A Different Drummer: Sissy Bounce in the Big Easy
Meet the queer singer, and lezbro, heading a musical revolution down in New Orleans.
Photo: Ports Bishop
For nearly three centuries, the great American city of New Orleans has marched to the beat of its own drum. Not only is it unlike any other southern city, with its unusual mix of Spanish, Creole, French, African, Catholic and pagan influences, but it’s also been deemed the most unique city in all of the U.S., where the old and new and the ultra-traditional and non-traditional coexist. It’s the Big Easy, but it’s fabulously flamboyant, over the top and knows how to throw one hell of a party. By many standards it’s quite small for a major metropolitan area, but those 180 square miles pack a lot of punch.
It is only in a city like this, a city that has a debaucherous and outlandish Mardi Gras festival just before Lent, the Catholic period of penitence; a city that’s had a long and seedy love affair with socially condoned transgressions, ranging from one of the nation’s earliest red light districts to the country’s first drag performers; a city that has always embraced gay culture, as illustrated by it being the home to one of the nation’s oldest gay bars and its decades-old gay celebrations Southern Decadence and Gay Mardi Gras; it is only in the city of New Orleans that music like sissy bounce could survive and thrive.
Bounce music is a form of Hip-Hop that was born in New Orleans’ housing projects nearly 20 years ago. It is characterized by rapid-fire beats taken from two samples (The Showboys “Drag Rap (Trigger Man)” and Derek B’s “Rock the Beat”), call and response chanting and rapping, and some of the most sexually aggressive lyrics you’ve ever heard. Sissy bounce is bounce music, but with one major distinction: It’s performed by gay or “sissy” rappers.
According to Big Freedia (pronounced “Free-da”), arguably sissy bounce’s biggest star, this is an important distinction to make. “The term ‘sissy’ isn’t offensive to me; I am what I am,” says Freedia. “The problem is that all bounce rappers are not sissy rappers; they’re straight and it’s very offensive to them to be thought of as sissies. They don’t like getting lumped in with ‘that gay stuff.’ They’re our colleagues and I feel their pain, so I respect their stance.”
Though it may be a sign of homophobia existing within the scene, it doesn’t get Freedia down—and why should it? As an openly gay man who refers to himself as “she,” she’s managed to take a type of music born in some of the poorest areas of one of the most economically challenged cities in the country all the way to the pages of The New York Times and Vanity Fair, helping to establish the most prominent gay Hip-Hop scene in the country. She has made a name and a living for herself successfully straddling two notoriously homophobic cultures: Hip-Hop and the American South. It’s been a slow rise to the top for Big Freedia, but her years of hard work are finally paying off.
Freedia was born Freddie Ross and grew up in New Orleans’ Josephine neighborhood. Initially, her interest lay in gospel music and she spent much of her time singing in the church choir. Despite having a religious, southern mother, the 33-year-old rapper had little trouble coming out.
“I came out at my 12th birthday party. My mom basically already knew, so it wasn’t a big surprise,” Freedia says. “My mom is my heart and always has been. She told me she loved me no matter what, but she felt like she had to protect me because of the neighborhood we lived in. Not everyone was as accepting as she was.”
Once at New Orleans’ Cohen High School, Freedia became a cheerleader, director of the school choir and fast friends with Kenyon Carter, a baton twirler who grew up near Freedia in the Melpomene housing projects. This relationship would prove to be one of Freedia’s most enduring friendships and most important connections. Kenyon would go on to become Katey Red, one of the world’s first transgender rappers and New Orleans’ first sissy bounce artist to get signed to a record label.
Freedia got her start dancing as a member of Red’s backup group Dem Hoes, but before long she set off on her own and recorded her first album Queen Diva with one track “Gin In My System” becoming a local hit, due largely to its catchy chorus of “I got that gin in my system/somebody gonna be my victim.” Despite the initial success, the transition from backup dancer to rapper wasn’t easy.
“Bounce is so different and unique. I knew I wanted to be a part of it because it was from New Orleans; it’s from where I come from, but getting out there each night was tough at first,” Freedia said. “For years I had serious stage fright before each show. Now, rapping is the only thing I can do or want to do because I’ve been doing it for so long.”
For the past 12 years Freedia has been playing as many as five or six shows a week in her hometown. After Hurricane Katrina and the mass migration of many bounce-loving natives to cities like Atlanta and Dallas, word began to spread about NOLA’s homegrown sissy rap scene and Freedia, Katey Red, Sissy Nobby and other sissy rappers began experiencing a bump in their success, but perhaps none more than Freedia. She’s played sold out shows in über-trendy Brooklyn clubs and has been flown to Canada to perform in front of fans so unlike those from NOLA, but who knew every word to every song. She even headlined at Los Angeles’ FYF Fest notorious for its hipster attendees. She’s shattering stereotypes about Hip-Hop and masculinity, while ushering in a whole new demographic.
A great deal of Freedia’s success came as a result of her largely straight, female audience, who notoriously get on all fours at shows and do what Freedia describes as “pussy popping.” Where young, beautiful, gyrating women “pop,” men- and audiences- are sure to follow. “These girls get straight guys into our shows and they fight for you…I protect my girls. If they’re having problems, I put the guys on blast in front of everyone and tell them to leave my girls alone. I make it clear that they can’t touch anything unless they get permission; it’s a looking game.”
Freedia’s success isn’t based on the novelty of a gay southern rapper. After watching her perform as part of FYF Fest’s after party at La Cita, a small Mexican bar in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, there’s no denying her star power, her swagger, or her ability to get people dancing, sweating, and singing right along with her. Despite half-naked girls shaking what their mamas gave them just inches from our faces, it was Freedia who held our attention and in a town filled with blasé show-goers, this spoke volumes about her abilities as a performer. The New Orleans native doesn’t see the sudden interest in her music as a fad and unlike other Hip-Hop artists who’ve suddenly found themselves the central figure in a burgeoning music scene, it’s not her goal to rake in millions or build an empire—this southern gentle(wo)man just wants everyone to have fun.
“It makes me feel good to see people out there dancing like they don’t have a care in the world and I want everyone to experience a bounce show, it will blow their minds,” Freedia said. “It’s good music for the soul and if you leave smiling and happy, I’ve done my job. (bigfreedia.com)
Lesbian New Orleans
Club Vibe at 1605 Esplanade Ave, is owned by a lesbian named Daphne. (myspace.com/vibeneworleans)
Club Fusions is a gay hip hop club located at 2004 AP Tureaud Ave with shows featuring drag queens and kings.
Rubyfruit Jungle at 1135 Decatur Street is the most popular lesbian hang out in New Orleans. (rubyfruit-jungle.com)
Plan B is a community bike center in New Orleans. Every Tuesday Plan B allows only women and transgender folks to work in the bike shop. (bikeproject.org)