The Queen Diva has managed to transcend through the twerk. We should be taking notes.
If you’re lucky like me, your introduction to Big Freedia involved a dance floor, reverberating speakers, and a sweaty cohort of co-twerkers. The triggerman beat crept quickly into your body and took control, unleashing a less inhibited version of you — one that caught the beat and never let go. Freedia’s voice, a commanding baritone steeped in the type of confidence you only grow in New Orleans, is hard to resist. In this space, gender is less relevant than it used to be. Sobriety, too.
The second time I encountered Freedia was just after I’d moved to New Orleans. She was checking out in front of me at Winn Dixie in a white tee and pleather pants, a package of ground turkey in one hand and a bag of bell peppers in the other. I’m not sure why I didn’t speak — perhaps because even chill celebrities should get to grocery shop in peace — but I should have. A conversation with Freedia (as I’d find out years later for this interview) is like getting blessed by the Pope. If the Pope had excellent wigs and more bounce to the ounce.
Whether you’re a fan of her music or not, it’s hard to deny Freedia’s holiness. She (or he, Freedia doesn’t care which pronoun you use) has transcended certain mortal norms that continue to trap many of us. All 6’2” of her vibrates with an energy that nourishes us through every bar and beat. Part of it has to do with the certainty she carries herself with.
Back in middle school, Freedia seemed to slip into her queerest self like a fresh pair of Js. In the South, I can’t imagine that’s easy. There’s a pretty unexpected narrative about sexual identity in New Orleans, though. “We don't look at it as, you know, that person's gay or such and such. We all family. We all try to support and help each other when we can,” Freedia tells me. “I try to make people feel comfortable in their own space, and I feel comfortable in my own space. So, yeah, sexuality … it's very fluid when you come to New Orleans.”
A conversation with Freedia is like getting blessed by the Pope. If the Pope had excellent wigs and more bounce to the ounce.
Of course, there was resistance to Freedia’s embrace of gender fluidity when he was growing up. Freedia’s mother was a hair stylist so back when he was 14-year-old Freddy, he’d begun to experiment with flashy hairstyles and accessories in school. Not everyone was accepting of it. “It was something I had to fight with when I was younger, just to stand my ground, you would say, and to be who I am,” Freedia says. “And now, I don't even have those issues. I can go anywhere, walk anywhere. I can speak to anybody. So, I just do it naturally now. I go in and light the room up.”
Talking to Freedia solidified a theory I’ve had for a while: There’s a crucial difference between being full of oneself and simply being fully aware of your own sanctity. “My mom helped instill that in me. When I was growing up, she would be like, ‘You need to be a queen that owns your own space. Go out there and show them who you are.’ She's the one who helped me with a lot of that confidence,” Freedia says. Part of this means (both consciously and subconsciously) harnessing powerful qualities of every gender and encouraging others to do the same.
For those only familiar with her newer, more pop sound, Freedia is a bounce hip-hop pioneer who began making real noise in the mid ‘90s. In the early days, New Orleans bounce was chant-based and clung to one beat in particular, but those original samples are still all over the place in hip-hop today (think Drake’s “Nice for What”). And while she didn’t invent the twerk (all purists point to DJ Jubilee for that one), she’s instrumental to a movement that’s still evolving.
Freedia’s sound is evolving with it. Her most recent EP, Big Diva Energy, which dropped in September, is versatile and fun with only a gentle dose of bounce. The album before that, 2020’s Louder, had even more pop appeal — its sweet, affirming lead single “Chasing Rainbows” featured Kesha. Freedia has a penchant for meeting the moment, musically; she took a break from taping reality show appearances and dropped a holiday single 'Tis the Season’ this past Friday.
All these projects contain certified bops, but for musical moments when I need that juice — the third mile of a jog or wait time at the DMV, for example — it’s the simplicity of Freedia’s oldies that do it for me: “Azz Everywhere” and “Gin in my System” in particular. For me, these are healing songs. And for the past two years, we’ve needed some healing. There’s a sacred simplicity to them: Chant, dance, release. There’s a ritual in the repetition.
Freedia’s musical ethos is rooted in positivity, regardless of what might be swirling around in the atmosphere. She’s been through it — gun violence was everywhere when Freedia was growing up in the 3rd Ward and there were numerous tough losses. None of her grief is hidden in the music. It’s just repurposed into something we can all connect to.
“Sometimes I feel like I don't even get a chance to have a grieving process, which really hurts a lot. But when you're a musician and you're in this lifestyle, you have things that you have to do, bills still have to be paid, and people with families who rely on you,” Freedia says. “So, when I think about the grieving process, I have to think about all the other people that it will affect …So, I just try to keep working and try to get through the pain the best way I know how.”
“Yeah, sexuality — it's very fluid when you come to New Orleans.”
And that, she tells me, is to lean on her day-ones: Her trusted aunties from church, her godparents, and her man, Devon, whom she’s been with for over a decade. “I can express anything to him. He's usually the person that's there when I need to cry, and to hold me [during] whatever I'm going through, however I want to express it,” Freedia tells me.
It’s hard to imagine Freedia crying because for the longest time I’ve placed her on a platinum, pink-diamond-encrusted pedestal. But Freedia cries. She loves and hates and rises and falls. Freedia is she and he and they and them. A rapper, an entrepreneur, a prolific chef (“I don't want boring or bland, honey. You gotta have something that make you wanna slap your mama”), and a child of the community.
All of her selves are free to show up as they are. It’s my guess that this is key to her relevance and longevity. “I've always felt like, growing up younger, I was stuck in this box where it was, you have to hush about being gay, or you have to act a certain way or you couldn't do this, or you couldn't do that,” Freedia tells me. “Going through that at a young age made me say, ‘I will not go through this once I become a full adult.’ I will not be boxed in or put in a category. I'm an artist, you know, first and foremost.”
And like many of us, she’s created a formula for letting pandemic frustration exist alongside happiness — and it includes a lot of gratitude and a little bit of awe. “A lot of times, I am surprised about certain people that give me a call and want to work with me, and I didn't even know that they were watching me, or a fan of mine,” Freedia says. Twerk like no one’s watching, I suppose.