Monday, October 26, 2009

New Orleans Becomes Home, Again

Star Power Helps Residents Return Home

We all remember seeing people rescued from rooftops, homes destroyed beyond recognition, heartbreaking cries for help and the appalling response from the federal government, in the days shortly after Hurricane Katrina. So as New Orleans continues its long road to recovery, why would anyone return to the city, especially to the Lower 9th Ward? Questioning a 9th Ward resident’s motives and desires to return irritates Melba Leggett-Barnes. “I hear people say that and I tell them to mind their business,” Leggett-Barnes says, with an air of aggravation in her voice.

The 52-year-old is one of what can be called “the lucky 13.” Leggett-Barnes lost her that was footsteps away from one of the levees breached by Hurricane Katrina. Four years later, help from a Hollywood A-list star has erased the heartache and frustration that consumed every minute of Leggett-Barnes’ day, as she tried for three years to make North Carolina home. “At first, I wasn’t planning on coming back because there was nothing to come back to,” says Leggett-Barnes.

Today, in the 1700 block of Tennessee Street, she comes home to something new and unlike anything ever seen in the Lower 9th Ward. Leggett-Barnes lives in a single-family home that’s solar-powered, built about 7 feet above the ground and can withstand Hurricane-force winds up to 130mph. “I love it and I feel truly blessed,” she says. Leggett-Barnes’ home and 12 others are the first completed of 150 energy-efficient homes slated to line the streets of the Lower 9th Ward. The “Make It Right Foundation,” founded by actor Brad Pitt partners with contractors to build the homes. Pitt wanted to ensure barriers like affordable and safe housing would not continue to keep 9th Ward residents locked out of the city.

The “Make It Right” homes cost about $150,000. According to the foundation, half of the cost is covered by various grants and loans, homeowners are responsible for the other half. Sixty-five additional families are in the final stages of purchasing their return home through the program.

By some estimates Hurricane Katrina wiped out 275,000 homes in New Orleans. A little more than 25 percent of residents are back in major parts of the city. In the Lower 9th Ward, an estimated 19 percent of the 7,000 families that called the neighborhood home have returned. Contractor Stevie Jenkins of New Look Builders has built at least 11 conventional single-family homes in the neighborhood. At the end of November, he’s closing his 10-year-old business and relocating to Texas. Jenkins says he can no longer financially maintain his homebuilding business in New Orleans. “I anticipated a much faster recovery process for people coming back but the red tape is terrible and some homeowners who planned to come back to the 9th Ward have spent everything they saved,” says Jenkins. “The area is hurting,” he adds.

Unfinished business is probably the best way to describe the hurt you see and feel as you walk through the neighborhood. If you drive through and carefully navigate the pot-hole streets, that cause you to zigzag at a sluggish pace , there’s no way to ignore the numerous eyesores. For every new home like Leggett-Barnes on the block, you can count at least five empty lots. One is directly across the street from her new home. Four concrete steps lead to nothing but a lot full of dry, brown grass, evidence that a home was once in that spot.

Basic services, businesses and anchors like churches, schools and health clinics are essentially still absent. There’s only one beauty salon, no fire station, less than a handful of gas stations and bus service is sporadic. The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Charter School for Science and Technology is the only school open. Prior to Katrina, there were four schools serving thousands of children in the neighborhood.

The Army Corps of Engineers’ repair work on levees breached by Hurricane Katrina isn’t exactly comforting to residents. Despite the Corps’ assurances that the levees are safe, there’s still an air of apprehension and skepticism in the Lower 9th Ward. “I got the best house on the block because it’s made of steel and will sway from side to side if the levee breaks again,” says Leggett-Barnes.

What she and returning residents who live in their new homes also have is an emotional void filled and the weight of instability lifted. Every day they walk up the steps and open the door to a place many of us take for granted, home.

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Monday, October 19, 2009

On Her Own

After Zhane', Jean Baylor Continues to Evolve

When a singing group hits the scene and delivers a string of explosive hits that causes you to move your head side to side, turn your radio up as loud as possible or hypnotically snap your fingers at the slightest sound of your favorite song, you have questions when the group splits. Will the sound be dramatically different? Can an artist formally part of a duo stay creative and survive in the music industry? Will fans follow?

