Early in Spring, 2012, just after Nicky da B’s “Express Yourself” video dropped, an online publication asked me to write an essay about bounce music, and why so many white people seemed to like it. I ended up writing not-that, but turned in a pretty thorough piece, I thought. They decided to reject it for unknown reasons without an edit, but obviously myself and the editor (who is no longer there) had different goals for the piece, which is fine. It happens. I recently rediscovered it and instead of letting it go to waste, I am publishing it here. It is totally unedited. The first half is a little clunky because I was attempting to describe and contextualize bounce music for a non-music audience, but the Nicky da B part is interesting, I think, and his quotes add to an ongoing discussion of an ever-evolving genre. Also, in case you didn’t know, “Express Yourself” became BANANAS POPULAR (search the hashtag) and is now even in some kind of car commercial.
THIS BOOTY IS RECLAIMATIVE: SOME THING I WROTE ABOUT BOUNCE THAT NEVER GOT PUBLISHED
by Julianne Escobedo Shepherd
In fall 2009, the New Orleans rapper Big Freedia made her first foray to New York City to play a handful of shows at downtown mainstays. Regional rappers experiencing an NYC debutante moment is built into hip-hop’s fabric, but two points were unique to Freedia. First, she plays bounce music, a style very specific to New Orleans that incorporates aerobics instructor-esque chants over a rigidly clamoring beat, as well as a signature, booty-cheek-quivering dance that celebrates the derriere in all its glory. Second, Freedia was a transgender rapper in a New Orleans scene that was just starting to be dominated by her crew of gay and transgender friends—most notably the bounce rappers Katey Red and Sissy Nobby. With hip-hop being historically homophobic, and New York being historically hostile to Southern rap, it was unclear how, or whether, Freedia would be accepted.
Termed “sissy bounce” by the New Orleans Gambit in 2008 after bounce parlance for gays and trans women, Freedia, Nobby, and Katey necessarily reject the moniker, as it separates them from the history of bounce music for no other reason but how they identify. The bounce style evolved throughout the 1990s, with its instructional lyrics riding mostly on two distinct beats, and while New Orleans artists like Juvenile, Lil Wayne, and Mannie Fresh have all done some variation of bounce, Freedia is arguably the first bounce rapper to popularize the overall style outside of both NOLA and hip-hop fans. As it turns out, the nation loves Big Freedia, with gusto. Since that first foray from the Big Easy, she’s become a figurehead for her style of bounce music, selling out crowds across the nation—and it’s been interesting to see, considering straight bounce artists like Choppa, who’s had the support of major rap labels like Bad Boy, No Limit and Cash Money, haven’t been able to break out in this specific way. As with all of bounce music, it seems the answer is the booty.
“Sissy bounce” shows in New Orleans have been tolerant by necessity: women like to go to them because they’re the most live, and where they go, straight men will follow. Other cities where it’s become more popular, including New York, Austin, and Portland, tend to be more open across the board, but at least in New York, these shows have been populated by a curious crowd: it’s often a mix of nerdy, straight white normy types; smartly dressed gay black rap fans; young female college students; transgender art stars—all dancing with the requisite booty-pop (to varying degrees of success) across the board. As rappers like Big Freedia have become more popular outside of New Orleans, there’s an undeniable dynamic that shifts for women, especially, who might be more reserved twerking at literally any other type of show, rap or otherwise. And even though sexual objectification is intrinsic to the performances—any way you look at it, even participatory audiences are staring at the preternaturally talented back-up dancers onstage shaking it for us—the spirit can elevate it. With an artist like Big Freedia, specifically, her positive delivery and instinctive leadership can diffuse any negative sexual energy. The point is liberation—and in a different context, gay and trans bounce rappers like Big Freedia, Katey Redd, and Sissy Nobby might attribute some of their popularity to trans- and homophobia, as they create a home for hip-hop fans who might otherwise feel excluded from or object to the politics of other rappers. These rappers aren’t that different from other bounce stars, and the topics are similar—it’s just that sometimes the genders are flipped.
Still, there are lyrics that go deeper. Last year, Rusty Lazer, a DJ who works and travels with Big Freedia and Nicky da B, marveled to me that Katey Red’s track “Punk Under Pressure” was a staple on New Orleans radio. “The lyric is punk under pressure/ when you’re finished put your money on the dresser. It’s a song that an entire city accepted, on the radio, that basically said ‘I am a transsexual prostitute,’” he said. “Everyone just dealt with it. That to me is the song that made me feel like, this is something that changes culture. If a transsexual person can say this in a song and have it be a hit on the radio, this thing’s never gonna die.” But the popularity of these artists both within and outside of New Orleans has already changed culture: never before has a single out gay or trans rapper been so prominent in the national mainstream, let alone an entire scene.
