Big Freedia wears an airbrushed chef's jacket and a toque, which is tipped to the side and crowns a head of long purple hair. The back of the jacket reads, "I like cornbread and collard greens, bitch." "Bitch" is underlined.
Chef Freedia's menu at her Big Freedia's Soul Food booth at the 2016 Buku Music + Art Project March 11-12 lists cucumber and Creole tomato salad, "twerk-a-mein," "booty poppin' potatoes" and — of course — cornbread and collard greens. The booth blasts bounce music above rumbling bass from a nearby stage. Freedia's friend, fellow bounce artist Katey Red, broadcasts from a megaphone and leans out of the booth, calling out "booty poppin'" with Freedia shouting "potatoes" on the response.
Fans swarm the booth with their phones, filming with their Snapchat apps. So does a camera crew from the Fuse television network's Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce. Freedia poses for pictures with fans as the Fuse cameras follow, along with clipboard-carrying staffers swooping in with release forms.
A few days later, on March 16, Freedia appears in federal court in downtown New Orleans to plead guilty to felony theft charges related to Section 8 housing vouchers. She's released on a $25,000 bond.
This weekend, Freedia is scheduled to turn Hattiesburg, Mississippi into bounce music's center of the universe for a well-publicized "international twerk day" concert. As in the movie Footloose, a state's law banning "lewd" behavior temporarily derailed a Freedia gig in Hattiesburg earlier this year. Fuse cameras will be there for her return to the city.
This year, Freedia will star in a fifth season of her hit reality TV series — then there's a new album, a cookbook (following her 2015 memoir God Save the Queen Diva!), an appearance at this weekend's Tennessee Williams New Orleans Literary Festival and a constant tour schedule.
Before Freedia, bounce music bubbled to national attention before fizzling out for the next rap trend. But there's been no challenger to Freedia's Queen of Bounce crown. She doesn't plan to abandon New Orleans or the music that propelled her to fame. Enter Freedia: The Brand.
"It's an enterprise," Freedia says with a laugh. "I plan on putting a few more things under the umbrella — the hair line, the restaurant, maybe even the food truck. There's so many things I want to do and I have ideas for. I have a lot going on right now, so once I get over the hump of getting the album out and all of that. ... Everything has a time and a spot."
The day before her court appearance, Freedia went to the dentist.
The Dollar Box Showroom in Hattiesburg canceled Freedia's February performance there after agents from the state's Alcohol Beverage Control warned that Freedia's show falls under a "lewd, immoral or offensive to public decency" clause. The state's alcohol permitting rules ban "any live act or performance which appeals primarily to sexually oriented, lustful, prurient, or erotic interest" — twerking, according to club owner Ben Shemper, likely fell under that rule. (The law also bans contests for "wet T-shirt, biggest breasts, biggest bulge, body beautiful, best leg, hairiest chest, best tan, best hiney, mud wrestling, tight jeans, and contests or exhibitions involving the use of swimwear, lingerie or similar attire.")
In response, Freedia dubbed Mississippi a "right to twerk" state, apologized to fans on Facebook and promised to reschedule. "This is some twerkloose bulllshit and my team will be taking the necessary legal actions!"
- COURTESY FUSE
- Big Freedia and her dancers from Queen of Bounce, her reality show on the Fuse network. The series begins its fifth season this year.
The show is back on Saturday, March 25.
"I'm expecting to work it, as usual," Freedia tells Gambit. "Just to go and have a good time and represent with the people of Mississippi. It was sad the show got canceled the first time, and I'm happy it's back on, but we plan to go and rock the house and let all the B.S. stay where it's at and be positive." Fuse cameras also will be there, of course.
Queen of Bounce debuted in 2013, quickly becoming Fuse TV's "most popular original series ever," an engrossing reality TV series in the same vein as its housewife and drag race counterparts with the endlessly entertaining personality at its heart. It's not a heavily edited reality drama with screeching nightmare characters vying for screen time. It's easy to root for Freedia; audiences celebrate her success. Queen of Bounce showcases her as a charming, business- and family-minded team leader on- and offstage.
