At an inner-city Houston dance hall in an area of town where warehouses and empty lots dominate, a swift, revolving bassline drops. On cue, bodies bend nearly perpendicular, convulsing. "Toot, toot, toot it in the air," roars through the speakers. Posteriors spiral, following the command to get lower, shake faster, show off. "Sissy bounce," hip-hop's most outwardly gay cousin, commands any and all to do its bidding. It's hard to escape the carnality of its mercilessly electric beat.
It's a scene that's playing out around the country. Sissy bounce, the audaciously queer brethren to New Orleans bounce, is a phenomenon whose unique call-and-response, raw dance moves and unadulterated bravado create an untiring energy that is hypnotic. It's made its way from the clubs of the 9th Ward and the unruly French Quarter to the typically heterosexual scene at Vancouver's Post Modern Dance Bar and Washington, D.C.'s 9:30 Club. This leap outside of the Crescent City is curated by sissy-bounce deities Big Freedia, Katey Red, Sissy Nobby, Vockah Redu and others, who embrace the term "sissy" with gusto and whose candid, gender-bending ways have gained notoriety across the U.S. and across the Atlantic in the U.K.
"I see bounce music itself going mainstream real soon," sissy-bounce artist Sissy Nobby told The Root. "I'm fighting for it."
Sissy bounce, which was born about 10 years ago, has attracted a considerable amount of mainstream attention in the past year, from the likes of the New York Times, Vanity Fair, the New Yorker and even the Guardian in London.
Big Freedia and Katey Red made headlines in 2010, when they made their inaugural appearance during the South by Southwest (SXSW) Festival in Austin, Texas. Big Freedia, whose album Big Freedia Hitz Vol. 1 was released at the beginning of last year, returned to SXSW in 2011, performing hits like "Y'all Get Back Now" and "Azz Everywhere." While sissy bounce has yet to populate the Billboard charts, it's garnered some heavy recognition, including Big Freedia's 2011 GLAAD Media Awards nomination in April.
Today's mainstream entertainment and media landscapes are arguably tied to male, white and heterosexual privilege, including hip-hop. But as the acceptance of the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender) community grows in general, will the hip-hop community come to accept it as well?
Sissy bounce got its start in the same city that bred the rough-and-tumble personas of Lil Wayne, Birdman and the rest of the Cash Money clan. And while bounce may have helped Juvenile rise to popularity with "Back That Azz Up," sissy bounce is bringing the genre itself into the limelight.
The bold, gay subgenre of bounce sprouted up around 1999. Sissy bounce's founding artist, Katey Red, NoLa's first transgender MC, got her start with the New Orleans independent bounce label Take Fo' Records. Other sissy-bounce heavyweights, like Big Freedia and Sissy Nobby, quickly followed. With their proudly "queer" personas, it wasn't long before the queens of sissy bounce began to get noticed — and raise eyebrows.
Sissy bounce is just one of several subgenres that grew from the 20-year-old New Orleans bounce phenomenon, which traces back to MC T. Tucker and DJ Irv's 1991 underground hit "Where Dey At." While bounce music itself may have lingered under the radar, the genre quickly influenced up-and-coming rap and hip-hop acts from the Big Easy with its uncommon beat and repetitious chants, which come from the unique carols of the Mardi Gras Indian tribes, according to DJ Quickie Mart, a New Orleans DJ, producer and bounce artist.
While sissy bounce is labeled a subgenre by most, some artists reject the moniker. "We don't separate it," Big Freedia told The Root. "It's all bounce music."
But not everyone has seen it that way. Its rise in a thugged-out hip-hop world often obsessed with machismo hasn't been painless. "It was rough in the beginning. Nothing was peaches and cream," Big Freedia said. Indeed, the New Orleans bounce circuit wasn't always cool with queer artists appropriating the genre. In the early days, clubgoers would call them names, even throw things.
"People were just not ready at the beginning. It took a minute for people to see that we were here to stay and not going anywhere," Big Freedia said. "I did not stop. That's why I'm still on the move."
"Just because they are a bounce artist doesn't mean they get down with the 'sissies,' " Quickie Mart told The Root. "Sissy bounce has just gotten the most national attention lately, so a lot of people just being exposed to it think that that's just how all bounce is.
"I think the hipsters and the festival circuit kind of took to sissy bounce, which helped blow up the music as a whole. [But] bounce was always around [when I was] growing up in Louisiana, so for it to get a ton of attention now is a little strange."
Perhaps sissy bounce's all-inclusive attitude is the reason for its popularity. In a rap world infatuated with manliness, sissy-bounce artists rock the stage in wigs and false eyelashes while welcoming straights, gays, semidressed women and just about anyone who can stay on the beat.
"One of the most amazing things about New Orleans is the vital, almost unrecognizable, sense of diversity and inclusion that exists in the city," Brett Berk, a columnist for VanityFair.com, said. "And my sense is that the 'sissies' are accepted for who they are, not only because of the culture of acceptance and 'live and let live' that has existed in the city since its founding, but because the music they make, and the lyrics they deliver, are so compelling."
While it may be rocking dance clubs across the country, sissy bounce takes on a different shape in the Big Easy, where its crowd of devotees is split between the Bywater District's white hipsters and the black community.
"If you go to see Big Freedia at Platinum 2000, you may want to bring an ambassador if you're not black," Quickie Mart said. "It's a whole lot different in NoLa than the rest of the country, with its mainly white crowds. Either way, there is a whole lot of ass shaking everywhere, and who doesn't like that?"
Among those who are drawn to sissy bounce's booty shaking are contigents of straight women of all races who flock to the shows, happily engaging in a little immodesty in the process.
The "sissies" may be gay, but they love their women, and women are even crazier about their "sissies." Women heavily populate the landscape of Big Freedia's latest video, "Y'all Get Back Now," hoisting themselves up, tapping into every ounce of their upper-body strength to "toot it up" for the self-proclaimed "Queen Diva."
Sissy bounce's provocative and daring performance may be a culture shock to some, but hip-hop itself is no stranger to gay culture.
From Dallas' D-Town Boogie to Baltimore's Club Music, many of hip-hop's enduring and emerging subgenres have incorporated elements of pop, dance and other music genres cultivated and embraced by gay culture. Emerging hip-hop dances, such as the Dougie and L.A.'s Cat Daddy, incorporate fluid switches, hip movements and dips that take a nod from the dance movements of gay subculture.
Gays and lesbians have entered the hip-hop arena for decades now, from Los Angeles' Last Offence to Detroit's Invincible. But while LGBT rappers have cultivated sizable fan bases, their success in the mainstream is less than modest.
"LGBT folks have been at the forefront of bringing music trends into popular culture for a long time, but so much of the culture of hip-hop has been about perpetrating and perpetuating a hyper-'masculine' stereotype," Berk said. "There didn't seem to be room for openly LGBT performers to be accepted."
Perhaps sissy bounce, with its sold-out shows crammed with rump-shaking fans, will change all that. And as LGBT artists and fans become less of an issue in the hip-hop community, record labels will ultimately find gay artists like Big Freedia as profitable as their opposite-sex-loving brethren.
Joshua R. Weaver is an editorial intern at The Root. Follow him on Twitter.