Brunching with Big Freedia – At Last, the Article from the Magical Lost Interview
When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans in 2005, the Bounce Hip-Hop phenomenon was already alive and well in the Big Easy. Bounce emerged from a particular set of beats and claps in which NOLA hip-hop deejays were defining their own sound centered in an ass-shaking beat and fierce emceeing. In the aftermath of the catastrophe, the first club to open up on the West Bank of the flood-ravaged city became meeting place for one of Bounce music's emerging starlets, Big Freedia and her now collaborators DJ Rusty Lazer and Altercation, Big Freedia's dance enthusiast stage partner. Big Freedia has been put on the Montreal map and on the North American and European musical maps, both by infectious danceability and breathtaking lyrics, and by recent associations with Montreal's own Lesbians on Ecstasy, who were the trio's hostesses for this year's Pop Montreal Festival, which programmed both a Bounce dance workshop and late-night loft party show at Espace Réunion on Oct. 3rd.
An unexpected and unforgettable third venue for their 36-hour stop was a brunch appearance at the home of yours truly. Lured by promises of bacon, low-maintenance interview questions— and somewhere to while away the four hours between their checkout and flight times— Big Freedia and her collaborators shared breakfast, pink champagne and a whole lot of themselves with myself and Hochelaga Goddamn collaborator CeeTee Horné. For reasons I shall spare the reader, we do not have a transcript of the profound sharing that took place that day, and instead will try and tell you as much as we can about Freedia the performer, Freedia the poet, Freedia the queer person: Freedia the Big.
“Do you eat meat?” Rusty, Big Freedia's DJ and roadie pal asked me in reply to my breakfast invitation at the Bounce workshop; “Hell Yeah!” I said, promising more bacon than he'd know what to do with. The scruffy, wiry, cutie with the smiling eyes immediately brightened up saying that they would try and make it, especially given how rare it was to be offered a home-cooked meal on the road. Hours later, bathed in the melancholic undulations of Scout Niblett, I found myself too tired to make it to Big Freedia's 2am show, and was tersely warned by a Pop Montreal veteran that there was no chance of them accepting my brunch invitation if I failed to attend this much anticipated Bounce event. At 11:45am the next morning, a voice only slightly less groggy than my own was asking me if the breakfast invitation was still on the table. With CeeTee Horné on speed-dial and pink champagne shoved in the freezer, the bacon was frying and the danishes and cantaloupe lain out when the weary trio were deposited in my front yard by an ebullient Lynne T and the always charming Bernie, from Lezzies on X. As my guests gradually woke up, I received a short but valuable lesson on the importance of a person's chosen name sometimes being the same as their stage name, as is the case for Altercation, Big Freedia's dance partner and spiritual sister. A radiant blonde with wing tattoos on her sternum and an inspiring body/consciousness, Altercation was the undiscovered treasure of the day, as she shared ever-richer parts of her story, as the wing-woman to the reigning queen of New Orleans Bounce.
Regal and soft-spoken, Big Freedia took her time perking up with her new Montreal fans and shared gradually and humbly the reality of living as an artist in a city defined by disaster, violence and race history. Her presence was like visiting royalty to me and C T Horné, who hung on every velvet word, and relished every smile. For his part, Rusty, whose stomach was the way to my heart, told us the story of meeting Big Freedia, whose work he respected and who he ran after on one of NOLA's impromptu Bounce Days, when the Belle of Bounce was the centerpiece of a street party— no dress and crown, thank you very much— seated atop an open convertible, being driven through throngs of ass-shaking, ecstatic fans. Bounce music is such a prevalent part of NOLA culture, in an anecdote of Big Freedia's, that you'll see two people arguing on the street, and a car will come by playing bounce music, and the two will get down and start dancing until the car drives away, only to see the argument resumed. Bounce music's fan-base is 80% female according to Big Freedia, and unlike most popular hip-hop traditions, is resolutely and fabulously queer. The epithet “Sissy” was ascribed to the Bounce stars who happen to be openly gay, but is not an adjective that they use themselves.
A florist and interior designer in her beloved hometown, Big Freedia's LaDiva Creations is her mainstay but by no means just her bread and butter: it's what she loves to do. It just so happens that what queers, music lovers and all of New Orleans love to see her do most is take the mike, pop the P (as in pussy) and sing in a way that makes you dance like you've never danced before, from a place of reclaiming your space, your worth, and your ass. “The red chakra is the seat and basic chakra, and represents the verb 'to have'”, explained Altercation in the bounce workshop earlier the day before. By dancing with your ass and reclaiming your body and your space, you are reclaiming your right to feel the way you feel in your body, and to have the space you have, and ultimately, to communicate your desires, your needs and your reality. Raised by missionaries with early-twenties aspirations of being a 'nutritionary', Altercation addressed both in the workshop and over brunch the beautiful and profoundly thought-out notion of cultural reciprocation that imbues her work and art. “If someone gives you potholders, it doesn't mean you have to give them potholders in return,” by which she means the gift of Bounce music which sprung from Black-American New Orleans culture is one that has changed her life, and for which she expresses gratitude in a variety of ways, from dance classes, to food security work, to anti-poverty activism in her chosen hometown.
The questions I asked Big Freedia were about her spoken word art, which she uses with Nina-Simonesque brilliance in tracks like “I Got the Power” and “Sittin’ Home”; and she greeted them with the humility and subjectivity of a poet. “It's what I'm thinking about in the moment, what matters to me in the moment, what I feel I need to say.” Lost to the caprices of my room-mate's Sony Dictaphone are the depth and realness of what Freedia really said that afternoon. She spoke of hardship, friendship, the love of music and community. Her voice and heart were music to my ears, reaching something like holiness. She is a sound-uttering mystic of words and ass, and a real diva. She knows how good she is, but she never forgets, not for a second, where she's from and what the stakes are. She spoke of her lover for her boyfriend, and the upcoming funeral she had to attend back home. The misery of post-Katrina NOLA was met with pained eyes and a deep-breathing wisdom that it is her role as artist and queen to show help her hometown grow, by making Bounce music better know everywhere. Ass, everywhere, yes, but heart and wisdom too. I am left thinking it is a testament to what an innate poet Freedia is that I found it to hard to quote her exactly when I tried to write this article. Respect.
Big Freedia came to Montreal as an anomaly in the Pop Montreal programme, which had very little spoken word and even less of anything hip-hop related. Having met Lezzies on X at SXSW in 2009, and now having made two visits in 2010, we can only hope to make it to New Orleans for Mardi Gras to experience her power and fame in their birthplace. If the devotional ass-shaking and musical influences on LoX's new single is any indication, we should all have the privilege of hearing and feeling this artist's love of community and heartfelt creativity in our private and not-so-private places sometime soon. Check out www.myspace.com/bigfreedia for upcoming shows and to purchase the album.