Big Freedia and Queer Erasure

When Dr. DeFrantz guest lectured our class on Friday, I was ecstatic to learn more about dance. As a die-hard theater kid who was called “allergic to moving with any sense of purpose” by my high school theater teacher, I was excited to be included in a dancer’s environment in any capacity. Before the class started, I saw Dr. DeFrantz pull up Beyonce’s “Formation” video and I saw the room buzz with anticipation and speculation.

When Dr. DeFrantz brought up Big Freedia, I immediately recalled this article by Myles Johnson in which he ponders why Big Freedia’s voice is used so freely when her image is completely absent. Beyonce’s live performances of “Formation” usually begin with Freedia’s voice breaking the silence with “Bitch, I’m back by popular demand!” and/or “I did not come to play with you hoes!” More recently, Drake’s song “Nice For What” samples Freedia challenging the listener with “I wanna know who motherfucking representin’ in here tonight!” This video features admired women of Hollywood, like Rashida Jones, Letitia Wright, and Tracey Ellis Ross represented between cuts of Drake dancing and performing to the song. Instead of Freedia herself, the video features exclusively cisgender women.

“Formation” and “Nice For What” both mention New Orleans explicitly and use Big Freedia’s voice as an homage to their cultural influences, however, her body is not included in the visual representation of these allusions to her home city. While I don’t at all proclaim to pass judgment on these artists, I write here to elevate Johnson’s concerns that abstracting Big Freedia’s words from her personage and queer identity contributes to what he considers popular music “seemingly mak[ing] a phantom or ghost out of a living person.”

Just as Miley Cyrus is often mistakenly credited for elevating twerking as an art form, a fact that Freedia herself took issue with, now we must examine the consequences of obscuring queer contributions to mainstream art. I am confident that I am not the most appropriate or skilled person to take on this topic, but ignoring its pertinence feels like being complicit in Big Freedia’s erasure. Her face and name are largely unknown, but her words, when presented by cisgender performers, are met with ecstatic cheers by millions.

Freedia has spoken frequently about the balance between large platforms and proper credit.  “We’re steady moving forward to get the bounce culture even further out there and, as you can see, other artists are recognizing our music and our talent down here in New Orleans . . . I’ve worked tremendously hard to make things happen for New Orleans culture. I just want us to get the proper recognition and the proper credit that we deserve,” she said in an interview with Fader.  Hopefully, Big Freedia, who has worked for decades in the industry to improve public perception of twerking and bounce music, will get the recognition she deserves. I argue that “hopefully” starts with us and our duty to attribute credit as ethical consumers of New Orleanian culture. 

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