New Orleans local hero, international hip hop legend, and the undisputed Queen of Bounce, Big Freedia, is using her massive platform to explore the complexities of the epidemic of gun violence in her city which disproportionately impacts Black communities, and to light a new way forward with the documentary Freedia Got A Gun. Following a string of cult hit singles in the 00s, Fuse created the reality show Big Freedia Bounces Back in 2013, chronicling the life of the choir kid turned bounce rapper. It’s already run to six seasons and remains the highest rated original series on the network. Freedia’s star continued to rise as she appeared with artists like Drake on Nice for What, RuPaul on Peanut Butter, Kesha on Raising Hell, and Beyoncé on the Grammy-winning single Formation. Lizzo was among the artists who appeared on Big Freedia’s own acclaimed 2018 album 3rd Ward Bounce. Her memoir, Big Freedia: God Save the Queen Diva! was published by Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster in 2015, and last summer she was honoured with her very own Ben & Jerry’s limited run ice cream flavour, ‘Big Freedia’s Bouncin’ Beignets’.
Two years ago, Big Freedia was devastated by the still unsolved murder of her younger brother, Adam Ross, in New Orleans at the age of 35. Fuelled by that tragedy and her own experience of being shot, she now features in Chris McKim’s powerful, unflinching Freedia Got a Gun. In the film, Freedia gives us an insight into growing up gay in the projects, living through Hurricane Katrina and its impact on her home city, chasing her musical dreams, as well as sharing her first-hand experiences with gun violence as she seeks to uncover its causes. We meet members of her community, such as middle school vice principal Dr. Ashonta Wyatt and her students including 14 year-old Devin whose life is already being defined by gun violence. There’s also some astute commentary from executive producer and New York Times Op-Ed columnist Charles M. Blow. Following a successful festival run at AFI Docs, Tribeca, and Outfest, where the documentary won the Programming Award for Freedom, Freedia Got A Gun will premiere on Peacock on Thursday October 15th.
Ahead of the streaming premiere of Freedia Got A Gun, The Queer Review’s editor James Kleinmann spoke exclusively with Big Freedia about growing up with gospel music, how gun violence has impacted her life, her friendship with George Floyd, collaborating with Drake and Beyoncé, and what she admires about RuPaul.
James Kleinmann, The Queer Review: You mention in the film that growing up you used to walk around the neighborhood singing, and it sounded like a form of protection as well as expression. Music is clearly something that’s always been important to you, has it helped you to survive and thrive in quite a tough environment?
Big Freedia: “Oh yeah, music has always been a big part of me and still is. You know, back then I was involved in the choir and doing gospel music. I was just really into it and through it I was able to survive in the neighborhood. My mom gave me a place to go in church, which was my outlet. Church was really my safe haven and it kept me out of things that were going on in the neighborhood that could possibly have got me into trouble. Mom just wanted us to stay in school and to stay focused. I was happy that I had my God mother of the church to be able to take me under her wing and kind of guide me through my musical journey. I didn’t even know that I would get into bounce music when I did, but I was already prepared physically growing up. But throughout it all, gospel has really played a big part in my life in making me who I am, and it has been my protection through all of these years on my journey.”
When you talk about going from gospel to bounce, is that as big a journey musically as people might think? They would seem very different on the surface, but did one prepare you for the other?
“Yeah, they are different in their own way, but they also have so many similarities that can go along with each other. So yeah, I think that gospel definitely prepared me for where I’m at now.”
As the Queen of Bounce, you’re a worldwide ambassador for bounce music, so for anyone reading this who isn’t familiar with it how would you describe what defines bounce and distinguishes it from other kinds of hip hop?
“Bounce is a sub-genre of hip hop and it’s a New Orleans based music. I describe it as uptempo, heavy bass, call and respond type music that has a lot to do with the shaking of the ass and moving the body parts. It’s a fun dance music that really gets the party started!”
If people don’t know bounce music they just need to search for you on Spotify or wherever they get their music and they’ll be hooked, I think.
“Yeah, and they’ll all have a lot to listen to!”
I spent the other morning listening to all your tracks for a few hours and had a great time dancing in my apartment. It’s impossible not to move to it and to feel good while you’re listening to it.
“That’s so awesome!”
