Sex, Race, and Gender in Bounce Music Culture

This post is part of our forum on Bounce Music

NEW ORLEANS, LA- JAN 23 2016: Pubs and Bars having colorful lights and decorations in the French Quarter (Shutterstock/ GTS Productions)

“We’re bouncing the whole time,” states Big Freedia—a gender non-conforming rapper and entertainer born Freddie Ross, Jr.— who is considered to be one of the key figures in the current popularization of bounce music, a sub-genre of rap. For Big Freedia, bounce is about “being able to dance and be free.” Though Beyoncѐ Knowles is highly effective at commodifying the culture, as evidenced by her latest hit, “Brake My Soul,” a bounce-inspired song that includes Big Freedia’s voice on the track, she did not invent bounce music, and Cardi B did not invent twerking. Freedia, in a video titled “Big Freedia, Explains the Ins and Outs of Bounce Music,” goes on to define the genre of bounce as “up-tempo, call-and-response, heavy base, ass-shaking music.” Southern Trap Queens and Drag Divas invented bounce, despite attempts by many to impose a cis-gendered face upon the culture. Knowles does correctly acknowledge the founders of this genre and centers the voices of the LGBTQ community in her latest album Renaissance. It is the dancing, the “bending over,” and the twerking that defines the music, according to Freedia. In other words, Freedia is telling us that the music and culture of bounce are intrinsically defined by frenetic hyper-sexualized dancing and movement.

This intensity in music, movement, and dance was born out of a moment of devastation—the decimation of Black and LGBTQ communities from AIDS in the 1980s. In this context, bending over (a move to simulate homoerotic sex acts [i.e., queering public spaces]), bouncing, and twerking can be understood as powerful acts of sex and gender transgression and reclamation. By reimagining the trap as a space of fun, pleasure, and freedom, Trap Queens and Drag Queens, speaking back to a violent heteronormative gender regime, helped to normalize gender-non-conforming identities and sexual behaviors in the American popular imagination while reshaping heteronormative intimacies in the process underscored with the rise of “heterosexual anal sex” by the 2000s.1

Though rap music and hip hop culture have origins primarily in New York and Los Angeles (“Rapper’s Delight” by the Sugar Hill gang is the first known rap song to chart in 1979), with groups such as The Last Poets, Sugar Hill Gang, and NWA, there emerged a new sound out of places such as Houston, New Orleans, and Atlanta by the 1980s. This was a regional sound coming out of the Deep South initially shaped by artists such as The Geto Boys and Outkast, now known as the Dirty South genre of Rap. This Renaissance in Black music culture overlapped with the rise of disco, trap (also a Dirty South sub-genre of rap) and the increasing popularity of electro-dance music. All genres with ties to drag culture, LGBTQ MCs, and impresarios.

Bounce, as a music produced in response to race and gender oppression in the American South characterized by ass-shaking music, movement, twerking, or frenetic provocative dancing, should lead us to think about the dance floor as a type of rival geography in Black life—amid the rising AIDS crisis of the 1980s—to this current moment of socio-economic and climate catastrophe.

We should look at Bounce music over time, and the dancing central to the culture of this rap sub-genre, as an attempt by its practitioners to reclaim a sense of freedom and autonomy in a world shattered by mass death at the height of the AIDS pandemic and now impending ecological disaster.

In her groundbreaking text Closer to Freedom: Enslaved Women and Everyday Resistance in the Plantation South, Stephanie Camp innovatively applies the concept of rival geography (a phrase coined by Edward Said) to the lives and experiences of enslaved women in the American South. Camp demonstrates in her text how Black women made use of space in liberating ways while illustrating the utility of the phrase for understanding marginalized groups under oppressive systems. This phrase is a useful tool for understanding the way Black women and LGBTQ communities have used culture, space, and movement to reinvent themselves on the dance floor, and beyond, thereby shaping, not only popular music culture but sex and gender intimacies in American society.

Scholars and historians of LGBTQ experiences have long discussed the ways that this community has made use of space to counter repression. These include foundational works about space and the LGBTQIA+ community, such as Mapping Desire: Geographies of Sexualities (Routledge, 1995) by David Bell and Gill Valentine and Queer Sites: Urban Histories Since 1600 (Routledge, 1999) edited by David Higgs. The first definitive book-length history of Bounce was written by Matt Miller entitled Bounce: Rap Music and Local Identities in New Orleans (University of Massachusetts Press, 2013). Some more recent work that focuses on marginalized groups related to the LGBTQIA+ community in international contexts include Queer Nightlife (Michigan University Press, 2021) edited by Kemi Adeyemi, and Kareem Khubachandani, et. al, and the forthcoming Queer Voices in Hip Hop: Cultures, Communities, and Contemporary Performance (University of Mississippi Press, 2022) by Lauron J. Kehrer. Essays in this forum build on and expand this existing knowledge to explore this move in Black intellectual and cultural life from the 1970s to the present.

Gender non-conforming, lesbian, and gay dancers made use of the dance floor in innovative ways, particularly in the 1970s and 1980s, as evidenced first within disco and then with the rise of the Dirty South genre of rap music. These gender bending impresarios invented the Vogue and twerking, including countless other dance moves, as they made the dance floor a rival geography. In “Break My Soul,” Freedia tells us to “release your wiggle.” Freedom of movement is central to bounce music dance culture, and this is conjoined with a strident bid for sexual autonomy in the dance.

  1. See William Saletan, “Ass Backwards: The Media’s Silence about Rampant anal Sex,” Slate September 20, 2005; Daily Dish, “The Rise and Rise of Heterosexual Anal Sex,” The Atlantic October 8, 2010; and for more scholarly analyses of this phenomenon: KR McBride, JD Fortenberry, “Heterosexual Anal Sexuality and Anal Sex Behaviors: A Review,” Journal of Sex Research 47 (2-3), 124-136, 2010; Melissa A. Habel, Jami S. Leichliter, Patricia J. Dittus, Ian H. Spicknall, Sevgi O. Aral, “Heterosexual Anal and Oral Sex in Adolescents and Adults in the United States, 2011-2015,” Sexually Transmitted Diseases 45 (12) 775-782, December 2018; and  from a feminist perspective Breanne Fahs, Jax Gonzalez, “The Front Lines of the “back door”: Navigating (dis) Engagement, Coercion, and Pleasure in Women’s Anal Sex Experiences,” Feminism & Psychology 24 (4) 500-520, 2014.
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Hettie Williams

Hettie V. Williams is the president of the African American Intellectual History Society (AAIHS). She is an Associate Professor of African American history in the Department of History and Anthropology at Monmouth University where she teaches courses in African American history and U.S. history. Her latest publications include 'Bury My Heart in a Free Land: Black Women Intellectuals in Modern U.S. History' (Praeger, 2017) and (with G. Reginald Daniel) 'Race and the Obama Phenomenon: The Vision of a More Perfect Multiracial Union' (University Press of Mississippi 2014). Follow her on Twitter @DrHettie2017.