In the mid-’90s, New Orleans was flush with musical innovation, germinating the seeds of what would become national hip-hop juggernauts like Cash Money and No Limit Records as well as the more grassroots sound of bounce music. But it was also plagued by violence. The city held the title of America’s “murder capital” in 1994, and for nearly two decades afterwards averaged more than 250 killings per year. This was the New Orleans that shaped bounce star Big Freedia: rich with creative inspiration, but brutally unsafe.
In early 2018, Freedia’s younger brother Adam Ross was gunned down in New Orleans’ Central City neighborhood. His devastating murder followed a long, sad string of incidents in which gun violence has hit home for Freedia, including a 2004 shooting she survived, the murders of fellow local performers Messy Mya and Magnolia Shorty, and the incarceration of her cousin, Cardell Hayes, who was convicted of a high-profile killing.
In Chris McKim’s new documentary Freedia Got a Gun, the rapper reckons with both specific and systemic issues related to gun violence, from police brutality to the still-reverberating effects of Hurricane Katrina. The film is a sharp look at life in New Orleans, but far more broadly resonant as well. After being selected for the 2020 Tribeca Film Festival, which was postponed due to coronavirus, Freedia Got a Gun finally makes its digital premiere this weekend as part of AFI Docs’ Virtual Film Festival.
We spoke with Freedia this week about making the documentary, knowing George Floyd, and mourning in a New Orleans that can’t hold second line parades.
Pitchfork: You talk about gun violence with some local middle-schoolers in the film, and at one point one of them just shrugs and says, “It’s New Orleans.” It’s been 20-some years since we were first designated the murder capital, and things are still so bad.
Big Freedia: It’s getting worse, it seems like, with the younger generation, or it’s just not getting any better—they want to live like their cousins in the ’90s. And their friends and their peers around them, that’s what they see—violence in the community. It’s just so heartbreaking because sometimes as a kid, you don’t have a childhood because of all the stuff going on around you. So then that kid is just like, “It’s New Orleans.” It’s the norm.
Is that how you felt growing up?
Somewhat. Once it kept happening you kind of get used to it, the way we get used to deaths and losing people. And we get prepared for [memorial] T-shirts and second lines.
I liked how you added a lot of personal and historical context about growing up in New Orleans and how your neighborhood worked to take care of everyone. It helped explain a lot about what was lost when communities were shaken up after Hurricane Katrina.
Well, our whole lives changed due to Katrina. The city changed—buildings, schools, everything around us. We have new communities, but we need people to get back to the old days. We need grandmothers, and those strict aunts and uncles that help raise the kids, and you just don’t see that in the communities I’m talking about. Back then, if we got in trouble, we really couldn’t get away with nothing, because someone would tell my mom on me, or say where they saw me at.
In the film, you meet with some people who are doing great work in the community, a middle-school principal and a counselor who both work with at-risk kids. The city could be doing more to get resources to those types of people.
Oh yeah, most definitely. We need programming. We need lots of things for kids to do to stay out of trouble, and stay out of harm’s way. My way of getting away was going to church and choir rehearsal, because that was kind of my escape goal, to get out of the neighborhood. But everybody don’t have a safe haven, or a place where they can even raise their kids in a safe environment. It’s definitely up to the city to put some resources back into the community in order for this to happen.
What made you decide that now was the time to tell your story?
I wanted to do something more serious that could affect the community and get a message out there. And when [director] Chris McKim and Randy [Barbato, from the production company World of Wonder] came to me and asked me to do this film, it was definitely time to just tell the story. There’s a lot that had been talked about, but it was time to actually put it together. And it couldn’t be more perfect timing with all the stuff that’s going on in the world, with police brutality and George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement, for the younger generation to see the effect that guns have and how it can change your life forever in just an instant.
Speaking of that, I saw you on television the other day talking about George Floyd. I didn’t realize you knew him.
Yeah, I did. It’s so sad, the whole situation. He ran security twice for me in Minneapolis and he would always check on me, and ask when I’m going to take him on the road. It is really a sad loss for his family, and for the community as a whole. But all of the protesting and fighting back is a way for change, for people to speak up and let their voices be heard. Enough is enough with all the police brutality.
Your cousin Cardell Hayes’ father was shot and killed by police in 2005. The film explains that he was in a mental health crisis and had no gun, but he was still confronted by multiple officers with guns. Obviously that shouldn’t be the way police respond to something like that.
No. And it’s ridiculous we don’t get the same justice as other folks sometimes. Because when there’s a mental patient, you’re supposed to handle the situation totally differently. If they had all those officers, they could have Tasered him if they needed to, there was no reason to use guns. It was really sad that he was having mental issues and he had to lose his life. These situations can be handled a whole lot different just with how they regulate the police.
How are you doing in general? I know it’s been hard for New Orleans to not gather as much as usual during the pandemic, to not do the funeral traditions—the second line, the repast meal.
Unfortunately we can’t. The last funeral I had was my cousin, before Covid got serious. He had the last big funeral in the city—the last big second line where there was no social distancing and it wasn’t regulated how many people could come in. So that’s the only memory I have to hold on to right now, especially losing people during Covid. It has been really rough to even support them and their families, not being able to get there and hold people. Families don’t have the support that they normally would.
Maybe once the world is opened back up, there should be some type of memorial service for all the people that have been lost during Covid. Maybe we put something big together, a big citywide second line and memorial service.
Originally Appeared on Pitchfork