Race and queerness in New Orleans bounce music

Bounce music – there are a number of reasons why this electrifying New Orleans own-brand hip-hop is the perfect choice for my public talk for the University of Auckland’s Raise the Bar this evening. 

For one thing, it’s a boisterous underground rap genre which has had some recent mainstream features in pop hits by Beyoncé, Rihanna and Drake. But some music genre, like modern art styles, or film genre, or even a sport, are not always accessible upon first approach. Sometimes we need a friend, or relative, or the internet to introduce us to the major players, the history and what to look for in a new cultural activity. To the uninitiated, New Orleans bounce music can seem loud, repetitive and mainly about butt shaking (which it is), but I want to highlight some of its fascinating background and make the style more intelligible to outsiders.

Bounce music is embedded in New Orleans, being their own unique hip hop sub-culture, riding the wave in recent decades of hip hop’s epicentre re-locating to ‘the South’ (after New York City in the 1970’s-80’s and Los Angeles in the 1990’s). New Orleans has always been a hotbed of ingenuity and creativity, it was where jazz was born, rhythm & blues was cultivated, and they have Mardi Gras – all grounded in the city’s unique history and demographics.

Emerging in the 1990’s, bounce music became particularly important, and more widespread, after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, as many New Orleans citizens were temporarily displaced and longed for affirmative sounds of home. In African aesthetics, and still seen in New Orleans funeral processions, dance and joyfulness are a part of the commemoration of death, and after Katrina, bounce became an important signifier of recovery and identity for New Orleans folks.

Interestingly, bounce music has a number of genderqueer and trans artists, which is unusual in hip hop as the genre has often been characterised as homophobic and misogynist. One of bounce music’s iconic dance moves is ‘twerking’ which became infamous when Miley Cyrus scandalously twerked at the 2013 MTV Music awards. The young pop star took the booty-shaking move out of its bounce context, giving it a culturally appropriative hyper-sexualisation, and she faced accusations of minstrelsy and racism. Twerking, borrowed without acknowledgement, and detached from bounce culture, lost its essence of place, queerness and celebration.

This leads to my second reason for choosing bounce music as a topic which is, it is a Trojan Horse in the argument for the importance of popular music as an arena for research and study. Popular music can appear trivial and ephemeral, which at times it may be, but as a scholar located in the Department of Anthropology, Popular Music is a revealing way to understand complex aspects of society and people.

For instance, Popular Music reveals notions and presentations around sexuality and gender. There have been queer stars and musicians performing non-mainstream gender identities and sexualities since rock and roll started in the 1950’s – for example Little Richard, Janis Joplin, David Bowie, and even Prince.

Popular music has also brought into the mainstream often overlooked experiences from marginalised communities such as the politics of soul music in the 1960s, and stories from poor neighbourhoods in Los Angeles and New York in hip hop. Bounce music tells us things about New Orleans and black queer folk not usually visible in other media. Its urgency and repetition is grounded in club culture – it’s about dancing, freedom and the body. Bounce MCs often invoke the audience to movement –“release your wiggles” and “drop to the beat”.

Big Freedia, one of bounce’s most popular artists, is a gender queer gay man, who goes by feminine pronouns. She has her own reality show on Netflix, has collaborated with big name artists, and can currently be heard on Drake’s 2018 track Nice for What. In 2016, Beyoncé’s Formation highlighted New Orleans and Black Southern culture. In addition to visuals of the city and its people, Big Freedia’s voice appears on the song loaded with black gay slang and Southern pride: “I did not come to play with you hoes. I came to slay, bitch. I like cornbreads and collard greens, bitch. Oh, yes, you besta believe it”. Having Freedia on the song augmented Beyonce’s New Orleans theme, and also integrated the black queer community into the politics and affirmations of Beyoncé’s pro-black feminist project.

Popular music is a multi-billion-dollar industry which is listened to, performed and danced to by millions of folks, therefore, it is a subject certainly worth unpacking and exploring. Understanding popular music can help us to better understand ourselves and our world.

Dr Zemke will share insights in her talk, Bootys, Beats and Beyoncé: Race and Queerness in New Orleans Bounce Music at Little Easy, 198 Ponsonby Road on Tuesday (August 28) at 8pm. Her talk is part of the University of Auckland’s night of free public lectures in city bars and pubs and free tickets are available here.

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