“You can’t always run from a bullet.”
Those words would be a rallying cry if born from the lips of soldiers in a war. Those words would be vile if spewed from the lips of a police officer. They weren’t. Those words leaped from the mouth of 14-year-old Devin Walker out of the TV screen showing Big Freedia’s documentary Freedia Got A Gun and landed in the heart of anyone watching like an anvil. He was explaining why he needed to arm himself just to walk the streets of New Orleans and by of the end of the 90-minute documentary, you empathize with the why.
Freedia Got A Gun follows the New Orleans bounce rap legend Big Freedia as she travels through her hometown exploring the interconnective effects of gun violence. Through testimonials from those who grew up in New Orleans, Freedia Got A Gun shines a light on how gun violence is as normalized in NOLA as wearing a bookbag to school. That makes for a claustrophobic viewing experience leaving you holding your breath in anticipation of the ostensibly innocuous. The harmless sight of Freedia and SciTech Academy assistant principal Ashonta Wyatt talking with middle schoolers produces stone-faced recollections from a kid like Walker of feeling his father’s blood turn cold, his eyes roll in the back of his head and his life leaves him from gunshots. It’s when Wyatt elucidates the paranoia that comes from losing a parent to gun violence in the same community you have to grow up in every day leading someone who still remembers being a pre-teen to pick up a gun and become a man.
The doc does a stellar job at giving the human stories behind such stats as only 35% of homicides in New Orleans ending in an arrest, and it did so through the personal connection Freedia had to not only the city but the pain of gun violence. Freedia’s brother Adam Ross was gunned down inside his car on January 24, 2018, and the New Orleans cultural figure takes us on her journey of mourning. We see her visit her brother’s memorial a year after his murder. We see her despondence when non-profit ProjectNOLA informs her that none of their cameras spread across New Orleans got a view of her brother’s murder. We see the joy when that same non-profit shows her the installation of New Orleans’ first bullet tracking surveillance camera placed near where her brother was murdered.
“I hope people can see New Orleans is dealing with a bigger crisis and we need help, not just locally, but on a national level to bring some type of closure to these families that are losing loved ones each and every day,” Freedia told Complex.
No one from the New Orleans Police Department or the Louisiana State legislature contributes to the documentary. While sights of reformation were spread throughout the doc, there was only a small section near the end of the documentary highlighting the efforts of volunteer group New Orleans Peacekeepers' Squash The Beef Hotline that gives warring factions a chance to settle their differences without any police involvement. Unfortunately, we don’t hear any of the stories of the 46 beefs the group claims in the doc to have settled. Those missed opportunities limit the scope of Freedia Got A Gun and make it more of a cautionary look into gun violence rather than a reformative one. Yet, no blemish can obscure the light this doc shines on an issue all too familiar in America’s Black neighborhoods.
Speaking with Complex a week before the doc’s October 15th release on NBCU streamer Peacock, Freedia discusses the difficulty of filming the doc after her brother’s passing, hip-hop’s role in gun violence, and how Hurricane Katrina made a bad gun problem an epidemic.
How did this documentary come about?
The piece came about from me coordinating with my producers who are the owners of World of Wonder, Randy [Barbato], and Fenton [Bailey], who wanted to do something a little bit deeper focus on my life and what’s going on with me. At the time, I had been dealing with the loss of my brother and my cousin who has been kind of lost in the justice system whose justice was not served to. Those were two of the reasons why we started the project up. Also, with all of the trauma and losses I’ve endured here in New Orleans as a whole.
Your brother was an unfortunate victim of gun violence. How long after his death did you start this documentary?
We actually started not far after; maybe six months after.
That’s relatively soon. How was it processing his death while also making this doc?
It was very tough to have to deal with opening those wounds once again. Those wounds had never healed because it was so soon. So, just revisiting where he was shot, talking to different people in the neighborhood, dealing with other families who saw tragedy. It was very tough.
The documentary mentioned how the regularity of gun violence in New Orleans leads to the news not covering it as often as rarer occurrences like mass school shootings. How do you anticipate this doc will be able to cut through the noise and make an impact?
I hope people can see New Orleans is dealing with a bigger crisis and we need help, not just locally, but on a national level to bring some type of closure to these families that are losing loved ones each and every day. We see this and think it’s part of the norm down here in New Orleans and we get ready to pull out our t-shirts, have a jazz processional, have a block party, and remember the people. But, it’s not a normal thing to deal with funerals week by week and seeing families have to deal with these losses that they’re losing their loved one s too. On every level, this needs attention to be brought to New Orleans. I hope people take something away from this and know it not only affects these families, but it affects all of us as a community.
It was very brave of you to share the radio call you made while you were battling flooding from Hurricane Katrina. What do you feel was the hurricane’s effect on gun violence going forward?
Everything shifted for us. We were in survival mode, so people were using every resource they had and unfortunately violence and guns were some of those resources after Katrina. It got more popular and everyone thought it was cool to carry a gun or we needed guns to protect ourselves. Everything after Katrina, for me, changed in New Orleans. We were displaced in all of these different places. People felt they needed to protect themselves. People also felt they needed to protect themselves when they came back to New Orleans because the city was not back and fully functioning at its normal capacity. [Gun violence] definitely grew from Katrina to where it is now and it’s steady on the rise with more people able to get guns in their hands.
The doc explores how the communal belief of “stop snitching” plays a negative role in gun violence and getting justice. But, in the doc, you said you went straight to the police after you were shot. What has been your relationship with the police?
Usually, when it’s something that’s not involving you, that’s where the community is saying “don’t snitch.” But, this was something that was personally connected to me that I dealt with. I didn’t expect to be shot or go to the police and get them involved. Even with my situation, I spoke to them, but it was never resolved. [The person who shot me] went to jail on something totally different. Nothing really got done with that. I still don’t know what’s going on with that situation from years ago.
Following up with that, the mantra of “stop snitching” is a huge part of hip-hop, including the entire ordeal with 6ix9ine. How has hip-hop affected gun violence in New Orleans?
Hip-Hop plays a big part because they want to listen to all the different rappers and what they’re saying in their songs about drugs, guns, and violence. These kids are living this day by day and want to be like these people; they use them as role models. Hip-Hop is a big part of some of the things that are happening in our different communities and that’s why I always encourage different artists to use their platform in every proper way they can because they have so many of our youth out there watching and looking up to us. All eyes are on us. It’s better for us to lead them in the right direction than in the wrong direction.
There’s a heartbreaking theme that pervades the entire doc where the victims and perpetrators of gun violence keep getting younger. You were raised in those conditions. Did anything shock you?
The generations are getting younger and younger. I saw some of this stuff while growing up here in New Orleans and to see it’s gotten worse is just mind-blowing. The stories these young kids have experienced and some of the violence they saw in their homes and communities are really bad. Those kids had me in tears with some of the stuff they went through in having to provide for their families; having to see their mother and father killed and having to deal with the aftermath of that. It touched me that they were so young and didn’t get a chance to enjoy their lives as kids because they’re dealing with things adults are dealing with.
We don’t usually see documentaries on gun violence in Black communities on major networks like NBC or its affiliates. What do you think your doc being on Peacock says about the importance of issues affecting Black people to mainstream media?
I’m happy the world is opening up and these different networks are opening up to putting more things out there that can help with the cause than hurt the cause. For Peacock to pick up this documentary made me very happy and honored. Using this bigger platform to get the message out there, they’ll see what’s going on and everybody else will see what’s going on.