I hadn’t danced hard out in public in a long time before I went to the Lizzo show at Antone’s last Wednesday night with a close friend. The last time I had done so was with my beloved group of Middle Eastern Studies friends for my birthday in June, before they all moved away throughout the summer—and before I plunged into focusing on clearing my oral exams and prospectus meeting at the first half of the fall semester. After that, the election made it hard for me to want to dance (or attempt anything joyous), pushing me instead to spend a lot of November, December, and January huddled in quiet corners and emotionally recharging with the people to whom I really feel connected. But then, as all dry spells eventually do, the desire to dance materialized in an embodied release as Lizzo and company took the stage. We could not not dance; we could not not allow ourselves this kind of recharge anymore. And so, when Lizzo got to “Scuse Me” a few songs into the set, I raised my hands in the air and let the music move through my hips. By the time Lizzo was closing out the encore with “Faded,” I was jumping in the air in sync with the song’s amazing drops.
The Lizzo show was the first of two politically-charged concerts that I went to that week (the other was Austra). I knew this would be the case going in; I knew from experiencing Lizzo, DJ Sophia Eris, and the Big Grrrls dancers live at Mercury Lounge in Manhattan in May (blog post here), where Lizzo started the show off with a shout out to the recently deceased Prince and continued to talk about anti-black racism, sexism in the music industry, and fatphobia throughout the show. But this time, the vision was even bigger than that. Near the end of the set, ahead of starting “My Skin,” Lizzo boldly declared,
Racism… does not exist in this space. Homophobia… does not exist in this space. Transphobia… does not exist in this space. Xenophobia… does not exist in this space. Class… does not exist in this space. Misogyny… does not exist in this space. We’re going to whoop your ass [if you exhibit any of these].
In 2017, let’s take it to the next level. I want to activate you. My music is activism. My existence is activism. We need to activate ourselves so that we can save and change the world. We are all part of the same human race. We can do it if we start together.
There are two things that I heard going on in this monologue. The first is that art—and music specifically—is an important space where we can get a break from the hate and all the ism’s that plague us in the outside world. As a self-identified big black woman, Lizzo has always had a vested interest in carving out space for blacks, women, and fat people, particularly those who occupy more than one of those categories. But what sets Lizzo apart from other artists explicitly attempting to carve out space in this way is how she turns a specific invitation (i.e. for big and/or black women to love themselves) into a rallying call for everyone in the room to build themselves up both individually and collectively.
To call music activism is a brave endeavor. While Lizzo has some very political lyrics, most of her songs are geared around telling stories about herself and women like her, the black and/or big women who still so often get left out of predominant narratives. Accompanied by a DJ with a craft for amplifying some of her most poignant lines with a well-timed drop, the instrumentation further accentuates what Lizzo is singing or rapping. On “Scuse Me,” a massive drop on the “feel” in the chorus line “Scuse me while I feel myself” sends the song into an entirely different affective universe. At Antone’s, I hear Lizzo’s words as they leave her tongue—and then doubly feel the vibration of her vocals and the instrumentation as they hit my body. In the case of “Scuse Me,” I quite literally feel the good feeling that she’s feeling. This affective experience of music doesn’t have to be emotional but Lizzo pushes it there through firing up the crowd with stories and observations from her personal experiences. Her music compels us into movement, with a thoughtfulness that clarifies why moving in community and towards collective action is never not political. In the dark club, in the company of friends and people I’ve yet to meet, I feel that we are both recharging from all the protesting many of us have been doing lately and starting to take that next step.
