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Big Freedia hits the big time 

Frank Etheridge on Freedia and his new reality show, Queen of Bounce

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As September's first Thursday night sweated into Friday's wee hours, a long line of people waited for admittance into Republic New Orleans in the Warehouse District. The doorman stamped "BOUNCE" on the backs of right hands on a full spectrum of party-people, as Big Freedia's genre-shaping bounce classic "Azz Everywhere" booms through the sound system. The night's triple bill featured DJ Jubilee, Katey Red and, in the headliner slot, Big Freedia. Outside the green room where the Queen Diva was getting ready, newfangled e-cigarette contraption's non-noxious plumes gave way to the dank wafts of blunts.

  The Internet is still abuzz about Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke's performance at the MTV Video Music Awards. Cyrus may have introduced many viewers to "twerking," but the ass-in-the-air gyrating is locally, and originally, known as popping, and it came from New Orleans bounce music — long before West Coast hip-hop scenes appropriated and renamed it.

  "I am excited about Miley twerking on the VMAs," Freedia says. "She didn't twerk properly, but she opened the door for New Orleans and bounce music and myself."

  Audiences who want to see twerking done right will have plenty of opportunity when the cable music channel Fuse airs the new reality TV show Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce beginning Oct. 2. The cameras follow Big Freedia around New Orleans as he prepares for a tour and looks to find a wider audience, but it's also an introduction to his life outside late-night club shows.

  "People get to take a peek at my personal life and meet my family and some of my friends," Big Freedia says.

  Rapping opened the door for Big Freedia, but his personality is what makes the reality show work. He's got ease and charm on screen, and though Fuse is most heavily focused on music programming, Queen of Bounce could make him a bigger TV celebrity than he is a rapper. It's produced by World of Wonder, the company that created RuPaul's Drag Race, Million Dollar Listing and Life with LaToya.

click to enlarge Big Freedia talks with his manager Renee Moncado on Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce. - PHOTO BY JEREMY SIMMONS
  • Photo by Jeremy Simmons
  • Big Freedia talks with his manager Renee Moncado on Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce.

  Freedia and his managers "realized my life is a story, and bounce music is a story, and we want this to be shown to the world," Freedia says.

  The premiere episode opens with a very quick gloss of Freedia's career, beginning with images of Hurricane Katrina-ravaged New Orleans as Freedia talks about touring and reconnecting with dispersed New Orleanians in other cities. But he started his career in local clubs before the levee failures of 2005.

  Freedia was born Freddie Ross Jr. and grew up in the 3rd Ward of New Orleans. He sang in church, and at home listened to his mother's old-school and contemporary R&B, including The O'Jays, James Brown, Patti Labelle, Frankie Beverly and Maze, Michael Jackson and Prince. But Freedia became more interested in rap and bounce.

  "When I got into middle school, I was listening to all the triggerman (beat) and Run DMC and Doug E. Fresh and all of that," he says.

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  Eventually Freedia started performing and became a backup singer for his friend, bounce rapper Katey Red. Though bounce music had been around since the late 1980s, it got a burst of attention when several bounce rappers, including Freedia and Katey Red, were profiled in publications including The New York Times Magazine and Vanity Fair. Gay rappers shaking up a genre known for its homophobia helped grab media attention.

  In July, Freedia opened several shows for the indie rock band Postal Service in the Pacific Northwest. Some of that band's fans weren't ready for bounce and popping. Reviews in the local press ranged from negative to aghast. But Freedia says that overall the mini-tour was positive.

  "The Postal Service took a chance on me," he says. "The crowd, they were there to see the Postal Service. But I worked hard and won over a majority of them."

  Freedia also notes that while some newcomers to bounce may be shocked, there are cultural antecedents to everything about his performance, both with gender issues and sexually expressive dancing. New Orleans has its own history with crossdressing and gay performers, including African-American R&B singer and female-impersonator Bobby Marchan. Freedia also notes similar cultural divides about African dance, as in YouTube videos of the mapouka, a dance indigenous to the Ivory Coast.

click to enlarge Big Freedia sings with his mother Vera. - PHOTO BY JEREMY SIMMONS
  • Photo by Jeremy Simmons
  • Big Freedia sings with his mother Vera.

  "It tripped me out because these women were doing splits like we do, moves like we do," he says. "Videos are hard to find online because they were banned over there because they said women were degrading themselves. But it's just women in these dances, no men around. It's just women expressing themselves. Bounce is a joyful music. That's what I'm going to share with the world."

