Lizzo Is A Bold Voice For A New Generation
Lizzo talks about her EP Coconut Oil, sexism in the music industry and self-care in the Trump era.
Lizzo is part of Oxygen’s digital series In Progress, in which we feature outstanding women throughout the year. Check out the series here!
Lizzo is bold, smart and gorgeous and her personality is just as vibrant and seductive as her music. Fresh off the back of her 2016 Ep Coconut Oil, Lizzo is basking in the glow of her wonderful self. Promoting the voices of women of color, advocating for body positivity and embracing the vast experience of often marginalized womanhood, Lizzo makes no apologies for using her voice. And it’s an expressive, breathtaking voice at that.
As her musical style weaves deftly from rap to soul and funk and everything in between, Lizzo herself is like a metaphor for womanhood, telling me over the phone, “There is no one “Lizzo sound”... I think that the sound is just my voice and there’s no one genre that goes with that.” Talking about sexism in the music industry, self-care in the Trump-era, white feminism, the lie that killed Emmett Till and not looking away when the news shocks you - Lizzo was a joy to talk to.
You’ve lived in the south and the midwest of America--how has this influenced your music?
I think that I learned a lot of my soulfulness because I was raised in church in Detroit. So a lot of my gospel influence and my soul influence is definitely from growing up... going to church every Sunday and Wednesday. Then when I moved on to Houston I discovered hip hop, freestyling and rap, and I got to get a little more funky with it. But that’s also where I studied classical music, so all my ear training and music theory and flute studies kind of got mixed in with that hip hop. Finally, I moved to Minneapolis... for about four and a half years, and I think there is where all of my weirdness and different styles got married. I believe that that place creates artistry, and I think I crossed over from being a musician and performer to an artist because of Minneapolis.
You were on a Prince song, what was that like?
People ask me that all the time. It’s a very sacred thing. Anyone he chose to share his time with and his musical space with are all part of some kind of scared club, and I’m just really honored to be a part of that. Everything I did in the studio he left on the track, and I feel like that gave me so much confidence as a writer and a vocalist, because I was like, “I’m going to do everything: I’m going to rap, I’m going to sing, I’m going to scream.” I’m just really honored and blessed to be on the list of collaborators he has.
Was he someone you were inspired by earlier in your career or growing up?
Growing up Purple Rain was forbidden for me because I was raised in church and there was nudity and mature themes, so I kind of watched Purple Rain through my mother’s fingers over my eyes. I think that created a mystique, and it just added to the mystique that Prince already had, and I think that he did influence me later on in my career, way more so than when I was younger, because I couldn’t listen to him, they wouldn’t let me. When I moved to Minneapolis I purified myself in the waters of Lake Minnetonka, the first summer, and I got asked to play First Avenue to a sold out crowd. So I thought, “Okay, I must re-watch Purple Rain, on my own, for myself,” and that was the craziest summer and fall ever. It was really when I got immersed in the influence of Prince.
How does your family deal with you now--you’re so out there, posting beautiful pictures on Instagram and whatnot--has that been problematic?
No, you know what it is--the religious side of my family was not in my immediate family. My mother is very spiritual and very Godly and goes to church--went to church every day of her life until we moved to Houston--so around her I’m still very respectful, I’m like a little church girl when I’m around mom. But when it comes to the creative I remember there was a time in my life where I was like, “I have to imagine that everything I’m writing my great grandma would hear.” That was when my great grandma was still alive.
I would tell my friends that were producers, “I can’t say that, because what if my great grandma hears it?” One day someone had to shake me out of that, and say “Yo, you can’t worry about that kind of stuff. Your family is going to accept you regardless because they love you. You just have to be you.” From then on I let that rule go, and I am getting embraced. My whole family came to my show in Detroit, and they support me online and they’re always like, “What’s up cuz?” So I think it was more of my own fear than the actual reality of not being accepted by then.
Did that ever cross your mind about your public reception? As a Woman of Color who has a message of self-care and body positivity, did that ever feel challenging or scary?