Freedia made her TV debut in 2010 on NBC's ultra-late night show Last Call With Carson Daly, followed by her performance debut in 2012 on Jimmy Kimmel Live, during which she paraded through the audience and introduced bounce dancing to lily-white American TV, performing her hits "Excuse" and "Na Who Mad." She was the subject of several profiles and acclaim from Pitchfork and Rolling Stone, and nabbed attention from RuPaul. The New Orleans City Council named Aug. 21, 2014 "Big Freedia Day" in New Orleans. District B Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell welcomed Freedia with the bounce star's "You already know!" (Council Vice President Stacy Head also offered herself to Freedia's team: "If you need a completely untalented middle-aged lady that just stands there...")
"It's a fun music, everybody can relate to it, it's been around for decades now, and it's something that has grew on New Orleans and all the people of New Orleans," Freedia says. "We represent it, we live it, we breathe it. From babies to grandmas, we twerk here in New Orleans. It's just a special place and a special type of music. People around the world want to feel it.
"I bring New Orleans with me."
Born Freddie Ross Jr., Freedia joined the choir at Walter L. Cohen High School and — along with classmate Katey Red — the cheerleading team. In the late '90s, Red included Freedia as a member of her backing group before Freedia took off as a solo artist, scoring one of her first, signature hits with "Gin in My System."
In a 2008 cover story by Alison Fensterstock, Gambit captured the rise of gay artists in bounce music, evolving the genre from its block party roots to make room for a hyperactive, empowering platform for artists and audiences on rap's fringe — which later would attract Midas-touch producers Diplo and Skrillex to bounce rappers Keno and the late Nicky da B. Bounce artist Gotty Boi Chris told Gambit bounce was primed for an "upgrade." Freedia didn't expect she would be the one to lead it.
"No, actually. Not at all. Not in a million years," she says. "I was just focused on performing everywhere I can, all around the city, every place that requested me, every type of party, every type of function. I just stayed focused and stayed grinding. I just never stopped. I didn't know that was my destiny until about 2010. Then I started really getting focused and grinding, saying, 'I can set a mark.' And I set my mark. It was just another grind, trying to pursue getting bounce out there even further and showing people around the world."
- PHOTO BY ALEX WOODWARD
- A dancer twerks in front of Big Freedia's Soul Food booth at the 2016 Buku Music + Art Project. Big Freedia (in the booth) served up "twerk-a-mein" and "booty-poppin' potatoes."
Freedia's full-length album Just Be Free was released in 2014, led by the single "Explode," reintroducing Freedia, and bounce, to a worldwide audience: "I am more than just Big Freedia. I am more than just Queen Diva. I am more than just Freddie Ross. I am me. I am the ambassador, representing for New Orleans and for bounce music."
Her next album, planned for a summer 2016 release and still untitled, continues her ongoing collaborative relationship with producer BlaqNmild (Adam Piggot), who has worked with Freedia for more than 15 years.
"He's creative and very open-minded to all kinds of music," Freedia says. "Even when I record something with one vision, he'll come back at it another way. He's very good at knowing what's gonna be a hit, and how to make it become a hit."
Just Be Free introduced a bigger production budget, with club-influenced beats alongside bounce's familiar triggerman and brown beat foundations. "I Heard," Freedia's first single from her upcoming album, trades in her formerly aggressive, athletic bounce for an ode to her fans.
"This one, I'm exploring my musical side of things and keep on stepping it up to the next level," she says. "It's important to try and open all doors on this album. This will be a little bit harder than the first one. It's going to be a little bit more versatile."
Freedia's growing profile culminated in her biggest appearance yet — if you didn't hear Freedia before 2016, you heard her on Beyonce's smash single "Formation": "I did not come to play with you hoes. I came to slay, bitch. I like cornbread and collard greens, bitch. Oh yes, you best believe it."
According to Freedia, Beyonce called her and explained the song concept — one of self-love and black empowerment, galvanized with a powerful, New Orleans-centric music video.
"I was so excited I just, you know, died in my own skin and came back to life," Freedia says. "The next day I went to the studio, laid down some vocals and gave them a ring to let them hear what I had. They were like, 'OK, we like that, now just do us one of New Orleans stuff, how you feel.' They called me back like, 'Oh my God, I love it.'"
Beyonce surprised audiences with a video for the song in February. She performed "Formation" at Super Bowl XLX the next day.
"I was at home, shocked," Freedia says. "My phone was just blowing up."
