Interview: Big Freedia Is the Queen of Bounce, In New Orleans and Beyond
By Shannon Carlin
Bounce music was once an underground genre that the people of New Orleans were able to keep all to themselves for over 20 years. That was until Big Freedia (born Freddie Ross) was crowned the Queen of Bounce and taught the rest of the world how much more fun her hometown’s music is than yours.
Since 1999, Big Freedia — a gay man commonly referred to using female pronouns — has been making music and touring the world with a live show that gets women bouncing, shaking, wiggling, wobbling, werking and twerking. Though, Freedia is quick to say she’s over the twerk craze that Miley Cyrus helped usher into the vernacular of the general population. The word even earned itself a spot in the online version of the Oxford Dictionary last year, defined as a “dance to popular music in a sexually provocative manner involving thrusting hip movements and a low, squatting stance.” It should be noted however that Freedia currently holds the Guinness World Record for Most People Twerking Simultaneously.
“We’ve been twerking for years,” Freedia told Radio.com over the phone. “It’s just one of many things we do in Bounce music.”
Freedia got her start 16 years ago as a backup dancer and singer for the drag queen Katey Red, who was Freedia’s childhood neighbor in New Orleans. It was Katey Red who introduced her to the Bounce scene, which is one enormous party. The music itself a fast paced mix of hip-hop and electronic music that relies heavily on repetition, while the live shows often hinge on audience participation, whether it’s call-and-response sing-alongs or some booty poppin’ dance moves.
At Big Freedia’s shows, she is in full control, urging women to shake their ass, watch themselves, and make sure the men don’t take advantage of their loss of inhibitions. And at 6-foot-2, Freedia doesn’t have any trouble keeping the men at bay.
Though this Queen Diva used to have a hard time keeping down her lunch before hitting the stage. “I don’t know where it came from,” she said. “But baby, if there’s something you’re going to do, you can’t be throwing up before you’re supposed to do it. And so I just put it in my mind that if there’s something that you want to do, you’ve got to be strong.”
As a gay African-American man, Freedia has become a voice for the voiceless, singing about sex and power in a way female artists often can’t get away with. It’s something Freedia’s aware of, and takes pride in. “I stand for a lot of different people and represent a lot of different communities,” she said. “I want them to be able to listen and feel free and I can help be that voice for them. I definitely want to encourage them in any way I can.”
You can easily draw a direct line from Freedia’s music to Beyoncé’s 2013 self-titled release, which has Bey finding her power in sexed-up odes of femininity, maternity and monogamy.
“Oh, most definitely, she’s a fan,” Freedia said of her fellow Queen. “Me and her were hanging out recently and she got a chance to express to me that she loves Bounce music and she listens to it all the time…I think we all get inspired by each other. I’m definitely inspired by her and her music.”
Freedia’s new album, Just Be Free, which she considers her first official album, is a confident mix of female-friendly party jams like “Dangerous,” a powerful and sexy beat-driven track that has Freedia proclaiming, “She don’t need no help.”
On “Lift Dat Leg Up,” Freedia shouts out some of the dance moves girls have been doing at her shows. “One of the things they do is lift their leg up, lift their asses up and lift their bodies up. You can lift anything,” Freedia said laughing.
The record’s first single, “Explode,” begins with Freedia screaming about working all day and all night before advising everyone get out there and “release your wiggle.” “It means to shake and when you shake, release whatever’s on your mind, whatever’s on the brain, just release it,” she explained. “Your wiggle can be your butt, your hands, whatever you want to wiggle at the time.”
What you might not guess from listening to Freedia’s album is that it was recorded while her mother, Vera, was losing her long fought battle with lung and spinal cancer. During the recording, Freedia was traveling back and forth between the studio and her home to help her mother, who died on April 1, 2014. “She was involved in the whole process,” Freedia explained. “There were moments where I’d have to leave just to take care of matters for her so it’s definitely very special to me.”
The album’s title is representative of Freedia being free from a lot of the bad things in her life. “One of those things, being that my mom is not suffering any longer,” she explained.
The record is also a dedication to New Orleans, namely “N.O. Bounce,” which has Freedia shouting out her city like Fred Flintstone and confidently letting you know, “I’m that Queen that’ll make you bounce.”
Nearly ten years ago, Freedia and countless other musicians of the city were displaced by Hurricane Katrina, forced to live in the surrounding states. Her home was destroyed, but Freedia says the one good thing the disaster did was help the spread of bounce music. “We were just all displaced all over the world, and people were like, ‘What kind of music is that?’ ‘Oh that’s bounce music baby. You don’t know nothing about that because it’s strictly New Orleans.’ And they’d say, ‘Teach me about it.'”
Freedia, who was one of many artists to return right back to the Ninth Ward after the storm, is still teaching people about the music of her hometown at her live shows and on her reality show, Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce, which kicked off its second season earlier this month on Fuse. No matter how big she gets though, Freedia plans to remain Bounce music’s unyielding ambassador.
“I want to represent and I want to represent it right,” she said. “And I think I’m representing the right way. I don’t do anything different. I don’t change my attitude just because I’m getting bigger. And that’s what it’s all about, staying true to yourself, true to your fans, doing what you do. And I enjoy what I do.”
Just Be Free is out June 17.