As the foremost ambassador of New Orleans bounce music, Big Freedia is the rule-breaking, ass-shaking, noise-making pop star we need right now
A LOT HAS CHANGED for Big Freedia since we first featured her in BUST’s April/May 2010 issue. A gay man who prefers she/her pronouns, Freedia (pronounced as in Kahlo) was making waves at that time as one of the major forces reviving New Orleans’ club scene in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina through the medium of “bounce” music. An electrifying performer with a booming hip-hop flow; a flamboyant wardrobe that blends slick menswear with ultra-glam feminine hair, nails, and accessories; and a stage show with a reputation for whipping crowds into a sweat-soaked twerking frenzy, Freedia was just the force of nature the city needed to recover from nature’s fury. And now that she has risen to prominence internationally as the “Queen of Bounce,” her life-affirming, high-energy sound is the perfect prescription for a world in serious need of some cheering up.
Characterized by up-tempo beats, heavy bass, and a call-and-response lyrical style that obsessively dwells on ass-shaking, bounce is a style of rap that was born in the New Orleans housing projects in the late ’80s and early ’90s. Freedia got in on the act as a backup dancer for one of the genre’s transgender pioneers, Katey Red, starting in 1998, and went on to record her debut studio album, Queen Diva, in 2003. But participants in the nascent scene were scattered by the hurricane in 2005. Freedia was among the first to return home and get back to the grind. During those initial five post-Katrina years, she was an interior designer and party decorator by day and a bounce impresario by night, often playing 6 to 10 shows a week.
That same work ethic is on display when we meet up to do the photo shoot and interview for this cover story in Brooklyn just a couple of days before the entire country shut down in the grip of COVID-19. None of us knew the extent to which life as we knew it would halt. But Freedia was driven to make the most of her short time in N.Y.C., meeting up with Team BUST, making an appearance on The Wendy Williams Show, and guesting on The Breakfast Club with Charlamagne tha God in just two days before jetting back to New Orleans for the funeral of her cousin, which she was arranging via cell phone from her makeup chair just before the photos for this story were taken.
Still done up from her cover shoot in bejeweled eye makeup and long, blond curls, but otherwise dressed down in jeans and a T-shirt, Freedia joins me at the conference table at BUST HQ and we start reminiscing about when she first graced the pages of this magazine 10 years ago, just after the release of her second album, Big Freedia Hitz Vol. 1. “I used to be in the clubs seven nights a week,” she says with a weariness that betrays her 42 years. “Yeah, every day of the week, a different club. I also decorated the clubs. I was always finding new ways to keep bringing people back, doing the same show, but flipping it around a million different ways, putting a different spin on the party. I’ve really worked hard to create this platform for bounce. I made New Orleans connect to me in a way where we’re like best friends. In New Orleans, people would hire me for birthday parties, sweet sixteens, graduation parties, funerals, and weddings. I had everything on lock for a long time. I was that go-to person. If they wanted to get their club poppin’ and they wanted to get some numbers in there, they hired Big Freedia.”
“I’ve had boys try and act out and I would embarrass them in front of the whole crowd. I’d tell them, ‘Don’t be no creep! Let the girls have fun and shake!’”
What Freedia’s club dates offer that others lack is a warm, inclusive, and safe-feeling environment where her robust following of female fans are comfortable dressing sexy in teeny-tiny shorts, shoving their asses in the air, and shaking them for hours while Freedia commands them to “drop it, drop it, drop it /work it, work it, work it.” Any party where that is going on is one many men will gladly pay admission to attend, which pleases club owners, but requires some additional effort. “A lot of that success [drawing in women] had to do with me just having good crowd control,” she says. “I’ve had boys try and act out and I would embarrass them in front of the whole crowd. I’d tell them, ‘Don’t be no creep! Let the girls have fun and shake! If they want you to touch them, they’ll let you know, but you ain’t gonna touch them while I’m on stage.’”
This being the case, it’s no surprise what her answer is when I ask Freedia if she’s a feminist. “Am I a feminist? Definitely,” she says. “Listen, I love to protect everybody. I love to protect their space, whatever they believe in, and whatever they want to do. Women, men, gay, straight—whatever people want to do, I’m down to support it.”
It’s clear why she’s been so beloved by so many for so long. But even once Freedia became known locally as the bounce queen of New Orleans, making ends meet was still an issue. “I was booking my own gigs, giving these people prices, and I wasn’t making no money,” she says. “I’d get two, three, four hundred dollars, maybe five. But I had to do multiple shows on multiple nights to survive and pay my bills. Like, I might get a $300 gig, but my light bill might be $250 [laughs].”
Those paychecks started to grow, however, when two career breakthroughs came along that launched bounce into the mainstream and established Big Freedia as its undisputed worldwide ambassador.
