Lizzo Talks About the FluteBreaking News
tags: slavery, James Madison, popular culture, Lizzo
She grew up in a household with her mother’s love for gospel music and her father listening to Elton John and Billy Joel. She was famously classically trained and may be the most notable flautist in popular music since Jethro Tull’s Ian Anderson. But, she tells me, she doesn’t think she plays the flute enough in her songs. (Two months after this interview, she played the 200-year-old crystal flute that had been owned by President James Madison. She played it at the Library of Congress and onstage at her Washington, DC, concert, and was thrilled that she made history. “When people look back at the crystal flute, they’re going to see me playing it,” Lizzo tells me. “They’re going to see that it was owned by James Madison, but they’re going to see how far we’ve had to come for someone like me to be playing it in the nation’s capital, and I think that that’s a cool thing. I don’t want to leave history in the hands of people who uphold oppression and racism. My job as someone who has a platform is to reshape history.”)
What about people who feel that performing in skimpy ensembles adds to the sexualization of women? “When it’s sexual, it’s mine,” she says. “When it’s sexualized, someone is doing it to me or taking it from me. Black women are hypersexualized all the time, and masculinized simultaneously. Because of the structure of racism, if you’re thinner and lighter, or your features are narrow, you’re closer to being a woman.” Lizzo says her onstage costumes are dance leotards, which she decided to wear in 2014, because she was dancing and had dancers onstage with her. “After [Beyoncé’s ‘Single Ladies’] it seemed like it became the industry standard for everyone,” she says. “I wanted to be like a dancer and also, it was kind of political and feminist in my eyes to have me, a full-figured dancer, wearing leotards, showing and celebrating curves and being Olympian in strength, endurance, and flexibility.” She refers to the scantily clad Josephine Baker and her banana skirts in the 1920s and says, “Movements have to evolve generationally. The culture changes. You can’t have a movement in 1920 be the same thing as it is in the 2020s. We have to match the rebellion. The rebellion isn’t even the same.”
In September 2021, she did a TED Talk on twerking—referencing the West African mapouka dance, Ma Rainey, and Bessie Smith—and tells me, “I think it deserved being intellectualized, it deserved to have a classical etymology, it needed an origin story. It’s a Black woman thing, it was almost printed in our DNA. It disappeared and resurfaced in the 1920s, then disappeared and resurfaced in the 1980s. It’s an almost inexplicable phenomenon. Remember Sir Mix-a-Lot’s song [1992’s “Baby Got Back”]? I like big butts and I cannot lie. To Black women, that’s a compliment. But now everybody wants a big butt.” She mentions Beyoncé’s “Bootylicious” and says, “I can’t even put into words what Beyoncé did for so many people. She was the beginning of Black women celebrating their curves—although she was on the smaller end of the spectrum—but she was our only representation. It’s wild to see the popularization of big butts, and I don’t even think this generation understands it. There’s kids stuffing pillowcases in their butt, mimicking Black women, and don’t even realize the implications of that.”
We talk about the criticism that disturbs her the most—that she makes music for a white audience. “That is probably the biggest criticism I’ve received, and it is such a critical conversation when it comes to Black artists. When Black people see a lot of white people in the audience, they think, Well this isn’t for me, this is for them. The thing is, when a Black artist reaches a certain level of popularity, it’s going to be a predominantly white crowd. I was so startled when I watched [YouTube clips of gospel great] Sister Rosetta Tharpe, who was an innovator of rock and roll. She was like ‘I’m going to take gospel and shred guitar,’ and when they turned the camera around, it was a completely white audience. Tina Turner, when she played arenas—white audience. This has happened to so many Black artists: Diana Ross, Whitney, Beyoncé.… Rap artists now, those audiences are overwhelmingly white. I am not making music for white people. I am a Black woman, I am making music from my Black experience, for me to heal myself [from] the experience we call life. If I can help other people, hell yeah. Because we are the most marginalized and neglected people in this country. We need self-love and self-love anthems more than anybody. So am I making music for that girl right there who looks like me, who grew up in a city where she was underappreciated and picked on and made to feel unbeautiful? Yes. It blows my mind when people say I’m not making music from a Black perspective—how could I not do that as a Black artist?”
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