Inside Big Freedia’s Black-Queer Utopia

An interview with the New Orleans luminary, and her colorful cast of bounce dancers.

“I bring people together through the power of ass,” Big Freedia tells me, half-joking but discernibly serious.

The worlds brought together by the 41-year-old bounce artist for tonight’s show previously couldn’t have been more disparate. As Freedia prepares to headline Red Bull’s Dance Your Style competition in her home city, she’s anticipated by a New Orleans crowd unlike the local audiences she’s grown accustomed to throughout her 20-year career.

Typically, perhaps at Lyve Nite Club on Tulane Avenue, or maybe at One Eyed Jacks on Toulouse Street, a Freedia show may have a mix of straight and queer, young and old, wild and reserved. But ultimately, attendance will still be mostly black, and mostly femme. This evening, at Generations Hall on Andrew Higgins Boulevard, friends and family of Red Bull’s competing dancers have flown from across the country, and from all walks of life, to watch their loved ones breakdance and poplock down to sudden-death elimination. By the end of the night, though, the show will be about ass: Freedia’s, and that of her five backup dancers. And the demographic gumbo that is tonight’s crowd will cheer louder for a cast of black-queer southerners than for any of the night’s more familair performers.

Freedia’s far-reach first grasped the mainstream in 2016 via Beyoncé’s surprise “Formation” single, and then once more in 2018, with her voice being the first one heard on Drake’s “Nice For What.” So, the anointed “Queen Diva” of bounce is no stranger to outsiders coveting the court she’s built in New Orleans. But still, the excitement of unexpectancy is in the air tonight.

“I’ve always liked to dance,” Freedia explains from a couch in the green room. “Once I started rapping, I had to start dancing more. I had to really use my craft, and take everything I did for fun and put it into my professional shows.” 

A word that’s often used to describe the feeling black art evokes is liberation. It has the tendency to sometimes over-intellectualize the innate. Yet as Big Freedia describes growing up with bounce music—“we start bouncing as babies, in our diapers, looking at our moms and aunts”—the idea that free-form joy could serve as true liberation doesn’t seem so trite.

Earlier in the day, I spent time receiving twerk lessons at a dance studio owned by Freedia’s choreographer and long-time dancer, Tamika Jett. Passion Dance Center sits sunbaked on a quiet suburban street, in the center of Dreux Avenue. It’s at this studio, which Jett and the rest of Freedia’s dancers use as a rehearsal space, that children as young as two-years-old take their first steps toward claiming their physical agency through dance. 

Tonight feels like the culmination of that journey. On stage with Freedia this evening will be two former Passion Dance students, Satchel Joseph and Tyra Sylvester, along with Shantoni Holbrook and Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce reality star Tootie Tootz. Bodies will rock, and spirits will shake.

Would you describe dancing, and particularly twerking, as a form of self-expression?

Freedia: Well, first of all, I don't call it twerking [anymore]. We bounce, we shake, we wiggle, we wobble. We do all of that. But yes, it's a big part of our culture here. From babies to grandmothers. It's empowering for us. We can get on the floor and express ourselves no matter who we are. Black, white, gay, straight. Everybody can do it. It’s a dance that brings people together.

Empowering is a great word for it. Do you think it's especially empowering for black queer folks, more so than others?

Freedia: Yeah, just because it's something that we really feel in our body and our soul when we do it. We let the spirit take control when we're dancing. We just put more into it. A lot of [other] people take things for granted, but we really love what we do.

A lot of people describe you as an icon. Not only within the bounce scene or around New Orleans, but also within the LGBTQ community. When did you—or when will you—start to feel comfortable embracing that description?

Freedia: After I put in a lot more work. I still feel like there are so many things that I have to do to really become an icon. I’ve done a lot and laid down a lot of groundwork, but there's so much more work to be done. There's a lot more that I want to do, LGBTQ centers that I want to open. After I leave my legacy, then I will be that icon. But for now I'm just steady grinding, steady working, steady breaking barriers and knocking down doors and giving other people opportunities.

Earlier, I interviewed your dancers back at the rehearsal studio. One of them mentioned she was in Drake’s “In My Feelings” video with you. Having one of your mentees by your side on set must have been a special moment.

Freedia: We actually weren’t on the same set. I just went to the club scene. There were different [scenes] in the video where she was dancing. I only had to go to my part at the club, but it was awesome. Me and Drake and all his people hung out. I had the whole club jumping.

Partying with Drake in your hometown sounds amazing. Do you remember which club it was?

Freedia: Oh god, it was some little duck off club. I don't even know the name of it, that's how ducked off it was. They was like meet us at this spot, and they just sent the address. There was no name. It was awesome, though. It was a great time. Drake loved it. He wanted me to stay on the mic all night.

Because your shows are known for crowd participation, I asked your dancers to share their craziest Big Freedia concert stories. What would yours be?

