule with the Planes clothing line, with this popup shop in Pigeon Town. They hired me to DJ and I kept yelling the phrase out over the microphone and the response was pretty cool. It made everybody smile and look back at me every time I said it. It was really genuine. It’s one thing to rock a crowd. It’s one thing to hype a crowd up but this wasn’t necessarily a party. To say something of that magnitude and to get the response I got, it was almost a child-like response. It made everybody’s face light up. I loved that response. It felt good to say it. It felt good to see it. There was so much joy with it, they almost laughed a bit, so now it’s almost like I’m running a social experiment, by way of sharing my art.”

 

When did it next come back to you?

“That was January 2020, then here comes February, I got a t-shirt printed with the phrase. It was my Mardi Gras costume. I got a great response walking up and down St Charles. I designed a float in a truck parade that year, so I was there to check it out. People kept stopping me and saying, ‘Wait a second. Lemme see that. What’s that say? Man, where’d you get that from??’ and I’d say ‘I made this” and there’d be a response like, ‘Man, that’s powerful.’”

 

What do you think people feel when they see the phrase?

“I think it feels like when Mario gets the mushroom. As a Black person, when somebody puts some extra gas in your tank, about being a Black person — It makes you stand a little taller. It straightens up your posture. With so much resistance that we experience just walking through life, it helps to have a little something to help pump you up. It’s necessary that we are reminded of our greatness, that we do everything we can to return to it ‘cause we have been set apart from it, intentionally. It’s almost like reminding someone that they can walk again.”

 

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What’s a favorite response you’ve had?

“People, they’re DMing me, calling me, sending texts, thanking me– I just delivered one of my black and gold canvases yesterday and the guy that purchased it from me, it was his daughter’s 21st birthday. All of the parents and grandparents were there and he wanted to present it to the family: three or four generations of Black people in the household and they all felt the same way. They all felt powered up. These are just simple words but they resonate. It lights people up. It’s a reaffirmation.”

 

Have you been making art since you were young?

“I’ve been doing music my whole life. I’ve always been an artist. I’m multidisciplined. Whether it was poems or short stories. I wrote my first rap at 10-years-old. I’ve been winning literary contests since I was in 2nd grade. I’ve been drawing and painting since the late 80s. My mother is my biggest enabler. She always encouraged me to be myself and lean into what came naturally to me. I hold a pencil in a very unorthodox way. She used to tap my hand and try to help me do it ‘properly’ until she saw that I knew how to draw and realized, ‘He knows something I don’t.’ My parenting style is the same with my children. I’ve been living off my raw talent since 2005. If you can make it off of doing what you want to do, do it that way, instead of signing up for a templated life.”

 

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Are there other artists in your family?

“My family, we’re like the Jacksons mixed with the Wayans. We’re a very animated, witty, creative kind of family. I grew up with music in the house. My dad played freehand piano, a little bit of flute and saxophone. I had all this stuff in the living room to tinker with. My sister is into fashion real heavy. She’s working on a line of skirts right now. My older brother is a writer. He wrote a book called Her Driving Force. My younger brother is an excellent MC. He’s a Quincy Jones-style leather chair producer. He knows what goes with what. We all got some stuff going on, which lends itself to my statement again, that we all rich in our own ways: got beaucoup power.”

 

Do you think that choosing a phrase that’s half in French might alienate people?

“Right now, with how the world is, if you’re curious about something, you can know about it in seconds. I’ve never felt like anything I make is alienable. It belongs to who it belongs to. There’s so much freedom in this. I don’t want to put any parameters on it.

 

I’m trying to get the phrase, ‘Beaucoup power’ into black neighborhoods throughout America: Atlanta, Dallas, Houston, Washington DC, New York, Los Angeles. People from New Orleans are everywhere and I’d like to educate others on how we still use remnants of the language currently, in present-day New Orleans. Having the phrase half in French means that it will also have a unique reach with people from French-speaking Black territories and nations around the world. I recently befriended someone in Senegal, about translating it entirely. He said, ‘It’s Beaucoup de Puissance but don’t change how you write it because it helps everyone learn how the phrase would be used throughout the diaspora.’ Haiti has their own version of French. Spanish has over 220-something dialects, so on and so forth. I’m speaking with a Moroccan friend about bringing it over there. This thing is growing before my eyes. It’s like I found this pebble on the ground and I realized that pebble was actually gold. ”

 

Readers can pick up merchandise on your website, BeaucoupPower.com?

“They can and the commerce part of this can be thrown right back into my billboards, ‘cause right now, it’s doing wonders, it’s making Black people feel good about themselves. If I don’t do nothing else, I would like to say that I had a hand in making us feel good about ourselves, especially at a time like this.”

 

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All photos courtesy Nesby Phips