Culture | Bounce the system

New Orleans artists bring queer hip hop into the limelight

Does the image of a transgender rapper working out her swagger in a pair of heels fit your preconception of hip hop? Can you imagine 50 Cent belting out an aggressively unrepentant hook about the delights of gay sex? Sissy bounce culture, a sub-genre of New Orleans’s bounce scene, has become a space for openly queer artists to rework normative conceptions of sexuality and gender politics in an unexpected creative fusion of gritty dance beats and social critique. Amidst the sweaty bump and grind of bodies moving to hypersexualized, fast tracks, there’s the sense of exploring something completely fresh through a reckless abandon of convention, stereotypes, and norms.

Given the ongoing criticism that the rap and hip hop community receives regarding its brazen use of misogynistic and homophobic tropes, it seems impossible to imagine a more unlikely place for the acceptance of transgender and queer expression in the music world. And it hasn’t been easy – the world of a working-class, southern, African-American male queer person is a terrain marked by difficulty and oppression. It is also a reality that is largely invisible in the eyes of wider society. Katey Red, the transgender rapper credited with the creation of sissy bounce, gets to the heart of the complexities of maintaining such a marginalized identity in “Punk Under Pressure.” The song has become something of an anthem for black queers trying to navigate their way through the difficulties posed by the intersection of race and gender prejudice. The sissies see themselves as punks just trying to get by as well – except they’re getting by on stage, surrounded by dancing women, most of them “p-popping” (a signature dance move where one assumes a push-up position and bounces forcefully at the hip).

As New Orleans’s own personal brand of hip hop, bounce itself has been around for close to 20 years. It’s a kind of rap that is best appreciated in its live form. Bounce is a sweaty dance party set to an infectious beat, drawing its energy from a relentless call-and-response dynamic between the performer and the audience. Bounce is inseparable from the musical and social environment from which it springs forth. Hidden in its beat and rhythm and in the lyric references is a deep and profound pride for the city’s various neighborhoods and ethnicities, and the ethereal multicultural heritage of Mardi Gras.

As a sub-genre of bounce, sissy bounce is just as wrapped up in the blend of kinship and memory that comprises New Orleans’s distinctive cultural landscape and history. Its major point of departure from the larger bounce genre lies in the identity of the performers themselves. While it’s undeniable that queer identity and hip hop make for an unusual marriage, New Orleans has a history of allowing unlikely fusions to flourish. However, as a result of the trauma of Katrina and the failure of governmental aid, many sissy bounce artists are no longer primarily based in New Orleans. Now they must stay in touch with their roots through their music.

By manipulating the rap genre for queer expression, sissy bounce’s success and popularity stems from a sense of ambiguity and openness to the full spectrum of gender and identity. It would be a mistake to reduce the performances and the artists themselves to their sexual identity, as, after all, it is this narrowness in thought and perception that sissy bounce performers speak against. In “Stupid,” a duet between herself and fellow sissy Big Freedia, Red says, “Am I a boy or a girl? Nah, I’m Katey Red.” A person, after all, is always more than the fixed categoriesof gender, race, and class.

While remaining close to its place of birth, sissy bounce has been spreading beyond New Orleans, with Big Freedia coming to Montreal’s Club Lambi last June, and reappearing this weekend at Pop. And even though the queer community in Montreal is the most familiar with Freedia and other sissies, it’s a genre that definitely does not limit itself to a strictly queer audience. In fact, Big Freedia’s show in Montreal attracted a diverse mix of people. While sissies use bounce music for their own self-expression and identification as queer artists, the appeal of the catchy hooks and welcoming attitudes makes their performances universally accessible.