(NOTE: In writing, I refer to Big Freedia as “she,” but then sometimes as “he,” because she has told me that she does not care what pronoun anyone uses [I’ve always admired how she smashes the binary]. My apologies if that has changed; I haven’t spoken to her in a few years.)
Big Freedia was taping up colorful, twisted streamers for a big dance at Behrman Middle School in Algiers when I first met her. Back before Katrina, she had her own party planning business. As Southern hospitality dictates, she seemed charmed that I recognized her. I don’t recall which wild outfit or colorful hairstyle she wore that day while working, but even then she looked and dressed like a star.
Even then, she already was a star, really, though almost exclusively to Black New Orleanians, who caught her high energy performances, often with the original trans rapper Katey Red, at just about every Black club and block party in the city.
Then after Katrina, my friend DJ Rusty Lazer started casually managing Big Freedia, and exposing her to multi-racial audiences. As part of a cover story for AntiGravity magazine, I picked Rusty Lazer and Big Freedia up at the airport following their first visit to New York together. It was in NY that Rusty and Freedia first lit the wick that would eventually blow up and expose Freedia and New Orleans bounce rap to the world — a feat many before them had attempted and failed.
I rolled up to the airport to find Freedia wearing a bright purple outfit, with purple bangs hanging over her eyes. I could feel her excitement as she told me all about how she and Rusty (who sat beside me up front) had laid waste to six big multi-gender, multi racial crowds in seven days. “The shows were insane,” Freedia told me, leaning forward from the back seat. “The energy levels were very very high. It was something new for them, something shocking — people were coming up to me at all the shows, ‘Dude, I haven’t seen nothing like this, you really killed it!’ Everyone really called and responded… In Brooklyn it was like putting em on something new, and teachin em new ways to dance, and showin em how we get down in New Orleans. They were really surprised, but they loveded it… Yeah, after those shows they were talking about bringing me to Philly, to Baltimore, L.A., Australia… It was amazing.”
She has since laid waste to all those places, and more.
In my car, the duo told me how, after one of the NY shows, they’d met an Urban Outfitters rep who let them ransack the Manhattan store, just hoping Freedia would wear the free clothes and shoes on stage. “They saw my show and called me the next day like, ‘We want to give you some stuff, and dress you.’ They let me go in the store and pick up everything I wanted, no limit.”
Freedia asked me to stop at Burger King, which I hadn’t visited for over two decades, perhaps three. At our table, she entertained a steady stream of local well-wishers, while also discussing the 4th of July show she’d played that year, mere hours after her boyfriend had been shot and killed. “Only god helped me up to do that show, cause I was totally out of it,” she recalled while chewing a Whopper. “But I do this for my people, who love it just as much as me. It’s such a good thing to make people feel good at a party or DJ night. It’s a wonderful feeling. So even though I was sad on the 4th of July, I made people happy. And that makes me happy, and keeps me alive.”
It’s also made her famous, for all the right reasons.
On the drive to drop her at her house, Freedia detailed her years singing in a local choir, and even rapped for me from the backseat. “I rap about life and things I’m trying to accomplish, and things I go through,” she prefaced. “‘For Your Dick’em Baby’ is more a fun and dirty rap, while ‘I Ain’t Takin No Shit’ is more of a straight rap:
“Playa hatin motherfuckers always tryna be slick / sending hoes at my tray tryna get a little dick / Keep your eyes on these hoes cause they wanna be you / Y’see they watch what you wear, and the way you rock your shoes / and your dos, and your dudes, showing nothing but love / When I walk up in the club I get drinks and hugs…”
That February, Freedia and Katy Red invited me backstage for the Valentine’s Day Sweetheart’s Ball at One Eyed Jacks where, for the first time, I saw Freedia and Katey rock a room packed full of white people. Before their performance, I remember pulling Katey over to the closed curtain: “You have to see this,” I told her, and parted the curtains slightly to show her the fucking sea of excited punks and queers (punks meaning punk rockers). She was taken aback. It was very apparent that something big was about to happen for them.
A couple years later, after Freedia had started regularly touring the country, I met her again on the front porch of the clothing-optional, gay-centric swimming pool and bar, the Country Club, to interview her for the cover of OffBeat music magazine—one of my better music stories, despite OffBeat being about nine months late to the bounce rap party; The New York Times had already set it off with an excellent article about Freedia, Katey, and Sissy Nobby.
Today, whenever I teach little kids, I always mention that I know Big Freedia, and the kids’ eyes grow wide— even though, really, I haven’t had a conversation with her since she got very famous. On two occasions since, I tried to interview her, called her number, and she said she’d call me back, but never did. That’s just what Southern Hospitality is really like sometimes.
Michael Patrick Welch’s “132 Famous People I Have Met” series is FREE, but please consider donating to his VENMO (michael-welch-42), or to his PayPal account (paypal.me/michaelpatrickwelch2), so he can feed his kids, pay his mortgage, etc.