Big Freedia, the New Orleans "Queen of Bounce," pleaded guilty in federal court yesterday to theft of government funds after fraudulently receiving over $34,000 in Section 8 low-income housing vouchers between 2010 and 2014.
The New Orleans rapper and reality TV star, who was recently featured in Beyonce's "Formation" music video, arrived to court Wednesday with her own camera crew in tow. Freedia's long purple hair hung loosely over a dark velvet jacket as she greeted the press, saying, "I love my fans. Thanks for all of your support."
Big Freedia, whose legal name is Freddie Ross, Jr., admitted that she took housing vouchers she didn't qualify for and had lied about her income. She told the government she was making anywhere from $12,000 to $14,000 a year, well below the threshold to qualify for Section 8.
According to court documents, Big Freedia began receiving $695 a month in federal housing vouchers designed to subsidize rents for the poor, elderly, and disabled from January 2011 to December 2014.
When she was first charged earlier this month, Freedia said a statement that she had made a mistake and had not set out to defraud the government intentionally.
"This is an incredibly unfortunate situation," she wrote in an email to several media outlets at the time. "I was on subsidized housing for many years before my financial situation changed. I quickly found myself in a new economic structure and, frankly, knew little about how to handle my money."
Financial records revealed the extent of Big Freedia's success. Long before her appearance in Beyonce's "Formation" video, there was income from international concert tours, four seasons of her reality show on the Fuse network, royalties, and merchandise ranging from T-shirts to tote bags. Government documents also revealed multiple bank accounts, both in Big Freedia's legal name, Freddie Ross, Jr., and in the names of several corporate entities.
All the while, each year, she would re-file a sworn statement declaring low income to the Housing Authority of New Orleans and the federal government. In addition to lying about her income under penalty of perjury, she listed her assets as $100 for 2012, $165 for 2013, and $250 for 2014, according to government documents.
"Ross [Big Freedia] knew that if he had truthfully represented his income and assets, he would not have been eligible to receive any Section 8 benefits between 2010 and 2014," the court documents state. "This crime is much more than an oversight," Judge Lance Africk said to Big Freedia in court on Wednesday.
In 2013, singer Lauryn Hill was sentenced to three months in prison and three months of house arrest after she pleaded guilty to tax evasion for failing to pay taxes on roughly $2.3 million in earnings.
At the time, Hill published a statement on race and inequality on her Tumblr. "I shuddered during sentencing when I kept hearing the term 'make the IRS whole'… make the IRS whole," Hill wrote, "knowing that I got into these very circumstances having to deal with the very energies of inequity and resistance that created and perpetuated these savage inequalities."
Big Freedia faces a maximum prison sentence of ten years and a $250,000 fine if she is convicted.
The artist's attorney, Tim Kappel, spoke to reporters outside the courthouse Wednesday. "As we've acknowledged, this is an incredibly unfortunate situation for which my client unequivocally accepts responsibility," Kappel said. "Freedia has cooperated with the government at every stage of their investigation and her guilty plea today is another step forward in putting this matter behind us."
Freedia tweeted Wednesday that she'll be performing at Movement Detroit, a three-day electronic music festival taking place on Memorial Day weekend. She will be back home in New Orleans for sentencing, which is set for June 16, 2016.
Neither Big Freedia's management nor her publicist returned Broadly's request for comment.