Editor’s Note: New Orleans is more of a matriarchal city than most. Yes, patriarchy exists here, but New Orleans women have held influential positions in families, businesses, the community and the arts in numbers rivaling few other U.S. cities. So much of what makes New Orleans such a fabulous city is undergirded by the (sometimes unrecognized) hard work and sharp intelligence of its female residents. Exhibit #1: Oretha Castle Haley. #2: Ella Brennan. #3: Mahalia Jackson. #4: Joyce Montana. #5: Ruby Bridges. #6: Leah Chase. #7 +++: Pick anything you care about in New Orleans, and you can pretty much guarantee there’s a woman behind it, supporting with work through sweat and sometimes tears. This summer, we highlight a few of the city’s unique female voices. Next up in our series: Shirani Rea, owner and founder of the legendary Peaches Records, a beacon of good music and unwavering love in the New Orleans community since 1975.
Who: Shirani Rea
What: Founder and owner of Peaches Records (with her three children, Shirani, Lillie, and Lee, and, until recently, the kids’ grandmother)
Where: Uptown, at 4318 Magazine St.
Good music grows from love, and in New Orleans, love tastes like peaches. Through their labor of love, Peaches Records, Shirani Rea and her family have helped local musicians, artists, chefs, and writers get off the ground and find success since 1975.
Now on Magazine and Napoleon, Peaches has set up shop all over the city, from Gentilly–where they were an integral part of Cash Money Records’ beginnings–to the French Quarter, where they served a lot of out-of-towners. Everywhere they’ve been, though, Shirani and the Peaches family has operated under the same motto: Share the love.
Shirani and her daughters, Lillie and Shirani (Shirani #2 for the purposes of this interview), and her son, Lee, still live and breathe the motto; on the afternoon of my visit, some folks were recording a podcast in the back of the store, past a large display of children’s books by local authors, and Shirani #2 told me that one of the artists they work with was able to put a down payment down on a house with help from her sales at Peaches.
Peaches is spearheading a block party, Moonlight on Magazine, this Saturday, July 28th. The community event will feature special menus from restaurants on the strip, free drinks, performances from local musicians, a glassblowing demonstration (!), and, perhaps most importantly, a birthday celebration for Delfeayo Marsalis, who chose to stay in town just for the party, Shirani told me. As we sat at the store’s historic Woolworth’s counter (which I’m told also had its fair share of civil rights protests, like the Woolworth’s in Greensboro, North Carolina, and the McCrory’s on Canal), Shirani and Shirani #2 spoke about love and trust, passion and talent, and the importance of community in an increasingly disconnected world.
On passion at Peaches and connecting from the heart
Shirani: I feel like the most important thing for you to be aware of with what we do here is that we’re a family business and we’re passionate about helping the artists in any way we can. It’s part of our culture; there’s a lot of beautiful and gifted artists here, and they really don’t go beyond the city, so we’d like to give them the opportunity to get further, and at least have some sort of income coming in, like they deserve, you know what I mean?
We try and make their dreams come true, whether they sing and dance, or they paint, or they make buttons and stickers—whatever they do, we try to help launch them and get them where they need to go. And we’ve been very successful with that, starting with the young rappers, like the Cash Money bunch and the No Limit bunch, we were able to help get them a thirty million dollar contract. Which has been rewarding. But of course, those kids worked at it. They were very willing and able to do this. I was glad I was able to work with them, and want to do it.
If anyone’s got a passion, we would like to help them with it, whether they write books, or cook, we do everything we can. We believe in sharing the love. That’s all part of how we function. Because if it’s just strictly having a store just for retail, then you need to just give it to Amazon, because they can meet a massive audience. This is a little bit more than that, trying to give our people an opportunity to be able to survive on what they can do.
Nora: Was this love for helping other something that was instilled in you as a kid? Are you from New Orleans?
Shirani: Pretty much, yeah. My feelings on the subject is that when he dropped us into the universe, the only message he gave us is to share the love. He didn’t tell us to become famous doctors, lawyers, or Indian chiefs. He said share the love.
