When the editorial coordinator of this holy agency –who has a vast amount of timeless knowledge but a brief short-term memory–, encouraged me to write a report of this trip to the depths of twerking*, he recommended I read the article David Foster Wallace wrote about the shooting of David Lynch’s Lost Highway, but now when I remind him he completely denies it. [Plan B was to imitate Hunter S. Thompson, but I left my first-aid kit at home]. The thing is that, as the good student I am, I spent the three hours of my train trip to Madrid, on my way to cover the Spanish Bounce Shake Down, reading the American genius, and I didn’t see myself able to reproduce that subtlety and attention to detail that lead to deeper analyses. But I did note down some of his advice –how to structure the parts of a good report, for instance–, finding along the way something that both our protagonists have in common: David Lynch is interested in the ear severed from the body and Big Freedia is interested in the ass severed from the ego; and both appreciations might appear quite controversial. No one knows how to proceed before a mutilated member. Western societies move between veneration and rejection, without understanding that there’s something superior to what an individual –be it evil, be it nature or be it brotherhood in a community–, thinks.
* [We nickname it twerking, but it’s really called Booty Dance. Twerk is only a word, one more step in the vocabulary of bounce culture. We also have shake, wiggle, wobble, bend over, p-popping, hustle, peter pan or swiggle. Bring me a dictionary, this is a brand new language!]
But I wasn’t on my way to any kind of immolation. The Spanish Bounce Shake Down looks more like a royal reception. Queen Diva, known as Big Freedia, is the international spokesperson for bounce culture and the booty dance coined in New Orleans. In her welcoming event, organised by the national ambassadors Kim Jordan (Barcelona) and Irie Queen (Madrid), there was a display of multi-coloured sweatpants and a lot of body glitter. As Ken D, one of the participants, said: “when I dance, I don’t sweat, I shine.” Well, we all did shine like there was no tomorrow, shaking it up in the workshops, cheering in the conferences and taking part in a contest that ended up with a grand finale of a gig. I am not exaggerating: early in the morning, in the changing rooms there were already fishnet stockings, iridescent latex shorts and antiperspirant make up.
“It all ties in with the ignorance and misinformation about this culture” professor Kim said. “I’m not sure that empowerment is achieved by shaving off all our pubic hair in order to twerk in a thong. I often find that womens’ clothing and more specifically, womens’ undergarments seem to be designed in such a way to maintain our vulva’s rigid, tensed and “sanitary” all our lives so it’s difficult for me to see how this is liberating.” But it was a special occasion and we all wanted to honour the diva of bounce that, on her behalf, was wearing a sober grey tracksuit. For everyday exercise, the most comfortable, the better.
But for those still wondering,
who is Big Freedia and why should we know her?
Big Freedia as
[and I promise to stop plagiarising Mr. Wallace’s titles from now on]
Freddie Ross became Big Freedia in 1998, as chorus girl for Katey Red, the first queer person who dropped in the game of bounce culture, a branch of hip-hop from New Orleans. But to give you a brief summary, the movement had started a decade earlier, with key songs such as Drag Rap (Triggerman) by The Showboys, Where Dey At by T.Tucker and DJ Irv –considered the first bounce track in 1991– or Do the Jubilee All by DJ Jubilee, in which the word twerk was used for the first time, back in 1993.
Katey Red and Big Freedia were the ink that impregnated bounce music with glitter queer, inviting Sissy Nobby, Sissy Jay, Sissy Gold and the Sissies With Attitude to join them, or recommending other interesting artists such as Ha Sizzle. Due to a misleading journalistic intervention, some of you might have heard about the sissy bounce, but there’s no such differentiation. At least that’s what Freedia told me: “we are separated by names, but we aren’t separated for the culture. At the end of the day, we are bounce artists, no matter what our sexuality is. In order to reach a heterosexual audience there was a path that needed to be covered from the beginning. The females they carried us the whole way. Whenever they went, they attracted the boys. I do feel them comfortable, I don’t let guys get on them and disrespect them. Everybody is a free spirit to get on the stage and do whatever they feel and won’t be judged. And the boys, better come in and dance too but if he is getting on her I’ll stop the music and I will get him out of her”.
