At what point does something become art? Is it possible to pinpoint exactly when a movement, whether it's visual or aural, is no longer on the fringe and is accepted as mainstream? When it's not only worth the public's attention, but also something that should be regarded with respect and reverence? Think what happened with pop art and graffiti, hip-hop and electronic music.
Big Freedia, the self-proclaimed “Queen Diva” of bounce, a style of hip-hop from New Orleans, has often pondered these questions. At the start of her performances—which she does six nights a week in New Orleans—the DJ will work the crowd into a frenzy, the dancers will get in place, and then Freedia will strut onto the stage to the kind of ovation usually reserved for a superstar like James Brown. In short order, the DJ will throw down an unwavering, bass-heavy beat and a dance party will suddenly break out in the front rows, with Freedia instructing everyone to shake their ass. The energy is irresistible. In a postshow interview posted on YouTube, one sweaty girl put it best: “They couldn't fight it. You can't fucking fight it.”
For the uninitiated, this might just sound like some uninhibited, unadulterated fun. But for Freedia, bounce—and all the popping, locking, vibrating and wiggling that comes with it—is a core part of New Orleans culture. Indeed, it's part of history.
“Doing some research on who dances like this, I found that much of these dances came from West Africa, and it's called mapouka,” she says in a phone interview. “They're dancing just like bounce music. We've just created it and formed it in an other kind of way where it's unique and different for New Orleans.”
Freedia, born Freddie Ross, describes bounce as “heavy bass” and “call and response” music. To hear her tell it, she got into bounce about 20 years ago as a teenager, when she met transsexual artist Katy Red and they started collaborating. While many bounce artists are straight, they pioneered a queer-friendly strain known as “sissy bounce.” (They don't like the term, maintaining that they don't need to be set apart from other bounce artists.)
“We bring that beat,” she says. “When people here in New Orleans have a bad day, they'll take a bounce song, put it on, and their day is a whole lot different when they're finished listening and letting out some energy.”
It probably won't hurt if you're what folks might call an “ass man.” In a video on YouTube, rapper Theophilus London sums it up for a lot of guys when he says, “There were, like, 20 girls shaking their ass onstage. That's how I kinda view what heaven is about.”
This idea—of women shaking their ass onstage to the enjoyment of a bunch of gawking guys—has fueled naysayers' cries of sexism and degradation. The critique makes sense in the context of rap music, which is sometimes misogynistic. And it probably doesn't help that Freedia's biggest song is called “Azz Everywhere.” But Freedia dismisses the critique.
“It's about being able to express yourself and be who you are,” she says. “It's not about anything sexual or degrading women. It's about letting women feel empowered as well as letting men dance and be free.”
Bounce music culture is decidedly underground; those outside of New Orleans might have a hard time finding a bounce show. One of the biggest pieces of mainstream exposure it's gotten was a segment on Last Call with Carson Daly; watching it, it seems that even the former TRL host himself wasn't sure about the music.
Freedia claims that Hurricane Katrina, of all things, did the most to spread bounce nationwide.
“A lot of us were displaced all over the world, and there were fans of bounce music fiending like it was crack,” Freedia says. “They were, like, ‘I miss this music. Where can I get it?'”
Freedia concedes that there might be only a certain amount of time that she'll be able to keep up his pace—“I'm giving it another 10 years,” she says. Until then, she wants to give it her all, to “teach the culture of New Orleans and bounce music.” As for novices who are seeing the performance for the first time and perhaps plan on doing some intense dancing, what should they do? Not eat? Have some muscle relaxers on standby?
“No, not at all. You can eat,” Freedia says. “Definitely just watch a video or two and practice at home. Watching yourself in the mirror is one of the keys, and working those muscles in your back to your legs.”
But Freedia ends with a warning: “Just watch out, 'cause it's contagious. Pretty soon, everyone will be dancing.”
Big Freedia performs with Spank Rock, Death Set, Pictureplane and Franki Chan at Voyeur on Saturday, Oct. 22.