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Big Freedia: Do Azz I Say

Big Freedia. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Photo by Elsa Hahne.

The last time I met with bounce rapper Big Freedia, in 2009, I’d picked up her and DJ Rusty Lazer (Jay Pennington) at the airport after their second-ever string of New York performances. Before that, Freedia (born Freddie Ross) and I last spoke in the gym of Behrman Elementary on the West Bank, where she was taping up streamers for a dance. Freedia remains active as a designer for hire and as a volunteer in New Orleans public schools, but her recent busy touring schedule has forced her to quit teaching choir. A whole new door of national recognition was just then beginning to open for Freedia, and for New Orleans bounce rap.

Bounce is New Orleans’ original strain of hip-hop. Several well-written articles on the origins and history of bounce can be googled, with the best written by Alison Fensterstock, the journalist whose story on Big Freedia, Sissy Nobby and Katey Red led to the development of the term “sissy bounce.” Bounce has a very particular, hyperactive beat that largely defines it in the same way that Jamaican dancehall and all D.C. go-go are recognized first by their rhythms. Bounce is largely derived from samples from Derek B.’s “Rock the Beat” and the Showboys’ 1986 “Drag Rap,” popularly known as “Triggerman.” Otherwise, bounce is known more for catch phrases than lyricism. Bounce MCs are party hosts, amping the crowd with dance instructions barked with an auctioneer’s cadence that is often made even choppier on record with the help of computers. Big Freedia is one of the best to ever do it, and she may be the artist who will take bounce the farthest out into the world.

 

“I am not transgendered; I am just a gay male,” says Freedia, on the front patio of the Country Club clothing-optional pool in the Bywater, one recent hot spring day. In the past, Freedia was often packaged with fellow gay bounce artist and collaborator Sissy Nobby, as well as Freedia’s mentor, the transsexual Katey Red. Freedia and Katey attended Cohen High School together and Freedia started her career backing Katey. “But I am not Katey Red,” says Freedia. “I wear women’s hair and carry a purse, but I am a man. I answer to either ‘he’ or ‘she.’” While Freedia’s exoticism is engrossing and an easy selling point, she is a master New Orleans showman with the golden capability to move huge crowds.

Another of Freedia’s biggest assets is her drive. “She is a machine,” says Rusty Lazer. “It’s a work ethic that no one I’ve ever seen has. It’s terrifying to me. Almost all of New Orleans’ bounce rappers are amazing, but through virtue of her personality—she’s very warm and accepting—and very, very hard work, Freedia is just the one to carry it through.”

Freedia’s daunting tour schedule has meant that on her few days home, she might only perform once a night, rather than her usual five.

“In my whole career I have probably turned down only 10 shows,” Freedia says, “and only because it was something serious, or else I was already booked. I am an entertainer. I love to make people have fun. And no matter where I am booked—it can be a party of 60 or 70-year-olds and I would go in and rock it and not short change them.” On Valentine’s night 2009, Freedia famously came from another show to take the stage at One Eyed Jacks for a ferocious performance to a gigantic crowd not three hours after learning her boyfriend had been shot and killed.

Big Freedia. Photo by Elsa Hahne.

Photo by Elsa Hahne.

At clubs and festivals around the country, Freedia commands the movements of thousands with no instrument, just a mic and her ass. Still, she does bring dancers to show out-of-town audiences how to move. “If the dancers aren’t there, I have to stop the music and explain how to do it,” she says, “it” being New Orleans’ indigenous bounce ass dance, which may be borderline pornographic. The dance was enough to get Mr. Ghetto’s “Walmart” temporarily banned on YouTube for being too sexual.

The dance provides the topic for most of Freedia’s songs, especially her biggest hit, “Azz Everywhere.” The dance itself, or rather the dances—wobble, twerk and make money, for example, all subtle variations that focus on the ass and crotch—have been blamed in part for bounce’s lack of acceptance as mainstream music. “But the dance is as deep or as shallow as you want it to be,” says Freedia’s dancer of the last two years, Altercation, a 26-year-old white woman who landed in New Orleans in 1999. Altercation has performed more than 100 shows with Freedia across the country.