Of course, some artists were noticed by the mainstream before Big Freedia –for instance, Juvenile with Back That Ass Up, or Lil Wayne–, but she helped to democratise bounce thanks to some key points:
A) The bases: Getting paid royalties by the use of the defining samples of the genre (such as Triggaman by The Showboys) in bounce songs was a way of keeping it underground and under control. But Big Freedia says that with her producer BlaqNmilD “we worked hard to recreate the real New Orleans sound in new samples with my own voice that were free to use.”
B) Diversification of audiences –see her strong link with females and a TV show for all ages– and demographics, explaining her origins, giving the credit back to the pioneers, showing the dance steps and the characteristics of its sound in master classes around the world. The original bounce is from NOLA, but we can enjoy it internationally thanks a wonderful Big mamma Freedia.
and her philosophy
(or why we should
know her other
She collaborated with Beyoncé in Formation, and also with Diplo, DJ Snake, RuPaul or Missy Elliot; she’s on the sixth season of her reality show on Fuse.tv, has her own record label –Queen Diva Music–, a team of dancers –The Divas–, a new album about to come out –Pressing Onward– and the Guinness record of more people twerking at the same time. She also appears in Song To Song, what at all lights seems like Terrence Malick’s new mental jerk off.
Big Freedia belongs to a tradition of pleasure at all levels. She was the director of a gospel choir and her bounce songs, far from gangsta rap, are synonym with partying and dancing is an open celebration of sexuality. But outside the music circuit, she cooks, decorates and does DIY crafts. Her life is a general invitation to joy. “It frees the mind and brings it into a beautiful place where I can make all the people happy with my food, when I cook is nourishment for the soul, when I decorate is beautiful for the eyes and it helps people to appreciate my crafts. People in New Orleans they love my decorating, I have a business for that as well with one of my best friends. And that keeps me busy and out of trouble and keeps my mind, you know, in beautiful things that you can make happen in life instead of all the negativity. My mum she always keeps me busy and is one of the most important reasons she teaches me. My cookbook will be full of soul food with Freedia names created by myself. One thing I have is the booty poppin potatoes, it comes directly from me to my fans”.
And, talking about booty poppin potatoes to bounce, I think it’s about time we talked about what twerking is really about.
served on a
To dance shaking the booty comes from before you and I and any other person living in this day and age were ever born. It has its origins in tribal dances such as the mapouka. The African diaspora took it to, among other places, New Orleans with the slave trade and there it remained quite happily; until more than twenty years ago bounce music adopted this way of dancing to its beat. But let’s keep our minds blank for a moment. What do you think of when I say TWERK?
#1 Miley Cyrus
#3 Female buttocks peeping through knickers
#4 Personal empowerment
Sometimes, we think as automatically as we eat. And we forget that in our culture, whoever cooks contents is a huge white chef, macho man and heterosexual. Someone who cooks with his cock and serves food on a white enamel platter. Said in this way it’s a bit disgusting. Changing this diet means rethinking the world’s driving vision. Let’s find a different way of recognising these stereotypes:
#1 Miley Cyrus popularised it among white audiences in the 2013 VMAs. And Big Freedia says about it: “It’s important for me to represent this culture, because many other people practised this before Cyrus made it fashionable. I’ve invited her to join my classes many times, see what happens!”
#2 Objectification. In order to deconstruct this concept we have a deluxe invitee, sexologist María Cabral who joined Queen Diva’s welcome conferences –speeches–: “In patriarchal cultures, we have the wrong conception that the family dignity resides in its daughters or other female family members’ genitalia. That’s why we tend to think that if a girl is sexually open she’s a slut, whereas a boy is a macho. In the same way, if a man does booty dance he’s considered a ‘sissy’, when if there’s something we all have in common that we can move is our bum –present in both sexes–. And in any case, we should eliminate this stigma from the feminine: there’s nothing bad in feminising things, in the same way that it’s positive for women to enjoy their sexuality.”
“Twerk is sexuality, but when what we want is to denounce the use of the female body as an object to attract attention we call this objectification. Twerk per se is not an objectification, but it isn’t the universal remedy for sexual revolution either. It can be a liberating tool, but it might be used as a market strategy as well. If you dance it without knowing its origins and thinking that everyone should dance it according to some norms or body canons, you’re not helping to make it something liberating Booty Dance is feminist if there are different bodies, different ages, different origins and sexual orientations; an integration and celebration of difference. Diversity is a plus; people shouldn’t think that in order to dance twerk you have to wear a G-string and post pictures of your booty.”