In our journey in life, we’re all going the same way. Do the right thing, share the love. You will exit leaving the flesh behind. It’s very simple, it’s not a very complicated process. Share the love is the most important part. That’s why we’re having so many problems in the universe right now. People, they’re so dysfunctional. We’re all over the place. No one’s connected. […] At the end of the day, none of it matters. The most important thing is to share the love and to stay connected, and realize that we can work together. We’ve lost our voice too. We have no voice these days.
It doesn’t matter where you grew up, it’s a matter of dealing with people. I was raised more with classical music. It’s like learning a whole new world. When you care about people, you learn about them. You have to keep an open mind, no matter who they are. When you have people growing all around you, you have to grow with them. You have to understand where they’re coming from. That goes for all types of music. Like with hip-hop, you go back to where they came from, and their life, and the whole social structure—what they had and didn’t have growing up.
That’s what I love about New Orleans. I feel very rewarded that they would accept me to be their parent, and to help in any way. […] I also believe that you have to speak from your heart. Everything you say has got to come from your heart. If you’re not talking from your heart, you shouldn’t even talk. The only way to reach out is from your heart. I think that’s why Frank Sinatra’s music still lives on, because whenever he sang, he sang from his heart. So that’s also another really important basis in life, to learn to give from your heart. You have to. Why not? If you give somebody something, give because you want to give it, not because you want anything back. There should never be an ulterior motive.
Nora: You’ve been open since 1975, that’s a long time.
Shirani: People grew up with us, you know? It’s really sweet. I feel very honored that I can keep doing this. As long as I can, I’ll do it, and we’ll go from there. But I hope that people continue to do the right thing, because you have one chance to do it.
Nora: It is crazy. But I bet people find refuge in the community here.
Shirani: We want them to do that. We want them to feel like this is a place where they can come and get a good moment. A space that’s available to people, where they can come, and get happy for a minute. I think we all deserve that.
On Cash Money and giving advice to aspiring artists
Nora: Historically, the music industry hasn’t been the easiest industry for women to get into, especially with hip-hop. What was that experience like? I’m not sure many people, especially women, were involved so early on, and in such an intimate way.
Shirani: Once again, in my opinion, it all boils down to love and trust. It really does. It’s a matter of love and trust. […] The younger ones are so much easier to deal with, the older ones are already hardened and have their notions of how it’s supposed to be. But I felt fortunate because the younger ones gave us a chance to help them, too, because they wanted it so bad.
Shirani #2: When all the Cash Money stuff was happening, those boys were fourteen. It’s a whole different dynamic there. You almost become just another mother to them. I know they all call her Mom or Auntie.
Shirani: Yeah, totally. That’s why I say love and trust is the most important thing, because they didn’t have good home lives or anything. They didn’t learn anything—they had no trade, no nothing. They had no guidance. We were like the launching pad for a lot of kids in the city. They would all come and hang out [at the store] and they learned to handle everything they needed to.
Nora: I bet people come to you for advice a lot.
Shirani #2: Every. Day. All the time! Every time we’re trying to do something, it’s ‘Oh, Mama, you have a minute to sit down and talk? I just wanna ask you a couple questions!’
Shirani: You gotta do whatever you can, if it interests you. An ‘ask and you shall receive’ kind of thing. You have to reach out and do whatever you can. It’s a very simple formula. It’s not that hard to do. It all boils down to love and trust.
Shirani #2: She always says she could do this at the flea market. It’s not what it’s about. It’s about the relationships and the community more than it is about the stuff.
On a changing industry and growing older
Nora: Who’s going to take over the business eventually?
