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“An Orientation Towards Life:” Alix Chapman on the Politics of Bounce

Dr. Alix Chapman is a professor of Comparative Women’s Studies at Spelman College. In his work, he uses anthropological methods to examine the social geography of bounce, contextualizing as a site of lived politics connected to both the broad historical dynamics of racism and hetero-patriarchy and the neo-liberal order, as well as to the site-specific dynamics of New Orleans.

Sam Backer: Could you start by introducing yourself? Tell us what you work on, and how you first got interested in bounce music?

Alix Chapman: My name is Dr. Alix Chapman. I’m an assistant professor of Comparative Women’s Studies at Spelman College. I teach classes in Women’s Studies, and also teach a class called Black Queer Studies. I did my doctoral research, and I’m currently working on a book on bounce music, more specifically on what’s been called “sissy bounce.” I’m an anthropologist, and I did a two-year ethnographic project where I performed, toured with, and managed different bounce artists. I’m still working and processing that project. When I first got interested in bounce, I already had an interest in New Orleans because of my family. My grandfather was from New Orleans. I grew up on the West Coast amongst a community of black people who had left the south, particularly that area, because of violence during the great migration and Jim Crow era.

As far as research, I think of myself as a cultural activist. Before becoming a scholar, I was a performance artist. I’m interested in the preconditions for politics and how spaces that are normatively seen as nonpolitical, specifically clubs, block parties, certain aspects of street life, provide the preconditions for more explicit forms of social movement and resistance. With the project on bounce, I’m really interested in bounce’s relationship to histories of racial segregation. A lot of people have said that bounce is not necessarily hip-hop or r&b, but have instead referred to it as “project music.” People in New Orleans refer to it as project music. As with a lot of hip-hop, there’s a repping of spaces—particularly ghettoized spaces. I think it’s very interesting that in bounce music a lot of these spaces have, within a generation, disappeared because of displacement. Some of that displacement having to do with the breaking of the levees, not necessarily with Katrina, but with the context of removal and destruction of housing that in some cases was undamaged after the storms. It was used as a pretense for making sure that working class and poor black communities could not return to New Orleans.

Historically, black communities, nationally and globally but in New Orleans very explicitly, have been pushed into the most unlivable land, into flood-prone land. In my work, I don’t see the disaster of the flooding of the Ninth Ward as an accident, but as a design that was eventually going to fulfill itself because black communities have been pushed into low-lying land that everyone knew was flood prone, and through processes of benign neglect would eventually flood and in fact have flooded many, many times. Quite often there is a likeness to plantation spatial regimes where you had the big house on a major boulevard which is on higher ground and as you go back into the neighborhood where the slave quarters used to be, and where even currently, renters or more working class or poor communities are going to be, people are living in flood-prone land. In a lot of bounce songs, particularly an artist I really appreciate named Magnolia Shorty, you hear about “backatown.” Backatown, back in the old days, was a reference to the back of the French Quarter or the Tremé which was the first black neighborhood within the country. But also being further away from the levee was flood-prone. You hear references to this same idea of backatown in Magnolia Shorty’s songs repeated over and over again, but even when you go back to listen to Louis Armstrong in “Back O’Town Blues,” this idea, this reference goes on and on within black expressivity in New Orleans.

I thought it was very interesting that there are these tropes, these particular spaces and streets that are continually referenced, and that are almost the inverse of the popular destinations and touristic places that most people know, like the French Quarter, or Bourbon Street, Frenchmen Street. Within bounce, you don’t hear references to those things. You hear people talking about the Rochambeau, the Sixth Ward, Dumaine Street, the Calliope, all the projects themselves or schools that were majority black. These places, many of which in a very short amount of time don’t even exist anymore, have been razed, have been replaced with Walmarts, with various forms of new infrastructure that are part of the reconstruction project that don’t benefit these communities and have actually contributed to their removal and displacement. It’s interesting that when you see Mr. Ghetto in the Wally World video, that Walmart is actually where the St. Thomas Projects used to be. So, in some ways, I see not just the music and discursive representations within the music, but a lot of the videos, the gatherings, the block parties, as a means of maintaining a community that otherwise wouldn’t be able to come together. To me, the music is very important. Not only bounce music, but the history of jazz, second lining —all of these forms of black cultural expression come from New Orleans, and really, it’s a history that has contributed to modern music as we know it. I think bounce is very much a part of that.