I found Freedia Got a Gun very powerful and thought-provoking. Gun violence is a complex issue and the film doesn’t shy away from that at all and brings so many factors in. Why was it a film that you wanted to be involved in?
“Well, first and foremost I wanted to be involved with it because it shows another side of me and all of the issues that are going on in New Orleans. What we have to deal with on an everyday basis as a community, as well as what I’ve been through in my family and what we’ve dealt with. I wanted to put this film out there to give people an opportunity to see what’s happening in New Orleans and what needs more attention, to see what’s happening to our kids and their future here.”
Given that it’s about gun violence there is of course trauma and tragedy in the film, but how important was it to you that there be hope too?
“It’s all about hope and the reason for putting it together was that we’re trying to save our kids and the next generations. Our intention going in and doing the film was a hope that this can bring light to help these issues. So we went into it with hope and faith. There’s an epidemic happening here in New Orleans with gun violence and it needs some serious attention. I went in with lots of hope on every level, and expectations of bringing these issues not just to a local level, but a federal level too, and to the police as well, and for people to help out with what this film sheds light on.”
At one point in the film you talk about the huge number of people in your life who you’ve lost to gun violence. How has gun violence impacted you personally?
“It’s changed me personally because I’ve been shot before. And, you know, after being shot, not knowing the person or not knowing why I was shot, it changed my life and it made me look at things in a whole different light. I’m thankful to be alive and to be able to still tell my story. When I got shot I was afraid to come outside, I didn’t want to go anywhere. I was captive in my own home. I feel my mama gave me the strength over time to start living my life again, and to not be afraid to go outside. So I had some trauma that I deal with on that, and that I still deal with it a little bit, because I still don’t know where the guy who shot me is. Is he still in New Orleans? Is he still alive? I just don’t know any of that stuff. So those are things that you keep in the back of your mind all the time.”
There’s a scene in the film where we see you go into a middle school with vice principal Dr. Wyatt, and we hear from kids directly about how their lives have been affected by gun violence. It’s very powerful to watch, what was that like to film?
“Dr. Wyatt is so amazing. She connected me with the kids and really helped me throughout the whole film. Just going into the middle school really changed my mindset on what I was going through as a kid and seeing the violence in New Orleans back then and where it has gone to now, it has become a lot worse. So we want to try to step in and help in these children’s lives, to bring some change. This is stuff that can effect them for the rest of their lives; seeing this type of trauma in their neighbourhoods, in their homes, and in and around their schools. It’s just so unfair to grow up not being able to be a kid and to do things that kids want to do and to feel safe. So we went into the school to hear some of the children’s stories and find out how can we help to change these stories, to intervene and step into their lives. It was so heartbreaking to listen to the kids and to hear some of their stories. It made me really upset and I was in tears. My emotions were all over the place. But I was very grateful to Dr Wyatt for giving these kids a chance to shed some light on their situation, and to let them be able to voice their opinions and speak up and not be afraid of what’s bothering them. It was important for us to have this documented.”
How do you see the film fitting in with the conversations and the protests that continue around Black Lives Matter?
“Ive been very happy that we’ve been bringing some light to the Black Lives Matter movement, and that the conversations around the world are happening, conversations that should already have been happening. But for me, it’s got to be a consistent thing, it can be a pick and choose thing, we can’t be lazy and only fight things when we want to fight them, because all of these things affect all of us. And if we don’t step up and start talking about these issues and fighting for these issues and voicing our opinions these things are gonna keep on happening. We have to stop Black on Black violence as well if we want to continue to make the Black Lives Matter movement even stronger. We have to continue to love each other and spread good vibes and good energy, and not try to harm each other, so I’m all over the place with Black Lives Matter, but I do stand strong on my belief in the things that I think should happen and the things that should not be happening period, especially with the police brutality. You know all of these social issues, all these racial issues, racial injustice, just all the things that should not be happening. We should be at a different place in 2020. But I take it one day at a time with all of it.”
George Floyd did some security work for you didn’t he?
“Yes, yes, and it broke my heart. He was my security when I went to Minneapolis a few times. We kept in touch. He always texted me and wanted to know when I was going to bring him on the road. And it was just really touching to see, you know, George have to go through that and his family and just the world having to watch how he took his last breath. I was just really saddened by it and when I realised that it was him and that I knew him it just broke me down even more. Things will never be the same with that situation happening.”
