By 2009, Big Freedia was the foremost gay MC in New Orleans. More than six feet tall and an avowed diva, Freedia was steeped in the city's homegrown bounce scene, a culture of frenetic, sample-based hip-hop with its own distinct dance vernacular — and yet she'd hardly set foot in the white clubs. But halfway through God Save the Queen Diva, a new memoir written by the artist born Freddie Ross and coauthored by Nicole Balin, Freedia transgresses the racial border.
The scene is scary: "I don't know about this," says Nobby, Freedia's back-up dancer, gazing out at a pasty crowd. Freedia, rattled but resolved, gives it up to Grace: "God got us, bitch, don't worry."
Shortly after, a trip to New York introduced Freedia to the art world, queer-oriented punk crowds, and The Fader, initiating a media blitz upon New Orleans' so-called "sissy bounce" scene. Today, "twerk" is a dictionary entry. Further, the sort of fluid sexual and gender identity embodied by Freedia — who rejects the tag "drag queen" and opts for female gender pronouns — is part of a national conversation. Last Sunday in Oakland, Big Freedia and her squad appeared at the Starline Social Club for a Pride after-party — just after the Supreme Court finally extended marriage equality to same-sex couples nationwide.
Nicole Balin, a Bay Area native and Freedia's co-author and publicist, alternated between the green room and the guest list at the front door. Balin, 45, is a hip-hop industry lifer who's white and averse to crowds. "Yeah, I have a high tolerance for being an outsider," she told me. "That came full circle with Freedia."
Balin, who was raised by a black woman in San Francisco, graduated from UC Berkeley in 1993, intent on parlaying her enthusiasm for local rap groups such as Mystik Journeymen into a career. Her circuitous route through the industry involved bylines in Parenting and Vibe and a stint at New Groove Alliance, where she promoted the debut album by Zion I. When Source, then the reigning rap publication, opened a West Coast office, Balin applied for editor. The hiring manager was thrilled, she recalled, until meeting Balin. A white woman, he explained, couldn't represent Source, but the magazine brought her on board as a staff writer.
Balin described the company culture as hostile to women. Many of her subjects, meanwhile, scoffed when she arrived for interviews. "I never went for the appropriative lingo and dress like a lot of the white boys around the Source," she said. "And I wasn't about getting stoned and just nodding along ... but I felt like I actually got the story better since people didn't know what to make of me."
Even artists she considered friends and worked closely with in a promotional capacity clung to retrograde social attitudes. "[Artists] would argue that gay people chose to be gay and all of that," she recalled. "I hated the weed and especially the homophobia."
About three years ago, Oakland-based filmmaker Renee Moncada-McElroy became Big Freedia's manager and hired Balin as publicist. Quickly, Balin saw the relevance of Freedia's story. Moreover, the two hip-hop outliers related. Instead of the coauthors proposed by a literary agent, Freedia insisted on telling her story through the outwardly different but uniquely compatible Balin. "This is before Caitlyn Jenner," Balin said, "but we were already in this era where tons of millennials are talking about sexuality and gender identity in a way that Freedia really speaks to."
Which isn't to say God Save the Queen Diva is fluent in the academic parlance of queer studies. "[Freedia] is political, of course, but this isn't an intellectual endeavor so much," Balin said. "Interviewers ask him these deep questions about shaping sexual identity and Freedia's eyes just glaze over and he goes, 'I love everybody.'"
God Save the Queen Diva is a snappily dictated story of inverted cultural norms in the wards of New Orleans. Freedia's religious mom viewed homosexuality as sinful, but another church provided solace for the aspirant gospel singer with a towering freeze and a purse. Bounce forerunners such as DJ Jubilee inspired Freedia in the early Nineties. Later, in the local vacuum created by the commercial explosion of Cash Money Records' roster, Katey Red and rap outfits such as Sissies With Attitude queered bounce, with Freedia as its much-disputed queen.
Freedia watched feuding bounce artists stab one another with broken bottles, took a bullet to the arm, and attended the funerals of lovers and contemporaries whose lives were senselessly ended by gunfire. The queen diva learned acceptance. And in a quote from the book, Freedia said bounce helped her deal: "Bounce is as shallow or deep as you want to make it. For us sissies, who lived under such constant oppression — the violence, poverty, and homophobia — bounce is our way to transmute our pain into joy."