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Bigger Than Life: Bounce queen Big Freedia returns to PrideFest

With a large, well-manicured hand in multiple realms, Big Freedia is on her way to becoming (drag) queen of all media.

Musically, Freedia can be credited with introducing the hip-hop/house hybrid bounce music to the public and increasing its familiarity in the mainstream. In print, her memoir, Big Freedia: God Save the Queen Diva!, puts her life experiences into words. Watching her reality TV show Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce, we witness her trials, tribulations and triumphs. And with a role in the film Heart, Baby, an upcoming release about an imprisoned boxer who turns down a chance at freedom if he participates in the 1984 Olympics, Big Freedia will further increase her already considerable profile.

To be clear: It’s Big Freedia’s world, we just bounce in it. Big Freedia will perform at Milwaukee PrideFest on June 11, but before then, she talked to WiG about the new heights she’s risen to in recent years.

Freedia, since the time I first interviewed you in 2011, much has happened in your career, beginning with the way you brought bounce music into the mainstream. What do you think about about the reception bounce music received and what do you think about the future of the musical genre?

Well, I definitely think it’s grown. It has definitely been accepted around the world and I’m super excited about that. That people allow me to come to their hometowns and be myself and represent the culture of music that I represent, and New Orleans, especially.

(Bounce music) will continue to grow. The sounds are getting bigger; it’s elevating. More artists want to work with and incorporate bounce music in their music. I’m very excited about the way things are going and where they can go.

As you’ve said, you’re “one busy queen.” One of your biggest gigs is your reality show, Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce, which will debut its fifth season on Fuse. What’s the best thing about having your own show?

I’m blessed to have my own show and to have a platform to speak on a lot of different things that are happening around the world. To have a platform for my music and a home for New Orleans; a show that represents our culture, what happens in New Orleans and what happens with me when I am on the road.

What are you most excited about in season five of Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce?

I’m most excited to see the roller coaster that I’m going to be on. Where I’m going, where I’m traveling, what’s going to be (happening) in the season. Figuring out at that point in my life what’s happening next. It’s a lot of hard work and determination. I put forth my best effort and present to the world what’s going on in my life and (that of) all the people around me.

What can you tell me about the movie you made earlier this year?

The movie is called Heart, Baby. It’s about a boxer who was in jail. I’m one of the featured actors and I’m totally excited about that. I’m ready to step into the acting world some more. I’m such a diverse artist and I’m able to be creative on a whole lot of levels.

What part do you play?

I’m one of the queens in jail who was the “mother” of the girls in jail.

You also wrote a book, Big Freedia: God Save the Queen Diva!, with your publicist Nicole Balin. What was that experience like for you?

It brought back a lot of emotions. I had to revisit a lot of things from childhood to currently now. It was a fun experience to jog my memory for all the things that have happened — or at least to my best recollection. It was an exciting and hard process for me. We only had a certain amount of time to get our draft in and finish the book. We were on a tight schedule. Lots of hours of talking on the phone to Nicole, and then her coming to New Orleans and meeting and going to the places where I grew up. It was interesting to tell my life story in that period of time the best I could. Then to have a finished product was really amazing.

Earlier this year, Beyonce tapped you to be a part of her song “Formation.”

Oh my God!

What was the experience of working with Queen Bey like for you?

I died at home and came back to life when I got the phone call. It was so major for me and for New Orleans and my career. I was blown away when I got the phone call.

What did it mean to you that she knows who you are?

We’d been in contact before I did the song. She’s been aware of who I am and what I represent and my music. She’s been following me. She was a fan first.

In June, you are performing at Pridefest in Milwaukee. What can fans expect from a Big Freedia Pride show?

They can expect me to bring lots of energy and love and asses together. It’s going to be an amazing show. We’re going to bring it as we usually bring it. We’re coming to have a happy time at Pride. We’ll be doing some of the new stuff off the album and debuting a few of the new singles off the album. They will get to hear some of the new sound of Big Freedia.

We’ve lost some big name musical acts this year, including David Bowie and Prince. Have you performed or do you plan to perform any of their songs when you play Milwaukee PrideFest or other shows?

I haven’t gotten that far yet. I have so many other things in front of me. But I did do a dedication to Prince at my show at Jazz Fest in New Orleans. It started raining right when I was singing “Purple Rain.” I couldn’t have asked for a better performance at a better time. In the future I’ll definitely be dedicating some stuff to both of them.

If you don’t mind, I’d like to end on a serious note and ask you to say something about the controversy surrounding North Carolina’s House Bill 2, also known as the “bathroom bill.”

I just think it’s a bunch of bullshit. There were drag queens way before my time and they will continue after. They’re (Republicans) making a big mockery out of nothing. People just want to be able to govern us with everything. They should just let people live and be free to choose whatever bathroom they choose (for) whatever their preferred gender may be.

I’m definitely going to continue to support those people. I will be at Hopscotch Music Festival (in Raleigh, North Carolina, Sept. 8 to 10) and letting them know that there are people there giving them moral support. I will be the artist that goes there and lets them know that. Fuck what the Governor says. Do you and be you and just live!

Big Freedia vows to release your wiggle and bounce

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. 

On stage

Big Freedia performs on the PrideFest Mainstage at 8:30 p.m., Sat., June 7.