All For a Song

by R. Reese Fuller

A pre-election, pro-Obama video has Louisiana Folk Roots explaining why it isn’t — and can’t be — involved with politics. Last night, Dirk Powell and his wife, Christine Balfa, took the stage at the Blue Moon Saloon for an inauguration party. Musical guests included Corey Ledet, Linzay Young and Zydeco Joe Citizen. The show was billed as “Oui, On Peut,” a reference to a music video the group posted on YouTube in support of Barack Obama. Shot and uploaded just before the election, the video garnered national attention and created a local stir. It’s even led to the local nonprofit organization Louisiana Folk Roots explaining why it doesn’t and can’t participate in politics.

In the days leading up to the 2008 election, musicians Powell, Balfa, Ledet, Young, Citizen, Jeffery Broussard and others gathered at Jim Phillips and Christy Leichty’s Whirlybird in Opelousas to cut a video for the original tune “Oui, On Peut,” sung in French and in support of Barack Obama.

After the video was posted on YouTube, it was mentioned on the Rachel Maddow Show on MSNBC and was subsequently viewed 8,000 times within 24 hours. Since it was first posted on Oct. 21, the video has attracted 151,000 views.

On Oct. 30, a group calling itself “Native Cajun Musicians for Free Speech,” supporters of John McCain, posted a response to “Oui, On Peut.” It’s unclear who is behind the video, which is a slideshow of text fading in and out over a red background for over three minutes. It reads in part: “Since the posting of a YouTube video of a ‘local’ musician campaign ad for Obama/Biden, a fury of backlash has developed within the community of (native) Cajun/Musicians. ... Subsequently a small group of Cajun Musicians quietly phone polled about 70% of known Cajun Musicians to determine the feeling about such a video, its message, and the censorship by its host.” The video then lists reasons why the group takes umbrage with the video and why it supports McCain over Obama.

Powell says after the video was posted he was contacted by a dozen people who were upset by it. “Me and Christine were told that we would be alienated and ostracized and that it would come back to bite us on the ass, literally, and come back to haunt us.”

But most complaints were that the group didn’t represent the Cajun culture or its beliefs. “We never claimed to represent the Cajun culture,” Powell says. “I have never, and never will, claim to be Cajun because I’m not. One of the things that amazed me is that people who would never consider Creoles to be Cajuns claimed that this video was attempting to represent Cajuns when half the band is Creole. It’s very clear that the message of the video is racial unity between black people and white people. So how white people — who will never claim black people as their own — can claim that this is an attempt to represent them is very upsetting and incomprehensible to me. The ones who are so-called pro-Cajun and who got in touch with me would never include Creoles. So it’s very clear to me, right off the bat, that they should have understood that this video did not represent them and was not an attempt to represent them.”

Regardless of people’s intentions or motivations, Louisiana Folks Roots wants nothing to do with the politics. On Thursday, its board of directors and staff posted an open letter on its Web site, “Louisiana Folk Roots cannot, is not and will not be affiliated with or participate in any active campaign for public office or related activities.

“Further, Louisiana Folk Roots cannot and does not wish to influence the activities of private citizens wishing to participate in these kinds of campaigns. Moreover, we as a group are vigilant in our efforts to ensure that our decision-making processes are free from any related influence or bias.”

Todd Mouton, Louisiana Folk Root’s executive director, says, “We got a few letters and a couple of phone calls asking if we were behind, were a part of, or were somehow involved in the video. Then they expressed concern that if that was the case, that was not something they were in favor of. Most folks probably don’t know that 501c3s can’t be involved in campaigns for public office. We can do a lot of things, but we don’t do that.”

Perhaps some of the confusion over whether Folk Roots was involved with “Oui, On Peut” stems from the nonprofit’s origins. Christine Balfa is the organization’s founding director, a title she retains, but she ceased to be the director in May 2003. Today, she and Powell sit on the nonprofit’s advisory board not on its board of directors.

“This video was made with absolutely no affiliation with Folk Roots whatsoever,” Powell says. “It had nothing at all, in any way, to do with Folk Roots. To say that a member of that organization can’t support, through freedom of speech, the political candidate of their choice is absurd. Anybody on any board can campaign for anybody they want, just not in the context of that board.”

Adds Mouton, “We’ve been honored to work with the artists in the video, and scores more in one way or the other over the years, but we haven’t, won’t, and can’t work with them on projects like that.”

Powell says he is putting the YouTube hub-bub behind him. “I think the country is ready to move,” he says. “I think the mood of the country is ready for a change, and I think people have a hard time accepting change. But it’s here. We would all do better to look forward, for our kids’ sake and everybody’s sake.