In this week's cover story, Alison Fensterstock explores the world of "sissy rappers," the uniquely New Orleanian, out-and-proud bounce-rap artists who rule the clubs and the block parties wherever they appear. But not all bounce artists are comfortable with the rap that the sissies are giving New Orleans rap.
Alison will take your questions in the comments below. We got her started:
Q: What got you interested in pursuing a story about sissy rappers?
A: I've been aware of Katey Red since she did the Millennium Sissy album, and she did a few shows around that time at Quintron's Spellcaster Lodge. I knew about Freedia from "Gin In My System" being a local hit, and lately I had been hearing ads for their shows coming on the radio just constantly, so it seemed like they had quite a profile building. And they're really just pretty fabulous - they have these amazing personalities and stage presence, and they're totally unique to New Orleans, as far as the hip-hop scene at large goes.
Q: Was there any hesitation in the rap/bounce community - among either straight rappers or sissy rappers - about cooperating with a story?...
A: There were points that were a bit sticky. There were some very prominent straight figures in the scene that did talk off the record, but balked at actually being part of the story. And there was also a lot of touchy ground about rappers who are "on the down low" - fooling around with men on the QT but professing to be straight. Sexual identity for men in the South, especially black men, is a tricky thing - which is another reason why the sissies strike me as so great, because they're so comfortable with themselves and being out in a situation that can be hostile. There's also an issue of national acceptance that local rappers are worried about - if New Orleans rap is tainted as gay, they worry it'll hurt their own chances to break out, which in hip-hop is legitimate in a way.
Q: This phenomenon grew out of New Orleans. Why is this town fertile ground for bounce and sissy rap?
A: Well, as one of my sources said in an OTR interview, this is Planet New Orleans... a different world. I could go on and on about the traditions of masking and crossdressing and socially condoned transgression that are an essential part of NOLA culture. In the 40's, 50's and 60's, female impersonator shows at the Dew Drop and the My-O-My were major destinations for everyone in the city. There's a sense of freedom and celebration that pervades the whole culture and gives it a very permissive vibe. Impersonators like Patsy Vidalia and especially Bobby Marchan certainly paved the way for Katey, Freedia and Nobby. There is a place carved out in New Orleans nightlife for them that's been there for 60 years.
Q: What surprised you most as you worked on this?
A: I was most surprised by the people who declined to comment. You can hardly pretend it's not happening. And it's not "gay space" like the drag balls Katey hosts - it's totally part of mainstream African-American nightlife in NOLA. But people do, fairly, worry about how they're perceived. I was also pleasantly surprised when the rapper Mr. Meana told me that he wouldn't let his kids listen to his pro-violence, pro-drugs songs. Obviously that's normal good parenting. But he came out first saying he didn't want them listening to songs about being gay, and for some reason I assumed he would think his own songs were OK, which was a bad assumption on my part.
Q: Where do you see sissy rap going as a genre? Is it something that's now woven into the fabric of the city's musical legacy, could it spread nationally, is it a mere blip in the hip-hop movement, or something else?
A: There is actually more of an "out and proud" gay hip-hop movement - there's a website, gayhiphop.com - out of San Francisco (of course!) that's much more activist. But the NOLA sissies are less a part of queer culture at large, I think, than they are a part of New Orleans culture. There's a huge Internet fan base for them. It's totally possible that Freedia or Katey would have a RuPaul moment. They have that kind of rock star quality. But as Matt Miller, who directed the bounce documentary said, the problem is also with the regional quality of the music - it's really simple and rough and based a lot on the neighborhood-projects-school call and response. So that might inhibit it translating nationally more than the sissy-ness would. But I hope they do.