Talkhouse Contributing Writer Norman Brannon is a musician, writer, and educator in Brooklyn, New York. Best known for his work in bands like Texas Is the Reason, New End Original, 108, Shelter, and Ressurection, Brannon has also maintained a steady, albeit whimsical career in music criticism, worked as a TV presenter on a gay cable network, and has been recognized by his music-loving students while working as a university lecturer. You can follow him on Twitter here.
There’s this Mannie Fresh interview on YouTube that I’ve probably watched a million times. Or at least as many times as you need to watch something before you begin to quote from it verbatim. Sitting in front of a camera for VladTV, fielding questions about the acceptance of gays in the New Orleans hip-hop scene, the legendary rapper-producer is refreshingly authentic and matter-of-fact. When he contends that New Orleans is just “cool,” and that “we not tripping,” Fresh is as visibly cool and not-tripping as any rapper has ever been while talking about gay people. Not even Macklemore has ever pulled it off like this.
The part I really love to watch, however, is when DJ Vlad asks Fresh about so-called “sissy bounce.”
“Well, that’s a label that somebody put on it,” he explains, acknowledging that no such distinction is made in the bounce music community itself. “But… [those are] some dudes I wouldn’t say that to. I wouldn’t say it’s ‘sissy bounce.’ Some of those dudes are, like, real hardcore killas!” He laughs even though he’s not joking, then adds, “To me, I’mma respect everybody, whatever is going on with you, that’s your space. And you have the right to have individuality.”
The manner of Fresh’s knowing bout of laughter cleverly implies that he understands more than you do about who these rappers are and where these rappers come from; that, gay or not gay, some of these rappers are as thugged-out as any other. But what intrigues me most about his response is the way in which he almost whimsically dismantles the notion of the strawman “faggot” — the limp-wristed, helpless male stereotype that is so often the object of lyrical violence in hip-hop — and replaces it with a subject to be respected, even feared. Fresh is making a transgressive suggestion that the “sissy” and the “hardcore killa” exist on the same identity continuum, and in doing so, he appreciates the broad spectrum of queer identity both inside and outside of hip-hop. That he does all this in a three-minute videoclip while being thoroughly entertaining is, quite frankly, artful.
So here’s the thing: Rhetoric is not always reality. We can talk about abstract constructions of freedom all we want — and in America, this is practically a national sport — but if we’re being truly honest with ourselves we’ll admit that whenever see real freedom, we know it, and we know it’s different from the freedom we think we exert over our own lives every day. We know that real freedom is radical.
This is arguably a major concern for Big Freedia, whose stage name and debut album title, Just Be Free, bear out this impression in some not-so-subtle ways. On just one of the album’s several odes to liberation and lack of self-consciousness, “Explode” commands the listener to “Release your wiggle/Release your anger/Release your mind/Release your job/Release the time” before erupting into a cacophonous mix of rapid-fire vocal edits seemingly designed to pummel the willpower of even the staunchest wallflower. But more interestingly, what really defines the kind of New Orleans freedom that Fresh speaks of, the kind of personal freedom that Big Freedia almost willfully embodies, is not so much what’s present on the album as what’s absent.
To be clear, it’s not that there’s a lack of identity politics in Big Freedia’s overall messaging: Freedia, for one thing, very clearly identifies as a gay man despite the fact that she responds equally to “he” or “she,” regularly wears women’s clothing, and professionally refers to herself as “the queen diva.” (For the purposes of this essay, I refer to Freedia with the feminine pronoun for reasons as arbitrary as they’d be had I chosen the masculine.) What’s missing, then, is a sense of struggle or even a recognition of struggle. Unlike, say, the messaging of Dead Prez — who named their breakthrough album Let’s Get Free and penned lyrics like, “I don’t wanna be no movie star/I don’t wanna drive no fancy car/I just wanna be free, to live my life, to live my own life” — there is no elusive grasp of freedom here, nor is there even a presumption of restriction. The songs are named after an unending parade of lyrical directives — “Turn da Beat Up,” “Jump on It,” “Lift Dat Leg Up” — and in this narrative, there is only one proper response. Achieving radical freedom, according to Big Freedia, is as simple as her album title suggests: You just be it.
The stories of queer persons of color so often revolve around our being queer persons of color that the omission of a direct connection can be startling at first — especially when there’s no trace of concealment or shame attached. In some ways, our claimed subjectivity is also our burden: We are often expected to represent our respective social groups and perform our social identity in more widely accepted ways; we are even sometimes asked to adopt other people’s ways of being — being told “how to be gay,” or “how to be a man,” or “how to act your race” — as if we have no (or even worse, deserve no) individual stake in the culture. For these reasons, we love Big Freedia, ultimately, because she shows us how it could be, and we know she’s doing it right because she delivers as much discomfort as she does joy: Certainly there are journalists losing sleep over the pronoun issue at this very moment. Certainly there are straight men at Big Freedia shows having trouble singing along to lyrics like, “I’m the first lady!/Hoes, is you crazy?” Certainly there are people who watched Freedia open for Postal Service last year and still can’t quite figure out what happened there.
It’s not exactly what Mannie Fresh meant when he acknowledged a queer subject that could be respected and feared, but it’s close: We respect Freedia for her charismatic talent, as well as for her musical and visual innovations. But we fear her because she’s truly free, and in that sense, Just Be Free exposes an inconvenient truth: Most of us are not.