“When I see the dance, I am seeing ancestral movement, something that’s been around since the time of the slave trade,” Altercation says. “People have always done this dance in New Orleans, but it has been well protected, like a secret society, for hundreds of years. People have been murdered for doing this dance.” She chuckles. “Or, you can just say it’s the crazy dance kids are doing in the clubs these days.”

Freedia doesn’t always have to rely on her dancers, though. “If I go to New York now, I don’t have to bring dancers,” she says. “I have people waiting in all these cities to perform with me when I come through.”

 

One constant for Freedia over the last 13 years (besides great hair, usually some day-glo color swooshing down across one side of her face) has been her now 26-year-old producer Adam Pigott, street name BlaqNmilD. BlaqNmilD has produced hits for almost everyone in New Orleans rap, including Juvenile and B.G. “I am the first one who started chopping bounce so much,” BlaqNmilD says. “I can take one word and make a whole song. I am the reason bounce is faster now. It’s as hype as it is because of me.” When the producer was just 14 years old, Money Rules Entertainment paired Freedia with BlaqNmilD for the hit “Gin in My System,” followed by “Rock Around the Clock” and many others. “Before I met Freedia, I wasn’t into the bounce music. I was more of a regular rapper,” admits BlaqNmilD.

“So Freedia took me out to the clubs. I liked what I saw, but I wanted to have my own identity. So we decided Freedia’s bounce music had to be hard, and hype, and have lots of breaks.”

In a much shorter time span, Freedia’s “creative director” and live DJ, Rusty Lazer, has had almost as big an impact on her life and career. “For the last couple years, I have been kind of a manager,” says Pennington, who is now narrowing his scope to just creative responsibilities. “Freedia’s actual manager, Melvin Foley, says in the bounce documentary Y’Heard Me, ‘I can’t really book a Freedia or a Nobby in Atlanta because the clubs there aren’t ready for them.’ Which is totally true if you’re talking about the black community. But I tried to help create a situation for Freedia where generally open- minded people could check her out and have access to her. I first took Freedia to New York because I knew people there who threw parties with a huge mix of people: punk shows with straight kids, gay kids, black, white, Puerto Rican kids, Asian kids, and it didn’t matter what kind of band came on. They just wanted to be into things. Those are the kinds of situations I have tried to put us in, and we’ve never really tried to get bookings in straight black hip-hop clubs, or gay clubs.”

Big Freedia at Jazz Fest 2011. Photo by Golden Richard III.

Photo by Golden Richard III.

Freedia has always imagined it would happen this way, that she would be successful not only in music but in bringing together diverse groups of people. “That was always very important to me,” she says. “We always wanted to get a mixed crowd behind me. And now that we’re doing it, it makes me feel awesome that all these people all around the country who grew up on all kinds of different music are coming out and relating to the music that I grew up on.”

Over the last two years, Freedia and her crew have helped bring bounce music to the country through a spotlight on the Late Night Show with Carson Daly, a major feature in the New York Times Magazine, and an appearance this season on HBO’s Treme with Katey Red and Sissy Nobby. Contracts for a Big Freedia reality TV show are on the table, and most importantly, she signed with the big-time Windish Booking Agency and performed 125 dates in every major American and Canadian city, including 15 festivals. The week before our interview, 950 people came out to see Freedia at New York’s Brooklyn Bowl.

“People be acting like the Wally-Wally-Walmart video has been putting bounce music on the map, but I am way ahead of them, trust me,” smiles Freedia, pointing out that her recent “album”—a sample-free, five-song disc released by car company Scion—was the first ever national bounce release. Scion also funded the truly great video for “Y’all Get Back Now”, wherein Freedia and her dancers are superimposed Godzilla-sized onto the city of New Orleans, all of them “p-popping” astraddle the Superdome and the Crescent City Connection.

 

One of the reasons for Freedia’s recent popularity and that of her gay bounce peers is that they birthed a long-awaited unicorn: hardcore hip-hop dance music that lacks violence, misogyny or homophobia. The goings-on at a Freedia concert are often “dirty,” but decidedly pro-sex.