The song also includes a clip from Messy Mya, the 7th Ward comedian and budding bounce artist who was killed in 2010. Following the video's release, Freedia found herself in the middle of a debate over whether the song appropriates from a largely underground culture that relies on the work of queer black men (including words like "slay" which now ring out in the whitest suburbs) or gives them voice, lifting up their power from the margins. (Beyonce also borrowed from bounce with her DJ Jubilee-esque call outs and beats on her 2006 song "Get Me Bodied.")
- PHOTO BY ALEX WOODWARD
- Big Freedia and attorney Tim Kappel outside U.S. District Court in downtown New Orleans last week, after Freedia pleaded guilty to felony theft charges relating to Section 8 housing vouchers.
Then there's the footage of New Orleans itself, which has become a sort of experiment in how we react to trauma in art. Beyonce's submersion into New Orleans floodwaters on top of a New Orleans Police Department cruiser — whether it's a show of solidarity with the lives lost or a reminder of their deaths — also conjures the same water that drowned people and homes in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and the federal floods.
"Some people had some negative things to say, but I'm happy she has a platform to speak about world issues and that she is an artist who doesn't mind stirring up a little controversy over things that need to be spoken about and not just hidden under the rug," Freedia says. "I definitely supported her, in any and everything she do."
On March 16, Freedia arrived at U.S. District Court on Poydras Street wearing long purple hair, a black velvet jacket, sparkling rhinestone slippers and clutching a bright yellow handbag. Standing at a podium before U.S. District Judge Lance Africk, she easily was the tallest in the room.
According to the state prosecutors, Freedia received $37,622 in Section 8 housing vouchers from July 2009 to November 2014. Recipients are responsible for paying roughly 30 percent of their household income on rent, while the Department of Housing and Urban Development's (HUD) Section 8 voucher program subsidizes the remainder, which is paid to the landlord.
The state argues Freedia "knowingly understated" her income — the income threshold for housing assistance eligibility in that timeframe was not more than $21,700. Voucher recipients also are required to submit annual recertification forms to the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO), which administers the program, as well as any changes in jobs or income within 10 days of those changes.
With her ascent to stardom bringing more eyes and ears to New Orleans, it came as a shock to fans on March 1 that not even New Orleans' current chief musical export was immune to the criminal justice system. When U.S. Attorney Kenneth Polite announced the charges March 1, Freedia took full responsibility. Freedia and attorney Tim Kappel said she offered to pay full restitution, perform community service and orchestrate financial literacy courses as part of a pretrial agreement.
"This is an incredibly unfortunate situation," Freedia said in a statement. "I was on subsidized housing for many years before my financial situation changed. I quickly found myself in a new economic structure and, frankly, knew little about how to handle my money. It wasn't until recently (after I had stopped receiving housing vouchers) that it became very clear I had received assistance to which I wasn't entitled. It was an oversight — but one that I take full responsibility for." (She wouldn't discuss it with Gambit.)
At court last week, Freedia pleaded guilty. There won't be a trial. Africk set a sentencing hearing for June 16. He didn't speculate on Freedia's sentencing, though he clarified to Kappel that a quote Kappel gave "in the news" suggesting Freedia wouldn't see any jail time wasn't necessarily true. Sentencing guidelines in this case, according to the U.S. Attorney's office, could include a maximum of 10 years in prison and a $250,000 fine. The plea deal reached with prosecutors, however, includes restitution of $34,849.
"You understand this crime was much more than an oversight?" Africk asked Freedia in court.
"Yes, sir," she said.
Following her court appearance, Kappel — with Freedia standing beside him — addressed the media from a podium outside the courthouse steps. Kappel said his client "unequivocally accepts responsibility" and that today's plea is "another step toward putting this matter behind us."
"Even in difficult times such as these, she will continue her mission to inspire, encourage and effect positive change," Kappel said. "And, of course, to represent the great city of New Orleans around the world."
10 p.m. Thursday
214 S. State St.
10 p.m. Friday
Twerkloose: International Twerk Day
The Dollar Box Showroom
600 Main St.
11 p.m. Saturday
Cypress Bayou Casino
832 Martin Luther King Road, Charenton
Time TBA Saturday
New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival
8 p.m. Saturday
Performing with the Soul Rebels
828 S. Peters St.