In your work, you talk about the ways in which bounce music is able to maintain these histories via practice. Histories that might not have the kinds of stable sites that are often thought of as necessary for maintaining a sense of community or solidarity.

I started this work in 2006, at a time where the instability in New Orleans was very visible. People’s churches, schools, governments, everything was destroyed. The National Guard was still present. People were living in the FEMA trailer parks. And there was definitely this context in which normative forms of infrastructure that you would expect to provide a safety net just weren’t there or weren’t functioning. So it was interesting to look at how cultural labor, cultural work, like bounce in the clubs that people were going to, provided a space for people who were trying to return or people who were just coming back and visiting. They were a place for people to come back to and gather and to process what had happened and what was happening. It was very difficult sometimes to do my interviews—just being able to find people who were constantly in transition was really hard. But I knew that I could go to Caesar’s or I could go to Club Vibe or Fusions, and I could find them there. People would walk along the freeway in the middle of the night, they’d do whatever they had to do to get to one those clubs, because they knew that it might be one of their only opportunities to see people. I also want to say that, when it comes to talking about this history of displacement, in a lot of my work I found that people were already dealing with this loss of community before [Hurricane] Katrina. Because of 1990s Clinton-era social welfare reforms and the growth of mass incarceration, Louisiana being the home, an original site of mass incarceration and then exporting it elsewhere. These communities are, in many ways the “canaries in a coal mine.”

You’ve also made the argument that the reason that musics like bounce were able to serve so well in these times of displacement was that they were forged in communities where a certain level of displacement was kind of the norm.

I don’t see the breaking of the levees or post-Katrina displacement as unique or as acute, but as a chronic aspect of black life, not necessarily just in New Orleans. New Orleans is special in that you have a black community generations deep where people are living in areas where possibly their ancestors might have migrated to from Haiti. You also have to think about displacement not just in terms of a migration out of the city, but also chronic instability within it. People not being able to live in the same spot. I’ve been very interested in studying IDPs (internally displaced persons) in communities. There’s not a lot of documentation by the U.N. or other groups around this.

Changing topics slightly, one of the subjects you’ve talked about is recontextualizing sissy bounce in a broader frame of queer performativity in New Orleans.

Right when I was starting my research was when the label sissy bounce came in vogue. I found that there were a lot of gay men and trans women that were performing the genre starting in the late ‘90s. It’s not clear to me that sissy bounce, the label sissy bounce, was being used so much then, but it definitely took on a new meaning and a different kind of value in post-Katrina New Orleans. I think this was partly due to some journalism around it, there were a few articles in the Picayune that were using the term sissy bounce, there were tons of shows and flyering where the terms was being used, within and outside of the city. It was even mentioned in the New York Times. Bounce pretty much became synonymous with this idea of  sissy bounce and I’m sure many of the straight or heterosexual performers were competing with this and were not very happy about it. I’m sure that’s come across in some of your interviews.

But even for the artists who were supposed to be sissies, it was a source of a lot of angst. For one thing, sexuality and gender and labels are constructed locally, so a lot of these artists wouldn’t have identified as queer or even necessarily gay or trans at all. Some of these artists had children, or did not understand themselves as fitting into this dominant idea of LGBTQ. But at the same time, understanding they needed to perform for their livelihood, so they could bring money in, and so they could take advantage of these opportunities. In some cases, the artists I was working with would be booked for shows where they would have to go along with being booked as a  sissy bounce performer.

