It’s not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.
The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of “woman” itself. What is a woman? It’s a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women+ Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. —Ann Powers
On the day after Halloween 2014, Big Freedia‘s set at the Voodoo Experience festival in New Orleans’ City Park kicked off with a costume extravaganza evoking the French royal court from before Louisiana was purchased. Bedecked in rococo lace, feathers, ribbons and curled wigs, a cadre of dancers flanked their leader in a fierce tableau vivant tribute to Versailles style (or, perhaps, Madonna circa the 1990 VMAs).
The hometown gig was the wrap for a six-week tour that capped off another successful year for Freedia, including more marquee festival gigs, the well-received release of Just Be Free — Freedia’s first album of new material since the rapper’s 2003 debut Queen Diva — and a GLAAD Media Award for the Fuse TV reality show “Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce.” The elaborate opening to the Voodoo performance was a big step up in production value from the years’ worth of shows that had more than succeeded on pure athleticism — and a visually literal coronation, on home turf, for the fast-rising star. But in the middle of the triumphant homecoming, the queen was quick to cede the throne to a pair of unannounced guests.
The Showboys were a New York rap duo whose 1986 Profile Records cut “Drag Rap (Trigger Man)” had become a sort of common ancestor for New Orleans bounce music. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, when bounce was taking shape live in nightclubs, “Drag Rap” hit big in New Orleans. When local artists started making original tracks, elements of the song — its booming 808 bass beat, an ominous synthesizer quotation of the Dragnet theme and especially a tense, repetitive doodoodoodoo run of short high notes that became known as the “Triggerman bells” — became signatures of the new sound. “Through repetition,” wrote Dr. Matt Miller in his 2012 book Bounce: Rap Music and Local Identity in New Orleans, “the sample has become an icon of the bounce style, to the extent that even in isolation it connotes New Orleans for rap aficionados.”
The Showboys’ own story should surprise nobody familiar with the vagaries of the music industry; they never got to profit much off their song’s popularity down South in either money or renown. The audience watching Freedia at the 2014 Voodoo, which is mostly a popular rock and EDM festival and not particularly aimed at locals, wasn’t really one to get its mind blown open by the surprise showing. All of that is meant to say: Freedia used one of her moments in an increasingly bright spotlight to put the shine, instead, on the unsung history that came before.
It was a statement about visibility, which is key to Freedia’s mission and influence as an artist — the right to be seen. Big Freedia has always repped New Orleans, the creatively exceptional city that has always resolutely (and, uh, literally) marched to the beat of its own drummer, and the music and culture-makers that make it swing, even deep under the radar. She’s become famous doing it – way more so than any other practitioner of bounce, which for decades was a hyper-regional, street-level sound. In doing so, importantly, she’s amplified New Orleans history (and in an increasingly global pop world, really, the whole idea of retaining fealty to deep-rooted local identity) to new audiences. And she’s done it by insisting on being her sui generis self, a gay black man with a feminine stage name and fluid pronouns. You too, Freedia seems to say, should be proud of where you came from and be nothing less than who you are.
Though Freedia started out as a backup dancer for her friend Katey Red, a transgender bounce rapper who dropped her first album in 1999, she hit with real force just after Hurricane Katrina. In the wake of the floods, there was tremendous support for music from New Orleans nationally, and both emotional and pragmatic reasons to travel with it for artists: People in exile wanted to hear the sound of home, and with fewer stages in the city, the artists (who were sometimes unstable in their living situations in New Orleans themselves) needed to travel to work. Freedia built a name exponentially, performing a punishing regular schedule in New Orleans and Houston and soon, beyond. She also expanded her reach outside of the traditional Southern hip-hop scene after hooking up with Rusty Lazer, a DJ and drummer for a freaky-jazz cabaret group. On the road with him, Freedia crashed on couches and got introduced to a queer-friendly punk scene that loved to dance. (Fans of Peaches liking Big Freedia — who would have guessed?) Diplo got involved, and so did RuPaul, but the core essence of the sound stayed true: rattling beats and big, joyous, call-and-response shouts.
With the same force Freedia uses to command crowds to shake, twerk, wobble and exercise, if you ask the rapper what pronouns are preferred, she’ll tell you to pick. (I am using “she/her” here because those are the ones with which Freedia was introduced to me, somewhere around early 2008.) This fluidity sometimes seems less about Freedia’s own identity – she usually refers to herself as a gay man, when pressed – than a comment on what such labels mean, and whose problem they are. (If you require one, then it’s yours.)