A couple of weeks ago, a story hit Twitter entitled, “Does Your Child Sissy Bounce? The Dangerous Anal Trend Sweeping America’s Colleges.” Posted on the Onion-style spoof website Christwire.org, the article warned “parents” about the dangers of a “raunchy,” “ethnic” “form of erotic gyrating that has become the latest subculture ‘fad’ among reckless kids looking for quick, cheap thrills.” Satirizing racist and homophobic fears the site imagined would emerge from the Christian right if it ever actually discovered bounce music, accompanying the piece was the video for Big Freedia’s “Azz Everywhere,” as well as a stock photograph of two muscular, fratty white boys with matching six-packs and their arms around each other. The caption: “America’s college students. Are they at risk of ‘bouncing’ and anal sex with black men?”
But what was most incredible about the spoof was not that some people believed it was real (blame that on the tenor of conservative rhetoric in an already absurd election year). It was that this strain of bounce music has become well known enough to for make a competently viral satire. In a sense, it was another touchstone that this genre has crossed over on the internet thanks to popular bounce-friendly websites like Diplo’s Mad Decent blog. That, and the “sissy bounce” story is a compelling one that’s proliferated through music sites and alt-weeklies, even a ten-page feature in the New York Times Magazine in 2010: a positive angle and something of a redemption story for homophobia and transphobia in rap music.
At the end of March, Nicky da B and DJ Rusty Lazer, who also works with Big Freedia, booked an entire week of shows in New York, with performances spanning lower Manhattan from East to West, then dipping across the bridge to Williamsburg and Bushwick and back again. On the Saturday night in early April I saw him, he and his dancers put on a full hour’s worth of sweaty bacchanalia at Brooklyn Bowl, then decamped a few blocks over to Public Assembly to play another set, until the lights flipped on around five AM. Each time, he held the audiences enrapt: with four dancers (three ladies and a dude), Nicky’s commanding, chaotic staccato charmed full crowds to drop it “Hot Potato Style” and to “Go Loko,” tracks from his latest album, Don’t Forget da B. At each requisite drum trill on the beat, a leggings-clad dancer or Nicky himself dropped to the floor, flexing impossibly and jiggling their gluteouses to frenzy; most everyone in the audiences followed, no matter their race or gender. At bounce shows and parties, how you move transcends who you are. Says Nicky da B, “If you don’t know how to shake in New Orleans, you get whacked. There’s just something that you just have to know how to do: you cannot walk the streets in New Orleans and can’t dance. That’s just impossible. Boys and girls; boys, if you can’t show the hustle or something, it’s just wrong with you.”
Katey Red is Nicky’s “gay mother,” he says, and he considers himself part of a new, younger wave of bounce rappers, making a different style of music than Red or Big Freedia. One afternoon at the Chicken Hut, a communal bike-punk apartment in Bushwick, Brooklyn, where Nicky and Rusty were crashing, he explained the differences. “As far as I’m concerned, there are other bounce artists in my generation, but everybody’s still stuck on Katey’s and them’s generation,” he says. “We got this new wave of rappers who are starting to come out. I’m more influenced by techno and pop and stuff like that, versus them, who are more influenced by rap and R&B. So it’s very mixed sounds.”
Nicky da B’s next-gen influence is most apparent in “Express Yourself,” a collaboration with Diplo that loosely borrowed bounce music’s drum structure but freaked it with belching basslines and twerked synths. Nicky expounds on his call to “express yourself” with chopped-up dance demands: “get that poppin,” “shake what ya got now,” “work it low,” “spread your legs… and make it clap.” In March, the duo dropped the technicolor video; directed by web meme-star Lil Internet and filmed mostly at Dithyrambalina, the art project mini-town adjacent to Rusty Lazer’s house, it was mostly about Nicky’s striking neon presence and full-screen shots of young women and men shaking their booties, some half-clad, flaws and all. Far from the objectifying fodder of the types of late-night rap videos that used to air on BET Uncut, its new energy and sexual ambiguity transformed the ass as a locus of liberation, the dance less suggestive than confrontational, a challenge to one-up the twerker next to you. This booty was reclaimative, its message crystal clear: this rubric is built to last.