“We Just Have to Keep Invading Those Spaces”: Big Freedia on Independent Venues, Empowerment and PridePhoto by Nelson Cosey Music Features Big Freedia
Even before the pandemic put live music to a halt, independent venues came and went. Beloved institutions of music at its rawest and most intimate stood resilient in the face of adversity. Independent Venue Week, which originated in the U.K., was brought to the United States in 2018 as a way to connect independent venues not just to the fans, but to each other. It’s a way to promote the magic of live music and recognize the hard work that goes into each show, emphasizing access, equality and fairness. Hundreds of venues in hundreds of cities across all 50 states have participated in the week-long event since its inception, and this year’s ambassador, New Orleans bounce legend Big Freedia, has a special relationship with independent music venues.
For over two decades, Freedia has gone from intimate clubs across New Orleans to international stages. Her infectious energy and body-shaking dance music makes her the choice artist to book for everything from rock festivals such as Riot Fest to the opening act of indie-rockers The Postal Service. Her thrilling rise to success found the rapper starring in her own reality TV show Big Freedia Bounces Back, and being featured on tracks by global superstars Beyoncé and Drake. All of this success she owes to her home of New Orleans and the city’s vibrant musical community found within independent venues. In light of the tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Freedia’s presence was a glimmer of hope that emphasized the importance of community.
Paste caught up with Freedia on the New York stop of Trombone Shorty’s Voodoo Threuxdown tour to discuss what it means to be Independent Venue Week’s ambassador.
Paste: As someone who has seen your live show quite a few times, it seems that you will always have those people who are unaware of your music that get sucked into it. For example, when you opened up for The Postal Service!
Big Freedia: I came to serve everybody on tour with galactic! Everybody mouths were dropping like “what the fuck is going on?” By the third song, I got them. Same at Primavera. I was the highlight of the festival. All the corporate people were sending out emails saying “Big Freedia rocked this bitch.”
Paste: How does that feel to have that be a reoccurrence at your shows?
Big Freedia: It’s insane. It’s still amazing, because there are so many people in the world who still haven’t seen me and they get to experience me by mistake or by a friend bringing them to the show. I got to see it spread by word of mouth. It’s kind of amazing to still get that new feeling all the time. People still don’t know what to expect when I come on stage. It amazes me that I still can do that, you know, after doing it for so many years, and it’s a blessing to be able to do it.
Paste: And you get to introduce people to both bounce music and LGBT+ culture at such a wide scale! Do you feel pressure at all?
Big Freedia: I’ve been at the forefront of it for a long time just, you know, really making people aware of the culture of New Orleans and the sound of the music. I get the credit of being kind of the “ambassador” of it. It’s really not a lot of weight on my shoulders. I just go and do what I do, and bring New Orleans with me even. Then y’all come and are able to get that New Orleans experience. It’s just what I love to do, it’s my comfort zone, and I go and I be myself and I rock out.
Paste: Speaking of New Orleans, you have been named the Independent Venue Week ambassador. How have these independent venues shaped your artistry today?
Big Freedia: That was the beginning. That was all the groundwork I had to do in order to get to the big stages. Those small venues are very important and they’re still around. Not all of them, you know, a lot of them have been destroyed, especially in New Orleans. Those were the classic memory days where a lot of it wasn’t recorded because everybody didn’t have all this technology. We didn’t have nobody to pull out the phone every time something happened. We was using Polaroids back then and little digital cameras! Those moments are the moments that stuck in my head forever and the memories that I can take with me to my grave. I was figuring out who I was and figuring out my comfort zone in those different spaces. All those small venues is what built my career, and when it’s small and intimate like that, the sweat is dripping off the wall. There is no better feeling than to have a show like that.
You know, being the ambassador, all I do is go and be myself and bring the energy. I want to continue to open doors for other artists like me to be able to be comfortable in their own spaces, no matter if it’s music, film, TV, you know, whatever space they’re in, to show people that where I come in the hood, anybody can do it. All you got to do is really work hard, be consistent and live your best life. I’m just so blessed to be able to do what I love and to make people happy and bring joy into people’s lives through music because at a Freedia show, you have every walk of life that comes together.
Paste: So for you and some of the other bounce legends, like Katey Red, did it take some time for everything to come together? Was it a hard selling point to get people to book you?
