The Ghost of Big Freedia
Mainstream artists like Drake and Beyonce continue to borrow Big Freedia's voice and New Orleans flavor, but she remains completely absent from their videos.
Drake: Photo by Ethan Miller/BBMA2017/Getty Images, Big Freedia: Photo by Scott Dudelson / Getty Images), Beyonce: "Formation" Video
In the first scene of Drake’s “Nice For What” video, you hear the voice of the black, queer New Orleans bounce artist, Big Freedia. What you see, however, is a white woman with blonde hair looking sultry into the camera. This is not new territory for Big Freedia. She was also the voice that excited and affirmed us in Beyonce’s “Formation” ("I did not come to play with you hoes!") where her voice was animating the gritty scenes of New Orleans. Big Freedia has been continuously used for her voice, words, and energy, but her body is always abstracted from the visual element of these mainstream moments.
It does feel quite odd for mainstream culture to seemingly make a phantom or ghost out of a living person. Usually when you only hear a voice and never the body and face of someone in music videos, it is because they are dead. Yet in the case of Big Freedia, although she is alive and kicking, she is still treated like an apparition when mainstream artists want to collaborate with her.
Big Freedia is one the biggest voices that has come out of New Orleans in the last decade and has brought bounce music to the forefronts of popular culture. If you attend one of her shows, she brings the spirit of New Orleans with her everywhere she goes. It is high energy. It is sweaty. It is soulful. And this undoubtedly is one of the reasons why she has pierced the culture in the way she has. She is also a gay man with dark skin whose gender performance is extremely deviant from the binary. This is why we often hear the magic of Big Freedia, but rarely see the magician.
For as progressive as this current cultural moment may seem, it is still scary to transgress outside of particular boundaries. We know that people that fail gender expectations, who are queer, and are dark skin suffer, and it can feel risky to incorporate someone that holds all of these marginalized identities into your art. This is especially true when you desire for you art to still dominate in the mainstream marketplace.
In an interview with The Fader, Freedia talked about not being featured in the music videos she lent her voice to. “That's when I say the proper recognition and the proper credit," Freedia said. "You know, my voice be on a lot of different stuff and people want to use bounce music as a part of their music but when it comes to the proper recognition of me being in the video, that's something that we're steady working towards to make it happen.”
This is not an uncommon circumstance for queer black artists to find themselves. It is more metaphorical. Queer black artists have often been siphoned for their creativity and erased visually as to not offend the heteronormative, often white public. Viewing the white blonde female taking up the screen as Big Freedia’s voice boomed reminded me of how it must have felt to see Madonna perform her hit song “Vogue” at the 1990 MTV Music Awards. She took this dance and culture that was birthed by queer black and latinx people and made her blonde, white body the vehicle of delivering it to the mainstream. It is not uncommon for divas like Nicki Minaj, Beyonce, and Lady Gaga to mostly work with black queer artists for their makeup, wardrobe, choreography, and overall creative direction. It is rare to see black queer artists invited to be on the stage in a significant way.
Big Freedia’s relationship with the mainstream seems to exemplify this, but feels uniquely offensive because she is an artist that arguably needs facial recognition to sustain her success and to gain bigger and better opportunities. The fear of alienating people who may not be receptive to seeing a big, black queer person on their screen is limiting the places Big Freedia can go as an artist and brand.
It was disappointing that even after Jay-Z—who is arguably the biggest rapper in the world— embraced his mother’s lesbianism publicly on his album 4:44 that hip-hop still feels reluctance to pushing the cultural needle forward on queer acceptance. Surely a generation that accepts the queer-inspired performances and aesthetics of Young Thug, Lil Uzi Vert, and Tyler, The Creator could find space to accept Big Freedia. The problem is nobody seems to be willing to take that first chance. Artists like Cakes Da Killa and J Boogie also find themselves pushed from having the huge pop culture moments they deserve because of people’s discomfort with their sexuality and gender performance. Still, it appears as if Big Freedia has been the queer black artist that has most blatantly been used and hidden in comparison to her peers in order to not alarm the hegemonic culture. Big Freedia checks too many of the boxes of what society has made clear is unacceptable, and attempting to transgress that is a commercial risk many are not willing to take it seems.
When you are in an empowered position in society, you can’t only hold space for marginalized identities or subversive performances when you think they can be profitable or won’t make your public uncomfortable. Sometimes, you must risk popularity in order to do what is right and to push the culture you love forward.
Drake had this unique chance to make a statement about homophobia and anti-queerness in hip-hop culture, and opted to carry on the tradition of using black queerness and not spotlighting it. These are the choices that keep people disenfranchised and cultures stagnant. If the work is good enough to be used, the black queer body that created it should be good enough to represent it.
Edit: This article previously stated that the line “Bitch, I’m back by popular demand!” on Beyoncé's "Formation" was from Big Freedia. That line was actually the voice of late New Orleans rapper and comedian Messy Mya.
Myles E. Johnson is a writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter.