The New Orleans bounce icon brought the hype and essence of Mardi Gras to her very own "Freedia Gras."

big freedia photo
Big Freedia

Few other contemporary New Orleans artists sit perched on as high of a royal pedestal as Big Freedia. From underground local stardom to collabs with Beyoncé and Drake, Freedia seems to be gradually taking over and becoming bigger than anyone would have imagined. If you’ve ever attended a Big Freedia show, you know that it’s a participatory act. She spearheads a crowd so convincingly that they would probably follow her into a burning building. They move with her. They shake, wobble, and twerk with her. They trust her.

Her Freedia Gras show at One Eyed Jacks on Sunday night was everything you’d hope for in the Queen Diva’s Mardi Gras bash: an ecstatic, visceral experience, punctuated by bounce’s corporeally heavy bass, the danceability of pop music, and above all, a celebration of a life that’s worth living. Freedia is a superb entertainer. At Freedia Gras, she was the ringleader of her swampy, sweaty territory, exuding fierce local pride and unabashed confidence. Big Freedia is New Orleans at its best, at its most celebratory, at its most delightfully unhinged. If she doesn’t capture the spirit of Mardi Gras today, I don’t know who does.

For two hours, Freedia tore through years of her prolific musical catalog without, literally, missing a beat. Everything Freedia touches becomes instant-classic, from her originals to her interpretations of sing-alongs like Whitney Houston’s “I Will Always Love You.” Her discography has expanded as her national visibility has grown and boasts an enviable list of high-profile collaborations including Beyonce, Drake, Lizzo, Diplo, and DJ Snake. Yet despite her increasing name recognition outside of New Orleans, she keeps herself grounded in her hometown roots. The hype energy that she brought to the stage at Freedia Gras was predictably infectious.

A highlight of the show came when she performed her newest song, “Chasing Rainbows”. Freedia teamed up with Kesha for the track which they released on February 20. “Chasing Rainbows” is a testament to radical self-love told through a fuck-the-haters zinger: “They can’t be who they be ‘cause they’re hidin’ / You know me, bein’ free, won’t be silent / I pray for my enemies.” She emphasized her identity as a gay black person and the importance of loving yourself before diving into the pop-drizzled queer anthem.

Freedia’s transcendent message of individual liberation is in bounce’s DNA. The flamboyancy of her persona is no mistake; bounce music has never been a quiet affair. Forget the art of subtlety; bounce music’s effectiveness rests on the art of loudness in its unapologetic, relentless high-decibel pulse. “Gin In My System” was never meant to be played as a backing track to a mellow dinner party, never meant to be thrown arbitrarily into the shuffle of a chill study beats playlist. Bounce is designed to hit you over the head with its existence whether you like it or not.

When people with marginalized identities make their existence heard loud and clear, they become impossible to ignore. From bounce’s origins as a call-and-response style party in New Orleans housing projects to the queer-led, gender fluid strain of bounce that Freedia helped popularize, bounce announces itself without abandon. In tune with the ethos of freedom, it champions overt sexuality, to which twerking is a knee-jerk reaction. The art of bounce— and implicitly, Freedia’s art—is one of pure, raw pleasure, a high-octane frequency that exists perpetually in the up-tempo.

Big Freedia exudes New Orleans’ soul. She injected her show with a message of positivity and tied her message of self-love to a greater call for civic-live. She mentioned the tragedy of this year’s carnival-related deaths and reminded everyone to be kinder to each other “Life is short,” she told the audience, “So live your best life, and you’re gonna be alright.” 

Even as Big Freedia increasingly lends her voice to big pop artists, her essence doesn’t lose its precursive rawness. In fact, it's part of what makes her in demand. Freedia is the linchpin of contemporary bounce, holding its past and future in a tight bind. She does her best to reconcile her own rising visibility with a commitment to recognizing and preserving her art’s local origins.