I felt, and what I argue in my work, is that this label and this terminology had a lot more to do with a new, growing audience than it actually had to do with the black community and the artists that had already been performing for a while. It became indicative of gentrification, of people that were coming to New Orleans to do relief work and trying to situate themselves within the culture by going to bounce shows, particularly  sissy bounce shows, talking about what artists they knew, getting close to them, familiarizing themselves. It became a way of showing your solidarity with this new New Orleans. But what exactly this new New Orleans was or is, is a question.

I could go to a bounce club that was predominantly black, predominantly local, and there might be a mixture of who knows who—straight, gay and trans people, all in the mix, listening to the most updated and interesting songs from different artists. But you go to a sissy bounce show a few blocks away with only handful of local black New Orleaneans on stage, and with a predominantly white audience. And that is a context in which I did a lot of the performing I was involved in. And I got into that because the artists I was meeting had a tough time negotiating with some of the promoters. Or they had DJs, who were really just people playing backing tracks off of their laptop, but who had equipment that the artists can’t afford to have, demanding cuts from what they were making. It became a way for me to try to support the local artists and give them some self-determination. And that led to two tours up and down the East Coast with some artists.

Although it still gets put in circulation somewhat, I think there’s been a lot of effort through advertising and booking to call them bounce artists. I think that Freedia had a lot to do with that. Even the name of Freedia’s reality show, “Big Freedia: Queen of Bounce”—it’s not “queen of sissy bounce.” Partly, I think that the type of fetishization of sissy bounce artists had to do—or has to do still—with this idea that bounce or black communities in New Orleans are somehow exceptional to black communities elsewhere because there is this LGBT visibility. But that idea is partly based on this idea that black communities are more homophobic and gender-rigid than other communities, in particular white communities. I really challenge that in a lot of my work. In fact, there’s a long history of LGBTQ+ contributions to black expressive culture throughout the diaspora, and in particular New Orleans. I try to say that what you see with artists like Freedia, Sissy Nobby and Katey Red and other artists fits into a long genealogy of black artists, who I would say are queer, though they may not identify as that. That includes Little Richard, and other artists that performed in the Chitlin’ Circuit. In my article, “The Punk Show,” I make this argument that in New Orleans, there was this idea of a thing called queer punk show—this idea that people were going to see a queer performance, was very much a part of black cultural experience. When I read and hear other people write about it as something that is very romanticized and fetishized because of its location in New Orleans or because of bounce, I think it’s incorrect.

Can you talk a little more about the punk shows and what they were?

I did an interview with a 60-something-year-old activist who back in the day was billed as the “250 Pound Go-Go Boy.” They told me a lot of history about performing in the ’60s and ’70s as a gay artist. I also spoke to young performers, drag artists and bounce artists, who all reference this idea of a punk show, somebody even said a “fag show.” It’s this idea that when you say “punk show,” people know what you’re talking about. There are these regular performances that don’t happen in ostensibly LGBT-friendly spaces with rainbow flags or pink triangles, but at neighborhood bars, places like the Dew Drop Inn back in the day, where people like Bobby Marchan, who was one of the first people to put money behind bounce to promote it, performed. There’s this very continuous lineage of black queer artistry and there’s also an audience that’s very diverse. Queer people performed for the city, for various businesses, for Christmas parties, birthdays. These people were valued and argue that they were seen as part of the community and as a part of New Orleans’ cultural history. I think that that’s really being missed. In my work, I don’t assume to provide a thorough history. There are so many different stories about what the community was. But as I said before, gay men and trans women always played a very pivotal role within the culture and I’ve been trying to explore what that’s about, whether they were participating as MCs or rapping or providing a drag act in the middle of a show.

