Last week's episode of the reality show “Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce" featured real drama, with real consequences: the New Orleans rapper's teary reaction to news that the federal government had charged her with illegally accepting low-income housing vouchers.
“I was preparing myself for the bad news for a while,” Freedia said in the show, narrating a scene taped in March. "But once it hit the media, I was totally embarrassed, and I just shut down.”
Whether Freedia's legal woes will shut down a hard-fought, hard-won and burgeoning career remains to be seen.
Big Freedia, aka Freddie Ross Jr., is an up-from-the-bottom, only-in-New Orleans success story. From surviving a tough Third Ward neighborhood as a self-described "sissy" and toiling long hours at a local Burger King, Freedia, 38, has emerged as the meticulously made-up national face of bounce, a highly energetic and risque hip-hop sub-genre that originated in New Orleans.
An ever-expanding resume of accomplishment includes starring in five seasons of the Fuse digital cable and satellite channel's "Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce," which averages as many as 235,000 viewers per episode; a frank 2015 autobiography, "Big Freedia: God Save the Queen Diva!," published by a division of Simon & Schuster; a cameo on Beyonce's much-hyped 2016 single "Formation"; high-profile media appearances on "Jimmy Kimmel Live" and in the pages of The New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine; and gigs at nightclubs and festivals around the country.
A relentless work ethic and a willingness to be her flamboyant self both onstage and off have fueled her success. That success in turn helps support a team of managers, booking agents, attorneys and publicists, as well as her extended family of dancers, DJs, relatives and friends.
But this spring, she pleaded guilty to a felony charge of fraudulently receiving nearly $35,000 in Section 8 low-income housing vouchers between 2010 and 2014, when her income exceeded the program's limits.
In a statement, she blamed the “oversight” on being unable to manage drastic changes in her financial situation as her career took off, but she said she took "full responsibility" for it.
Her sentencing is scheduled for August. The most severe punishment available to U.S. District Judge Lance Africk is 10 years in prison, plus a $250,000 fine.
That Freedia has in the interim failed multiple drug screenings has only made her position more precarious. During a July 6 hearing, Africk remanded her to a halfway house and required her to receive permission to leave.
She derives much of her income from performances. Much to Team Freedia’s relief, her probation officer allowed her to travel to Las Vegas and Los Angeles for previously scheduled engagements this past week.
She was due back in New Orleans for a private show on Saturday, before heading off to another gig in Brooklyn on Tuesday. Her August schedule includes a date at the Outside Lands festival in San Francisco, plus shows in Atlanta and Austin.
But the August sentencing is the most critical date on Freedia’s calendar.
Her co-manager, Reid Martin, and her lead attorney, Tim Kappel, declined to comment, citing the delicate nature of Freedia's legal situation.
In the same episode of "Queen of Bounce" in which the charges were revealed, Freedia explained why she, too, would not discuss her case publicly: “I was instructed by my lawyer not to talk about it. Any and every thing I say can be used against me. It’s hush time.”
Freedia is not the first New Orleans rap star to face a career interruption courtesy of the legal system.
Dwayne "Lil Wayne" Carter served eight months in New York’s Rikers Island prison for gun possession. Upon his release in November 2010, he essentially picked up where he left off. This month, he announced his second annual Lil Weezyana Fest all-star concert at Bold Sphere Music at Champions Square on Aug. 27.
Michael "Mystikal" Tyler’s albums routinely sold more than a million copies before he served six years in Louisiana prisons for sexual battery and extortion. In the six years since his release, he has yet to release a full album of new material.
Freedia is not as big a star as Mystikal was or Lil Wayne is. But she has carved out her own niche as bounce music’s most successful openly gay practitioner. The biography on Freedia's official website notes that "Freedia is a he but uses the feminine pronoun for her stage persona. ... She’s not a gay artist, but rather an artist who happens to be gay."
Among other creative contributions, she and her dancers largely introduced twerking – a frenetic, rump-shaking, sexually provocative form of dance – to the world. The likes of pop star Miley Cyrus have emulated Freedia's moves.
These days, Freedia is featured at major cultural happenings in her hometown. She was the Krewe du Vieux’s 2016 queen, leading the often X-rated satirical parade through the French Quarter in a Cleopatra-inspired costume.
Days after her March indictment, she was up at 3 a.m. to cook “booty-poppin’ potatoes” and “twerk-a-mein” -- a twist on the local noodle-and-beef soup ya-ka-mein -- that she and her team would hawk at the Buku Music + Arts Festival at Mardi Gras World.
During the 2016 New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival's rainy second Saturday, she performed on the Congo Square Stage, backed by musicians from the band Tank & the Bangas. Clad in glittering purple pants, she led singalongs of Prince songs.
And during the Essence Festival this month, she headlined a roster of local bounce artists at Republic New Orleans, the Warehouse District venue where she frequently performs. A full house danced and twerked deep into the night.
The pages of "Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce" describe how young Freddie Ross Jr. sang in the choir of Pressing Onward Baptist Church on Josephine Street and later served as the choir's director. The book chronicles how Freedia came out as gay to her mother, Vera Ross, with whom she remained close until the mother died from cancer two years ago.
At Walter L. Cohen High School, Freedia befriended Katey Red, the transgender rapper who became her best friend and bounce mentor. Red gave Freedia a job as a back-up dancer and singer. Eventually, Freedia stepped out front.
She briefly attended nursing school and launched a party decorating business. But her passion was performing everywhere and anywhere around town -- block parties, gay clubs, straight clubs, birthday parties, wherever -- often working multiple events a night.
Bounce rap employs repetitive, call-and-response choruses and a skittering beat. Freedia's style was well-suited to the genre. She notched a slew of locally popular singles, including "Gin in My System," "Azz Everywhere" and "Y'all Get Back Now."
She was making steady money locally when Rusty Lazer, a DJ who co-founded the New Orleans Airlift arts exchange program, convinced her to go on the road. He saw a potential for Freedia to expand beyond New Orleans via scruffy punk-rock clubs, where patrons were conditioned to respond to energetic music.
A blitzkrieg tour of punk clubs can be grueling, unglamorous work for little money. "I told her, 'You're at the top of the game in New Orleans. To do what I'm saying is to start over from zero,'" recalled Lazer, who served as her DJ and tour manager until about 2012.
Freedia was willing to pay her dues. The gambit paid off, and she started receiving national attention.
The first season of "Queen of Bounce" aired in 2013. Since then, her career trajectory has trended steadily upward. She has not broken into the music industry's upper echelon of artists who can fill arenas, but she is making a living.
By its second season, “Queen of Bounce” was the most-watched original series on Fuse, which emphasizes music programming. "Queen of Bounce" is a reality show in the mode of "Duck Dynasty," with the straight, rural, white guys with beards replaced by gay, urban, black guys with wigs.
The episode that will premiere on Wednesday is titled “Diva’s Day in Court.” It is built around Freedia's guilty plea to the federal theft charge this spring.
Lazer, for one, hopes something positive comes out of Freedia's legal predicament. “She’ll write some awesome songs,” he said. Challenges can “lead to creativity. Maybe this moment can give her good perspective,” he said.
In a preview of the upcoming episode, Freedia discusses the possibility of going to prison with Percy Williams, a longtime family friend whom she refers to as "Uncle Percy." A recurring character on the show, Williams uses a wheelchair and lives with Freedia and her boyfriend Devon in a modest brick ranch house in New Orleans East.
In the clip, Freedia says, “There’s no telling what’s going to happen with me if I get locked up."
Williams responds, “We scared, too.”