Black Artists, White Allies

I went to see Lizzo live when I was home in NYC in May.  The show was at Mercury Lounge, a rare Manhattan venue with good sound and an intimate feel.  The few shows that I’ve seen there (Land of Talk in 2009 and Versus in 2011 were highlights) have been really special to me, helped along by the 250-person capacity of the venue.  When I got to the show a few minutes before Lizzo’s set, I was initially surprised to see so many white people with piercings, tattoos, and alternative lifestyle haircuts present in the space.  In some ways, this shouldn’t have been surprising, as Lizzo got a big boost from touring with Sleater-Kinney during the first half of their winter 2015 tour.  When I first listened to Lizzo’s Big Grrrl Small World, there was a lot about her music that instantly appealed to my queer, feminist, and music nerd self: good beats, politically-charged lyrics, messages of self-love and sex positivity, and an incredible voice and presence.  But Lizzo is also a black female rapper who directs large portions of her lyrics towards black women specifically.  Where were they at this show?  After doing an initial scan of the room, I noticed a front row of (presumably) people of color standing up against the stage.  Throughout the show, they often led us through dancing and singing along to Lizzo’s solid set.

Lizzo has been described as a triple threat: rapper, soul singer, and personality.  In my mind, I group her with hip hop artists such as Missy Elliott and Azealia Banks, black women rappers who combine smart and tight rapping, emotionally-charged signing, and endless sampling that draws heavily from electronic music genres.  But Lizzo is also more (or at least differently) politically explicit than Missy Elliott and Azealia Banks.  Taking on everything from slavery (“Ain’t I,” “Bloodlines”) to self-love (“My Skin,” “B.G.S.W.”) to the power of friendship (“Ride”), everything sounds simultaneously personal and political as it leaves Lizzo’s tongue.  In the live setting, her performances have the added bonus of dancers, to whom she refers to as “the big grrrrls.”  The performance at Mercury Lounge is extremely high energy, despite ongoing sound issues.  A highlight is “B.G.S.W.” (link here), which begins with a slow build of keyboard and drum machine samples.  When Lizzo’s (singing) vocals enter at thirty seconds into the song, the keys and drums pick up in intensity.  The song then moves to an EDM-esque buildup that eventually transitions into a drop of extended and drawn out drum machine beats.  Lizzo is vocally on point throughout the song and she and her dancers move in sync with the musical loops.  The music, the words, and her delivery work together; the impact is what it is because the trio—and DJ Sophia Eris—are a collective.

Just as significant is what Lizzo says in between songs, such as: “All lives matter.  My black life matters;” “You don’t see a lot of people like me up on stage” (i.e. black, female, and big); “I’m an artist; I’m sensitive about my shit.”  In these moments, Lizzo is talking to both black people (and especially black women) in particular and the audience as a whole.  Already putting so much energy into her sets, she speaks truth between the breaks in the songs.  This is part of the day-to-day work of trying to eradicate racism (and fatphobia and sexism and homophobia), work that, as the founders of Black Lives Matter illustrate, often disproportionately falls on black women to do.  We are getting both a concert and critical race studies 101 lesson all in one. But these lessons are not so much grounded in theory readings as they are in lived experiences.  Lizzo speaks from the positionality of being a black female artist, from within a music industry that is so tough for women—and even more so for those who aren’t white feminine stick figures.  As my colleague and fellow feminist music blogger Alyx Vesey notes, this can be dangerous territory as Lizzo attempts to keep speaking truth in a music industry with a history of commodifying political messages.  After recently signing to Atlantic Records, Lizzo commented in an interview with Paper that she hopes that major label distribution will help her get this message out to even more people.   A Prince protégé and recent convert to riot grrrl, Lizzo seems ready to do all of the things.

But she will still have all the usual obstacles along her path to doing just that.

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I’ve had questions of access on my mind often over the course of the past two months.  Between being a part of the sea of whiteness at the Lizzo show at Mercury Lounge in May, viscerally grieving (and (re)experiencing my own shit) in the wake of the shooting at Pulse nightclub in Orlando in June, and feeling constantly angry and upset about the uptick in black and brown deaths in the U.S. this summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about who gets access to which spaces (and, hell, which cultural forms) at which points in time.  What happens when the white queers and/or feminists buy up (almost) all of the tickets for the show of an artist who presents herself as a fat black feminist?  What happens when the gay club needs to have a separate Latin night in order for non-white patrons to feel safe?  What happens when music and utopian space aren’t enough to keep one safe from a police officer pulling the trigger on them?  The material disconnect between daily lived experience and these moments of reprieve can be painful and, sometimes, also deadly.  I’ve been in constant conversation about all of this with trusted friends all across the country.  What is the role of white allies in this, particularly those who are queer, feminist, and/or committed to black liberation?  What can I do to help make space for artists like Lizzo to get their message out?  And, equally as important, what can I do to help chip away at the systematic racism that enables all this black and brown death?  I have no easy answers.  Lately, I’ve more often than not been left with my head in my hands, not sure exactly where to go next.

After the shooting in Orlando, Lizzo posted this message on Facebook: “I haven’t felt ‘safe’ in America for a long time. When will we stop chalking tragedy up to isolated events or ‘lone shooters’ and start the process of pacifism from the root? Stop glorifying the killers and start analyzing the system. I know it may seem small, but use your voice.  Even now– I don’t feel like posting on Instagram is going to make much of a difference, but all of our voices together have a greater chance of being heard.”  Lizzo lives this advice.  In between songs at shows or interspersed with posts on social media promoting her work, Lizzo keeps tirelessly repeating some variation of this message over and over again.  As a wise person in my life said to me in the aftermath of Orlando, you really learn where someone stands after a tragedy of that magnitude happens.  People either viscerally feel it and speak up or… they don’t.  What I appreciate most about Lizzo’s public presence is her calling for a coalition of all kinds of oppressed people while paying special attention to the nuances behind that oppression for black people—and in particular for black women such as herself.  Her message behind all the educational moments is ultimately love, because that is how she gets people to keep listening to her.  This mixture of anger and love is a tightrope walk, one in which artists such as Lizzo need us to be the safety net underneath.  It’s on all of us (including white people with white privilege) to do the work to help prop the rope up.  But we need to figure out a way to do that without also simultaneously taking over the space.