I think it’s very interesting that Freedia, for instance, was performing a lot at Caesar’s when people started returning [from Katrina]. And I think a lot of Freedia’s growth and emergence as one of the most well-known artists has a lot to do with the foundation and groundwork that he laid performing at Caesar’s. You would hear every week on the radio about Freedia at Caesar’s and I think it was one of the first clubs to really get going after Katrina and Freedia was a dependable artist that was always going to be there, in a way hosting everyone. I think that meant a lot to people, to know there was a place to go that they could reconnect. Even if it wasn’t necessarily reconnecting with people and communities they had already known, but knowing there was a place where they could experience the community, in some ways, as what it had once been, to memorializing things, or to try to figure out where things were heading. And I think that in a lot of ways to see a queer artist, a gay or trans artist performing, living, and not just trying to make it but thriving, also means a lot to people. Like—hey, if this is supposed to be someone who is stigmatized, who is marginalized within the broader context of white supremacy and hetero-patriarchy, then, “Hell, maybe I could make it too!” I think that has becoming increasingly relevant to not just to New Orleans but to the nation. There’s been these waves of crises. I would almost say that whatever the American dream is to most people, it is now so precarious, that it has provided a way to let people question what is the nuclear family, what is community, and what are these social institutions. But it’s also provided an opening for people who are normatively stigmatized to show their value and to show that they’re living in spite of all this precarity.

That makes a lot of sense. This might sound silly but in some ways Pride Day can almost be the most patriotic day in some cities. Like in Baltimore where I live, people seemed more proud of their community during Pride than on any other day I’ve seen. It’s similar in that communities who have survived, who are celebrated during Pride, have made it against obstacles and can almost develop a heroic quality.

I think there’s a growing black queer presence in U.S. popular culture and I think Freedia has a lot to do with it. Freedia, being from New Orleans, owning who they are the way that they do, has really led to this certain kind of dynamism and growth. It’s amazing to me that “Freedia Queen of Bounce” is now going into its sixth or seventh season, and what it manages to depict. This is not to say that we shouldn’t be critical of the idea of reality television, but a lot of people have told me they had not seen a relationship like the one between Freedia and her partner on television. It’s really humanizing in a certain way, making people who would otherwise never get to know someone like that aware of a different kind of life. I think it’s really positive, I really love Freedia for what they’ve done. But at the same time, a lot of focus goes on Freedia and a few other artists, but there are kids in their bathrooms setting up studios and making bounce music. There are all kinds of people, Snapchatting each other, pounching and twerking under the freeway or on top of a car in the Seventh Ward or on a trashcan. And all of these things might seem completely meaningless to a lot of people, but when you consider the context of that city, the violence of benign neglect and just state violence period, people need to reassure themselves that they’re alive. I don’t believe in, and I think most people in my area of research would tell me that they don’t believe in the idea of safe space. You have to be continuously vigilant. There is no stable home, there is no stable family, but within that, you still have to reassure yourself that you’re alive, and you don’t have to be. You’ve got your blood, you’ve got your body. I’m thinking of Nina Simone almost here, but you’ve got yourself and in the end you have to value that you have it because there’s plenty of forces that are trying to remove you.

You’ve written about that—that there’s almost politics to the joy of bounce. But on the flip side, there’s almost an active effort at the delegitimization of that culture.

I remember when Magnolia Shorty died, in the middle of the day, shot 26 or 27 times in the middle of a parking lot. No one saw what happened, supposedly, and a lot of people wrote that off as normative. “That’s a person from the hood dying the way the people from there do.” And if I was going to be doing research about those people then I’m putting my life in my own hands and whatever happens to me is the consequence of my decision making. I think to a certain extent that’s what the Black Lives Matter movement is pushing back against, this idea that some communities are just socially dead. But when I would go into some of those clubs, 500 people in a dark room with strobe lights and smoke and bass rattling the floor, people up on the bar dancing, people up on stage dancing…it was such a contrast to the blight on the outside of those buildings. I’m thinking particularly of the Fusion in the Seventh Ward where I did most of my work. I’d be in the back interviewing people who were almost in tears recounting their experiences after Katrina and being displaced, only to find people in Houston or in Atlanta at a club that would also be playing bounce music. One person almost described it as a “smoke signal” or some kind of tribal rhythm—when you heard it, you knew that if you followed it, you would find your people. That brought me to tears quite often. I have been accused at times of attributing too much power to what bounce is. I wouldn’t say that bounce produces, or is necessarily resistance in and of itself. But it maintains a certain orientation to life, to what the community had been, and it encourages people to keep seeking each other out and have some type of relationship to each other. However ephemeral that might be. As a lot of people became aware after the shootings at Pulse in Orlando—black and Latino club spaces are very vital to maintaining the community. Much more so than other institutions.

