By JONATHAN DEE
Published: July 19, 2010
This is an excerpt. Read the entire New York Times article here. If you like what you read and hear, fan Big Freedia and friend Katey Red. Check Big Freedia out in concert in a city near you!
If “gay rapper” is an oxymoron where you come from, how to get your head around the notion of a gay rapper performing in a sports bar? What in most cities might seem plausible only as some sort of Sacha Baron Cohen-style provocation is just another weeknight in the cultural Galapagos that is New Orleans. Sometime after midnight on the sweltering Thursday before Memorial Day, the giant plasma-screen TVs at the Sports Vue bar (which “proudly airs all major Pay Per View events from the world of Boxing and Ultimate Fighting”) were all switched off, and the bar’s backroom turned into a low-lit, low-ceilinged dance club, where more than 300 people awaited a return engagement by Big Freedia, who by day runs an interior-decoration business and who is, to fans of the New Orleans variant of hip-hop music known as “bounce,” a superstar.
At 1 a.m., though, Freedia (pronounced “FREE-da”) was still a mile or so away, fulfilling a paid celebrity-hosting gig at Club Fabulous. The fabulousness of Club Fabulous, on this night at least, seemed a function mainly of its Mardi Gras-themed décor, conceived and executed by Freedia herself. Otherwise the crowd was sparse, largely straight and listless. Freedia looked weary as she leaned back against the bar with her dyed, diagonally cut bangs over one eye, holding a cordless microphone. (Freedia, who is about 6 foot 2 and very powerful-looking and dresses in a fashionable but recognizably masculine style, is genetically a man; but neither she nor anyone who knows her uses masculine pronouns to refer to her.) When “Rock Around the Clock,” one of her signature songs, came on the sound system, a few women walked over to Freedia and stood with their backs to her, but the atmosphere wasn’t quite electric enough for them to really start dancing, and the men just continued playing pool. After a while, Freedia’s D.J. and de facto manager, who goes by the name Rusty Lazer — a whippetlike 39-year-old white man with a salt-and-pepper beard — let Freedia know that it was time to move on to the next show.
And then something remarkable happened. The crowd — just about evenly divided between men and women — instantly segregated itself: the men were propelled as if by a centrifuge toward the room’s perimeters, and the dance floor, a platform raised just a step off the ground, was taken over entirely by women surrounding Freedia. The women did not dance with, or for, one another — they danced for Freedia, and they did so in the most sexualized way imaginable, usually with their backs to her, bent over sharply at the waist, and bouncing their hips up and down as fast as humanly possible, if not slightly faster. Others assumed more of a push-up position, with their hands on the floor, in a signature dance whose name is sometimes helpfully shortened to “p-popping…”
Bounce itself has been around for about 20 years. Like most hip-hop varietals, it’s rap delivered over a sampled dance beat, but it has a few characteristics that give it a distinctively regional sound: it’s strictly party music, its beat is relentlessly fast and its rap quotient tends much less toward introspection or pure braggadocio than toward a call-and-response relationship with its audience, a dynamic borrowed in equal measure from Mardi Gras Indian chants and from the dawn of hip-hop itself. Many, if not most, bounce records announce their allegiance by sampling from one of just two sources: either Derek B.’s “Rock the Beat” or an infectious hook known as the “Triggaman,” from a 1986 Showboys record called “Drag Rap.” (That’s “drag” not as in cross-dressing but as in the theme to the old TV show “Dragnet.”)
The overwhelming majority of bounce artists are, of course, straight. But 12 years ago, a young drag queen who goes by the name Katey Red shocked the audience by taking the mic at an influential underground club near the Melpomene housing project where she grew up, and in that star-is-born moment, a subgenre of bounce took root. It is a sad understatement to say that homosexuality and hip-hop make for an unlikely fusion: hip-hop culture is one of the most unrepentantly homophobic cultures in America, surpassing even its own attitudes toward women in bigotry and smirking advocacy of violence. But New Orleans’s tolerance of unlikely fusions is legendary, and today Katey Red, along with a handful of other artists — Big Freedia (who grew up four blocks from Katey and started out as one of her background vocalists), Sissy Nobby, Chev off the Ave, Vockah Redu (who was captain of the dance team at Booker T. Washington High School) — are not just accepted mainstays of the bounce scene but its most prominent representatives outside New Orleans. Katey recently received a New Orleans consecration of sorts when she appeared as herself, unidentified, in an episode of the HBO series “Treme,” with her song “So Much Drama” playing in the background.
Some part of this subgenre’s popularity is surely due to the catchily discordant name by which it has become known: sissy bounce. The term is problematic, because the artists themselves do not care for it at all — not because they object to the word “sissy” but because they consider it disrespectful to bounce music. Even when their lyrics are at their frankest (“I’m a punk under pressure/When we finish, put my money on the dresser”), they rush to point out, correctly, that they’re just drawing from the life at hand in the same way virtually every rapper does. They have no desire to be typed within, or set apart from, bounce culture; and indeed, within New Orleans itself, they mostly are not — even as their bookings elsewhere in the country are founded increasingly on the novelty of their sexual identities.
The term “sissy bounce” is one for which a young New Orleans music writer named Alison Fensterstock takes very reluctant credit. Fensterstock is a native New Yorker who moved to New Orleans for what was supposed to be a semester in college 15 years ago, and now lives in the Ninth Ward with her husband, who D.J.’s regularly for Katey and other bounce artists. She has done as much for the promotion of bounce culture as anyone, not only by writing about it extensively for New Orleans-based publications (in one of which she offhandedly coined the fateful name) but also by spending two years assembling a museum exhibition, a comprehensive oral and photographic history of bounce and New Orleans hip-hop called “Where They At?” which has traveled all over the country. Indeed, the sissy-bounce artists themselves seem to adore her; when I met her in New Orleans, she mentioned that Katey was excited about giving her a makeover.