The first was an article titled “New Orleans’ Gender-Bending Rap,” that appeared in The New York Times Magazine in July of 2010 and featured a huge photo of Big Freedia and Katey Red. In the wake of that major story, Freedia scored her first national TV appearance on Last Call with Carson Daly, nabbed herself a prime slot at SXSW, and finally broke the color barrier. “One day, I was decorating a club in New Orleans,” she recalls of the summer of 2010, “and these two white guys was jogging up the street while I was pulling stuff out of my trunk. Then one of them was like, ‘You’re Big Freedia!’ I was like, ‘Oh my God! How do you know who I am?’ At this time, I didn’t have any white fans. It was just still local, Black, New Orleans. I hadn’t started traveling. So, when those two guys knew who I was, I was like, ‘Girl, I am arriving already!’ You know? [laughs].”
“My mom was like, ‘Well, you’re too big to be this certain type of queen. You need to be your own queen. You don’t have to put on heels and fake boobs and a butt. Do it your own way.’”
The Times article also attracted the attention of cable music station Fuse, which tapped Freedia to star in her own reality show, Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce. The show ran from 2013 until 2017. And if anyone was born to have a reality show, it was the magnetic Freedia and her entourage. Queen of Bounce created an instant demand for her live shows outside of New Orleans and introduced fans to Freedia’s inner circle—first and foremost, her mother Vera. “I was 12 when I told my mom I was gay, but my family knew when I was little. I was five, being a little queen and wanting to be Wonder Woman for Halloween. My family used to have meetings about it and they’d be whispering about it. But my mom supported me, she was my backbone,” Freedia says, recalling the days when she was a young Black boy named Freddie Ross just trying to figure out who he wanted to be. “My mom was like, ‘Well, you’re too big to be this certain type of queen. You need to be your own queen. You don’t have to put on heels and fake boobs and a butt. Do it your own way. I want you to be a queen and be the best fucking queen that you can be.’ And that’s what I did. I went out and continued to be myself. I was a big, young queen with a purse, doing stuff nobody else was doing. They used to pick on me in school. They’d be like, ‘You fat sissy, you fat fag.’ And my response was to say something nice. They’d be like, ‘This bitch crazy. This bitch just said, “Thank you,” when I called him a fag!’ Well, yeah. Because I am a fag, and I’m a proud one. You’re actually hurting yourself ‘cause you the fool, calling me names because you’re insecure about your own damn self.”
“I did have to beat a few people up,” she continues. “And I got my ass whooped. But I fought because my momma would say, ‘You go out there and show them who you are. Stand up, be a man, and fight their ass.’ I was scared to death. I’m a church boy, I’m a sissy, I was terrified. I didn’t want to fight those boys and have my eye black or my lip busted. But, growing up in New Orleans, and being Black and gay, you have to fight. My mom made me fight back.”
It was Vera’s fighting spirit that became the focal point of Season 2 of Queen of Bounce that aired in 2014. In it, Freedia revealed that her mom was battling cancer, and the main conflict of the show became Vera’s desire to see her child’s career take off in venues all over the world, while Freedia, as Vera’s primary caregiver, felt the pull to stay closer to home. Vera passed away in April of 2014 at age 53 while Freedia was away performing. And the subsequent mourning period, complete with a traditional jazz funeral through the streets of New Orleans, was documented by the show as well.
Shortly after Vera’s death, Freedia released her third studio album, Just Be Free, and the show changed its name to Big Freedia Bounces Back, shifting focus onto her legal troubles and love life. In 2016, Freedia was indicted on felony charges of theft of government funds after she failed to report her rising income from 2010 through 2014 while still receiving a post-Katrina housing subsidy. She pled guilty, was given probation and a fine, and through it all, leaned on her partner Devon for support.
“I’m forever grateful to Drake, Beyoncé, Kesha, and everyone bold enough to work with a gay artist.”
A shy, mumbly guy whose televised dialogue required subtitles, Devon has now been Freedia’s rock for 15 years. It’s a long run for any relationship, let alone one complicated by fame. “We had some really amazing times when we first started dating,” Freedia says when asked about their relationship. “We would be in every club together, hugging and kissing and dancing on each other. We’ve had great moments and we’ve had bad moments. We’ve had ups and downs. But we love each other and have been by each other’s sides through a lot. It seems like every time I lose somebody, he loses somebody, too. We are very connected in many different ways. Devon’s birthday is also a day apart from my mom’s. And they’re the two people I have the most love for. When I first started talking to him, he wasn’t afraid to be seen with me. No other boy I’d met was like that and that’s why I fell in love with him.”