One of the things I heard over and over again is how bounce was very important to them prior to Katrina, but that it wasn’t until they were in school in Atlanta or Houston and suddenly thought—“Oh my God, I never hear bounce again.” And somehow the music took on an importance or they became aware of an importance that had always there. They had always thought, “bounce is like second line, it’s not going anywhere” but this frightened them. It’s argued that some of the increased activity surrounding bounce is a result of people really focusing on the fact that it’s a vital cultural expression and that it’s something vital to their community.

I remember being in Oakland one time with someone from New Orleans and we were riding around in a car, and the remix of Adele’s “Rolling in the Deep” had just come out. And you know, when it comes to bounce music it’s not necessarily about hearing the local artists, but it’s about that beat. That rhythm, the “Triggerman” and “Brown Beat” put together, is inscribed with a certain meaning in and among people who are invested in it. They know what that means. They know that is about home, it’s about locality, about a particular experience in New Orleans. And when this person heard that song they just started bawling. We had to stop the car and we both just had to cry for a little bit.

That sound is the sound of home to a lot of people. Just as much as other forms of regional hip-hop are to others. It’s being from D.C. and hearing go-go or being from Chicago and hearing juke, it’s about Baltimore club, New Jersey club, Miami bass. All of these regional forms of hip-hop that are seen as not refined enough to enter the mainstream, and at the same time maintain certain forms of locality in the communities that they’re from. You could even talk about this globally in terms of baile funk or kuduro. I think that’s just part of the human experience. But I think when that comes to bounce, it’s something more acute, in my opinion, because it’s related to a process of violence. The genre is produced partly through ghettoization, period, like a lot of the others, but also, the other aspect of that violence is the dispersal of community. There are these waves of encroachment and then the dispersal of diasporic waves that are coming and going in flows that are not self-determined by people. And I think, right now, bounce captures that in a way. It captures that story.

To change tracks a little bit, but going back to that question of violence, in your dissertation, you write a really vivid description of sitting outside of the club and someone pulls up and a situation that is very relaxed becomes incredibly threatening really quickly. New Orleans was and is a very violent place, and there’s a huge number of performers of all kinds—Pimp Daddy or Soulja Slim—who were lost through violence. But it seems like there’s an element of violence that’s particularly directed towards queer performers. I’m wondering if you could talk about that a little bit.

There’s a big issue of violence and gun violence. Personally, I’d say that I don’t feel that violence against black queer people in particular is specific to New Orleans at all. If we look at the deaths of trans women of color nationally and globally, it’s an issue everywhere. In my writing, I talk about an experience where me and a group of performers I was working with had just finished a performance in the French Quarter, actually on Bourbon Street, and we were heading home or heading out to some other event and we stopped and were hanging out on the street, perhaps on Dauphine, and I took the opportunity to try to record people. I usually didn’t do formal interviews, I did a lot of informal interviews, writings notes to myself in texts and things, but i thought it was a great chance since everyone was in such a great mood. And so we were all out on this corner and I’m recording two or three people, and as I’m recording them, a few of the other people from the group were on the street corner, and they were dancing, kind of twirling and having a good time. It was a busy night. I think it was a Friday or Saturday. I see a car pull up and it sees the two people dancing and it stops and immediately starts to threaten them and starts to call them faggots and punks and says they are going to shoot them. Starts to threaten their lives—threaten all of our lives. We’re not far from each other, we’re within probably 15-20 feet of the car, and the guy in the car is actually reaching down as if he has his hand on something under the seat and he just stares at us and we have this stare-down. And there’s probably seven of us in total, and we freeze and I’m just like—“What’s going to happen right now?” No one’s going to run, and if we did anything in that moment we could jeopardize everyone around us. As this is happening, there are people on the other side of the street and it’s a one-way street so there are other cars pulling up right behind them and nobody is doing anything. And the guy goes on with his tirade and after a moment he stops, and then skids off quickly.

