It’s just after noon on the final day of 2013’s South by Southwest in Austin, Texas. The fatigue that the marathon music festival inflicts is readily evident in a grand ballroom in Austin’s labyrinthine convention center. A small crowd has gathered to watch New Orleans rapper Big Freedia (pronounced FREE-duh) perform a daytime set, but their energy is clearly flagging.
Big Freedia — who plays New Mountain in Asheville on Tuesday, Sept. 30, invites everyone to bum-rush the stage during the raucous, rambunctious “Azz Everywhere” and let loose with their most outrageous moves. But it’s early, and most of the audience members are nervous. “Don’t be scared, y’all,” Freedia says, her strong voice ensconced with authority. “It’s just a little a**-shaking.”
Then Freedia turns around, raises her hands over her head and twirls her own butt in oddly hypnotic circles. All of a sudden, the energy in the room picks up, and a throng of brave souls hops onstage to shake it with Freedia’s backup dancers.
Freedia — who was born Freddie Ross but uses the feminine pronoun for her stage persona — is the reigning queen of bounce music. The aggressively glitchy and uptempo strain of hip-hop originated in New Orleans in the early ’90s. Built for a party, bounce favors punchy tempos, heavy bass and call-and-response vocals. Like crunk and trap (from Memphis and Atlanta, respectively), two other regional rap genres that exploded past their Southern roots into mainstream consciousness, bounce is growing in the popular zeitgeist. It’s misunderstood largely because of twerking and the uproar following Miley Cyrus’ employment of the hypersexualized dance move.
But those who follow bounce culture, Freedia says, know that twerking is just a small part of a much bigger movement. “There’s a whole culture that comes before it,” she says. “It goes way back even before New Orleans, with the style of dancing music that’s called Mapouka that comes from [the Ivory Coast]. We just inherited it in New Orleans. We learned it, we studied it, and now we own it. No matter how horrible anybody may think it is, this is New Orleans, and this is how we roll.”
Today, Freedia’s one of the only the bounce artists with prominent national exposure. Released in 2011, her longtime club jam “Azz Everywhere” was a surprise hit. She, along with friend and former mentor Katy Red (Freedia started performing as one of Katy’s backup singers), appeared on the HBO series Treme, set in New Orleans. She’s working on a bounce music workout DVD. Last September, Freedia led a group of 358 dancers in New York City’s Herald Square, setting a Guinness-certified world record for simultaneous twerking. It was the centerpiece of the first season of her Fuse-aired reality show Queen of Bounce, which recently debuted its second season.
The reality show has “made me a whole lot more famous,” Freedia laughs. It’s also paid concrete dividends, exposing Freedia and bounce music to a sizable new audience. “It definitely makes me work harder,” she says. “It makes me attack things that I need to attack and keep pushing forward. I have a lot of people on my trail, and being the queen and the ambassador [for bounce music], I have to keep focused.”
Freedia’s coronation, seemingly, was the release of Just Be Free in June. Her star power, as evidence by magnetic performances and the success of her reality show, is natural, and Just Be Free is an attempt to bring her music to that level. Made without samples (on which many bounce records are based) Just Be Free skirts potential legal issues while retaining the inherent soul and energy of the genre. Consider the lead single “Explode,” a furious drum machine-and-vocal assault where Freedia implores you to “release your wiggle” and lose yourself in the music, no matter the proportions of your posterior.
“Even if you gotta skinny a**, you just gotta know how to work it,” she says. “No matter what type of a** you got, everybody can move it. We got a lot of skinny people here in New Orleans, and some of the skinny ones can dance better than the ones with all that a**. It’s all about how much you wanna get into it, how much you wanna move.”
WHO: Big Freedia
WHERE: New Mountain, newmountainavl.com
WHEN: Tuesday, Sept. 30, 9 p.m. $18/$20