Article by: Sean Maloney | Photos courtesy of Big Freedia | Posted: 07/05/2012
“Is this Big Freedia?”
And then an explosion – a massive amount of bass and energy tries to force its way through a tiny cell phone receiver, overwhelming the bandwidth bouncing across satellites and cell phone towers before overwhelming my cell phone speaker and subsuming my brain. It's a song I've never heard before but it's clearly Big Freedia, instantly recognizable, instantly all-consuming. While ostensibly the goal here is work, (journalism professionalism and all that), I can feel my knees start to bend and my butt begin to twitch. My nervous system fires up and involuntary responses kick in and all of a sudden journalism is a secondary concern – my body wants to bounce -- my mind instantly transported to a field of upended ass cheeks in the middle of Tennessee.
New Orleans' Big Freedia, The Queen Diva of Bounce, is a force of nature -- an artist of unique and remarkable presence. She's the sort of artist that can, in all seriousness, be described as life changing. Once you see an audience thousands-strong lose themselves, shake themselves and bounce themselves in that way that Freedia's does, you'll never be content with a room full of chin-scratching bores ever again. If the provocation of ass-shaking is an art form – and it is – Big Freedia is Leonardo DaVinci, Salvador Dali and Georgia O'Keefe rolled into one. Sexy, surreal, beautiful and moving, a Freedia show celebrates humanity at its most base and reality at its most divine. A Freedia show elevates the human form to abstraction, delineates no shape, skin tone or psychological persuasion above any other; everyone has an ass, and everyone shakes it when a Big Freedia tune drops.
Even if you're, say, on the phone and should be worried about, ya know, journalism – it's a primal, involuntary response. There was no way of knowing I would catch Freedia in the studio, where she's preparing her first full-length record; no way of knowing that I would be privy to hearing steaming fresh new Freedia tunes. I've been caught off guard, transported out of my office and back to Freedia's late night Bonnaroo set – by far the best this author has seen in his five years of late-night Bonnaroo shenanigans – transported to a concert performance that is more akin to an athletic event, a marathon of booty poppin' or a hurricane of butt cheeks moving in directions and velocities that God himself couldn't have foreseen. And then, the music stops and reality snaps back in and I realize I'm on the phone, alone with my posterior sticking way, way up.
“I'm sorry, I'm in the studio. We're working on the new album.”
Contrary to the maelstrom in my mind, contrary to the tempest of love, sweat and beers that is her live show, contrary to the crazed tour schedule that has sent her all over the world in the last two years, Freedia is the very essence of tranquility. Talking to her is like running into a co-worker at the water cooler, small talk flowing with ease. She's working with DJ Blaq-n-Mild, (who she's worked with from the beginning), recording is coming along well – and bits of insight into her writing process are floating through the conversation the way some people talk about last night's reality shows. But in the back of my mind there are still thousands of asses in the air -- Freedia in the middle, part lion-tamer, part wrestling announcer -- so I have to ask how exactly does she prepare for that much chaos, that much action?
“No pre-game, no warm up. I just try to keep as low-key as possible and just try to relax before a show. I don't want to be zapped of all my energy. I've been doing it for a long time, so I just chill out until I hit that stage and then it just blows up,” says Freedia. “My crowd gives me my energy...at the shows, in the clubs, it be trippin' me out. They be knowing my music when I get there, and it's that way everywhere I go. Even new markets that I be breaking into for the first time, it's the same way and I be like, wow. It's definitely contagious.”
But that should come as no surprise. New Orleans has been the epicenter of American music since the early days of recording; its big beat at the center of jazz, rock, funk and hip hop since the very beginning, and Freedia's distillation of that beat to its call-and-response, giant-kick-drum core is some of the most infectious music the city has ever produced. And while there might be some degree of novelty – hip hop is not particularly known for embracing non-normative sexuality and physical representation in its performers – the fact of the matter is that Freedia cuts away the crap and boils down the human experience to its very essence: we all got asses, we all like asses, and if there's any thing that unites us, it is the need to shake said asses.
It's a simple formula but the way it cuts through the complex social fabric of modern America to unite disparate groups of people, to bring together folks that might never associate with each other besides under the flag of booty-bouncing glory, is unique within our contemporary music landscape. And as such, Freedia – (who not only performs, records and tours but also runs her own interior design business) – has become one of the hottest concert draws in the country. But the draw isn't based on dramatic set pieces and complicated light shows; isn't based on radio hits, ad placements or viral videos; isn't based on any of the crutches that many performers are relying upon to set them apart from the pack – Freedia's appeal lies solely in her presence as a performer, her exactitude as a writer and power as a voice for those that live outside the confines of Normal America or even the Normal Globe.
It's a power, exactitude and voice that has been honed with guided-missile-like precision over more than a decade of constant work, and it's all being funneled into her new album.
“I've been able to go all around the world and see different things. I've been able to see all different crowds and how they react to the bounce music, [and] how everybody has their own style of dance,” says Freedia. “And now, I have so many styles to put in [the music] just different things that I saw. One of my songs is called, ‘Get Amongst It.’ It's one of the things that I learned when I was on tour, that the Australians say 'get amongst it.’ Now it's a body-bounce tack and the crowd gets into it; the crowd gets 'get amongst it.' It's an Australian term but I formed it in my own way, formed it to New Orleans bounce music. And if New Orleans can feel it and Australia can feel that, so can everybody else around the world.”
As we wrap up our conversation and I try to wrap my head around the calm and serenity that is the off-stage Big Freedia -- a calm and serenity that stands in stark contrast to the sheer insanity that is being a member of her audience -- I hear the door open. That same kick drum, that same call-and-response that started our conversation begins to creep into my phone. Freedia says her goodbyes but the phone does hang up immediately. Instead that bass drum gets louder, trying to squeeze every frequency into a tiny transmitter and out the other end into mine. And then, as involuntarily as the first time, my legs begin to twitch and my booty begins to bounce up and then down and then faster and higher until I notice that the sound is gone and I'm alone, bouncing my ass in an empty room.
Big Freedia - "Y'all Get Back Now"