All of those questions swirled around Jean Baylor’s head in 1999, when she decided to break ties with Renee Neufville. The two were founders of the group Zhane' (pronounced Jah-Nay). “We own our name, says Baylor. “No one can tell us we can’t use it,” she adds. Baylor says her split was for creative reasons and not one laced with animosity, financial problems or overblown egos, which commonly tear a group apart. “It was a nice decision to leave the group. I have no regrets,” says Baylor.

On her independently produced CD “Testimony: My Life Story”, Norris-Baylor delivers the energy and authentic sound, fans of the group miss, embrace and associate with Zhane'. However, her lyrics, over eclectic beats push mental buttons more than butts and hips to a dance floor. “I have to establish myself as a solo artist,” says Baylor. Her music is motivational, fun and inspiring, produced on the “Be a Light” record label.

From 1993 to 1999, Baylor and Neufville’s hits like “Hey, Mr. D.J.”, “Groove Thang” and “Sending My Love” carved the women a spot in the music industry and the hearts of fans. Their image, lyrics and delivery equaled the total package but not in an industry assembly-line way, where hip-shaking, hair slinging and butt strutting get more attention than talent. How did Zhane' survive? It comes down to just good manners and parenting. “ We were not going to get butt naked to look sexy,” says Baylor. “My mom would have come onstage and beat me down,” says Baylor.

Zhane’s approach was to project sexy with an alternative mixture of talent and class. The group’s name was a salute to themselves. “We just put together our names and put the French connection together,” says Baylor. On their first CD both women rocked short and nearly bald haircuts. “We weren’t really trying to make a statement. We just had short hair,” says Bailey. They shunned tight, short, revealing outfits and flashy looks, to define their sexual appeal.

While there’s surely no cookie-cutter way to break into the music industry, the two Temple University students started out on a bit of traditional track. “We competed in a lot of talent shows around the city,” says Baylor. “A lot of times, we did it for the $50 prize because when you’re in college, you feel like you’re rich with that kind of money.”

They entered and won enough talent shows to get a buzz going in the entertainment industry. “We’d been to five different record labels in New York,” says Bailey. A chance meeting with Kay Gee of the group Naughty by Nature, sprung open a door of opportunity that would change their lives.“We sang acappella for him. He liked us and he was looking for a female group,” says Baylor.

As Zhane’s success took off, Baylor says it was easy for them to avoid the grip and lure of drugs, bad financial and personal decisions that so often grip and destroy entertainment freshmen. “We were kind of grown up. We were 23 and 24 years old with degrees,” says Baylor. Baylor was a Performing Arts student at Temple. Neufville majored in English.

Baylor’s solo project and her longevity in the music is a testament to her preparation, education and desire to learn everything about the industry, from marketing to branding and sales. Those skills, she says, are essential to succeeding in the male-dominated business. “You should have a vision and not just run through the door looking to make hit records,” says Baylor.

Baylor says the record industry is all about business and the more informed you are about other people’s mistakes, the less you’ll make. Her advice to anyone considering the entertainment business is blunt. “Get a good accountant that understands the industry,” says Baylor. “Be organized and conscious of your budget because every dime the label spends on the artist is charged to the artist.”

These days, Baylor’s life and music continue to evolve in a positive direction. As much as she loves music, Baylor loves to make a difference. Her concern for young people is spiraling into a non-profit venture through “Be a Light”. The focus is mainly on middle school students. “Be a Light’ was created not just to do music but we wanted to be able to positively affect communities through a mentorship program,” says Baylor.

Her music gives you a sophisticated blend of neo-Soul, jazz and a sprinkle of rhythm and blues. She fits in perfectly with the style of artists like Jill Scott, India.Arie and Ledisi. All of the women are well-respected artists and are confirmation that there is room for a break from the norm.

Jean Baylor’s story is part of the “She Rocks” series on For more information and to listen to samples of tracks on Baylor’s independently produced CD, “Testimony: My Life Story,” log on to Please forward all comments about this story to Maniko Barthelemy at

Monday, October 12, 2009

Louisiana College Students Bring Solar-Powered Home to D.C.

Can Students Win National Homebuilding Competition?

How much would you pay to live in a one-bedroom home totally powered by the sun, built to withstand Hurricane-force winds and has an aesthetic appeal with a touch of a southern accent? Does a price range of $120,000- $150,000 sound fair? This week, you can tour the home and meet the team of student designers in Washington, D.C.