Gay and Trans Performers
When it comes to locating sissy bounce’s roots, Fensterstock said, you should look deep rather than wide; that is, rather than try to place it within the current spectrum of American hip-hop, it makes much more sense to understand it as an outgrowth of New Orleans musical culture itself, which has a long tradition of gay and cross-dressing performers not just as a fringe element but as part of the musical mainstream. (Though the definitional lines aren’t as bright as they used to be, among the sissy-bounce rappers, Katey Red is the only one who performs in women’s clothing.) Bobby Marchan, a female impersonator who was a singer for Huey (Piano) Smith and later became an influential promoter, and Patsy Vidalia (born Irving Ale), the cross-dressing hostess of the Dew Drop Inn, were among the most popular entertainers and social figures in New Orleans for decades.
“As far back as the ’40s and ’50s, it was a really popular thing,” Fensterstock said. “Gay performers have been celebrated forever in New Orleans black culture. Not to mention that in New Orleans there’s the tradition of masking, mummers, carnival, all the weird identity inversion. There’s just something in the culture that’s a lot more lax about gender identity and fanciness. I don’t want to say that the black community in New Orleans is much more accepting of the average, run-of-the-mill gay Joe. But they’re definitely much more accepting of gay people who get up and perform their gayness on a stage.”
Outside New Orleans, though, booking the artists, or selling their records, remains a particular challenge. “They’re the hottest things in the club, but they just haven’t been able to get national exposure,” says Melvin Foley, who manages several sissy-bounce artists. “They have clean versions of their songs for radio, but we can’t get the radio to put them into rotation. I took Sissy Nobby and Big Freedia to New York to meet with Universal, but we couldn’t get a label deal. Their main concern was, ‘How would we market this?’ You market it like you market any other artist.”
Or not. For while it may be true that openly gay rappers will never gain much traction with rap’s mostly male demographic, men aren’t the natural market for the music anyway. As attendance at even a few shows will tell you, the eager and underserved audience for sissy bounce is clearly, overwhelmingly, women. “There’s like a safe-space thing happening,” Fensterstock says. “When Freedia or Nobby’s singing superaggressive, sexual lyrics about bad boyfriends or whatever, there’s something about being able to be the ‘I’ in the sentence. That’s not to say that women can’t like the more misogynistic music too. I like it — some of it’s good music. But it’s tough to sing along about bitches and hos when you’re a girl. When you identify with Freedia, you’re the agent of all this aggressive sexuality instead of its object…”
Gender Dynamics of Clubs
Any doubt that that space, like any space in which Freedia performs, quickly belonged to the women in the crowd may be dispelled by a story Lazer laughingly told about a blog post he’d seen the day after their Hoodstock set. It consisted of two photos taken at the show, and their captions: in the first, a group of women were horizontally p-popping in what amounted to a flesh pile. “To the men,” the caption beneath it read, “we don’t need you.” The second photo depicted a woman at the same show sitting on the floor while a man prone in front of her performed a sexual act that might traditionally be described as submissive. “But we like having you around,” the caption beneath that one read.
What strikes Lazer most about the dynamic at these shows, though, is not how unexpected it is but how familiar. Long before he started D.J.-ing, he was a drummer in a series of rock bands; he is old enough to have come of age in the latter days of punk. And when he started playing shows with Freedia almost two years ago — when he started witnessing, over and over again, a same-sex group taking over the dance floor in order to perform an ecstatic act of physical aggression that is both exceptionally demanding and socially unacceptable in other contexts, at the behest of music that’s ritualized and played at seemingly impossible tempos — it all began to remind him of something.
“It’s as if punk had been reinvented for women,” he said, smiling. “I remember going to punk shows when I was 13, slam-dancing, stage-diving. It was a kind of reckless abandon, something you really couldn’t stop yourself from doing. If the girls weren’t just outright afraid of being in there, there was somebody literally shoving them out of the way. Now it’s exactly what was happening when I was young, but in reverse: the girls literally push the dudes right out of the middle. It’s just pure empowerment, physical aggression that’s not spiteful or vicious. I think it’s no accident that the slang term for a gay kid in New Orleans is ‘punk.’ It’s pretty rewarding.”
There have been, it should be said, several prominent, strongly voiced bounce rappers who are women. For whatever reason, though, the connection between them and an audience of straight women has never seemed as quick or as instinctive. The fact that the uninhibited ring of rump-shaking and p-popping is centered on a Freedia or a Katey doesn’t desexualize it — not by a long shot — but it does seem to take the sense of threat out of it.
“I think the girls like the gay rappers a lot because they feel safer,” Lazer said. “You can get up in the front, you can dance for Freedia, you can work it for Freedia, but at the same time, if anybody comes up on you and gives you a hard time, Freedia’s gonna be the first one —”
“To defend the girl,” Freedia agreed. We were sitting in her modest second-floor apartment in the Sixth Ward, glad to get out of the sun after a photo shoot she did for a British fashion magazine. “I just had that situation on Tuesday, at Caesar’s. I had like 20 girls in this big old circle around me, shaking it real hard. And the boys started closing them in like in a cage. I’m like, ‘Hold up, D.J., stop the music.’ I said, ‘Fellas, back it up, give me 50 feet, I need my girls to work it out where I can see them and where I have control over them.’ So all the fellas back up, but then one guy tries to put his hands on a girl. I stopped the music again, and I said, ‘Dude, I don’t need you touching on my girls because you gonna make all the boys think it’s O.K….’ ”