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Editor’s Note: This post contains strong language.
The title of queen doesn’t come easy. Which is why music artist Big Freedia credits her 15-year career for the moniker, “Queen of Bounce,” the distinct sub-genre of hip-hop originating from New Orleans. But not even her household name status within the scene or a popular reality show, now gearing up for season 5, could prepare her for the call of a lifetime. And now, she’s riding high on the heels of her feature in Beyoncé’s hugely popular “Formation.”
The New Orleans native was born Frederick Ross. And although she’s a man who prefers female pronouns for her stage name, she rejects labels like transgender and the phrase “sissy bounce” — a term used to describe a brand of the music associated with the queer community. “Bounce is for everyone,” she says. And sexuality has very little to do with her art. Instead, she chooses to be nothing more than herself, and unapologetically so.
The fans love her for it. Her newest single released this week is called “I Heard,” and is an ode to them. “It’s saying that I hear how people are looking for me all around the world in different places now,” she said. “You don’t have to look for me anymore. I have arrived. The queen is here.”
And as the Queen of Bounce becomes more recognizable globally she says her message is still the same. “No matter how big I continue to get, I will remain humble and continue to be me,” she said. “I will always be Big Freedia, the Queen Diva responsible for taking this music to the forefront of the world. And I’m proud to represent New Orleans bounce culture.”
Ahead of the single’s release, she talked to me about the origins of bounce and staying true to herself and her southern roots.
On why bounce is so much more than just twerking:
But, of course, when artists like Miley Cyrus came out, people then confused bounce with one particular style of dancing, which is twerking. Twerk is just one of the words in the vocabulary of bounce music. But we shake, we wobble, we twerk, we bend over, we buckle. We do it all.
How bounce pays homage to New Orleans and the African diaspora:
It’s very important to New Orleans because it’s a part of our history and a part of our culture. It goes even further back to our ancestors from the West Indies and Africa. It’s the same style of dance that just evolved over time and distance. Bounce has transformed and improved too over all of these years with the different generations changing it.
But this is something that was started in New Orleans so it’s very important to us. This isn’t just the birthplace of bounce, it’s the birthplace of jazz and so many other wonderful types of music that’s then traveled around the world. So it’s an amazing feeling to represent New Orleans and our culture.
Why Freedia refuses to let bounce be hijacked or appropriated:
I fought to put us in a position that the world may be aware of this style of music and not for any one person to take credit for it. The credit needs to come to New Orleans, where it comes from. So I just really work hard and continue to grind and make people aware of this style of music. Other people can do it, too. But it’s still about authenticity. And that’s depending on who you are, where you come from and what’s your personal story. I can’t determine that but I’m more than sure that the people of New Orleans will. And I’ll be damned if anybody come from anywhere else outside of New Orleans and try to steal it.
I’ve been on the scene for the last 15 years so people have connected with me and are aware of me, all of the moves I make they’ve been following up with me and keep up with me. So there’s definitely a deep home connection, because I have put bounce music and New Orleans even more on the map.
When Beyoncé calls, you answer:
I got a call from Beyoncé’s publicist and her publicist said that Beyoncé wanted to talk to me and she would give me a call. Next thing I know Beyoncé was calling me telling me that she wanted me to get on a song and she was explaining a little bit to me about what it was and how she was getting back to her roots. I just lost it at home in my own skin, just losing my mind.
I did the verse, I did some ad libs and then I decided to call Beyoncé’s music director to let her hear what was going on thus far. She was just like “Well we like it. We just want you to give us one more thing: just a voice over of you saying some New Orleans stuff. You know, talk some sh** and just have fun with it.” And they wanted it really quickly. So I went and did what I had to do. Next thing I know, the song was out and it was blowing up.
How the depiction of New Orleans in “Formation” goes beyond just Katrina:
It also helps put that spotlight back on bounce music and gets people to look at the culture of New Orleans. With this song being as big as it is and the controversy behind it as well. With it being the Queen B, the Queen of Bounce and Messy Maya it represents us and brings it back to people wanting to show bounce music for those who want to know more about it, who want to visit here and even people wanting to know more about Katrina. So it hits back home really hard.
It resonates with New Orleans and the down south culture of Louisiana. That’s why New Orleans is so much behind it. They love it; they can feel it.
On why her way of life is a form of activism:
I am an activist through my art and living my life. I’m active in my community. I don’t try to step into any issue or step on anybody’s toes. I just live and give my opinion on things and how I feel being around New Orleans and my community. I just live freely and try to make the best decisions that I can that may help somebody else down the line.
So be who you want to be. Don’t hide behind no shadows or closed doors. It’s important that people represent and be their true selves and be happy with that, especially through this art and this music. That authenticity will come through and people will like it and respect it a whole lot more.
Kenya Downs is the digital reporter and producer for PBS NewsHour’s Race Matters and education verticals, creating multimedia content for online and television centered on issues of race and social justice, including exploring the intersection of identity and culture with education reform and policy. Kenya also contributes content related to the Caribbean region for NewsHour's international coverage. She’s previously worked with National Public Radio, Al-Jazeera Media Network and CBS News. Kenya is a graduate of both Howard University and American University and is based in Washington, D.C.
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