Last week my old friend Scott Beibin IM’d me asking my thoughts on Sissy Bounce. My reply was pretty immediate:
“What the hell is Sissy Bounce?”
After he got over the shock of realizing he knew about something before I did he went on to tell me one of the most interesting stories about an actual underground music scene. I say actual because I’ve known Scott for close to 20 years since we met through the early 90’s hardcore and straight edge scenes across the US. We both booked bands, ran labels, and generally tried to foster the scene. At that point underground meant something. It was actual sub-mainstream. Today it’s largely a marketing term and the notion of having to hunt to dig up information about a band or a style of music is completely gone. Information that used to require hours of driving and good words put in by the right people to get ahold of can now be googled in seconds. That’s not good or bad, it just is. So when Scott started telling me about a completely unknown sub-fork of the already crazily obscure New Orleans Bounce scene I dropped everything I was doing and started hitting him up for info.
It’s no secret that New Orleans has been the birth place, or at the very lease incubation chamber for all kind of music. You’d expect nothing less from a city that gave birth to Jazz. (More on that can be found at the awesome Where They At? exhibition) So the notion that spending time in the small local clubs there meant you’d see something new wasn’t surprising – that something new had been happening there for the last 10 years and not spread was kinda mind blowing. It was only earlier this month that Vanity Fair cast the first real media light on the subject, and even that only scratches the surface. Embarrassingly enough New Orleans Metblogs covered it not only once but twice back in 2008 and I totally missed it.
So what the hell is Sissy Bounce? Sort of depends who you ask. Katey Red [myspace], arguably the creator of the genre, suggests it doesn’t even exist and instead insists it’s just sissies producing Bounce. Other artists such as Big Freedia [myspace | twitter] fully embrace the term. Take some of the most hypersexual, bump and grind you can imagine, remove everything but the sexed up chorus, speed it up, and then remove the sexual identity of the artist performing it. What, what? That’s right. Sissy Bounce artists are purposely androgynous, sometimes referred to as queer, sometimes transgendered, a very direct intent is to fuck with people’s heads about sexuality. It’s easy to relate, or be offended when you see one sex singing about the other. But with Sissy Bounce you have no idea. This makes the performances just as important as the music itself, which is perhaps why it’s stayed locked down for so long.
I needed more info, and Scott had it. His friend Alix Chapman had just spent a great deal of time researching the genre and I asked him to do an interview to try to lay the real truth on the line before people start jumping to conclusions. Here’s that interview:
SISSY BOUNCE INTERVIEW WITH ALIX CHAPMAN – by Scott Beibin
For several years, social theorist rockstar Alix Chapman has been studying black queer performance and politics. He is currently researching Post-Katrina New Orleans ‘Sissy Bounce’ culture within the context of gender and race. Over the past several months Sissy Bounce artists such as Big Freedia, Vockah Redu and the Cru [myspace], Sissy Nobby [myspace | twitter], and Katey Red have made a huge impact, touring to New York and Los Angeles, attracting the attention of dance music pioneer Diplo, playing several showcases at SXSW 2010 including a latenight party with Los Angeles punk luminaries NO AGE [myspace].
The one thing that’s missing in the midst of the hype is an explanation of the history of the phenomenon, and very few people can speak on the history of this aspect of black trans/queer culture with as much authority as Chapman. In 2006 I started to hear about Sissy Bounce from queer activist friends who traveled to New Orleans to help out with the Common Ground Relief Organization. They were excited to find a really strong synergy in the DIY crossover of Bounce and Punk Rock, and started to spread the music around. I was thrilled when I found out Alix was deeply involved in research into the Sissy Bounce culture. In terms of street cred, he was one of the vocalists for Seattle’s infamous Infernal Noise Brigade who came to notoriety during the WTO protests in 1999. Over the years I’ve been very lucky to get to know him well having both been arrested and lathered in toxic goo during the 2004 RNC in NYC, being chased by police dogs through an oat field during the G8 summit in Scotland, and touring my own project, Lost Film Fest with his band through Europe. I thought this was the perfect opportunity to check in with him to make sure that certain aspects of the culture are included in the narrative during the year that bounce ‘breaks’. – Scott Beibin
Scott Beibin: Being that ‘Sissy Bounce’ is a sub-genre of bounce rap music, when and where did it originate as it’s own unique style?