  Freedia's efforts to reach wider audiences drives the first two episodes of Queen of Bounce as Freedia and his managers prepare for a tour in Brazil and shooting a music video. In the opening episode, Freedia's manager, Renee Moncada, suggests adding another bounce rapper to the tour bill, specifically Mr. Ghetto.

  Robert Maize, aka Mr. Ghetto, made a name for himself when his YouTube video "Walmart" went viral. Filmed with a hand-held camera, it featured a couple of dancers popping in a Walmart parking lot and in store aisles.

  Big Freedia's onstage DJ, Rusty Lazer, loathes the idea of touring with Mr. Ghetto, and Freedia deliberates as his new managers argue that it's a good business decision. To test the idea, Freedia and Mr. Ghetto cut a song together to see if they can share a stage and use it to generate interest in the tour. It's an uneasy mix, made worse when New Orleans news stations show footage of an NOPD SWAT team extracting Mr. Ghetto from his apartment following an alleged hostage situation. It throws tour plans into question, and a filmed meeting between Big Freedia, his managers and Mr. Ghetto (at Sammy's Food Service and Deli on Elysian Fields Avenue) is a made-for-reality-TV scene.

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  "Everything on the show happened as it actually happened," Moncado says in a phone interview from California. "There's a lot of tension that makes for perfect TV." Moncada is a coproducer of Queen of Bounce, and her husband, Thomas McElroy, has worked with En Vogue and other R&B stars.

  Mr. Ghetto hits on Moncada and she tells him, "I'm spoken for." That does little to check his advances, and as the encounter gets heated, a different sexual conflict arises. Mr. Ghetto calls Big Freedia a "flamboyant diva" and yells "I'm the king!" Big Freedia fires back, "I'm the queen," and confronts his homophobia angrily. "I got a dick between my legs just like you," Big Freedia says.

  Freedia wants mainstream success, but he's not willing either to hide his sexual orientation nor dilute his powerful performances. It's a point he's made before about bounce music and the label "sissy bounce."

  "There's no such thing as sissy bounce," he says at Republic. "I've been trying to correct that for two years now. It's bounce music. No separation. That's how we do it in New Orleans. We're a city of love — family-oriented. We have a big gay culture here and we support each other."

  "Big Freedia brings all walks of life together. Black, white; fat, skinny," he says. "And that's what it's about, having fun expressing yourself through music and dance no matter who you are, what's your origin, your sexuality, it doesn't matter."

click to enlarge Big Freedia records a song on Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce. - PHOTO BY JEREMY SIMMONS
  • Photo by Jeremy Simmons
  • Big Freedia records a song on Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce.

  "An artist like Freedia is able to change perceptions about gay men in general by just being who he is," Moncado says.

  While Big Freedia trusts Moncado, his biggest fan does not: his mother Vera.

  The show introduces Vera at a backyard crawfish boil, where family and friends commune over crawfish as Freedia goes from performing gospel music to rapping. Everyone from Vera to young children start dancing, and in some cases popping. Katey Red (whom Freedia calls "my best friend") says to the camera that Freedia "never left that pouch" in regard to the close relationship between mother-and-son.

  Besides introducing Freedia to choir music, Vera also had always styled his hair. When Big Freedia's managers bring in stylists and makeup artists for a video shoot, Vera does not take it well. Freedia is wearing blue lipstick and is styled in a way that looks less stylish than sci-fi techno weird.

  The first two episodes are engrossingly entertaining. They are marked by artful shots and only-in-the-Crescent City scenes such as the crawfish boil and local fans bouncing in clubs as Big Freedia screams "Hands on the floor." At times, condensed histories leave out a lot, although producers decided to subtitle some scenes, apparently concerned New Orleans' vernacular needed further clarification. (Asked about the racial implications of subtitles, Moncada cites industry practices for using subtitles, as in the PBS documentary Soul Food Junkies, which features subtitles when the narrator interviews football fans tailgating in Mississippi.)

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  There's plenty of reality TV drama in the confrontations with Mr. Ghetto and Freedia's relationship with his mother. But Freedia clearly isn't interested in getting mired in distractions or ego battles. He's got bigger aims.

  "You have to have a positive mind frame," Freedia says at Republic, "You have to earn your respect, you have to work hard and give dedication to what you do. ...

  "I have been really grinding with this for a long time. I have been working really hard to show people that bounce can be really fun."

Queen of Bounce Trailer

Big Freedia Documentary by Pitchfork


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