Big Freedia: It wasn’t really a hard selling point once everybody latched on. We were getting booked kind of everywhere once people started buzzing about us in the city. I did my first couple of block parties and then people started calling me and booking me out of everywhere! Birthday parties and block parties or whatever. I just started getting gigs out of nowhere, and I just was doing it for fun. I grabbed the mic one day and just was like, “I’m gonna hype the crowd up.”
I used to always hype stuff up in New Orleans. I started in gospel music, so I was a choir director and all of that. I was already musically inclined at how to get an audience started so that gave me an advantage when I transformed into the other side of bounce music. Me and my friends would beat on the wall in the projects and stuff like that. We really did it for fun, and it became a phenomenon in New Orleans. They already had all of the pioneers who laid the foundation from, you know, TT Tucker and DJ Jimi and Jubilee and Miss Tee. All of those artists had already laid the foundation. When us gays stepped in, we gave it a new spark and a new way to do it.
Paste: As we always do! What shows stuck out from your memories?
Big Freedia: The night before my first real show at a club, I was throwing up. It was packed. I wasn’t used to those crowds and I had stage fright! I threw up before every show in the beginning. My manager told me that if I wanted to do this, I couldn’t keep doing that. I started feeling more comfortable as I did more stages and more gigs and whatever. I just had to find my comfort zone.
I did one club, Unlimited, every Thursday. I used to have a different girl want to get naked on stage every week and break the crowd completely. They’re shaking with everything out! I remember one time, I ran into a guy who was the head of security at one of the clubs back then. He said “I remember one of those nights, you had one of them girls up there naked and it smelled bad.” There were so many memorable nights that blew our minds.
Paste: Going back to safe spaces and your come up, I’m sure you’ve seen a lot of change in terms of LGBT+ acceptance.
Big Freedia: Most definitely, especially from where I come from. You know, being a young gay boy in New Orleans, it has grown in many, many directions. The world has been more accepting than when I first came out and started doing bounce music. They didn’t like that the gays jumped in and are part of this culture that has been, you know, so underground for so long. To be able to see this now and go into the world and be the ambassador of it? I’m just so blessed and so humbled.
Paste: With that being said, there obviously is a lot more that has to be done.
Big Freedia: Yeah, I mean, I think that everybody has to just go out there and be themselves. They have to go up and show the people who they are. My mama had a favorite saying: “Go out there and show the world who you are.” We just have to keep on invading those spaces. Yes. Invading those spaces, being bold, being unapologetic, being authentic, being humble, you know, and just go out there and show your greatness. When you give greatness, that can’t be denied, no matter what it is, and who you are.
Paste: Let’s talk about your choir background—
Big Freedia: I’m directing asses now.
Paste: Precisely. A lot of these spaces for people like us takes the place of church in many ways. You treat each show like it’s a spiritual space,
Big Freedia: I think that’s just my background. Being a child of God and growing up in the Baptist Church, it’s just a part of my nature, I’ve done it for so long as a kid. My godmother took me under her wing and made me the assistant choir director and then I started singing with other choirs in New Orleans. That transcends with me on stage. You can feel the spirit. A lot of people say that it felt like a revival when they come to my shows. It’s in my spirit.
Paste: By the time Independent Venue Week happens, you’ll have finished being on the road with Trombone Shorty and will be at Essence Fest! You’re busy.
Freedia: Yes! At Essence Fest, I’m supposed to do family day in the park after Essence Fest is over. They’ll enjoy great music and I’m supposed to be the headliner!
Paste: This may be a sensitive subject, but from the current anti-gay legislature we’re seeing is a strong juxtaposition from that family day appearance. They want to make things like that illegal, which makes these spaces such as independent venues that much more important.
Big Freedia: Exactly. We have to keep on pushing these legislators and we have to keep fighting. We have to keep standing up for each other because these people don’t know what they’re doing. They are fucking up the world. When it comes to trying to make everybody be a community, we have to show love in every direction. These legislators don’t know what’s going on out here because they in the office. They don’t know what the people are going through on the ground. We have to keep fighting for our rights and fighting for equality.
Paste: What does that future look like for Big Freedia?
Big Freedia: I think we just have to keep on pushing the room. For Big Freedia, I’m going to continue to make great music, continue to push the barriers, continue to knock doors down, continue to be in their face and be bold and proud and unapologetic. We’re saying “fuck them,” and we’re coming in and we’re not backing down.
Jade Gomez is Paste’s assistant music editor, dog mom, Southern rap aficionado and compound sentence enthusiast. She has no impulse control and will buy vinyl that she’s too afraid to play or stickers she will never stick. You can follow her on Twitter.