Freedia: One of mine is from a night when I was performing in Boston. The crowd was crazy. I brought some fans up to shake for one of the songs, and this lady started licking my boot. Like, literally licking my boot. I had never seen anything like it. That was the craziest, wildest night—and I’ve seen some pretty wild things on stage.

From shaking ass to licking boots is pretty crazy. For someone like myself, a stiff straight dude, what song of yours would you recommend I bounce to when you perform tonight?

Freedia: That's hard for me as a performer, because I like all of my songs. But if I had to choose one just for you, I’d say "Duffy.” Cause it means go hard or go home. So if you don't go hard tonight, you got to go home.

Passion Dance Center was built almost a decade ago, some years after the city rose from the waters of Hurricane Katrina. As an institution, it only knows strength. “My dad got me this building,” owner Tamika Jett tells me. “He built these walls, and this office. He laid the floors down. He’s my carpenter. I’m just the talent.”

Since its construction in 2010, the studio has produced dancers who’ve gone on to represent the spirit of the city in Big Freedia’s periodic absence. When Beyoncé came to town to shoot scenes for her Lemonade visual album, Big Freedia was on tour overseas, and is thus noticeably missing from the “Formation” video. Satchel Joseph, however, the youngest of Freedia’s dancers at age 21, was available to dance in the video for “Sorry.” 

A little over two years later, Joseph would have a prominent role in Drake’s “In My Feelings” video, dancing alongside a shirtless Shiggy in a trolley car, while Big Freedia appeared for an inexplicably brief cameo during a separate club scene (after not appearing at all in the video for “Nice For What,” and reportedly reaching out to Drake first ahead of his “In My Feelings” shoot in her hometown). 

In addition to Joseph’s success, fellow Passion Dance regular Tyra Sylvestor has also appeared in music videos set in New Orleans. The performer currently studying dance at Tulane can be seen twerking throughout G-Eazy and London on da Track’s video for “Throw Fits,” a song that features a sound distinctly reminiscent of bounce music, as well as verses from New Orleans legend Juvenile and the often bounce-inspired Yung Miami.

Some of these opportunities wouldn’t be possible without the tutelage of Jett. “One day, [Tamika] called me and was just like, ‘there’s this audition, let’s go,’” Joseph explains. “And from there, I found out it was a Beyoncé audition.”

“My goal is to help people who are coming up under me,” Jett responds. “Like, all right, let's get up in here. What do what I need to do for y’all? Do I need to be your agent? Do I need to talk to these people for you? Everything that I'm doing to help them, it helps me too. It's really all about helping each other in New Orleans, a place that's overlooked sometimes for dance.”

After watching you all dance in rehearsal, the first word that comes to mind is “freedom.” Would you say that’s something particular to a Big Freedia show?

Tamika: Yeah, there's a lot of freedom in the way we dance. Whoever you are, however you showed up at the audition, that's who they want you to be [on stage]. So, like, "I'm Tam, the prissy one." That's what Juan, [Freedia’s DJ], calls me. So I commit to that character for the fans. They love it. Tootie, [one of Freedia’s more tenured dancers], is more hood. Like, "look, I'm about to shake. Y’all are going to see this ass." Everybody gets to be their own person.

So, Tyra and Satchel, how would you two describe your styles?

Tyra: That's a good question. I would say I’m one of the classically trained ones. I'm actually in school for dance right now. So, it's much different being on stage with Freedia. Because in class, it's like, "do it this way, turn this way," and I feel like I can break all of that on stage. I can shake my ass but then go in a ballet move somewhere.

Satchel: For me, I would say my style is a girlish, boyish, androgyny type thing. Because I can shake my ass. I can twerk. I can make it sexy. I can make it all of that, but I can also bring a boyish side to it that I don't think a lot of women [dancers] are comfortable exploring. People question me like, "oh you just want to shake your ass for the rest of your life?" No, because that's not the only thing a Freedia show is about. We get to bring you different levels of who we are, where we come from, all different backgrounds. And, yes, you get ass on top of that!

I think it may be hard for folks who don’t twerk to understand how they can also have fun at a Big Freedia show. They’d have to just come see for themselves.

Tamika: Yeah, and I think bounce music, in general, is different live as opposed to just listening to it on the radio. You can hear a bounce song on the radio, but when Juan gets on that DJ set and punches the beat, it's going to sound like a totally different song. So, everybody's like, “wait, what's going on? I feel something! It's not the same!" 

Satchel: And just the extra-ness and the extremes we go to in the show. You can physically feel the energy from the crowd. Even when one of us isn’t dancing, we're just screaming the whole time because you can feel that bass. You're going to feel those beats through your body, even if you're just watching.

Tyra: And, [when there is dancing], there’s crowd participation. [At other shows], you mainly go and watch the artist, you watch the dancers, and they do their thing. But at a Freedia show, the crowd is literally the show. So, you get to be involved in the song, you get to volunteer to come and shake your ass on stage. You actually are a part of the show.

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