New Orleans Bounce artist Big Freedia may be the one person who has the power to make twerking passé, and if she does, it could be the sign of an enormous shift in cultural power.
“I’m over twerking,” Freedia said at the 2014 New Orleans Jazz Festival. “We don’t twerk, though. We don’t twerk in New Orleans. We shake, wiggle, wobble, werk, bend over, bust over. We do it all. Twerking is just one of the words in our vocabulary. We’ve been twerking for years, but that’s just one of the words in the vocabulary of Bounce.”
Freedia’s star has been rising, and she’s been making music for years, but with her album coming out June 17, “Just be Free,” the Queen of Bounce may be poised for a takeover.
It’s her time, thanks to a rapidly advancing culture where queer visibility, particularly black queer visibility, is higher than it’s ever been — just look at the positive reception surrounding actress Laverne Cox. Freedia is a gay man, but everyone uses female pronouns to refer to her. Just five years ago, it might have been unthinkable to envision Freedia as a national star. The record executives in charge of determining such cultural liquidity would have dismissed her for any number of reasons. She was too queer, too black, and too hood — bounce comes from the housing projects of New Orleans — to fit into a neat little box that could be marketed with mass appeal.
Queer black sexuality made those who populated C-suites nervous. Just consider BET’s treatment of blogger B. Scott, whose planned role as a style commentator for the 2013 BET Awards was greatly diminished, allegedly because BET music programming president Stephen Hill said in an e-mail, “I don’t want ‘looking like a woman’ B. Scott … I want tempered B. Scott.” Scott, who is gender non-conforming, filed a discrimination lawsuit against BET last year when the network forced him to forego his typical high heels, long flowing hair, and makeup in favor of a more masculine presentation. (A California judge ruled in BET’s favor in April; Scott is appealing.)
Now, the reality show, “Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce,” is the highest-rated show on Fuse. Its second-season premiere debuted Wednesday night. Freedia kicked off an international tour in Brazil last year, and she and those around her have realized something: “Twerk is gonna be over in about one month, so we gotta do something else,” Freedia’s choreographer told her Diva dance team.
Arguments about cultural appropriation have fed an undercurrent of resentment toward artists such as Lily Allen, Miley Cyrus and most recently Katy Perry, who have all been accused of using black women’s bodies as props in their videos and live shows, cherry-picking aspects of New Orleans bounce culture, then diluting and catapulting it to a national audience through a filter of mainstream pop.
This week, Jezebel and Jamilah Lemieux of Ebony noted the racialized hypersexualization of Perry’s backup dancers on her latest tour. The dancers are wearing full-body suits, meant to make the dancers resemble mummies — even their faces are covered — but they’re sporting exaggerated breasts, butts, and lips not unlike Saartjie Baartman, the woman paraded around Europe in the 19th century as a freak show known as the Hottentot Venus because of her body.
With the big pop acts actively mining niche performers for inspiration, the one thing that might have the power to shift that course is if Freedia, one of many who actually birthed and molded this particular brand of cool, has the ability to reassert ownership. In some ways, she’s already taken steps to do that. After Cyrus’s twerking at the 2013 MTV Video Music Awards, Freedia told Fuse she found Cyrus’s performance offensive. “She may be familiar with me, but she don’t know I’m the Queen of Twerking,” Freedia said. “But it’s offensive to black culture and black women who’ve been twerking for years. Every time we do something, people want to snatch it and run with it and put their name on it. And they still don’t even have the moves down yet. Just get me and Miley together so I could give her a– some lessons.”
Freedia, who set the Guinness world record for most people twerking at once, actually gave a lesson to W. Kamau Bell on his show “Totally Biased”:
Cyrus, Allen and Perry are hardly the first to be hit with such charges; they’re exploiting a business model that’s worked for decades. Long before they were big acts, Madonna was drawing on New York’s ball culture and had everybody vogueing — or rather, doing their best approximation of vogueing. Actual vogueing, like twerking, requires a level of skill to be done as well as the group that originated it.
Twerking and Bounce have been around for at least 20 years, before even Freedia was popular, which she readily acknowledges. Freedia started as a backup dancer for Katey Red, a New Orleans Bounce artist who is trans. “When something get hot, everybody want to jump on the bandwagon and act like they created it,” Freedia told Fuse. “That’s totally understandable but they have to give credit where credit is due.”