Feminist Tracks: Disembodying Gender Identity in Big Freedia’s “Just Be Free”

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Near the end of her iconic verse on Kanye West’s “Monster,” Nicki Minaj’s voice proliferates the stereo field, coming at the listener from all angles. In doing so, Minaj contradicts the expectations of a single performer who traditionally occupies a singular position, or a series of moving positions. She exists in all available positions at once.

The result of this effect is that she appears “larger than life,” which in the context of “Monster,” can frighten the hell out of the listener. This “larger than lifeness” also works in conjunction with Minaj’s rap style, which includes various alter-egos: Harajuku Barbie, Roman Zolanski, Martha Zolanski, etc. There is a long tradition in rap and hip-hop of adopting characters like these, with corresponding and distinct voices that engage the listener in different ways. In the case of Minaj and most rappers who do this, these personas can be tied directly to singular, gendered bodies.

Various less mainstream musical projects, such as electronic artist Karin Dreijer, have found ways of subverting gender expectations through vocal production; in Dreijer’s case, she distorts her voice with pitch shifting technology. Big Freedia, an ambassador of New Orleans Bounce music, uses vocal manipulation techniques in a similar but much more interesting manner, offering a different way of thinking about disembodied vocals and their representation of gender identities.

Big Freedia has come into the public consciousness as a queer-identified Bounce vocalist. Bounce is an extremely high energy form of hip-hop, on top of which Freedia characteristically releases a barrage of overlapping calls-to-move that, in their rapid and ceaseless delivery, seem to mock the mere thought of breathing. Rarely traditionally rapping or developing a linear verse, Freedia’s style is more reminiscent of DJ equipment such as a vocal samplers or turntable scratching than a vocalist.

First gaining mainstream exposure during the late 2010’s, Freedia now has three albums to her name, including “Just Be Free,” which came out on June 17th and features the single “Explode.” Consistent with her earlier work, “Explode” features layers and layers of vocal lines that do not simply function as a chorus of Freedia’s, but rather as various individual parts.

The presentation of Freedia’s vocal lines in “Explode” bears similarities to Nicki Minaj’s verse on “Monster” in that they both separate voice from the image of an individual performer. Although it can be said that all recorded music separates sound from its original source, these two examples are instances in which disembodiment is foregrounded in the production of the song.

In both Minaj and Freedia’s music, the disembodiment of vocals is striking and exciting for the listener because it contradicts our expectations, and because the many vocal lines each vie for our attention. Importantly for Freedia, the creation of independent vocal lines also contradicts traditional understandings of identity. Multiple Freedias exist simultaneously on “Explode,” none of which hold absolute authority over the others. Unlike Nicki Minaj in “Monster,” in which there is a central performer accompanied by alter-egos, there is no fixed performer in “Explode:” there is no vocal line that is clearly Freedia, with the other vocal lines being background Freedias. It is this aspect of her work that most significantly can be applied to issues of gender identity.

In her interviews, Freedia disregards conventional constructions of gender identity, confusing even (and sometimes especially) those who desire to be perfectly accepting. While Freedia understands the importance of not making assumptions about gender pronouns, she herself does not insist on a preferred pronoun. Instead, she encourages others to call her whatever they feel comfortable using, since she feels a empowering security within her own unique self [1]. Exceeding normative and nonnormative constructions of gender, Freedia exists as an uncharacterizable individual and encourages others to do the same.

By searching through Freedia’s lyrics and understanding her production as disregarding a fixed notion of identity, it becomes clear that her ultimate call-to-move is “Do you,” be that through gender constructs or through the cracks that separate them. Freedia’s music champions the in-between and uncharacterizable, the perhaps unknowable ways that our bodies desire to be.

[1] http://www.out.com/entertainment/interviews/2013/09/10/big-freedia-queen-bounce-miley-cyrus-twerking-gender

By Grant Meyer, Contributor

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