“Sex is supposed to be positive, but every woman I know has been sexually assaulted,” testifies dancer Altercation. “So it’s often really hard to encourage this idea that sex can be positive. This particular dance is about bringing sex back to a positive place. Not to mention, it’s a chance to unlock your American, puritanical chastity belt.” And thus, there are rarely any altercations at a Freedia show. “At my New Orleans shows, there are sometimes fights,” says Freedia, who clarifies. “They’re not fights pertaining to me. But I might be saying something really hype on the mic and they might have a little beef and with the alcohol in they system, they get to fighting. But I’m not going to rap about shooting anybody.”

She concedes, “It’s interesting to hear music about what other people go through, and I love the boys who rap about the guns and the money and the murders. But it all has an influence on us. A lot of time the beef starts with music. They hear these lyrics like, ‘Beef ain’t never squashed ’til your enemy dead’ in the club, and they see their enemy and they’re having evil thoughts, so yeah, music has a big influence on the city. That’s why I try not to rap about nothing too negative. It’s all about getting people to shake and have fun with me. They don’t start fighting because I am on the mic; they go fight because they can’t control their liquor!”

As for actual homophobia, Freedia has little to report from the road other than one recent bad gig opening for Snoop Dogg in Cincinnati. “There were a big mass of guys up front who were totally not cool with the gay,” says Rusty Lazer. “They were throwing shit. I had to keep the dancers from throwing shit back at the crowd.”

Freedia recalls, “When I go outside of New Orleans everyone is amped, so to have people booing and throwing shit at me was a first time, ever. Definitely one for the books. We know we were good though, and I stayed and did the whole show.”

 

Freedia’s determination has helped her music and persona reach new audiences, so much so that she has become the subject of academic contemplation, where she’s construed as a sexual and musical revolutionary. “You wouldn’t believe how many people have told me they’re writing graduate papers on ‘sissy bounce,’” says Pennington. “People take an academic approach to it, about whether what Freedia is doing is liberating for women. Sometimes before the show we go and do lecture Q&A sessions at colleges so that we can get to these kids to get it before the show. We tell them, ‘Turn your ass upside down and when a dude bucks up on you, you’ve already talked about it with somebody else; you know what to expect and you know how to handle it.’ Altercation and Freedia discuss with them how the dance pertains to first moments of sexual awakening. They preach cultural reciprocation instead of cultural appropriation, how instead of just taking from this New Orleans bounce culture, you give something back to it. And one of the ways you can give back to this culture is literally by dancing when Freedia tells you to. No other American dance music besides bounce really has a human being front and center, except square dancing, so to dance when Freedia tells you to is to participate in this cultural conversation.”

Pennington adds, “If we had done our class before that Snoop Dogg show, by the time we started it would’ve been nothing but women up front because they all would have felt empowered, and demanded to be up front. What people around the country tell me is that Freedia is creating a space for sexual liberation on the dance floor, an opportunity for women to act as sexual as they wish under the watchful eye of a really big dude who is going to go to bat for you.”

When asked to recall surprising new things that the world has told her about New Orleans bounce music and the meaning of her performance, Freedia says, “I am surprised how many people say they have been transformed by the bounce experience. They watch the YouTube then show up knowing all the words to my songs. That trips me out. And it was also very surprising to me when a girl in a G-string asked me to sign her ass.”

And when asked what she has learned about New Orleans since visiting so many new places, Freedia says only, “I’ve learned to appreciate the value of what New Orleans has to offer in terms of music and culture. I’ve learned not to take New Orleans for granted.”

That being said, Freedia desires to be—and already is—more than a New Orleans performer. While planning to remain a bounce artist, she also wants to create non-bounce music. “I need to get more versatile,” she says. “Let them know I can do more than bounce.” To that end, she and Rusty Lazer are working on Big Freedia’s next album, a double-disc set: one of traditional bounce, “and another that is very open-minded and just, anything. I am doing a collaboration with Ninjasonik [from Brooklyn], Spank Rock [from Philadelphia] and former tour mates Matt and Kim [“They go hard!” says Freedia]. I am just going to let the producers decide where they want to go, but we are also going to mix their beats with bounce.”

The self-proclaimed Queen Diva will dictate the terms of any new tradition in which she plays a major part. “I don’t agree that bounce has a related structure to jazz,” says Freedia. “They always say bounce’s call and response comes from Mardi Gras Indians and second-line call and response. But I feel like it’s its own thing. It is all separated. Of course, it does all relate back to New Orleans,” she admits. “That’s where it all comes together for me.”