#3 Female buttocks peeping through knickers. Let’s assume too that we don’t need to walk about in our underpants all the time: one can dance twerk dressed in many different ways. To this I’d like to add that for a person with a normative body is very easy to wear a G-string, whereas what we want is to have varied representations and give another turn of the screw of these stereotypes. Let’s go beyond what’s easy to you, socially speaking! Let’s not fall for the typical canons of sexy girl / tough guy / effeminate boy. Let’s mix these roles up and learn from the queer liberation. It’s also worth to remember that it isn’t all down to clothes: a person who knows how to dance well will be able to shake his/her booty even with jeans on.
#4 Personal empowerment. This individualistic conception isn’t present in the origins of booty dance either. María goes on: “Empowerment centred on the I («I dance this because I feel empowered») is very white, because from the beginning twerk was a community dance, danced as a celebration of sexuality, as a form of resistance through pleasure executed in the street by people from the African diaspora, and later on used by cultural minorities like the LGTB collective. We shouldn’t centre it on the development of a strong sense of I or in competition. That would mean breaking your essence and not joining the massive festivity. We need more companionship and less competition among dancers.”
Big Freedia gives a practical example of what Western cultures, centred on the ego, are missing in this type of dance: “I want everybody to be able to express themselves and a lot of times when I sing one of my songs that is called Azz Everywhere I tell people I don’t wanna see faces, all I wanna see is asses. So is not judging them from their face, just having fun with the rear. Just having fun and let them dance and feel liberated on stage to be whoever they wanna be to dance music.”
New Orleans have
for this to
happen there and
Let me start with another story, from when Bob Dylan went to the city to record his Oh Mercy with Danny Lanois in 1989, and felt madly in love with the atmosphere. It’s easy to travel there with our minds thanks to what he described on his Chronicles:
“New Orleans, unlike a lot of those places you go back to and that don’t have the magic anymore, still has got it. Night can swallow you up, yet none of it touches you. Around any corner, there’s a promise of something daring and ideal and things are just getting going. There’s something obscenely joyful behind every door, either that or somebody crying with their head in their hands. A lazy rhythm looms in the dreamy air and the atmosphere pulsates with bygone duels, past-life romance, comrades requesting comrades to aid them in some way. You can’t see it, but you know it’s here. Somebody is always sinking. Everyone seems to be from some very old Southern families. Either that or a foreigner. I like the way it is. There are a lot of places I like, but I like New Orleans better. There’s a thousand different angles at any moment. At any time you could run into a ritual honouring some vaguely known queen. […] No action seems inappropriate here. The city is one very long poem.”
“We do, we have parties for everything! –Big Freedia answers Bob Dylan, even though his words were written decades ago– I mean birthday parties, baby showers, funerals, Mardi Gras, we have parties all the time. We are a party city and we are very family-oriented. All the families go together, usually when I’m in town on Sunday me and my family get together and we have the family dinner and everybody comes by my house and we all drink and laugh and eat food. So New Orleans is very homie, when I leave and I go back to my place I’m excited to be back home because I miss my family and all of my friends, we are connected together. And since Katrina the city is bigger and better, everything is rebuilt, is fresh buildings, people have a new look on life and is a new chance to take that and do something with themselves. We convert all the bad feelings after the catastrophe in a good way”
NOLA is a city in which, despite all its problems, its inhabitants have kept an open mind. Tolerant to the queer tradition since day one, it became the home of R&B icon Bobby Marchan, and once recovered from the hurricane, the first artist they called to come back from her Texas exile was Big Freedia: “This was healing for me because we were all rejuvenated from coming back from that disaster, we all connected together with all the people who were stuck in New Orleans from all these places all around the world and FEMA Fridays was the first club that was open in New Orleans. They first called me: ‘come here, we want to start a night for all the people in New Orleans and feel like there’s still hope, there’s a reason to be home’ and we started to do it and the lines were all around the corner and it was so amazing because when I arrived to the club people would be screaming and howling like Michael Jackson had came. So it was a good feeling for me and also it was helping to rebuild the city, and to rebuild people’s lives and let them know that even after this disaster we could start fresh and we could rebuild our lives into a better direction.”