No, it never really did, which is interesting. I mean I think if I were afraid of it, or if it were intentional, initially, then I think it wouldn’t have been the right thing to do. But I was so unafraid, and I was so naturally singing about these things that it just felt right. Now it’s different because I see the impact I have on people. You don’t put out your first mixtape or your first song ever and have hundreds and thousands of people respond. Unless you’re just fortunate--I’ve seen that happen--but I was not that person. With me it was a snowball effect. So one hundred people turned into a hundred thousand people which turned into a million people who saw “Good As Hell” and now I realize a million people have seen my music video and more than that have heard the song. It does create this weird pressure to want to remain true to myself, and to continue that because I know there are people who are being helped by it.
But then I also remember at the end of the day I can’t make this music for anyone, because when I start trying to serve others with my gift, instead of using it naturally for its purpose, which is just putting it out there then it becomes a little contrived. So I have to remember that that’s what people like about me, that I’m continuing personal growth and sharing it on a public scale.
The message in your music is very positive and self loving, and is the consistent thing across all your songs--how important is it for you to continue to say something with your music?
It’s very important. To not me and not the people listening but to the universe and the way that my story goes. This narrative has been laid out way before I was even born. The things that come out of my mouth sometimes, I don’t even know who’s saying them. Not in a way where I black out and someone takes over, but in a way where it’s like, how could I have known that I would be able to stand on stage and talk about politics for five minutes to a sold out crowd in New York and have them listening and responsive and feeling responsible at the end of it. I’m very blessed that I was given the gift of gab, but I really think the importance is beyond me, beyond everyone. I think that globally it’s important for people making art and people with influence to allow their gifts to activate people. Take the “me” out of it, take the ego out of it, and just get the goodness out there. My music has always been feel good. It hasn’t always been pointedly political because that wasn’t the point--I was just being conversational. But even if I do make a political song I always intentionally do want it to feel good. The only intention we have with our music is the feel good aspect. So even if I do say one day, “Hey you know what I’m going to run for U.S. Senate and I’m going to use my shows to get my campaign out,” it’s still going to feel good.
How do you think art can be responsive or helpful in the current climate in America?
I think it just needs to reflect the people, or at least the time. I get it if you’re not a political person and I get it if you’re not confident in the way that you speak or how well read you are on certain subjects. I get it if that’s not your bag. But I think that if you use yourself as a conductor to the time and the people, if you become a little bit more of an empath and use your art to reflect anything--your feelings about the time--just don’t be numb to it. It would make your art even better when you let go and just allow the energy of the world to use you. It would be unfair to say, “You’re an artist and you have a million followers so you need to be talking about this new President.” You don’t have to do that. I don’t think anyone should. A lot of the time people are saying stuff and I’m like, “Why did they let them talk? I don’t want to hear about your opinions on the President!” But I think the least you can do is look it in the eye. If your song is about drugs and you’re mad at the world right now, but it’s about drugs, put that emotion into the music.
Have the biased practices in the beauty industry and the music industry and American posed challenges to your career?
I do experience a lot of sexism. The majority of the misogyny and racism I experience is when I’m with my crew--my touring party. We’re all women, we’re all women of color, except for Grace who’s our dancer, and she’s still amazing, she deals with just as many problems as we do because misogyny is rampant. And we’re out on the road and we just get written off a lot. We get talked down to. When we’re playing at grimy clubs and stuff we’re just in and out, but when the platform rises, I see we get looked at like “Why are you here? How did you get here? Where’s the man behind all of this?”
I remember recently we were so livid, I remember saying, “Every time people ask me is it hard out here being a woman in the industry and do you face misogyny I say always no, but now I’m finally starting to see it.” Now we’re starting to face misogyny and it’s because we’re successful and that’s intimidating. I think misogyny feeds off the intimidation of men and of un-woke women who are just so rooted in misogyny they just play to it. It’s really funny to see, but we’re so trained in literally punching you in the face if you bring a problem to us--we’re so trained in that from having to play these grimy punk clubs and having to cuss out sound engineers on stage during a show that at this point, we really wish you would.
Your dancers are amazing by the way. How long have you been working with the same girls?