Team BeauSoleil, a group of University of Louisiana, Lafayette graduate students, is one of 19 other university teams from around the world participating in the seventh annual Solar Decathlon. The annual competition, hosted by the U.S. Department of Energy turns the National Mall into a village of solar-powered homes, designed exclusively by college students. Students must meet strict guidelines and can only build an 800-square-foot home. “We approached it as an architecture competition,” says Chris Leger, 26, a UL at Lafayette architecture graduate student.

Team BeauSoleil’s team meticulous design of the rambler home, shows just how they kept the Gulf Coast resident in mind. In addition to the home being able to take on Hurricane-force winds, the wooden fence and wood used as boarders around the windows can be pulled apart and fits perfectly over the windows and doors. It seems like a minor detail but it makes a major difference, during Hurricane season. There’s no need to nail large pieces of plywood around the house. “Taking it from the design phase into reality is an amazing experience,” says Leger.

The home can also be elevated and put on piers to protect it from flooding. The front and back doors open like a vault and can become a functional breezeway, eliminating the need for overuse of an air conditioning unit. “It shows that we have really bright students, compassionate about preserving our culture and they’re innovative,” says Christine Payton, a University of Louisiana representative.

The team’s design is making quite an impression on visitors. Aside from its durability, the house is moderately priced, cozy, appliances are wheelchair accessible and there’s a remote control mosquito screen. “I like the way they used the natural wood. It’s usually on the side but this is very pleasing. I would live in that house,” says Arizona resident, Patty Bensel.

The Solar Decathlon ends on Oct. 16, when judges announce the overall 2009 Solar Decathlon winner. In addition to hopefully winning the competition, Team BeauSoleil would like to see the home go into mass production. “Building this home taught me that we can all live just as comfortable off the things nature gives us,” says Greg Jefferson, 28, an architecture graduate student. Team BeauSoleil plans to display their home on campus and later sell the home in the community.

Getting selected as a competitor was an arduous undertaking. Students had to submit their plans and impress a committee of engineers, scientists and DOE experts. Thousands of teams compete for a chance and must prove they are prepared to start and complete the homes, as they abide by strict structural and safety requirements. The DOE provides selected teams with $100,000 in grants to help cover the initial cost of building the home. Teams are responsible for any additional costs they incur.

All homes are closed Oct. 14, so judges can have exclusive access to the homes and evaluate the design, efficiency and durability of each home. The overall winner of the Solar Decathlon 2009 competition will be announced Oct. 16. In traditional Louisiana style, the BeauSoleil jazz band will play on the porch later that evening. Log on to for more information. For more information about the University of Louisiana at Lafayette team, log on to

Please send all comments about this article to Maniko Barthelemy at

Monday, October 5, 2009

Klymaxx’s Awesome Rise and Turbulent Fall

Original Klymaxx Member Keeps Sound, Changes Faces

Something beautiful and amazing happens to a woman when her hairstyle is vicious, heels are fierce and her outfit causes men and women to pause. One R&B group with a splash of rock and pop in their music knew how to showcase, exude and celebrate a woman’s confidence on a level once overlooked in the music industry. Even if you don’t remember the lyrics, Klymaxx fans certainly know the hook and remember the boost to self-esteem many felt when “The Men All Pause” came on in the club or the radio.

Klymaxx tore through stereotypes and produced a string of female-anthems throughout the 80’s, in a way that’s been difficult to replicate. From the drums to the microphone, Klymaxx’s edgy look, undeniable skills and fan appeal was the dream and vision of Bernadette Cooper. Cooper, longing to fill a void in the music industry, had a hunch in 1979 that an all-female band could rock the charts and fill stadiums.

The name perfectly defined the group. “We wanted something that described hot, talented and exciting women in their 20s but we had to of course change the lettering,” says Cheryl Cooley, an original member and Klymaxx’s guitarist. However, convincing music industry executives to jump on board and finance Cooper’s idea challenged the group’s endurance and commitment. “People were not taking us seriously, when we were trying to get gigs,” says Cooley. “Some people even laughed and said, ‘yeah, an all-female band, that’ll never happen’,” she says.

