As much as she loves herself.
Under no circumstances will Lizzo play “Flight of the Bumblebee” tonight. Don’t get her wrong. She’s a classically trained flautist, in addition to a singer and rapper, and could twerk circles while playing it (that’s a trademark). But as far as songs go, “ ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ is for basic bitches,” declares Lizzo, and tonight she needs a show-off song.
It’s two hours before a live taping of 2 Dope Queens’ HBO special, and hosts Jessica Williams and Phoebe Robinson have asked her to perform her signature move, but the stakes — HBO, the 3,000-person-deep audience at Brooklyn’s Kings Theatre — call for the kind of song that will make eyes widen, jaws drop. Normally, the trill-filled missile in Lizzo’s arsenal is 19th-century French composer Jean-Baptiste Arban’s “Carnival of Venice,” a song that requires the lung capacity of a runner trained at high altitude and the ability to double-, sometimes triple-, tongue. Except a producer just apologetically entered the dressing room to tell her she’s so so sorry, but she can’t play that particular song. Something about legal. Clearance. Rights.
What to play? she wonders aloud in a mild panic to the eight or so people milling about. The producer helpfully starts suggesting other legally cleared songs. “How about ‘Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star’?”
People are often surprised that Lizzo can actually play the flute. At 30, she’s been playing for 20 years, since she was a preteen in her Houston junior high school’s marching band and people would tell her “that shit is corny!” She went to the University of Houston on a music scholarship. She practices four hours a day when her schedule permits. The flute even has its own Instagram account, @sashabefluting (it follows no one). She’s played on most of her albums, starting with 2015’s Big GRRRL Small World, and does so again on her forthcoming major-label release, Cuz I Love You, which drops this spring.
The junior-high punks might have called her corny, but like most hobbies people mock you for in adolescence, it’s now one of her greatest assets. The flute is earning her Shade Room–blessed viral fame, especially after one particularly notable moment from a performance at the University of Iowa’s homecoming. As she tells it, that video was born out of a direct challenge to her ability to play the flute — or to perform at all. During sound check, a professor threatened to report her to campus police unless she showed permits. “The privilege that you have to have to walk up to young women, brown women, black women, and yell, ‘Do you have a permit to be here?’ While we’re clearly onstage with microphones singing and dancing,” says Lizzo, shaking off phantom pangs of annoyance. She was so fired up that night, she told the audience the story, then ripped into a flute reworking of “Big Shot,” from Kendrick Lamar’s Black Panther soundtrack, while she and her two dancers, dubbed the Big GRRRLS, hit the shoot with more ferocious joy than BlocBoy JB ever had, even though he invented the dance. She ended by lobbing her trademark “Bitch!”
“That ‘Bitch!’ was from the bottom of my heart,” Lizzo tells me. “That was for anybody who tries to stop my shine and tries to challenge my existence. Don’t challenge my motherfucking right to be here, bitch.” She posted a video with the caption “have u ever seen a bitch play flute then hit the shoot?” And since nobody had, it got half a million views. People started making Lizzo flute YouTube mash-up videos. She released a single version of it called “Bye Bitch.”
When Lizzo plays the flute, it’s a gentle “Fuck you, yes I can,” to everyone who is surprised to see her take the stage in a spandex bodysuit and play a song by an old Frenchman. She knows she’s doing something with the instrument that nobody’s ever done (please see: recent Instagram videos from her album-listening party in an L.A. strip club — a singular moment in flute-performance history). Her career has been full of those kinds of expectation-defying swerves, ones that shock, delight, and challenge preconceptions. And not just ours, but her own. “I’ve said it before, but me just existing is revolutionary,” she says again. People think they know what to expect from a pop star, but then they meet Lizzo.
She pulls out her beloved Sasha Flute (so named for Beyoncé’s third album, Sasha Fierce) and begins to run scales. “I could play some fake jazz shit, but that’s boring.” She improvises some exaggerated riffs in the key of Anchorman. Finally she decides to play “Bye Bitch,” in tribute to her viral moment. She tests a few bars, making sure she can play and clap cheeks at the same time. She can.
In January, Lizzo released “Juice,” an energetic funk affirmation that should have Bruno Mars watching his throne. When she sings, “If I’m shinin’, everybody gonna shine,” in the song’s bridge, it’s both an earworm and a mission statement. By her own declaration, Lizzo has been at the forefront of the positive movement. Which positive movement? All of them. She’s sex positive, body positive (hers and yours), vocally practices self-love and self-care. “I am a pioneer in creating modern self-love, body-positive music,” she explains, which could ring cheesy — or, worse, totally disingenuous. But it isn’t just the modern twists she puts on old self-help sentiment (e.g., “I just took a DNA test; turns out I’m 100 percent that bitch”) that keep it from teetering over the line. It’s the fact that Lizzo has been teaching herself to be 100 percent that bitch since she was Melissa Jefferson, a self-described dorky, overweight preteen.
