Unexpectedly, when I was doing research on the history of a former blues nightclub district in North Richmond, California, I stumbled upon a facet of that history I had not anticipated: the participant of cross-gendered performers and club-goers. And, in mainstream venues. It flew in the face of all my presumptions of the role of drag performers in the history of American music and African American music in particular. Sensing that the community members I was interviewing would not take kindly to a slew of questions about drag performers and club-goers, I tread lightly on that subject and the only information I gleaned was from the one bandleader who told me about Jean LaRue, his best (not his only) drag queen singer –she was so popular that she did not work for the band but made separate deals with clubowners.
Transgendered performances became rare in the U.S. by the 1950s (McCarthyism‘s persecution of leftists was accompanied by an as serious persecution of homosexuals that accompanied a newly serious policing of gender roles). Most were for straight audiences as safe parody in the ministrel show tradition that is one of — if not the — wellsprings of American popular entertainment. There were also a few performances for the transgendered community, such as the ball tradition (see the excellent film Paris is Burning), but mixed audiences in mainstream venues did not see transgendered performers. And it still is rare. That is why it struck me when I learned about a sub-style of the Bounce style of hip-hop out of New Orleans called “Sissy Bounce” from a N.Y. Times article by Jonathan Dee in July 2010. Here’s a taste of that article, which is worth checking out in its entirety:
If “gay rapper” is an oxymoron where you come from, how to get your head around the notion of a gay rapper performing in a sports bar? What in most cities might seem plausible only as some sort of Sacha Baron Cohen-style provocation is just another weeknight in the cultural Galapagos that is New Orleans. Sometime after midnight on the sweltering Thursday before Memorial Day, the giant plasma-screen TVs at the Sports Vue bar (which “proudly airs all major Pay Per View events from the world of Boxing and Ultimate Fighting”) were all switched off, and the bar’s backroom turned into a low-lit, low-ceilinged dance club, where more than 300 people awaited a return engagement by Big Freedia, who by day runs an interior-decoration business and who is, to fans of the New Orleans variant of hip-hop music known as “bounce,” a superstar. (from Sissy Bounce, New Orleans’s Gender-Bending Rap).
The question I’m left with is if there are other transgendered performance traditions that have established a “respectable” position in particular locales or is New Orleans a special case (yet once again)? I look forward to learning more.
- Sissy Bounce, New Orleans’s Gender-Bending Rap (nytimes.com)
- Big Freedia – “Azz Everywhere” Video (NSFW) (Stereogum Premiere) (stereogum.com)
- Big Freedia, Tayisha Busay, MillionYoung, Dinosaur Feathers, Iran & more (Crush Fest) in pics (brooklynvegan.com)
- Your perfect Saturday: Vamps, vagabonds and outdoor opera (timeoutny.com)
- Queering pop music studies (decipheringculture.com)
- Writings on Transgendered Musical Entertainers