There's a 2010 New York Times interview with New Orleans rapper Big Freedia in which she describes creating a space for women at her shows who want to make their way up front and work it out with her on the dancefloor, while having to simultaneously defend them from men who might be a threat to that vibe. One quote from her still stands out:
"If they feel like they can step out on that limb, I'm gonna step back on that limb with them. If you want to mess with me, I'm gonna mess back with you, but keep in mind that I have the mic in my hand and I'm gonna have the power over you at that moment."
That reversal of power is something Big Freedia, the stage name of Freddie Ross, is cognizant of, but she plays it down for the sake of the party. The genre she specializes in, bounce, originated in New Orleans clubs and is inhabited by other artists like Vockah Redu and one-time Dallas resident Katey Red, men who, like Freedia, identify in some way as female. The music's denoted by staccato beats and call-and-response vocals, but physicality is its foundation. Bounce music requires that your lower body become its own centrifugal force, and Freedia's anthem "Azz Everywhere" points to its importance. And with that intense physical and sexual display comes that sacred space Freedia provides, though, increasingly, not just for women.
"Well, the women have supported us more, they're up there in the front," she says from Nashville. "But it's for everyone to be empowered and let loose: men, women, gay, straight."
Freedia has toured a dizzying amount in the last three years or so, often performing more than one show a night, so she's had the opportunity to expand her party vision beyond NOLA. There are now bounce classes in cities like Austin and Portland, in which you can learn the art of azz shaking, and she's elevated the term "P-poppin'" to an art form.
She's now balancing ever so delicately between regional icon and cultural ambassador. With the existence of gender-bending rappers like Mykki Blanco and Zebra Katz, or the high visibility of Frank Ocean's recent coming out, there's more room for dialogue about sexual identity and homophobia in rap and hip-hop, but Freedia's sexual identity has always been secondary to her role as performer and self-proclaimed hustler. Freedia is not just her alter ego or a character; it is her vessel of empowerment. Seeing her television debut on Jimmy Kimmel earlier this year was a big step toward blurring those lines and putting her in the mainstream consciousness.
I asked Freedia about bounce, backlash and how she got to spread peanut butter with her idol.
Has the response changed since you started performing?
There's been lots of good response. No backlash, just fun parties.
But there was backlash when you started.
When we started, it wasn't all peaches and cream. It was a shock to everyone, gay guys rapping. But we showed we could hold our own.
Does being accepted by the mainstream appeal to you?
It doesn't matter, I'm gonna be me across the board. I have a following, but I'm always trying to pick up new fans who like bounce music.
That appearance on Jimmy Kimmel was a big step toward that.
I was overwhelmed by that, honey! I was like, "Oh shit, they don't know what they got themselves into!"
What is the bounce scene in New Orleans like now?
The bounce scene is always popping; it's still hot, but every time I go back home, I got to pull the crown down, let them know.
Have you seen the influence of bounce on other scenes?
Oh no, honey. I'm the bounce scene once I get there.
What are you working on now?
I'm working on a new album, a new video for "Step Into the Ring." I'm doing a song with RuPaul called "Peanut Butter."
The track is amazing, and I'm so glad this collaboration happened. How did it come about?
He just called me on the phone, said he'd been trying to reach my people, and we collaborated and shot the video last weekend, actually.
Was that a big thing for you? Was RuPaul someone you looked up to?
He was more of an idol, for sure. Just meeting him, being in his presence, it was an honor for me.