- "Release Your Wiggle"Big Freedia's Queer Bounce
"I'm that queen that'll make ya bounce!"—Big Freedia, "N.O. Bounce"
"Release your wiggle!" Big Freedia chants as a crowd of college-aged fans encircles the stage, responding to her call with dance. Freedia's command to "release" is part of her larger mission to take the world by storm, one bounce at a time. Through her music, television show, and memoir, the Queen Diva may do just that. Self-described as a Bounce artist who happens to be gay, Freedia (pronounced "Free-da") currently dominates the genre, a mode of southern hip-hop most often associated with black identity in New Orleans. While queer Bounce artists are often pigeonholed into a subset of the form called "Sissy" Bounce, Freedia's craft and popularity dare us to think again. From clubs to classrooms, Bourbon Street to Brazil, Freedia continues to transform the performance and consumption of Bounce music by drawing attention to its West African origins and by disseminating her sound on a global stage in ways that trouble persistent romances of New Orleans black working-class southernness.1
Freedia has performed as a Bounce artist for almost twenty years, but her style defies what may immediately come to mind when one imagines predominantly hypermasculine and hypersexual southern hip-hop. The diva is gender flexible, donning color and flair galore; her signature looks include a fabulously high pompadour (which started as a vertical hairstyle known as a freeze that was popular in the 1990s), oversized 59fifty caps, jackets that recall Janet Jackson's "Rhythm Nation" video, and gloves with fuzzy trim, all developed with the help of her "Uncle" Percy, a mentor and friend. After shopping major cable outlets like vh1 and mtv, Freedia's reality show Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce was picked up in 2013 by Fuse tv. During the first season, Freedia commented that her background and position as a poor, black, gay artist didn't "match" her status as a popular entertainer. And yet, with impressive tv ratings, a large social media following, and fans in crossover audiences, there is something about this mismatch that makes sense. Freedia's music and performances help us tease out the intersections of race, gender, sexuality, geography, and class that converge in Bounce.
Music writer Ben Westhoff writes that Bounce echoes the "city's each-day-as-your-last mentality," suggesting that Bounce manifests a "joie de vivre" attitude. [End Page 60]
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[End Page 61] But such commentary obscures the lasting impacts of race and class disparities, and obscures the resistance, influence, and dynamic exchange that New Orleans contributes to a particularly unfixed diasporic history. From New Orleans's earliest forms of cultural exchange to the devastation and dispersal of Katrina, Bounce shows how New Orleans's cultural products exceed the category of "local" expression. While Bounce has been thought of as an emblem of local, black, mostly hetero-masculine identities, Freedia upends these categories. As she continues to gain a mainstream following, her queerness challenges the ways working-class blackness has been represented, consumed, and reproduced in popular media.2
For the purposes of this essay, we may define "queerness" as a social position or act that upends categories of race, gender, and sexuality. In short, attitudes about sexuality, and especially sexual "deviance," have frequently been married to attitudes about blackness. In the antebellum period, African bondspeople were viewed as deviant, hyperphysical, and hypersexual, their bodies and practices framed in contrast to Western cultural norms. In today's tourist economies, this tension is appealing for consumers who appropriate and perform elements of Bounce, a music and dance style that revels in sexual exploration. By foregrounding the body's lower region—in the words of Big Freedia, "Azz everywhere, azz...