Meet Flagboy Giz, a rapper uniting New Orleans cultural traditions

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Meet Flagboy Giz, a rapper uniting New Orleans cultural traditions
Flagboy Giz works on his Mardi Gras Day costume at his home in New Orleans on Feb. 3, 2024. The 37-year-old artist is a Black Masking Indian, who has risen to prominence in New Orleans by blending traditional Mardi Gras Indian music with hip-hop, with many of his songs assuming characteristics of the city’s bounce subgenre. (Emily Kask/The New York Times)

by Millan Verma

NEW ORLEANS, LA.- In his cluttered two-room apartment in Gentilly, a small neighborhood just south of Lake Pontchartrain in New Orleans, Flagboy Giz used dental floss to thread brightly colored beads through black gym shoes on a stormy February afternoon. His desk held a humble recording setup — a microphone, laptop and two speakers. An assemblage of neon feathers and phosphorescent beads burst out of drawers and scattered across the floor.

Though he was out late at Mardi Gras balls the night before, Flagboy Giz, 37, had awakened early and headed directly to the bead store. “This is a tradition that you have to preserve,” he said, “so you’ve got to make sure you’re out there every year masking. Last year, I caught COVID two weeks before Mardi Gras, and I was still sewing with COVID. The year before that, a spider bit me in the eye, and I was sewing with one eye in the hospital.”

Flagboy Giz is a Black Masking Indian — the flag-bearer of the storied Wild Tchoupitoulas tribe — who has risen to prominence in New Orleans by blending traditional Mardi Gras Indian music with hip-hop, with many of his songs assuming characteristics of the city’s bounce subgenre.

Since 2021, he has been releasing up-tempo songs that feature stories about his culture and sharp social commentary concerning the shifting demographics in his hometown. On “We Outside” from 2022, he rhymes about marching on Mardi Gras day and talks trash about fellow Black Masking Indians while incorporating a call-and-response chant (“We outside!”) echoing the cadence of songs like “Ho Na Nae” and “Firewater” that have been passed down for generations.

The track became his signature song and led to a 14-minute remix featuring more than 25 New Orleans artists including Choppa, 504icygirl and Hotboy Ronald. “‘We Outside’ is gonna be one of them records that never dies,” said Giz’s manager, Raj Smoove, a mainstay New Orleans DJ whom Lil Wayne called “the greatest DJ in the world.”

The Black Masking Indians — or simply Mardi Gras Indians — are an essential part of the fabric of culture in New Orleans. Every Mardi Gras day, St. Joseph’s Day (March 19), and Super Sunday (the Sunday nearest St. Joseph’s day), around 40 tribes march and meet up throughout the city wearing extravagant, hand-sewn suits that draw influence from Native American garb, and Haitian and African beadwork. The practice is widely considered an homage to Native Americans who provided refuge to runaway slaves in Louisiana; it grew in the 19th century as an alternative to the white Mardi Gras parades, which Black people, for the most part, were not allowed to attend.

Flagboy Giz, one of the city’s most popular performers, is in high demand during Mardi Gras. The night before, he made appearances at three balls, and thousands of attendees, mostly women in spangled ballgowns, watched as he strutted down the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center’s long wooden aisle in an exuberant gray Indian Suit adorned with of red and teal rhinestones.

A fifth generation New Orleanian, Flagboy Giz, born Aaron Hartley, was raised in the 9th Ward, an underserved neighborhood infamous for taking the most damage from Hurricane Katrina. He was 18 when Katrina hit and was displaced by the storm. After graduating from the University of New Orleans in 2011, Giz worked as a hotel bellman for 11 years. On the side, he collaborated closely with 2-Cent TV, a local YouTube series that parodied Young Money songs and joked around with rising stars like Kendrick Lamar.

When 2-Cent fizzled out in late 2014, Giz turned to masking. He was introduced to the Mardi Gras Indians early on (his uncle was a Wild Tchoupitoulas), but wasn’t fully indoctrinated until 2015 when Roderick Sylvas, the current Big Chief of the Wild Tchoupitoulas, asked him to be their Flagboy, the go-between the lower ranking Spyboy and the Big Chief who also carries his tribe’s flag. Giz has masked ever since.

