Upon entering the Xavier University of Louisiana convocation center, the first hallmark you see is a 20-foot-tall crown. Weighing more than 2,000 pounds and adorned with 160 metal-cut flowers and 1,600 beads, it presides over an echoing gym where velvet tuxedos and emerald green gowns sparkle under purple lights. Across the room, there’s a red carpet adorned with mannequin busts wearing royal wigs fresh from the salon. Over all of it, a DJ spins every sound, from trap and bounce to pop, and finger sandwiches are served to the occasion’s regal guests as the night reaches a fever pitch.
Shondaland’s upcoming Bridgerton prequel series, Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story, brought something a little different for a recent live celebration of the new series launching Thursday, May 4, on Netflix: the unapologetic, vibrant Queen Charlotte Spring Waltz.
In the heart of New Orleans, inside Xavier’s 97,000-square-foot gym on Saturday, April 15, students had a ball in both senses of the phrase. The elevated, invite-only event featuring HBCU (historically Black colleges and universities) Royals — a group of students from different grade levels who serve as campus leaders — local college students, and a sneak peek at Queen Charlotte brought the bounce with illustrious performances from the school’s Gold Star Dance Team; the all-female, Louisiana-based Original Pinettes Brass Band; and rap, hip-hop, and bounce music pioneer Big Freedia.
“I never in a million years would have thought I’d be onstage twerking with Big Freedia,” says Xavier University of Louisiana freshman Talia Scott about dancing onstage with the New Orleans legend, who performed the song “Hey Queen,” a Queen Charlotte-themed bounce anthem the artist recorded in partnership with Netflix that encourages listeners to “shine bright like a starlet” and “write your own history.”
The accompanying music video, directed by Freedia’s longtime friend, collaborator, and fellow NOLA native Edward Buckles Jr. (HBO’s Katrina Babies), was shot in March on Xavier’s campus and featured the school’s dance team, marching band, and its very own Miss Xavier University, Nina Giddens, alongside her royal court.
“It was fun,” says Freedia, a Grammy-winning performer who has been sampled in tracks like Beyoncé’s “Formation” and “Break My Soul” and Drake’s “Nice for What,” of the experience. “They let me have free range to do what I wanted to do, so I just took little snippets of what I felt was important.”
Given that the Bridgerton spin-off series centers the rise of a young Black queen, it only made sense to recruit the queen of bounce music, the booty-shaking, body-moving style that birthed twerking and — with its heavy bass and raucous rhythms — largely centers females, their self-expression, and a safe space for women to uplift one another as they bounce it out. “The biggest lesson I have learned from the genre,” Freedia told Shondaland at the event, “is to be myself.”
The remix was inspired by Netflix’s Strong Black Lead’s viral video series that consists of motivational videos featuring First Lady Michelle Obama and A-list Hollywood queens like Angela Bassett, Debbie Allen, and the late Cicely Tyson. Freedia’s musical makeover of the “Hey Queen” franchise combines the affirmative elements of bounce while nodding to the Regency era of the upcoming show.
The night’s festivities marked the first live performance of the new song. Surrounded by dancers dressed in corsets and beads who “came to slay,” à la Freedia’s “Formation” interlude, Freedia also performed a full hour-long set brimming with her biggest hits. Freedia encouraged students to release their royal wiggle, chanting familiar callouts and even inviting students to dance onstage, unleashing a surge of unforgettable energy.
“Bounce has always had queens,” Freedia reflected before she went onstage, “and the style of dancing comes from the West Indies and Africa. We have always had royal sisters as our ancestors, so to represent and to let it come back full circle, it just feels wonderful.”
Everything about the regal affair paid homage to the significance and rich history of HBCU royal culture, which has gained importance in the Black college experience. The center of any and every HBCU homecoming is the crowning of a queen and her royal court. The tradition has continued through these prestigious institutions since the 1920s, from Howard University in Washington, D.C., to Morehouse College in Atlanta — and to Tuskegee University in Alabama and Dillard University in New Orleans, both of which sent their queens, or “Misses,” to represent at the bounce waltz event.
“It truly is one of the highest honors a student can receive,” says Giddens, the 87th Miss Xavier University of Louisiana, who is a senior and a public health major focusing on pre-law and international affairs. She, along with the rest of the court, is elected to represent the university and her fellow students after undergoing a competitive process, including an academic review, voting, and interviews. The leaders crowned queen and king (or “Miss” and “Mister”) spend an entire year serving their school and wider community, whether they’re encouraging voter turnout in the upcoming local and national elections or using their platforms to make student body-enhancing changes at their respective schools.
It’s more than pageantry; it’s a governing position with a rippling impact for years to come, and one that also fuels personal growth. “It just shows the tenacity that I have, and that I really am a queen,” says Taverlyn M. Shepard, the 90th Miss Prairie View A&M, who attended the bounce waltz alongside other HBCU queens. “I had to really dive deep inside of myself to be able to see that. Now everybody else is also able to see what I do. Having this position and being a plus-size queen — one of the few plus-size queens — really helped me inspire other women and let them know that it doesn’t matter [what’s] your size, shape, or color. You can be a queen, still be beautiful, and do whatever you put your mind to. You just got to give it your all.”
It’s that kind of self-assuredness that permeated the Queen Charlotte Spring Waltz, and it’s what viewers can expect to see in the upcoming Queen Charlotte series, which not only centers on Queen Charlotte’s relationship with King George III and her rise to prominence, but also how she stepped into her place, her purpose, and her power.
“Coming from a small town like Shelby, Mississippi,” Shepard says, “I didn’t get to see that much representation. Now, we have this amazing outlet to see a fellow Black queen. When I first saw Bridgerton, I was like, ‘Wait, hold on! She’s Black? Oh, my gosh!’ It made me love the show 20 times more.”
Patrice Bell, the vice president of administration and chief of staff of Xavier, adds, “This series and what Shondaland has put together just shows us what we are capable of. Every day, we try to instill in the students that choose to come to us that same spirit: that they are the future leaders of this nation and of this world.”
When Miss Xavier, Mister Xavier, and their royal court were formally introduced mid-event and graced the dance floor with a royal waltz, it felt like something from a Shondaland television show — except it was real. After their introduction, they presented a video message from Shonda Rhimes, who, after a few inspiring words revealed the official trailer for Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story. But the surprises weren't done yet — after the trailer, Miss and Mister Xavier unveiled a gift "from Queen Charlotte herself:" Xavier University’s first-ever marching band uniforms. The crowd erupted, and that energy fueled the rest of the magical evening. When the event ended a little past midnight, no carriages turned back into pumpkins. Excited students lingered, hugging one another before returning to their dorms and heading back to their lives as true royalty.
Queen Charlotte: A Bridgerton Story launches globally on Thursday, May 4, only on Netflix.
Mia Brabham is a staff writer at Shondaland. Follow her on Twitter at @hotmessmia.
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