When it comes to identifying on the LGBTQ+ spectrum for some people having a label or definition can be quite liberating whereas others can feel a bit boxed in by it, and it may seem like the label is actually more for other people, rather than how they feel themselves. How do you look on those kind of definitions when it comes to gender identity and sexuality?
“Well, I’m an open book and I’m not letting anybody put me in any type of box. I’m very gender fluid and I let people live their lives and be themselves and I think the people of the world should do the same. I support everybody, I support every community, every walk of life. Whoever people choose to love I applaud them and hope that they’re happy, and that they continue to love who they love. In the whole LGBTQ world I represent them in so many different ways, but I’m just me, you know, and when people try to give me a certain pronoun and people try to put me in a certain category or a certain box, I don’t want to be any of that. I want to do what I want to do. I want to love who I want to love and I want to feel the way I want to feel. I want to be called what I want to be called, you know, all of that. So, there’s no boundaries for me, there’s no restrictions on how I enjoy my life and in being who I want to be, in being a free spirit.”
I love that, thank you. For people who haven’t listened to bounce music they will definitely have heard your voice. As you mentioned in the film you were on Beyoncé’s Formation track and you’re also on two Drake tracks. How did those tracks come about and have you had much interaction with with Beyoncé and with Drake?
“Well, Beyoncé’s publicist called my publicist for my number, and then we talked to each other. Beyoncé wanted me to jump on the project, she wanted me to do a clipping of some New Orleans talking. I dropped everything I was doing that day and ran to the studio, and then we sent it over and she said she loved it. Then we never heard back after that until one day I was at a parade and people were coming up to me saying, ‘Oh, I just heard you on the new Beyoncé track.’ And things like, ‘Oh, my God I love it!’ And I was like, I didn’t think I’d be on a Beyoncé track! So I was super excited about it and ran from the parade to go listen to it and I was like, ‘Oh my God, I really made it on to the track!’ I was very humbled and I’m very grateful for the opportunity to work with the Queen herself. And for Drake, they reached out to my management, and my management got with my producer and then we started to get some stuff together for Drake. And the next thing I knew the song was out a week later. Drake came to New Orleans, I performed with him in New Orleans, we hung out in some clubs and we’ve been in contact with each other several times since then. And same thing with Beyoncé, I performed with her at the Superdome her in New Orleans. So I’ve had a chance to really interact with them and perform the songs live with them, and I’m just thankful to both of them. The opportunity for me to work with them has changed my life and my career, and so I’m forever grateful.”
And you’ve also collaborated with Lizzo.
“Yes, Lizzo had already been my friend for a while, and when we decided to exchange tracks it was easy, she was like, ‘I have a track for you’, and I was like, ‘Okay, cool, I’ve got one for you too!’ So that collaboration was very easy and I was grateful for that as well, along with Kesha and RuPaul and all of the other people I have worked with on my musical journey. I have been very grateful to have some really dope artists in my life, and it has circled all around the board.”
Is there an artist whom you admire and have been inspired by that you haven’t worked with yet and would like to collaborate with?
“Yes, I still want to do something with Patti LaBelle, and Fantasia, and Monica, and Kelly Price, there are so many. My list of artists is still kind of long!”
Do you have favourite LGBTQ+ film, TV series, book, play, piece of music or artwork, or it could be a person; someone or something that’s had an impact on you, and resonated with you over the years?
“RuPaul and Sylvester. To Wong Foo. Oh my God, there are so many different people and artists and things that have touched my life and helped me along my journey. I didn’t really have a role model, I had people who I was looking up to who didn’t know I was looking up to them, but overall mother Ru is definitely the hardest working person that I know, besides myself, and has really set the tone on many different levels and opened so many doors for many different people, especially now with everything happening with Drag Race and Drag Con, and all of the different things that’s happened in that world. But like I say, there are many people who have touched my life, and who have affected my life and they do not even know they have. I’ve just watched them from afar, you know, saying, ‘Oh, I like that’, and, ‘Oh, I want to do that. I want to be like him.’ I remember growing up and seeing Sylvester, and my uncle teaching me about his music and what he stood for. A lot of people always say, ‘You remind me of Sylvester’, so he has been in my ear for a very long time, and I’m really grateful that people even say that I remind them of him.”
By James Kleinmann
Freedia Got a Gun will premiere on Peacock on Thursday October 15th.