He had started making music privately during his 2-Cent days. Raised on the foundational Southern rap of the Cash Money and No Limit labels and groups like the Geto Boys, Giz wanted to make songs that could be listened to year round and reach a wide audience. “I never wanted this to only be carnival music,” he said. “I want it to be real New Orleans music, but at the same time, every song is going to have the chants and the call and response.”

Almost entirely self-produced, “Flagboy of the Nation,” Flagboy Giz’s 2021 debut, is his most traditional sounding record. Tracks like “Shoo Fly” and “Tu Way Pocky Way” feature rap verses over tambourines, African drums and some elementary synths. “Gentri Fire in the City,” a spare, propulsive chant, made a splash in New Orleans for its head-on assessment of gentrification post-Katrina. In the song’s video, Giz sings to the camera with his face covered in pink war paint, matching his breathtaking pink suit accentuated by blue and green feathers.

He found his sound a year later on “Uptown,” his first track performed over an original New Orleans hip-hop beat, which was produced by Southern rap mainstay Mannie Fresh. Giz had the beat stashed from his 2-Cent days: “I did the song, sent it to him, then said ‘Look, if I can use this beat, I won’t ever ask you for anything again.’”

After the video for “Uptown” — in which Giz prances beside members of the Wild Magnolias — made the rounds across the city, other New Orleans rap and bounce producers sent him beats, many of which ended up on “I Got Indian in My Family,” his breakthrough 2022 album. The LP included “We Outside” along with the groovier track “Tchoupitoulas,” and “Rocheblave,” a drawn out rallying cry that boasts of his tribe’s parading into “battle.”

Giz’s growing profile has made him a representative of New Orleans arts and culture. However, his success has also created tensions with some Black Masking Indians who are uncomfortable with any commercialization of their art form. The issue has come up in the past: In 1976, the forefathers of Giz’s tribe released “The Wild Tchoupitoulas,” an album that joined swampy funk music and traditional chants with support from the Neville Brothers and the Meters.

Giz said he’d been taking heavy criticism, particularly from elders. “One of them even called me ‘a disgrace to the culture,’” he said, clearly perturbed by the comment. He pointed out that he never curses in his songs, and said that his lyrics have always focused on the specifics of Mardi Gras Indian life.

Melissa A. Weber, a professor who teaches history of urban music at Loyola University New Orleans, said bounce music and Mardi Gras Indian chants aren’t disparate: “When it comes to Black culture and Black people in New Orleans, there is always going to be intersection,” she said in an interview, noting that bounce comes from communal gatherings, just as Mardi Gras Indian culture does. Other artists are merging hip-hop with traditional Mardi Gras Indian music, she noted — like 79rs Gang, the Rumble featuring Chief Joseph Boudreaux Jr., and Big Chief Brian Harrison Nelson and Nouveau Bounce. Like Chief Xian aTunde Adjuah, who incorporates those same traditions into jazz, Giz is a part of a younger generation marrying Black Indian chants with the musical lineage of their time.

While Giz’s thunderous voice and gift for capitalizing on the visual appeal of his suits have gained him an audience, the blowback from his community has hit him personally. He titled his third album, released last September, “Disgrace to the Culture.” The record features his biggest sound to date thanks to live horns from the Brass-A-Holics, and includes songs like “Drummin With the Pilgrims,” which takes aim at those Giz believes are actually disgracing the culture. Spyboy T3, an 8-year-old Spyboy of the Wild Tchoupitoulas tribe (the person who marches up front looking for other tribes), joins him for two features.

The goal of Flagboy Giz’s music remains simple: spread the word about Black Masking Indians. “I want the outside world to know that Mardi Gras ain’t just some floats,” he said. “We started this because we weren’t allowed to go to Mardi Gras. We had to come up with our own traditions, and the fact that we have gone through so much as Black people and we still got these traditions going strong, it’s incredible.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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