Herstory 8: Big Freedia's Complex Come Up
Herstory is a weekly take on gender & music history (made or in the making).
Gender bias in music journalism changes the stories that end up in our history books - we're highlighting the moments in music that don't get the recognition they deserve.
Big Freedia is Making Music History
A few weeks ago, we explored how the late Selena Quintanilla introduced a regional genre (Tejano music) to a multi-national audience. Big Freedia (pronounced Fee-duh) has been championing New Orleans bounce music in a similar way. She's practically NOLA royalty at this point, known to many as the Queen of Bounce. There's lots of bounce-influenced tracks in mainstream music (like Lemon for example) - but there are few bounce artists in the mainstream. Big Freedia has become the face of the genre, collaborating with artists like Beyonce (Formation) and Drake (Nice for What).
Through her music, reality TV show, and memoir, she's reaching a level of fame that is hard to accomplish. And with a work ethic like her's, we know that there's much more success to come.
For the Herstory series, we've also looked at Sade's relationship with fame and her intentional absence from the spotlight. In a lot of ways, Big Freedia experiences the opposite problem - as a queer, black artist that is still on the rise, the spotlight is the perfect place to be but her mainstream collaborators have a way of making it difficult.
Big Freedia's story actually inspired us to create the Herstory series. In the last few months, Big Freedia's relationship with mainstream listeners has gotten even more complex. It makes us wonder if we actively writing Big Freedia out of music history.
Bounce is a sub-genre of hip hop that has roots in New Orleans, Louisiana. Bounce characterizes the hip hop scene in NOLA. Bounce music is built on one of two beat patterns (Triggaman and Brown Beat) - bounce producers remix the hell out of these beats to reinvent the sound for their artists. Early bounce music (1980's) was centered around lyrics, but contemporary bounce music is more call-and-response. It's party music - bounce artists, especially Big Freedia, have mastered the art of performance and audience engagement.
After Hurricane Katrina, the genre (along with its displaced communities) moved to neighboring regions. This migration was a contributing factor to its mainstream adoption - bounce was being introduced to entirely new communities and music scenes. Not only that, but bounce music became a familiar and comforting sound amidst the aftermath of Katrina. For artists like Big Freedia, it meant that she was starting to play shows in new cities, ultimately growing her fan base.
"Sissy" Bounce Isn't a Thing - Stop Saying It
Big Freedia started out as an interior designer, choir director, and backup singer for longtime friend, Katey Red. Eventually, Big Freedia made the transition from backup singer to solo artist. Katey and Big Freedia were some of the first openly gay bounce rappers and are often categorized as "sissy" bounce rappers.
Many people refer to sissy bounce as its own genre but that's incorrect, not to mention disrespectful. It's similar to how "female rappers" are talked about as if it's a sub-genre of rap. Music is categorized into genres in so many ways - not by gender or sexuality, though. Big Freedia has said countless times that she wants to be seen as a bounce artist, not sissy bounce.
There's a lot of misinformation out there, though - we came across so many media outlets referring to sissy bounce as a real thing. Sometimes in the same article that is interviewing Big Freedia.
The Ghost of Big Freedia
"The Ghost of Big Freedia" is the title of a Noisey essay that came out after Drake's Nice For What video was released. Drake was (rightfully) criticized for Big Freedia's absence in his star-studded visuals. Noisey says it perfectly, "In the first scene of Drake’s “Nice For What” video, you hear the voice of the black, queer New Orleans bounce artist, Big Freedia. What you see, however, is a white woman with blonde hair looking sultry into the camera." Whether it's Drake, Beyonce, or even JLO's VMA performance, Big Freedia is lending her voice to the most influential names in the industry.
But she's is rarely offered the visibility that could take her career to the next level. She's mentioned multiple times that her goal is to reach mainstream audiences. She's made a name for herself locally and in various underground music scenes - mainstream is the logical next step.
She's accomplished part of the goal - many mainstream music lovers will recognize her distinct sound on Formation and Nice for What. What's missing is the ability for these listeners to trace that high-energy voice back to Big Freedia.
It's Not Rocket Science
For artists like Beyonce and Drake, there are entire teams making decisions - their artistic vision isn't entirely their own. For both music videos, there may have questions around how palatable Big Freedia would be for mainstream audiences.If you're in charge of marketing Beyonce or Drake, it's a valid question - music doesn't exist in a vacuum after all.
But if you can't offer queer artists the visibility they deserve, don't profit off their sound and aesthetic. It's really that simple.
When you're one of the biggest names in the game and you can't offer the kind of visibility that could elevate underground artists, it's real shitty to capitalize off their sound. Beyonce and Drake can offer so much more than royalties to Big Freedia - in this case, proper recognition goes beyond financial compensation.
In Beyonce's case, a Big Freedia cameo would've been the perfect addition to her star-studded, New Orleans-themed music video. While her decision to omit Big Freedia is unfortunate, she also has track record of employing and opening doors for womxn and creatives of colour. At this point, we can only hope that she's learned from the experience.
Drake's choices on the other hand, come off as reckless and opportunistic. Before the In My Feelings music video dropped, there were rumours that Big Freedia would make a cameo. Considering all the frustration with her absence in his last video, we (naively) assumed that this was his apology to Big Freedia and her fans.
Then Drake released his 8-minute music video for In My Feelings and Big Freedia is seen for mere seconds - we had to re-watch the video because we missed her the first time. You have to really go out of your way to find Big Freedia - the cameo is hardly the apology we were hoping for. That's not even the worst part - Big Freedia had to contact Drake to be in the music video. He didn't initiate the cameo, she did.
Before Nice for What, we couldn't care less about Drake's stance on womxn. For example, OVO Sound doesn't have any womxn on their roster yet - it's upsetting but nothing unusual for our music industry. But if you can release a song urging womxn to love themselves, we're going to hold you to a higher standard that the rest of the industry. We don't need another guy telling us we're worthy of love, we do need more people collaborating with us and valuing our contributions to the culture.
Are We Actively Erasing Big Freedia from Music History?
If you are connected to New Orleans and/or bounce music, you'll know the historical significance of Big Freedia. But what about everyone else? Those music lovers that are hearing Big Freedia on the radio or the club? They'll know all the words to the Big Freedia samples but have no idea who she is. That's certainly not the legacy that Big Freedia wants or deserves.
Proper recognition is important for all artists, but it's especially powerful for artists that don't fit the mainstream mold. Time and time again, we see queer, dark-skinned artists have the hardest time securing this visibility. When artists like Beyonce and Drake omit artists like Big Freedia from their visuals, they are limiting her exposure as well as setting the tone for future collaborations. If industry heavyweights aren't incorporating her into their visuals, they end up normalizing that kind of behaviour. The next time an artist samples Big Freedia and doesn't think to invite her to the music video taping, it'll feel like business as usual.
Thanks for reading! This blog series is brought to you by Solidarity in Sound, an educational platform for unlearning music misogyny.
For our Herstory Lessons blog series—we're retelling the stories of womxn in music that have been misheard, mislabeled, or erased completely from our history books.
If information looks incorrect, please let us know! When we're retelling stories that are left out of our history books, finding info can get tricky. We want to make sure we're portraying these stories as accurately as possible!