That flexibility, too, has precedent in New Orleans, the city that builds its calendar around a lengthy holiday celebrating, in part, the whole idea of being more truly yourself by casting off boring strictures of dress and identity. Big Freedia fits into a grand lineage of black New Orleans performers who made gender identity fall in line behind who they were as artists and as people; for instance, Bobby Marchan, a gay man from Youngstown, Ohio, who arrived in the city with a female impersonators’ troupe called the Powder Box Revue in the late 1940s and made a splash at the New Orleans nitery the Dew Drop Inn.
A restaurant, barbershop, and, crucially during the years of Jim Crow, a hotel where marquee black entertainers including Ray Charles and Duke Ellington stayed, the Dew Drop was more than just a stage. As the late Charles Neville put it in authors Jason Berry and Tad Jones’s sweeping postwar New Orleans music history Up From the Cradle of Jazz, it was a clubhouse where you could find local music royalty at any hour of the day or night – and more than that, it was a place to nourish the spirit in a world that, for black artists, was fraught with danger for black artists plying their trade on the road.
“Okay, here’s what we wanted to do,” Neville told the writers. “Play music and pit ourselves against all of that. With little places like the Dew Drop, these oases where we could regroup and recover made the music that happened there kind of special. There were things projected into the music there that was not there on the road. There was that sense of security about being there, and that sense of belonging with the strangers who were there, but who were not, in fact, strangers, because they were members of this same order.”
The star of the Dew Drop, where Bobby Marchan became a regular patron and performer, was Irving Ale, who performed and presided over the entertainment as mistress of ceremonies Patsy Vidalia. Other out gay artists, like the wild pianists Esquerita and James Booker, were fixtures too, but Marchan is especially notable because of where his long career wound up. After a stint as a soul singer with a few solid hits, Bobby Marchan – who presented on and off as masculine or feminine as it pleased him over the years and liked to use the catchphrase “I’m not a woman, I’m not a man, I’m Bobby Marchan!” – settled into a second (third?) act. From the dawn of rap in New Orleans until his death, he was the godfather of New Orleans hip-hop, managing, advising and promoting artists including Mystikal and the Hot Boys. Cash Money Records footed the bill for his 1999 funeral.
All that considered, Freedia didn’t grow up as an artist in a community that necessarily accepted gay or gender-nonconforming artists across the board. There were still doors that were closed to Freedia – or only cracked open a little bit – in the local hip-hop scene for months and years after they would have swung wide open for straight-presenting men or women. But success bred success (an early indicator being, perhaps, Lil Wayne quoting Freedia’s signature early banger “Gin In My System” on a mixtape track) and soon, if counter-intuitively, national write-ups and awards begat total public local embrace. In turn, importantly, that led to greater visibility for younger gay artists on the grassroots New Orleans scene, including the late shooting star Nicky da B – who, like Freedia, was slowly and judiciously bringing dance influences from the wider world into the studio to meet what New Orleanians call That (Dat) Beat. After and because of Freedia, it’s less a city that lets everyone have their own room; it’s a city where everyone is in every room.
It would be reductive to say that bounce was a hothouse regional ’90s style that Freedia shot new life into, or helped to “cross over,” although both ideas have some truth to them. Could any other artist have done it? Years before Drake worked with Freedia and her longtime producer BlaqNMild on the hit “Nice for What,” or Beyoncé hired her to lend that unmistakable bellow to “Formation,” top-selling artists were borrowing the sound – Bey on “Get Me Bodied,” for example, or T.I. collaborating with Lil Wayne on “Ball,” with its musical tip of the hat to the Triggerman bells and a video shot in the streets of Hollygrove, a stylistic throwback to the ’90s glory days of Cash Money videos. The imprimatur of the big guns takes Freedia, and her steadfast New Orleans identity, even more global, linking her to the biggest names in popular music (Freedia, in a “Formation”-referencing wide-brimmed black hat, introduced the Queen B herself onstage at the Superdome at the end of 2016; Lil Wayne invited her into his pantheon of guests and acknowledged influences at multiple Lil Weezyana Fests.) And she gives back, too: Any international star gets deep, regional, block-level terroir from Freedia, a singular factor. How could you see someone who loves and trusts herself so much and not follow them to the dance floor?
An oasis is by definition rare; it wouldn’t be so refreshing if the land surrounding it weren’t so barren. It’d be nice to think that the world out there is safer than when Charles Neville identified the Dew Drop as one, a place where you could finally relax enough to make your art, be yourself, shake it off. Either way, in solid New Orleans tradition, every Big Freedia show is a mobile oasis — pushing back the desert beat by beat.