“For eons, the power has rested in traditional, oppressive hierarchical structures, and their beliefs dictated our reality,” Adama Sesay, an astrologer commenting on the current Age of Aquarius, says. Big Freedia is a proud Black, gay, gender-bending Aquarius herself whose music and presence reflects this time of change.
Freedia has a strong sense of individuality, understands the value of community and is fiercely advocating for herself while shaking up the music scene. She’s also a disruptive force for justice. Freedia’s 2020 documentary Freedia Got a Gun dives into gun violence in her native New Orleans and its ties to race and toxic masculinity.
Bounce music is best recognized for its call-and-response, booty-centric, party-style songs that are sung over a looping “Triggerman beat.” Freedia got her start singing backup vocals for her friend Katey Red, a queer bounce rapper. She began her solo career in 1999, eventually signing to Asylum Records. However, breaking out in the music industry meant years of consistent hustling and fighting for her rights as a Black, gay artist.
Freedia’s vocal sample was used in Drake’s number-one hit “Nice for What,” despite not being given album credit on the song. She has been denied many collaborations with straight artists, because the hyper-masculinity prevalent in hip-hop culture doesn’t often want to associate with queerness.
Credit and redemption were right around the corner when the one and only Beyoncé called up Freedia for a feature, asking her to “talk that New Orleans talk” on her hit song “Formation.” Freedia performed live during Beyonce’s Lemonade tour stop in New Orleans. Under the lights in the Superdome, Freedia proclaimed to the world “I did not come to play with you hoes.” Iconic, right? She’s just being honest, though. For her, it hasn’t been about play. It has been about the work.
She personally felt the impact of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 and recalls being rescued from her house on a boat with her family. Freedia details this time as being life-changing, launching her life and music into new neighbourhoods. With her family, alongside hundreds of others, she would spend several summer days sleeping on a highway overpass, until later moving to the New Orleans Convention Centre.
Having to rebuild entire communities, many people were displaced to Houston and craved the music of home. This bridged an opportunity for Freedia to commute back and forth to do gigs until she had Houston on notice. Performances in these cities, as well as in New York, started to garner her some real buzz in the industry. This is when she fully committed herself to her dream and embraced her role bringing bounce music to the world.
The 2020 single “Be Thankful for What You’ve Got” dropped last year and immediately gives the listener uplifting, feel-good vibes. I hear the influence of gospel from Freedia’s start with music and a less bouncy, more R&B/soul feel than her typical party bangers. Her latest song “Platinum” is a party anthem that hits back to Freedia’s roots in bounce beats and positive talk, like “Be thankful for what you got. Some people may not have that, but just be thankful, whatever you got.”
Listening to Freedia’s Spotify playlist on rotation while I danced in the shower, I came to the realization that her music was created from shared experiences. The call-and-response with the crowd in New Orleans is loud, amazing, full of connection. All the people together experiencing live performances, the fantastic release from a night on the dance floor, all things I truly miss during this year-and-counting period of social distancing.
In this moment of isolation, mental health issues like depression are compounded by the effects of cabin fever. Freedia embodies everything I need right now: the positive energy and resilience to pull my head forward and toward the hope of shaking our booties once again, all together.
The Uniter Speaker Series and Gorge Festival present a Facebook Live Q-and-A with Big Freedia, hosted by Mahlet Cuff. This is a free online event. It will take place on Saturday, March 20 at 7 p.m. To view this event, visit facebook.com/theuniter.
Ro Walker Mills is a trans man and former LGBT* director of the UWSA.
Published in Volume 75, Number 22 of The Uniter (March 18, 2021)