At the show on Wednesday night, Lizzo didn’t specifically talk about the women’s marches from two weekends prior but she did talk about marches. “We’re going to do a march now. I’ve been doing a march every motherfucking night on tour. We’re going to do one tonight,” she said before finally transitioning into the self-love anthem “My Skin.” The music was the march for the night. In the weeks since the record-setting marches across the country and the world, there have been endless think pieces analyzing what was productive—and also exclusive—about the women’s marches. One of the most thoughtful pieces on the topic I read is “Pussy Don’t Fail Me Now: The Place of Vaginas in Black Feminist Theory & Organizing” over on Crunk Feminist Collective. In this piece, CF crunktastic lays it out:
For cisgender Black women and girls, our vaginas constitute the material locus of our cisness. We are cis because we have vaginas and identify as femmes. Historically, our vaginas were the property of plantation owners upon our arrival. They were used as a vehicle through which to reproduce plantation slavery. Having autonomy of our vaginas and wombs has been central to how Black women articulate freedom…
The world hate vaginas, and thinks that uteruses are property of men and the state, because it hates women. Hatred of body parts traditionally associated with feminine bodies cannot be understood outside of hatred for the historical category that has been called woman.
In summary, crunktastic argues that, even as our trans and GNC friends and lovers illustrate how genitalia is not gender-specific, plenty of us who identify as female do have vaginas—and are in varying amounts of danger for that due to our race, class, gender, and sexuality. So while the pussy hats that many white women wore during the women’s marches were problematic on many levels, we can’t throw vaginas out the window when we’re thinking about (reproductive and other kinds of) violence against women. To do so would especially risk ignoring the herstory of black women’s vaginas as property during slavery.
Lizzo is no stranger to taking on the topic of slavery in her music, dropping lines on the matter in both “Bloodlines” and “Ain’t I.” And she is no stranger to showing skin, or to taking the time to explain to people why it is revolutionary for black women—and especially big black women—to do so. Vaginas—and asses and thighs—still matter a hella lot to Lizzo and the narrators in her songs, a point that she and her dancers reinforce every time they take the stage. The black female bodies to which these body parts belong are still stigmatized by so many people, at times unintentionally (such as when white feminists miss the complexity of black women’s experiences with their bodies and theorize and/or organize through the narrow locus of white women’s experiences). As her audiences continue to have a strong white presence from her opening slot for Sleater-Kinney during their winter 2015 tour, Lizzo’s work is twofold: to speak and sound directly to black women/people about loving their bodies and themselves and to push white audience members towards a more intersectional feminism. Racism, homophobia, transphobia, xenophobia, classism, misogyny: these are the things that must go out the window to participate in Lizzo’s version of the march. This is an upgrade on Sleater-Kinney’s version of the march from the Bush era; this is an open invitation to every person possible. And for me, watching/listening to a black woman once again labor for a truly inclusive society, I leave the show with the reminder that I have to do more of that work with my white peers. Because… it is not the responsibility of black people to cleanse white people’s racism.
On the verge of a new political movement, this is the kind of feminism that I want: actively intersectional, grounded in rhythm, embodied and visceral, and… ludic and pleasurable. As when we marched to the Capitol for a candlelight vigil for Sandra Bland in July 2015, I am more than okay with moving to the back of the procession to listen to people of color and let people of color lead the way for a bit. At the show on Wednesday night, Lizzo was the one leading the way. Building on 40 years of black and brown queer and feminist women “officially” theorizing intersectionality through their life experiences from the Combahee River Collective statement onward (plus the recent momentum of the black queer women-founded Black Lives Matter movement) AND the 20+ year influence of riot grrrl, Lizzo advocates for an expansive feminism through words, lyrics, affect, and rhythm. And her music is both the release and the activation. “Rumors that the world gon’ end don’t phase me/ I’mma get faded, I’mma get faded,” Lizzo sings at the end of the “Faded.” Part of how we’re going to get there is through the release of drugs or sex or alcohol or music or whatever else you do to try to get a break from life’s daily struggles. By centering her body and calling her audiences to feel themselves, Lizzo signals that we will get nowhere without a recognition of pleasure and appreciation of many different kinds of bodies. And when we work backwards from that, we arrive at the discourses of race, class, gender, sexuality, and ability that create “bodies” in the first place. Pleasure is both the escape and the site of inquiry. It’s up to us to not forget the complexity of pleasure when crafting new/old intersectional coalitions to get us through to whatever’s politically coming next.