Big Freedia, the Queen Diva of Bounce, has done more than any other artist to bring the unmistakable New Orleans hip-hop sound to the world. Her output is as unrelenting as the bounce beat, with singles, EPs, videos, all-star collaborations, LGBTQ rights advocacy, and a reality television show that ran for six seasons.
Born Freddie Ross, Jr. in Central City, Freedia grew up in the 1980s and ‘90s walking distance from the Melpomene housing projects, a.k.a., the Guste Apartments. That’s where the transgender woman MC and bounce music pioneer Katey Red lived. As young, gay, black residents of a tough neighborhood, they had a lot in common. But perhaps their strongest bond was in music. As a teenager, Freddie, a.k.a. “Big Freddie,” began performing with Katey Red in clubs around New Orleans and even appeared on her 1999 release, Melpomene Block Party.
But a future in bounce required Freedia to step away from pursuing a career in gospel music, which had been a possibility. In her 2016 memoir, Freedia said her work with the Pressing Onward Baptist Church choir and in various choirs around New Orleans only fed her deepening interest in all kinds of music.
All hail the Queen Diva!
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Big Freedia already has taken bounce music in directions that would have been difficult to imagine back in the days of DJ Jimi’s “Where They At” and Bust Down’s “Putchya Ballys On.” For instance, in December 2016, he released A Very Big Freedia Christmazz EP, along with a video for “Make It Jingle.”
A Big Pot of Bounce
New Orleans bounce music has changed a lot since the pioneering artists of the late-1980s and early-1990s. Nevertheless, Big Freedia identifies key ingredients in the music she calls a “big pot of gumbo:”
- Cameron Paul, “Brown Beats”
- The Showboys, “Drag Rap (Triggaman)
- Run-DMC (or P Town Moe), “Peter Piper”
- Cheeky Blakk’s claps
- The Roll Call
One of Freedia’s earliest hits, “Gin In My System,” has them all. (Note: Age-restricted video based on YouTube Community Guidelines. Viewer discretion advised.)
“She was my biggest fan…”
If you’ve seen the Queen Diva’s reality show, then you’ve met Miss Vera Ross-Johnson. Throughout her life Miss Vera, “Head Diva” of the house, was her child’s most dedicated supporter. When Freddie was bullied for his weight and sexual orientation, Miss Vera encouraged young Freddie Ross to always be proud of who he was.
Freedia had this to say about her mother’s relationship with the community:
“She was a therapist. She was a psychiatrist. When you are a hairdresser you play many roles…. She’s helped a lot of people.”
Vera Ross-Johnson passed away in 2014 at the age of 53, after a prolonged battle with cancer. You can read more about her life here.
Legal Struggles and Comeback
On August 25, 2016, Big Freedia was sentenced to 3 years of probation after pleading guilty to theft of federal Section 8 housing funds in a case that was widely covered by New Orleans local news and national media. Some of the most in-depth and nuanced coverage came from Alison Fensterstock, who has spent the better part of the last decade covering the New Orleans bounce scene. In her article for Pitchfork, Fensterstock approached Freedia’s case as it intersected with the complexities of Section 8 housing rules.
In 2017 Big Freedia rebranded her show Big Freedia Bounces Back.
“We changed it because of all of the things I went through last year, on legal situations, and just the person I am — how strong I am. And, no matter what, you can’t knock me down. I’m bouncing back from everything that happened last year and I’m still pushing forward.”
Kiki, Do You Love Me?
Big Freedia says she had to invite herself to be on the set of Drake’s music video for his 2018 smash hit In My Feelings, which spent at least ten weeks at No.1 on Billboard’s Hot 100:
3rd Ward Bounce
Since our interview, Big Freedia has released an EP called 3rd Ward Bounce! The title track features a past guest on this show, the singer Erica Falls. The track, Karaoke, featuring Lizzo, was featured on NPR. It’s on the All Songs Considered Interns’ Choice list for 2018.
That Which We Call a Rosé…
While traveling in Italy, Big Freedia discovered a sparkling, pale pink, 100% Pinot Noir Rosé from the Lombardy region. The Italians call it Ca di Frara. But she’s made it available here in New Orleans as Ca di Freedia, and it has apparently been very well received!