One of the GRRRLS: Lizzo and the Feminist Potential of Musical Collaboration

Curator's Note

In a recent interview with Laura Snapes for Rookie Magazine, Minneapolis-based rapper Lizzo offers an anecdote about forming girl groups with her classmates as a Destiny’s Child fan attending grade school in Houston. Yet while Lizzo (born Melissa Jefferson) latched onto certain artistic responsibilities like vetting talent, songwriting, and arrangement, she had to overcome the fear of singing in front of her friends.

Conquering stage fright is a common trope in performers’ origin stories. But Lizzo’s resolve was activated within the makeshift space of girls’ leisure, an environment that matters to the recording industry despite its historical devaluation of female labor and fandom. But as both the squad’s and the hip-hop crew’s forebear, girl groups also use their choreography and harmonies to keep time with an ideological contradiction: commodifying empowerment through gestures of solidarity that fans can mimic and elaborate upon while simultaneously raising one worker’s value at the expense of other professionals.

As a rapper who filters hip-hop through intersectional feminism, Lizzo wiggles against this contradiction. Her music investigates issues like body positivity, sexual agency, creative ambition, self-care, and women’s friendships. But pursuing these themes within pop music is to risk someone depoliticizing your rhyme. So Lizzo also uses collaboration to challenge the #squad’s ideological underpinnings. She has pursued this as a member of the hip-hop collective GRRRL PRTY. She has crossed genres with Speedy Ortiz’s Sadie Dupuis and singer Caroline Smith, drawing attention to the creative process and generating support for non-profit organizations vital to her community as a result.

This spirit informs her recent Late Show appearance, which uses a live performance of “Ain’t I” to accommodate two dancers more proudly full-figured than broadcast television usually allows, and GRRRL PRTY deejay Sophia Eris. While the stage configuration and mix privilege Lizzo, she dances with them instead of at a remove. She also dedicates the performance to the memory of her grandmother, an emotional moment that Eris acknowledges by patting her friend’s shoulder. It’s an imperfect moment, but useful and electrifying in demonstrating what’s possible when women think beyond the squad and present themselves as a collective.

Comments

Christine Capetola's picture

Alyx, I’m so excited to see

Alyx, I’m so excited to see you writing about Lizzo here! You point out a lot of important tensions in Lizzo’s performance of “Ain’t I”: how to create something that everyone can join (I almost wrote “buy into”) in a way that doesn’t hierarchize or dilute everyone’s labor and how to keep politicized issues political in a capitalistic and cultural context where some or many people may want to shut that down.

Reading your list of issues that Lizzo takes up in her music—”body positivity, sexual agency, creative ambition, self-care, and women’s friendships”—I can’t help thinking about how disruptive it still potentially is for women to talk these issues in any kind of public forum. What also strikes me about the song’s lyrics is the line “And his slave-owning family needed black blood still.” That Lizzo makes connections between slavery, the industrialized labor of her grandparents at the Ford factory, and this faint allusion of the limits of the service economy of deindustrialization onward in the song’s second verse seems pretty bold for network television. But do people pick up on that?

I think what probably most stays with viewers is likely this image of Lizzo, her dancers, and her DJ as a collective. There seems to be some racial diversity going on there too, which is significant for thinking about race, class, gender, and sexuality together.

Katherine J. Lehman's picture

Collaboration

I’ve not much to add to Christine’s comment, but yes, I’m impressed by the political intensity of the song, Lizzo’s activism behind the scenes, and the collaborative performance of vocalists/dancers/DJ. (This reminds me of Christine’s comment about female dancers as collaborators on yesterday’s post.) Quite a moment for network television!

Alison Winch's picture

This video is amazing and I

This video is amazing and I love your analysis of it, including how Lizzo dances with Sophia Eris and the dancers. It speaks to Christine’s post about collectivity and female friendships. Its imperfection is part of what makes it so affecting. Also agree about the subversive nature of Lizzo’s lyrics, especially on network TV! Great stuff.

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