So bounce music, queer culture and booty dance became the base with which to build the entertainment life of the place. In the same way that other places have Crunk, Miami Bass, Ghetto House or Baltimore Club. “They are all related to bounce and to the sound of it. Every place around the earth have a sound and a culture that is created in their hometown and in New Orleans we have bounce music and we have jazz and gospel too –Queen Diva says–, and we shouldn’t forget famous Mahalia Jackson.”
the soul, or the
gospel and bounce
“Bounce is in my veins. It’s what we all listened to in New Orleans in the ’80s and ’90s. It was that or Gospel, baby!” Big Freedia said in an interview for LGBT Weekly.
But there’s an even funnier anecdote about this: in an interview with RuPaul, Big Freedia explained that “when I was directing the gospel choir, I’d rise my arms and everyone would start singing; now I rise a finger and they all start twerking.” Other of the funny links is that the Louisiana coffee shop chain, PJ’s, has started to distribute Bounce & Soul records. But inside the apparent banality, this spiritual music needs a fleshy dimension to be complete.
During my visit to Madrid to attend the Spanish Bounce Shakedown, I took the time to meet my friend Nicolás, and talking to him about what could be the reason for this strange connection between religion, spirit and sex, he seemed to have found the right answer:
“The religious world of black people is completely different from ours. White folks use religion to dominate and introduce fear through sin. Conventional religion sees it all as a sin because it knows that where there is happiness, there is light and that might lead to rebellion. African Americans, with innocence and sensuality, turn the religious into something magical, authentic and pure. Besides, they have that sense of community, of calling each other brother, soul brother. Little Richard always said “Ooh, my soul!” knowing that blues, R&B, soul, jazz, hip-hop came from there. It was all down to the African diaspora and has a religious link in the freest and deepest sense of the word. A magical spirit linked to the sexual, understood between the platonic and the real; a lot to do with making love with the soul, but also with the body. Understanding the body as a path towards the soul, not as an objective. This amazing link between the mystic and the sexual can be seen even in sportsmen. African athletes run so fast because in a metaphorical sense they run with their souls, they’re living it.”
And doing now a flashback –because if we agree on something with Nicolás is that time is circular and not too many times we manage to guide it in a straight line–, when I was sitting there with Big Freedia at the door of her hotel, both smoking cigarette after cigarette –that she would light with her perfectly manicured hands with curved and gloss-pearled nails–, there was only one question left to grasp all I had learned:
How can I act in a respectful and constructive way towards bounce culture?
In a respectful way is to be yourself and to enjoy music and enjoy life, like don’t worry about people judging you, it doesn’t matter which work of life you are, it doesn’t matter if you are white, black, gay, straight, young, old. The music is for everybody so everybody could connect and enjoy, everybody can dance to it. As you can see, we teach classes on it, I have babies to grandmothers that started to dance seeing the TV show, I have a really broad audience and my demographic is from 0 to 65 of people who watch the show and know about the culture of bounce music. So everybody could approach this type of music. Do it in a respectful way that makes you feel comfortable, wherever makes you feel comfortable o whatever makes you happy and not worry about being judged, that’s the best way.
Have you ever felt uncomfortable anywhere?
I was banned from Mississippi because we were gyrating, and they felt I was too sexual.
It’s funny because degrading pornography is accepted and women’s bodies are objectified in commercials, but it seems if sexuality is not controlled by the State it isn’t valid.
This type of music and this type of dance and great people as Elvis Presley was banned from the same place in Mississippi. I have to get an attorney to fight with them and let them know that is a free dance, is a dance that I can be free to express myself how I choose to and we are able to get back to Mississippi and go teach people how to twerk.
And the police didn’t come that time!
I mean, they were outside, but they didn’t stop the show.
And, all of a sudden, after this trip through the ironies of the Mississippi, we were back again with our booties on the door of her hotel in Madrid, both quietly finishing our fags and enjoying the company. Me imagining New Orleans and she probably in fast forward mode thinking about the amazing gig she would give that night. A shared epic, because after such a long explanation –Don’t complain! The Foster Wallace article mentioned earlier was around fifty pages long– you understand why we organised a royal reception for Queen Diva, because she brought her culture to our country and put our booties in place!
[You can see all the videos from that night here]