Courtney’s brand new to the team, we hired her over the summer and she’s amazing. I’ve had Grace ever since I started with dancers and it was two Aprils ago, and I remember I hired a choreographer for me and my DJ and I was like, “We just need a little more pazazz up here,” and he said, “You know, you should get dancers.” At the time I was like, “I don’t know if that’s my thing. We’re too turn-tables-and-a-rapper to go that route.” And then I realized--what am I doing? I’m up here doing half choreography when I could have people up here as an extension to my message and an extension to my performance and to get my point across.
The idea of the big girls came from me wanting to have these women up here and have no one think about their size until I mention it. I wanted them to be so impressive and I wanted them to inspire girls. Little girls would see me and say, “Oh I want to be a singer, oh I want to be a rapper.” And now we can have little girls see Grace and Courtney and say, “Oh I want to be dancer” and not let any of the industry standards hold them back.
And then it got us into this whole no pants thing. I didn’t have the right to not wear pants before them, because I was just doing what I could. But then I realized dancers traditionally wear leotards and I was like, “Now I get to wear a leotard because I’m a dancer too!” They helped transition us into the no pants movement that we’ve got going.
That’s amazing, because pants are terrible.
I know I hate them! I’m not wearing any right now!
What do you think that women can do now in the Trump era to exercise a bit of self care and feel good about themselves when the outside world is trying to take that away?
I actually had a conversation with someone who was extremely involved in this whole election as a vocal opposition to Trump. She was Russian and she lived in Russia and she dealt with Putin and she came to America and she was like, “Don’t vote for Donald Trump.” She was so vocal about it and so adamant, put it in her art--I called her after the election and I thought her of all people would be like, “You’ve got to fight, you’ve got to get in the streets, scream from the rooftops, it’s not over,” but she was like, “You know, at this point, I have to turn off the television and I have to turn off my phone and I can’t participate in it. Because I did everything--everything in my power--to ensure this doesn’t happen and to inform people, but it happened anyway and I’m afraid and I know what’s to come, I’ve seen the worst. But even then I can’t participate in it.”
I took that advice because I’ve been so politically active and “woke” as they say, since I was little. I learned about the murder of Emmett Till when I was a kid, as a “What not to do”, story and to find out 20 years later that the woman who accused Emmett Till of whistling at her was just lying--this little boy was brutally murdered, just for being black. My entire life I grew up knowing America was unfair to someone like me. So now, watching this, honestly, it’s the first time I’ve seen America be honest in a long time. As depressing as it has been--because I would have loved to see our first female President and I would have loved to see someone who didn’t have these values, someone who’s equipped for the job be the next President of America--but I do step away sometimes. Some of this stuff isn’t for me. Some of this media is for people who weren’t able to see how unfair America actually was, and can be to people that the Constitution was not written for.
So I say to a lot of people, “Look away sometimes. But if this is extremely shocking to you and new to you, maybe look at this and maybe you’ll have empathy for people who have felt cheated and felt left out of America forever.” But me personally, I have to take time for a minute. You have to turn off all of the news, do not watch the news, do not look at your phone, talk to your friends, try to laugh because everyone I’ve talked to since November has been in some way depressed, anxious or stressed out. That’s just the culture of America right now. Even the people who voted for Trump and support him are stressed out and anxious because they’re out here spreading their rhetoric. That’s not exciting, to spread hate rhetoric. That’s stressful. I don’t think anyone’s feeling 100% good, not even Donald Trump, because you can tell he hates his job. But we’re all in this together, and you have to remember the President has changed, your life might change, and you have to focus on just your life sometimes.
That’s a good point. Some people certainly shouldn’t look away.
It’s really important that some people are outraged. That white feminists are outraged. That young white males are outraged. Every time I meet someone in the studio or have a conversation they are always like, “Yo I finally feel you. This is the first time I’ve been let down.” I’ve been let down my whole life, by America and by the system. I say that to my audiences when I’m on tour, “Don’t be afraid of anger, don’t be afraid of crying, don’t be afraid of your emotions. Feel them, but use them to activate yourself, so this doesn’t happen to your children, or to you again.” Everything is useful--good and bad.