Shirani: I think our families here will decide for us what we need to do. You grow with the community; you grow with people; you see how they’ll need us, you know? And I feel as long as they do need us to do what they need to do, it’s fine. You’re fighting against the big boys all over the place. The doctors, they’re on contract. The lawyers, they’re on contracts. Everyone’s on contract now. So you know, you’re really not guaranteed any life position anywhere, and you’re easily removed from positions by younger, more efficient people that come around at a lower rate. It’s not the world it used to be, when I was growing up. And also, if you have talent, you have to know how to get there. […] If you have a gift and a dream, you should pursue your dreams. It’s very important. Otherwise, you’re gonna die wishing you had done what you wanted to do. If you have a serious passion, pursue it. We try to help and make that possible. But sometimes it takes money to do that, and if you have the right kind of contacts, you can make it. […] The digital world has changed people’s thinking a little bit in the industry, but it hasn’t been very helpful for people in the industry.
Shirani #2: The amount of sales it takes to chart digitally is absurd, compared to the amount of physical sales it would take. So we use Soundscan , which goes to the Neilson, and then to the Billboard charts. So for every sale someone makes, they get credit on the charts. But people don’t know about Soundscan, so they try and rest on the laurels of digital online downloads, and it’s a fraction of the credit, versus a physical copy sale. As a result, we’ve had local artists chart with only a couple hundred sales. It’s a game changer, in my opinion, and it’s a little bit of a secret, too, I guess! We’re the only ones in the region that Soundscans.
Shirani: We do all we can to get you there. We’ve always had Billboard charts of our own, and then we release the numbers. That’s how we got the contracts for Cash Money, we released the numbers.
Nora: How did you learn all that—the business, numbers side of the industry?
Shirani: Well, you know, when you have a desire to help, then you do whatever you can to help. It’s like anything, you have to have passion to do it. It is hard…especially as a woman, even as an older person, whether male or female, it’s a little bit harder. It’s a matter of how well you care about human beings.
Nora: Why do you think it’s harder for older people?
Shirani: Because in the world of hip-hop, if you’re older, you don’t get it. You’re just different, so they don’t trust you, in a way. […] They’ll let you know that, too: ‘You’re not from my generation, so how do you understand this? You don’t know what I’m talking about, you don’t know the reason for what I do.’ There’s a lot to it. Rapping is not just spitting against society. There are reasons they do what they do, why they say what they say. It goes into the depth of why. That’s why I want…I just wanna see them get the opportunity to get out of the situation they’re in and have a life. If they have skills, they should be able to have a life, and not forced to do things that they’re forced to do because they need to survive.
On great musicians and the power of music
Nora: What are your top five records, right now?
Shirani: Seriously, I love all categories of music. I listen to heavy metal, I listen to rap, I listen to all types of music. So there’s not anything I can say is my favorite. It also depends on my mood. […] But I listen to all categories. If they’re truly good musicians, and good artists, no matter who you are, and whether you like that kind of music or not, you’ll get goosebumps. You’ll feel the talent. You’ll feel it.
Shirani #2: I’d argue that you’re more interested in what made the musician. If there’s an interesting musician out there with a great or unique sound, she’ll want us to look them up and find out what their background is like, what their family is like, where they come from. No matter what the genre is, I think that’s more interesting for you, maybe.
Shirani: That’s true. You try to understand them, you know? Why did they lay that track like that? I really hear the music and the instrumentation prior to the words, and if they’re really good at what they do, then I’m prone to listen to what else they have, and then I go from there to learning about why they do what they do. You have to love it. You kind of have to become one with them. I think a good musician becomes one with his fellow artists.
Nora: Who’s your dream customer? Who would you most like to come in to the store and talk music with you?
Shirani: I get excited when I see people who really care, who have a lot of passion. Because I’m in love with the whole world anyway, so it’s hard to say there’s a favorite. Everyone’s very special to me.
Music is so beautiful, because it opens all these different doors. You can go up, you can go down. It’s so powerful, it’s like medicine. There’s no hangover, there’s nothing. […] Get a simple record player you can carry around. It’s so therapeutic. There are times, especially in a woman’s life, where you have the ups and downs, and sometimes the best cure is to put the music on. I always tell people, ‘You have a problem? Drop that needle.’ Drop the needle. In seconds you’ll forget what it was. There’s a lot of power in that.
Moonlight on Magazine is this Saturday, July 28th, from 5:00-9:00 PM. Find out more about this jam-packed event on Facebook.