The second breakthrough in Freedia’s career that raised her profile once again came towards the end of the reality show’s run, when Beyoncé called Freedia at home and asked her to add some authentic New Orleans flavor to “Formation.” “I did not come to play with you hoes!” Freedia can be heard bellowing over the song’s introductory bars. “I came to slay, bitch!” Recounting to her hair stylist on the show what it was like to get that call, Freedia told him, “I literally gagged. I knew when it came out because my phone started blowing up! One girl came up to me and was like, ‘Bitch! You almost made me pull all my extensions out!’”
It was the perfect segue out of reality-show notoriety and into pop stardom. Soon, other heavy hitters in music wanted to collaborate, resulting in memorable features for Freedia on Drake’s chart-topping 2018 track “Nice For What,” and on Kesha’s 2019 single “Raising Hell.” Unfortunately, however, Freedia did not appear in the videos for these songs, an omission prompting many of her fans to give those lead artists major side-eye. But when I ask Freedia about it, she seems eager to set the record straight. “Sometimes things just don’t work out schedule-wise, and that’s what happened with Beyoncé and Drake,” she says. “When Beyoncé shot her video, I was on the road. And with Drake, they had already shot everything. My part came last to give the song some extra spice. Fans just think, ‘Oh my God! Y’all didn’t put Freedia in the video!’ Well, I wasn’t available for the first one, and the second one, I was added at the end. I’m fine with it—as long as the checks clear [laughs]! I’m forever grateful to Drake, Beyoncé, Kesha, and everyone bold enough to work with a gay artist,” she explains. “There are other artists I also want to work with, but I feel like they may not work with me because I’m gay. So, you know, I gotta take what I can get in this game.”
At the time of this interview, “the game” was playing out in Freedia’s favor. Her new EP, Louder, dropped March 13 to glowing reviews and the video for the title track was close to hitting 1 million views on YouTube. Her memoir, God Save the Queen Diva, was about to come out in paperback. Her documentary film, Freedia Got a Gun—about the death of her brother due to gun violence and her advocacy for getting guns off the streets of New Orleans—was about to premiere at the Tribeca Film Festival. And a summer tour with Kesha was a bright spot on the horizon. Then the coronavirus swept across the world and put everyone’s exciting plans on hold.
But if Freedia is in any way deterred by this global crisis, you wouldn’t know it by following her on social media. Maybe surviving Hurricane Katrina made her into an especially resilient performer. Or maybe it’s just her natural instinct to lift folks’ spirits when they are down. Either way, Freedia was one of the first pop stars to begin doing regular performances on Instagram once social distancing took effect, and has been “bringing people together through the power of ass,” ever since. On Friday nights, she performs to a backing track, either in an empty club or in her backyard, flanked by vigorously twerking dancers delivering a virtual dance party called “Big Freedia’s Friday Night Shakedown.” It’s a fun way to spend the night, especially for those still learning the fine art of making their butt cheeks clap. But it’s also a fundraiser for The New Orleans Disaster Relief Fund and a virtual tip jar to help keep Freedia’s touring crew fed until this crisis is over.
Then on Sunday mornings, she switches over to something more spiritual and broadcasts “Big Freedia’s Kitchen: Gospel Sundays,” from her home so fans can watch her sing along with gospel songs and cook authentic Southern Sunday brunch. On one memorable Sunday, she appeared makeup free, wearing a satin hair bonnet, banana-print shorts, and a bright yellow shirt emblazoned with a banana that read, “So A-Peel-Ing!” As two tiny dogs begged for scraps at her feet, Freedia cheerfully showed over 1400 Instagram viewers how to make steaks, omelets, breakfast potatoes, and cinnamon rolls, taking breaks to sing hymns she knows by heart from her time as a choir director.
She’s so sweet and caring and comforting, it’s hard not to feel better watching her do what she was clearly born to do—bring people together and make them happy. As Freedia sings out in praise, shuffling back and forth purposefully between her stove and her ingredient-filled kitchen island, I’m reminded of one of the last things she told me during our interview, when I tried to probe her about how she can reconcile being a devout Christian with being an out and proud gay man. “Nobody can mess with my religion. I know God. We have a relationship and that’s just that,” she’d said confidently. “God knows everything, even before it happens. So, he knew I was gonna be this way. I just do what I do. And I continue to give God the glory because all these things don’t just manifest and happen in my life on their own. There’s gotta be a higher being that’s doing this. I gotta keep pushing because he’s the one pushing me.”
“There are a lot of gay people who go to church,” she continued with a sly smile. “Most of the time, the choir director or the organist at a church is gay, and I was that one. I was the gay choir director and we had a gay organist and we were good friends. We’ve always been a part of church music, from Baptist songs, to gospel, and then into hip-hop, we’ve always been a part of it. So, you know, I’m just gonna keep on doing what I do.”
By Emily Rems
Photographed By M. Sharkey
Makeup By Laken Glover
Hair By Michael Howard
Styling By Myah Pediford
Stylist’s Assistant: Callie Watts
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