Alix Chapman: Most people credit the origins of Sissy Bounce in the emergence of Katey Red, a transgender rapper from the Melpomene Projects. One of her early hits “Punk Under Pressure”, is one of my favorite Bounce songs and I find her work very empowering as a black “queer” trying to get by.
SB: What makes Sissy Bounce different than any other form of bounce in terms of performance and audience participation?
AC: Sissy Bounce, is really not all that different. It incorporates call and response, the triggerman and brown beat, and a lot of the same dancing and sexually provocative lyrics associated with the rest of Bounce. There’s a lot of social critique and explanation throughout Bounce music, just like any other form of hip-hop. The only difference is these “sissies” are commenting and explaining a way of life that is not usually heard. I’m sure if you gave anybody marginalized by their sexuality or gender the chance to speak from their lived experience you’re gonna hear something different.
SB: Who are some of the artists involved in the ‘sissy bounce’ scene historically and currently?
AC: It’s difficult to answer that question because some of the people seen as sissy rappers do not necessarily think of themselves as such. I’ve seen Katey Red, Big Freedia, Vockah Redu and Cru, and Sissy Nobby associated with what is called Sissy Bounce. The name has more to do with their androgyny then anything else.
SB: Regarding the fact that the bounce genre originates in the public housing projects of NOLA, maybe you can speak to some of the ways in which the failure of the US government to respond to Hurricaine Katrina during the Bush administration and continuing through the Obama administration has affected the scene surrounding Sissy Bounce?
AC: Within a lot of Bounce music you hear talk of public housing projects in New Orleans, most of which are gone now. This is partly because of welfare reform that led to their demolition but also the use of a “natural” disaster as an alibi for gentrification. Despite the fact that many of the homes and neighborhoods that these artists come from have been demolished and displaced their performances reanimate memories and maintain community. Some of these people are no longer in New Orleans but stay in touch through their connection to Bounce music.
SB: Sissy Bounce shows involve an incredible amount of audience participation. What makes it so irresistible?
AC: Yes, it definitely isn’t a Bounce show if there’s no crowd participation and I think that goes for most of the performance scene in New Orleans. Bounce’s relationship to the Second Line is evident in the blurred lines between performer and audience, the stage and the dance floor. Second Lines consist of the crowd that comes to dance and play beside local brass bands, refered to as the First Line. All together they make a parade that takes over the streets. Everyone knows that the event is dependent on everyone’s participation. More recently these parades have become gentrified with voyeurs on “ghetto tours” taking all the pics and video they can get, but few people can resist dancing. Call and response is another thing these genres share and the chants they envoke quite often reflect and are borrowed from each other. Many of the Bounce artists I’ve met spent their high school years in marching bands or drill teams. The pop and whobble moves you see in Bounce are not specific to to the genre, yet all the movement that goes into the pelvis region is somewhat common to black folk and can be seen in everything from Batuko the forbidden dance in Cabo Verde to Crunk in California, it’s just Africa.
SB: Who usually dances at the bounce shows, men or women? Does popping and wobbling create more objectification of women, or does it give them more agency and power? In which ways does dance at ‘Sissy Bounce’ shows encourage ambiguity of masculinity and femininity?
AC: There’s a full spectrum of gender expressed on the dance floors and streets of New Orleans. No matter who you are I think there’s a general need to shed the oppression of everyday life especially in a place with the kind of state and cultural violence that exists here. Part of the duality of black performance is its capacity to liberate while at the same time risking various forms of objectification. Sissy Bounce shows are full of women of different genders and sexual orientations but I am reluctant to say that patriarchy and misogyny do not play out in a different way. When you have somebody up on stage that is presenting something that does not fit into mainstream notions of masculinity and femininity, it in some ways enables people in the crowd to work through these tensions in a public space and enables them to act out how they’re feeling in that moment. For me this is somewhat subjective, but from what people have told me there is a desire to break loose of normative suggestions of masculinity and femininity, but as I was saying before it doesn’t mean that mainstream types of power aren’t present.
