Though her widespread fame took years to arrive, Big Freedia has called herself Queen Diva since the late ’90s, when the New Orleans native first started heating up the city’s underground bounce scene. And Freedia, who identifies as a gay man (born Freddie Ross) while expressing a preference for the feminine pronoun, is now living a true diva lifestyle: a reality show, Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce, on Fuse Television, an in-depth autobiography and an emotional Pitchfork documentary, a dance instruction DVD and a video game, a Guinness World Record for twerking, and a current Fall Bounce Shakedown Tour co-sponsored by concert behemoth Live Nation.
Freedia definitely put in the hard yards before becoming New Orleans’ de facto ambassador of bounce, though. Defined by bass-heavy break beats, sexualized call-and-response chants, frenetic ass-shaking, and influences as broad as Southern rap and Mardi Gras Indians, bounce was nothing more than a hyper-localized micro-genre for nearly two decades. Throughout the 2000s, local promoters tried in vain to break bounce on a bigger scale, but record label executives, radio DJs, and venue owners all said the same thing: too fast, too loud, too vulgar, too hardcore.
Flamboyant Big Easy icons like Katey Red (who first hired Freedia as a backup dancer), Vockah Redu, and Sissy Nobby had some success exporting the bounce gospel around the Southeast, especially in the wake of Hurricane Katrina’s forced exile of thousands of people. But bounce fully hit the big time thanks to Miley Cyrus’ infamous 2013 VMAs twerk-fest. Plenty of think pieces skewered the white super-celeb for exploiting a very specific racial and cultural performance style. But Freedia saw that misappropriation as a two-way street, never missing a beat to criticize Cyrus or offer the poor girl twerking lessons while using the controversy as a platform to pursue her mission of “transforming one twerker at a time,” as she told Out Magazine in 2013.
“To see someone else come in, trying to jump on something that’s hot, it’s very offensive to me, and it’s very offensive to my audience who know where twerking comes from,” Freedia said. “But it also helps the game out. It’s kind of a two-part situation: Some people feel it’s disrespectful, and some people feel it can help us get more attention.”
And therein lies Freedia’s complexity as an artist. Her first proper full-length album, 2014’s Just Be Free, stuck to bounce’s rapid-fire template, exhorting listeners to “Rock to da beat!” and “Wiggle work!” and “Jump on da booty!” But it also expanded the usual Big Easy production palette to include R&B and EDM influences. That’s helped Freedia build a successful touring repertoire of major festival dates and bigger venues (like three-in-a-row House of Blues dates on her current jaunt).
But it’s Freedia’s willingness to open up about her family, her sexuality, her work
(as an interior designer), and her roots in New Orleans that have provided an unprecedented look at a complicated regional artist navigating delicate, rapidly shifting terrain. During Season 2 of her reality show, Freedia’s beloved mother died, and the vibrant jazz funeral gave one episode a tender beating heart; in Seasons 3 and 4, Freedia’s breakup with longtime boyfriend Devon is put on prominent display, along with her growing profile as an LGBTQ advocate.
“I don’t expect to be this iconic person out there trying to relieve things,” Freedia told The New Orleans Times-Picayune last month. “But [the show] has helped a lot of people on their journey just to look at me be myself … I know that the world will continue to change, because over the course of my career and my time in New Orleans, I definitely helped change the persona and the perception [of] accepting gay people. If it [can] be done in my hometown, it definitely can be done all around the world.”
Yet for all of Freedia’s increased opportunities and broadened horizons, she remains committed to the one thing that gives bounce unrivaled visceral power: its sweaty, sultry, wildly uninhibited live show. “There are so many things you can do with music,” Freedia told the Times-Picayune. “So many opportunities out there to create new sound. The world is so big and so many people like so many different things. I’ll definitely be testing out [some new EDM-influenced material] on this new tour [to] see if my fans like it. [But] I’m totally prepared if the EDM world doesn’t work on stage.”
And that’s because the original Freedia sound and the original Freedia spectacle — groups of women asserting their collective power on the dance floor while men mostly clear out and watch in awe — is so tried and true. As Freedia says, it’s all about “getting those asses clacking.” After one bounce show, even the most prudish among us won’t be able to argue with that.