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NEW ORLEANS (AP) — Talk about your ups and downs.
It's been a tumultuous year for New Orleans bounce artist Big Freedia: She was caught up in a housing scandal and faces prison, performed on Beyonce's epic song "Formation" and in the accompanying video, made headlines for being banned for bringing twerking — her signature style of overtly sexual dance — to a Mississippi club and continues to have one of the highest rated reality shows on digital cable network Fuse.
And on Saturday, she returned to the Congo Square Stage at the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival, where her audiences have grown since her first appearance five years ago.
Dressed in a white shirt and purple, sparkly sequence pants, Freedia opened her set — backed by a live band — singing the lyrics "I'm that queen that'll make you bounce!" to the delight of many in the audience stretched far and wide.
Drops began to fall early in her set, but hardly anybody left as the infectious music unfolded. Umbrellas opened and fans donned ponchos as Freedia moved into another hit that included the lyrics "release your wiggle."
She also entertained with the popular "Azz Everywhere," ''Explode," and "Gin in My System."
From back-up dancer for Katey Red, the first gay bounce rap artist, to now running her own stage, Big Freedia said in an interview prior to Saturday's performance she still can't believe her career has thrived as much as it has.
"I've been steadily working my ass off," Freedia said of her accomplishments. "It's taken me 15 years to get here. When I decided this was gonna be my full time career, I went all in."
Raised in New Orleans' Central City neighborhood, Big Freedia — who was born Freddie Ross Jr. — was struck by the bounce bug in the early 1990s after hearing "Where Dey At" by MC T Tucker. After working with Katey Red, Freedia said she knew the bounce style of music was her calling.
That music style caught the attention of Beyonce, who asked her to participate on "Formation."
"Oh my God! The experience was so amazing. She is so sweet and genuine and real. I love her for thinking of me," Freedia said. "I was a fan of hers way before this and always dreamed of and wished for something like this."
Her call-and-response style showcased during her sets, along with the Big Freedia Shakers, her group of dancers known for gyrating their backsides to a fast-paced, rhythmic beat — known as twerking — have become a must-see act at Jazz Fest.
"We do fun music," Freedia said. "Everyone can relate to it. I look to engage my fans. My voice is a voice of command. They love it and I love them."
And they love her.
Caroline Heffernan, originally from Chicago but now living in New Orleans, said she wasn't missing Freedia's performance even if the skies opened up.
"She is such a performer," Heffernan said. "She's got soul and such a spirit that's so indicative of what New Orleans is all about."
"She's a boss," said Mallory Lowe, Heffernan's friend. "She represents the world and shows what a New Orleans artist is about. And, she's fun!"
The rhythmic, infectious beat during Freedia's performance had many in the crowd trying to mimic her dancers' moves — some better than others. One woman, who asked not to be identified, religiously worked her hips, back and forth, and said her "dream was to be a back-up dancer for Big Freedia."
Freedia also remembered Prince, singing "I Would Die 4 U" and "Purple Rain" as the drops began to fall more steadily. Her set ended just before a drenching thunderstorm, sending fans with no protection to any enclosed building they could find. Others braved the deluge under umbrellas.
Meanwhile, as she basks in all the positive things going on in her life, Freedia acknowledges a shadow on the horizon.
In March, the entertainer pleaded guilty to theft of government funds linked to housing assistance she received from 2009 through 2014. The theft amounted to more than $34,000.
The performer faces up to 10 years in prison, but prosecutors are expected to seek a lighter penalty at a sentencing hearing set for Aug. 11.
When the charges were announced, Freedia said the infraction was "an oversight" for which she takes full responsibility. She has agreed to make restitution
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