SB: Can you speak a bit about the black queer community in New Orleans of which Sissy Bounce is an integral part?
AC: There’s a multi-generational black queer scene in New Orleans. There are people here you could talk to about what it was like living through the prohibition, alternative forms of kinship, and other types of non-gender conforming performance in Mardi Gras traditions, Blues, and Jazz.
SB: Do you think web based video documentation and narrative (while popularizing this genre of music) will help maintain the integrity for it’s history as an art form originating from the African Diaspora and the traditions of black artistic expression?
AC: There are ever growing forms of media but we cannot assume that everyone has access to them, are literate in those technologies, and have the desire to excavate what they are experiencing. If post-modernity has anything to do with a general sense of alienation and a loss of origins, it should be no surprise that we all consume media each day without considering where it came from or from whom it was taken. I hope that as people hear these particular voices they take the time to learn more about the material and institutional conditions that produced them.
SB: Within the context of misogyny and homophobia found in certain aspects of the rap and hip-hop scene, how and why do you think that a queer and trans scene like Sissy Bounce has been able to flourish in New Orleans?
AC: It’s hard to walk away from a fight with queers and trannies in New Orleans. without seeing some of your own blood. The dominant narrative of sexual conservatism in black communities is a stereotype some people like to feed into. I don’t think black folk in hip hop or rap are any more homophobic or misogynistic then their non-black counterparts. When you are dealing with a community whose sexuality has been pathologized from public policy to the medical field is it no wonder that some people prefer discretion? You could say that all black sexualities and genders are queer in that they do not fit into dominant models of what is normal. Not that it has been completely easy for “sissies” in New Orleans, I think that when it comes down to it family is family.
SB: Regarding the crossover between the sissy bounce and punk/activist scenes, how do you see that fitting into the recent popularization of the genre?
AC: There is definitely a connection being made between a mostly white punk/activist scene and the black “sissy” side of bounce. This shows in Big Freedia’s work with DJ Rusty Lazer [myspace | twitter], Vockah Redu’s recent tour in New York, and new Bounce exhibit by Alison Fensterstock and Aubrey Edwards entitled “Where They At?” Throughout the last ten years I’ve spent a lot of time in the anti-global capitalist movement and experienced the development of a new gender consciousness in the punk scene. One of the amazing things that’s happening is the breakdown of patriarchal gender and compulsory sexuality. There is an opportunity for people to explore themselves and reconceptualize private and public space. I think that is part of the attraction. At the same time I don’t necessarily want to say that this openness means that dominant systems of power and hierarchy such as homophobia, racism, and misogyny aren’t present. Despite these “radical” attempts at transcending classism and normative gender, in some cases difference has become relativized toward the disempowerment of racial minorities. I hope that people interested in this “alternative” blackness aren’t simply caught up in consumer fetishisism and that this is not the prelude more cultural appropriation and gentrification.
SB: In terms of people respecting the rich history of the genre, how do you think it is best for people to approach their interest?
AC: Respect people’s boundaries. I’m sure early colonists thought they were breaking through and being free when they encountered people different then them, but look what happened. There’s nothing wrong with coming together and having a good time but every community deserves some measure of autonomy. There’s a thin line between enjoyment and violence.
Locally, I think Bounce will certainly transform but will always have a place, I think it deserves to stand beside other forms of local roots music. Nationally it’s going to go a lot of places in the near future. I hope the artists get to participate in that. My hope is that the artists and the local community that has supported them from the start gain some measure of sustainability. There’s so much going on in New Orleans, if people that enjoy its gifts don’t fight to preserve the community, who knows what we could be missing in the future.
Alix Chapman can be contacted via alixandrew [at] gmail.com
Scott Beibin is one of the founders of the Evil Twin Booking Agency, and will start to tour with his new stage show Scientists Are The New Rockstars in late 2010. He can be contacted at scottb [at] eviltwinbooking.org