At SXSW in Austin this year, I saw some 60 bands perform 75 different shows in roughly 25 different venues. But the head-and-shoulders highlight was watching New Orleans-born rapper, dancer and choreographer Vockah Redu close out the festival at a dark, dimly lit dive bar on its final night.
More than 6 feet tall, with a dancer’s sinewy physique, skeleton tights and a shock of stand-on-end hair loosed from long dreadlocks, Redu arrived like the lovechild of Prince and George Clinton, storming on stage in a cloud of incense and instantly commandeering everyone’s attention. Backed by two vigorously disciplined dancers from his constantly revolving Cru, Redu’s performance careened from ass-shaking beats to warped art-rock grooves to uplifting call-and-response chants to intensely choreographed physicality. In 45 minutes, the awe-inspiring onslaught never once let up, transforming the blasé hipster crowd into a sweating, frenzied mass of no-holds-
Redu hails from the same bounce scene as New Orleans superstars Big Freedia, Katey Red and Cheeky Blakk, all of whom have been twerking and tweaking gender roles as far back as the mid-’90s. But Redu, who has a 10-year-old daughter and in past interviews has doggedly avoided questions about his sexuality and the constraints of the trans-friendly “sissy bounce” sub-genre, says his style is all his own.
“I basically have my own genre called pop-rock-neo-Vock,” Redu tells Folio Weekly. “A little pop, a little neo-soul, a little poetry, all mixed with the theatrical stuff. I started out in bounce back in 1997, but that was just me having fun with a group of girls. I didn’t even know I was actually rapping! But the thugs would always push me to get on the mic, and the girls would dance when I did, so by men loving to see women dance, it was a chain reaction.”
Redu attended high school at the New Orleans Center for Creative Arts, then studied theater at Grambling State University, where he discovered his penchant for performance — and parlaying positive energy. “People say when you go to see Vockah, it’s like you’re at church,” he says. “I encourage people to just be themselves, especially anyone who’s being bullied because they’re different. I want to uplift them, encourage them to live their life to the fullest. That’s my platform. Right now, this hour, let everything go, put your hands up, dance, and have fun. I’m really soft-spoken and calm outside of the stage — people on a normal day be like, ‘Kick a freestyle!’ but that’s not me. When I get on stage, it’s almost like an out-of-mind, out-of-body experience.”
Yet Redu takes his corporeal game seriously: elaborate costume changes every 10 to 15 minutes, and one of the most ripped bodies in all of hip-hop. “It’s the dancing and the food I eat,” Redu laughs. “I have a workout video coming out soon, and when I go to a city for the first time for a concert, I like to set up dance workshops beforehand.”
Which brings us to Vockah Redu’s near-term and long-term future. His Sept. 5 show at Underbelly represents the first time he’s ever played in Florida — and he’s currently working on his first full-length album with superstar producers like Sir Mix-A-Lot and Diplo. “It should be out in January, right around my birthday,” Vockah says. “And the touring keeps building, which keeps me moving. That and all the people telling me after my shows how much I touched them, of how I got them to see the light. That humbles me and gets my eyes watering — I’m very sentimental.”