The Girl From Josephina
“I’m not the type of emcee who is known for my elaborate lyrics,” explains musician Big Freedia in her self-titled memoir, Big Freedia: God Save the Queen Diva!, which chronicles her journey from growing up in New Orleans’ notorious, dangerously poor Third Ward neighborhood to bringing its brand of hip-hop, bounce—and its signature dance move, twerking—to the mainstream. Though Big Freedia is unlikely to earn her a reputation as a wordsmith—there’s little depth, no nuance—it is an account of an extraordinary life that demonstrates the power of self-determination and authenticity.
Big Freedia begins life in 1978 as Freddie Ross, Jr. His young, pot-smoking mother, Vera, had been a fifteen-year-old bride. She divorces her husband when young Freddie is four, has two other children with another man, and lives with a third, Donald, who bullies her eldest for being a “fat sissy.”
Freddie Ross, Sr. has a different relationship with his son—he affectionately calls him “Poopie”—although he’s somewhat bewildered by early signs of Freddie’s flamboyant, outgoing nature: “‘You sure can talk for a four-year-old,’” Big Freedia remembers him saying. When Freddie’s five, his father’s sent to jail. The two won’t meet again for another thirteen years.
At ten, Freddie finds stability—and an outlet for his showmanship—in Pressing Onward Baptist Church “right down the street from our house” on Josephine Street: “The plain little brick building topped with a small wooden cross had never made much of an impression.” Yet when a kindly neighbor brings the outcast child across the threshold, it’s love at first sight: “the sound of the choir, the drama of the sermons, the Sunday attire—all the fanfare,” Big Freedia remembers. Freddie throws himself into church life, organizing fundraisers to feed hungry neighborhood children and get the parish kitchen a new stove.
Honorary family member “Uncle” Percy is another early, stabilizing force, “a gentle male figure in my life,” Big Freedia writes. “Born with flair,” Uncle Percy has a design sense that impresses itself on the young boy’s outlook—and paves the way for Freddie’s understanding that it’s okay to be gay. Freddie instantly gravitates toward his similarly inclined peer Addie, who becomes his best friend, though it’s with a popular boy from school with whom he has his first sexual fumblings at the age of eleven: they play video games, study science, and, fully clothed, “rollicked around until we both had an orgasm.” Freddie comes out to his mother at his thirteenth birthday party. The news is at odds with her faith, but not outside the bounds of her experience (she works as a hairdresser). “God got you,” she finally says.
Big Freedia chronicles her journey from growing up in New Orleans’ notorious, dangerously poor Third Ward neighborhood to bringing its brand of hip-hop, bounce—and its signature dance move, twerking—to the mainstream.
To his surprise, Freddie discovers that being gay makes him popular with the girls at school. He’s befriended by cheerleaders and joins the squad. Confident in whom he’s discovering himself to be, Freddie starts carrying one of Vera’s old purses to school. She’s surprised, but not discouraging. (In fact, her nickname for him is “Queen Diva.”)
It’s at a school dance that Freddie first hears the “Triggerman beat”: “I don’t know why we love that beat so much. Maybe because it’s reminiscent of big-band jazz sound and parade traditions.” Freddie and Addie, both underage, sneak into clubs and witness the mostly female crowd doing an “ass-shaking dance.”
Addie, gobsmacked by “this boy he met who dressed like a girl,” is eager to share the discovery with Freddie: Katey Red is just starting to make a name for herself in the club scene. “For women, the sexually explicit lyrics of Katey Red—and later, sissy rappers—resonated in a way that the typical misogynistic rap lyrics didn’t,” Big Freedia writes. Freddie becomes her “backup girl.”
Riding shotgun one night with a friend, the car stops at a red light, and Freddie hears music coming from a house party. He hops out, “bent over, and shook my ass on the back of the car like my life depended on it.” News of this spontaneous performance spreads like wildfire: “My shake display became legendary.” Inspired by the enthusiastic response to the simple and effective call-and-response music he and Katey Red begin to make together, Freddie records a song, gets signed to a record deal, and, at an early show, Big Freedia is born.
Big Freedia sticks closely to the standard against-all-odds-rise-to-the-top storyline (adequately tacked into place by co-writer Nicole Balin). Where it distinguishes itself is in the details. Big Freedia gives us a real New Orleans slice of life: barbeques with “a few pounds of crawfish, a dozen drumsticks, and some turkey necks,” brass band–led street parades, funerals with horse-drawn carriages. In 2005, Hurricane Katrina brings a tree crashing through Big Freedia’s window, nearly crushing her siblings who’d earlier come over for dinner and were spending the night, baby in tow. “It’s strange the details you remember in a panic,” Big Freedia writes, “but I recall seeing the lamp fall over and the paper napkins on the coffee table blowing across the room.” Trapped in the upper-floor apartment as the waters rise, they break a hole in the roof, waving to passing boats and a helicopter for help as the smell of sewage fills the swampy air.
Where Big Freedia distinguishes itself is in the New Orleans slice-of-life: barbeques with “a few pounds of crawfish, a dozen drumsticks, and some turkey necks,” brass band–led street parades, funerals with horse-drawn carriages.
More inescapable is the stranglehold of systemic racism, and the poverty and violence it engenders. Big Freedia supports herself by working at Burger King, decorating parties with balloons from Party City, and taking the overnight shift at a convenience store. Danger is constant and everywhere. A friend loses an eye because of a gang beef. Dropping off another friend one night, Big Freedia is shot in the arm by an unknown assailant. The psychological effect is devastating and anxiety confines her to the house for months. It’s only when her beloved father-figure manager dies that grief overrides fear, and she finds herself outside in her need to purchase memorial flowers. The ups and downs are both taken in stride. She writes of “joy and tragedy, all at the same time. That’s how it is in New Orleans.”
This matter-of-factness extends to her views of her relationships with what might be called closeted men (“Bisexuality isn’t a term I like and it’s not one I’d give these guys”), insisting that “sexuality in New Orleans isn’t like any other place in the world”—it’s more fluid, just like her gender, although she doesn’t go into much about that here. There’s something refreshing about that, too. Rather than just regurgitate a bunch of fancy theories, she lets her choices speak for themselves. They seem to be intuitive, as are her musical responses. “The way it works with me,” Big Freedia explains, “is that I feel a beat and then chant or riff. It’s all about the rhyming, the rhythm, and the repetition.” For those unfamiliar with her music, Big Freedia will definitely make you want to have a listen, and marvel at its source.
Michael Quinn reviews books for Publishers Weekly, for literary journals, and for his own website at mastermichaelquinn.com.