So how did the six female musicians, crack the music industry’s glass ceiling? Cooley worked at a bank in Los Angeles. A co-worker related to record producer, Johnny Pate, became the answer to Klymaxx’s prayers. “I was bragging about being in an all-female band and she (Cooley’s co-worker) asked me for a demo tape, so she could give it to Johnny,” says Cooley. Pate was a bit hesitant and unsure about the group’s potential but still passed the demo tape on to Margaret Nash. Nash was at the time an executive at Solar Records. “She came to one of our rehearsals and she had a smile on her face the whole time but I’m sure she had to be worried because we sounded rough,” says Cooley, jokingly.

Apparently Klymaxx’s rough edges weren’t enough to scare away the record company. “In April of 1980, Margaret saw us and that August we were signed to Solar Records,” says Cooley. After about a year of fine-tuning Klymaxx’s sound in the studio, the group’s debut album “Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman” hit record stores and radio airwaves. It sent a message and set the tone for the group’s image and fan base.

Record sales were impressive but Klymaxx had another important hurdle to cross. Since they were the first, the group had to prove they weren’t straight studio singers. “I remember how the fans looked at us when we went on tour and opened up for Shalamar, says Cooper. “They just couldn’t believe that we were actually playing our own instruments,” she says.

Their talent put skeptics on mute. Klymaxx’s fan base grew substantially and so did interest from executives at MCA Records. In 1983, Klymaxx switched record labels and joined the MCA family, which teamed them up with Jimmy Jam and Terry Lewis, well-respected writers and producers. The match-up led to Klymaxx hitting Billboard’s Hot 100, several times during the mid-80’s with songs like, “Meeting in the Ladies Room”, “I Miss You” and “I’d Still Say Yes”. “I thought I was going to be 75 years old performing with the same people onstage, singing “The Men All Pause,” says Cooley.

The lifetime of success with the original members Cooley anticipated fell apart, as the Klymaxx began to unravel. Cooley says the explosion of fan adoration, attention and the limelight evolved into a nasty mix, once egos surfaced within the group. According to her, Cooper was the first to leave the group. By the mid-90’s there were only three original members and MCA cut ties with Klymaxx. “I began to feel like I was a failure,” says Cooley. Even with Klymaxx’s track record and the fact that Cooley had played the guitar since she was 11, she could not get a new deal. “Nobody prepared me for what would happen if the record company dropped you,” says Cooley.

Realizing she still needed a check and faced with nowhere to go and no backup plan, in a surprising move, Cooley became an electrician. “I had to do something because I had to eat,” says Cooley. The job paid the bills for a few years, until Cooley was laid-off. Thankfully, a phone call in early 2000 turned out to be the financial support and necessary comeback Cooley desperately needed and wanted. “An old manager called me about setting up an old school tour. I called everybody from the group and no one was interested,” says Cooley. Cooley moved on with the original band members. These days because of a dispute and trademark issues around usage of Klymaxx’s name, Cooper and Cooley don’t talk.

Cooley created “Unruly Cooley” to meet the demand and book the venues the manager thought were appropriate for Klymaxx’s distinct sound. Unruly Cooley has the same concept that made Klymaxx successful, an all-female lineup of gifted, attractive and sassy musicians. The band tours West Coast venues, covering many of Klymaxx’s hits, and sings new songs written and produced by Cooley.

Her songs and the funky music that laces the tracks have the intensity, melodic groove twists, with lyrics that stress fun and female-power, all that you’d expect from Cooley. Although the sound and look loosely mirrors Klymaxx’s, Cooley’s learned from her mistakes. “Klymaxx (the original group) could have made a whole lot more money, if we’d known the business end of the industry,” says Cooley. “When you get the record deal, you’re so excited, you don’t even consider what could happen if you get dropped,” she adds.

Cooley hopes young women with the desire in their eyes and the dream in their hearts to break into the music industry, take time to learn about more than selling out a stadium and making a music video. “This business is 90 percent business and 10 percent performance.”
You can listen to some of Cheryl Cooley’s latest music at

Please forward all comments and suggestions regarding this story to Maniko Barthelemy at
Cheryl Cooley’s story is part of the “She Rocks” series on The stories give updates on some of the most popular all-female bands, groups or duos. In sharing their stories, the women featured hope to educate anyone looking to get into the music industry.