I thought that it was a very pivotal moment in my work with this group. I had questioned throughout a lot of my experience with the group. I identify as black and queer which in some ways I know not everybody did. Some people identified as gay, but not always so. And that’s not to say that they’re not owning who they are, but as I said before, there was so much pressure to fit into this “sissy ideal” that a lot of people were doing what they could to resist it and self-define how they wanted to. And I asked myself if my identification or the way I see myself matched up with these people who I see as being very much like me. And it became a matter of our identity, our values and politics in a certain way. But whether or not we necessarily shared that same values, in that moment we were very much the same because this guy was threatening my life just as much as he was theirs. Who you see yourself isn’t always a self-determined choice but the ways in which you are subjugated by the world around you. And at that moment I felt like we were definitely together. Afterward, it was interesting because I realized I had the entire experience on tape, and I wanted to try to capture people’s response to what happened. I was like—“How do you feel about what just happened?” and nobody wanted to acknowledge it. Everybody immediately wanted to act as if it didn’t happen. Some people talked about what would have had happened if they still lived in the projects because somebody would have done this or that and there would have been retribution. I felt that if people didn’t feel as if they could have had some type of resolve, it was better to try to move on and to push past it. To remember again that they’re alive and they’re going to keep living , and they’re not gonna let this experience get them down. Not that it’s necessarily a denial of what had happened but a confirmation that I’m still alive. And I think for me, and for a lot of people, when you experience something that traumatic, you feel like you have to come to peace with what just happened. I need to speak truth to power, I need to to resist. But when you think of a community where this is normative, where this is happening to people all the time. I mean, in the time that I was there I lost a friend who was shot point blank, in the same week that Magnolia Shorty was shot 26 or 27 times. The main artists that I worked with have lost so many people to preventative health issues, to senseless violence that they did not bring unto themselves. A lot of it just had to do with the failure of healthcare and not acknowledging the depth of police and state violence there. So if you think about how normative that is in some people’s lives, a lot of people just don’t have the energy to try to keep living and also try to call out every particular instance. I found that the role of performance in the lives of a lot of people that I worked with provided them a means of speaking and representing and resisting in one of the few ways that they could.

That twin of placing yourselves as existence and resistance, there’s like the “Fuck David Duke” part of “Where They At” by T Tucker. From the very beginning, that’s been kind of encoded into bounce.

There is definitely that racial politicking and explicit calling out of white supremacy within some bounce music. But even in songs from Big Freedia and Katey Red, like “you so stupid for calling me a guy/you might even like us if you tried” or even with Sissy Nobby naming himself as a sissy. There are various ways people perform their resistance or kind of take up what they can, when they can. We are in the midst of growing disaster and a crisis nationally that has to do with climate change and state violence and government neoliberal corporate takeover. Whenever there’s a crisis, there’s this emphasis on infrastructure, like, if we could just socially engineer a better city, a better nation, everything would be fine. That’s what progress looks like. But at the same time, people discount the role of culture in maintaining relationships that are very delicate. That’s partly what I think people are missing in what gentrification is doing. But at the same time life finds a way. Cultural work, like bounce in these clubs, as stigmatized as it can be, is a form of caring for each other. It’s a way that people are keeping those delicate connections intact and I think we need to legitimate them as such.