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Long before Miley Cyrus and twerking — that frenzied, pelvic-thrusting move that looks like an obscene case of St. Vitus dance — became a distinguishing feature of bounce music, there was Big Freedia (pronounced Free-duh), the so-called “Queen of Bounce.” Her dancers, dubbed “The Divas,” specialize in rapid-fire twerking to music that combines the free spirit of New Orleans with hip-hop tradition. The act’s intense energy is sure to fire up the crowd when Big Freedia takes the stage at Milwaukee PrideFest on Sat., June 7.
Bounce music began when hip hop made its way south to New Orleans in the late 1980s. A sub-genre of hip hop, it’s characterized by call- and response-style vocals and repetitive up-tempo melodies set to fast beats. With the success of the New Orleans rap label Cash Money in the late 1990s, bounce music gained wider national attention.
But Hurricane Katrina in 2005 devastated neighborhoods in New Orleans that were strongholds of bounce. Big Freedia was forced to flee the city for Texas. When Caesar’s became the first club to reopen in New Orleans after Katrina, Big Freedia was invited back to perform “FEMA Fridays.”
Bounce music was back.
The free spirit days of FEMA Fridays came full circle on May 2, when Big Freedia and his fellow bounce performers closed down the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival with a dance-off between them and New York underground vogue stars at the New Orleans Wax Museum.
In recent yeas, Big Freedia has performed coast to coast, including at Bonnaroo, SXSW and on Jimmy Kimmel Live.
Born Freddie Ross, Big Freedia was born and raised in New Orleans. Artists such as Patti LaBelle, Sylvester and Gladys Knight were big influences. Like so many artists before, he was raised singing in the Baptist church choir. By the time Ross was 18, he had become the choir’s director.
In 1991, Ross heard the track “Where Dey At” by MC T Tucker, considered by many to be the first recorded bounce song. For Ross, it was a life-changing moment. He became a backup dancer for Katey Red, the first “sissy bounce” performer, and his career was on its way.
“Sissy bounce” is a queer variant of bounce music, but Big Freedia rejects being pigeonholed into the category. Although he has often performed with Sissy Nobby and his transgender mentor Katey Red, Big Freedia stressed in an interview: “I wear women’s hair and carry a purse, but I am a man.”
In his publicity bio he says, “Bounce is bounce. There’s no need to separate it out. All types of people, gay, straight, rich, poor, black, white come to my shows. People just wanna get out and shake their azzzz and have a good time!”
Big Freedia’s national career kicked into high gear in 2010 with extensive touring and an appearance on Last Call with Carson Daly. In addition to releasing his own music, he sang on recordings with RuPaul. In 2012, he appeared at Austin’s SXSW festival and in 2013 his reality TV show Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce debuted on the Fuse network. The program received a GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Reality Program, defeating Project Runway. The show begins its second season in June.
In recent weeks, Big Freedia released the new single “Explode.” In his inimitable style, he implores listeners to “release your wiggle.” The idea behind the song is that he feels like he is about to “explode” after the stresses of being on the road while sustaining a relationship, he said.
The next Big Freedia album Just Be Free is due for release June 17, to coincide with the kick-off of his reality TV show’s second season. Producer Thomas McElroy, best known for helping launch the R&B girl group En Vogue, worked on the album.
Big Freedia’s live show takes a few minutes of adjustment for the audience. The energy is high, the music is loud, and the twerking dancers filling the stage can overload the senses. But once you free your mind and “release your wiggle,” you just might find Big Freedia taking your booty and mind to a new place of joy and expression.
Big Freedia performs on the PrideFest Mainstage at 8:30 p.m., Sat., June 7.