Lizzo’s family moved to Houston from Detroit when she was 9. Her parents worked long hours building a succession of businesses, and her two older siblings were often doing their own thing, so music was an early babysitter. In sixth grade, “the flute chose her,” when her school’s band director asked Lizzo if she wanted to learn the instrument. At 14, she formed her first rap group, the Cornrow Clique, with two of her classmates and got her nickname, Lizzo. (She was originally Lissa, but Jay-Z’s “Izzo” was a popular song at the time.) She could rap — which should have made her popular — but she was in marching band, so she wasn’t. Also she smiled too much and laughed too loud. Sometimes she wore hippie clothes, like flowing shirts and bell-bottom jeans. She listened to Radiohead and Death Cab for Cutie because her older sister did. She wore Uggs, the tipping point. Her classmates said she was “too white.” “But like, Lil Wayne also wore Uggs,” she points out.
She started college in 2005, but by her junior year, she felt trapped by all of the boxes she was trying to fit herself into. Was she an AKA, making the rounds at all the historically black sorority and fraternity parties? Was she the rapper performing at late-night shows? Was she pursuing the flute professionally and committing to 7 a.m. master classes? She couldn’t make all those identities fit together, so she dropped out. Her parents had moved to Denver, and without the dorms, she often slept in her car, a T-boned 1990s Subaru. But the universe always offers another weird portal — and a floor to sleep on. In 2008, she joined her first real band, playing the flute in the prog-rock-inflected Ellypseas. “I dead-ass asked them if they wanted to get on MTV.” They did not. She didn’t realize it then — or maybe she was afraid to admit it — but those were her ambitions. The band never made it to TRL, but it was good enough to book shows at South by Southwest.
She slept at the band’s rehearsal space, sometimes on the drummer’s floor. “I would drive around to my friends’ houses, and if they were having dinner, I’d be like, ‘Hey, come hang out! You got some food? Let’s kick it!’ And just eat the chicken and rice. Actually, I was a vegetarian. So I would eat the chicken-juice-soaked rice.” She shrugs. “I was like, ‘I’m too broke to have morals.’ ”
In 2010, the band retired, and her father passed away. She communicates with him now, through a psychic medium she frequently visits in L.A., but at the time, it sank her into a depression. She finally answered her mother’s pleas and joined her in Denver. Ten months later, restless, she moved to Edina, a suburb of Minneapolis, at the behest of a friend who thought she’d like the music scene there. She did. Aaron Mader, a.k.a. Lazerbeak, a local producer and member of rap collective Doomtree, describes the Minneapolis scene as a collaborative utopia. One night Lizzo could open for a punk band; the next, she could collaborate with an electronic band. She lent backup vocals for a rock-soul group and performed at the legendary First Ave, the venue made famous by Prince. To prepare, she watched Purple Rain, took a rowboat into the middle of Lake Minnetonka, and purified herself, just like Prince did in the movie.
For all the diversity of genres, though, the scene was still dominated by white dudes. Younger acts — especially women and women of color — found it difficult to break through, but it also meant that people noticed Lizzo a lot faster. “When someone is a force and has an energy about her that is pretty magnetic, it didn’t take her long for people to pay attention,” says Mader.
Lizzo formed two bands. First, the Chalice, which made melodic pop with a little bit of rap like the Spice Girls. Later, she and the Chalice’s Sophia Eris started GRRRL PRTY and went full N.W.A, explains Lizzo. “We were crazy,” recalls Eris. “It was like a riot onstage. Women just like drinking, cussing, and rapping and singing.” GRRRL PRTY became a local darling. Even Prince took notice, asking them to record a song, “Boytrouble,” and inviting them to play a show at Paisley Park. They couldn’t curse or drink onstage, but they did get to play in front of a projection of Finding Nemo.
On the side, Lizzo was also working on solo material. She felt a lot of anger and sometimes a crisis of confidence. She needed an outlet. “There’s one line on my first album where I say, ‘I got a lot on my chest, so here’s my breast reduction.’ ” She’s referring to a line from “Hot Dish,” off Lizzobangers, which she worked on with Lazerbeak. They met when she tweeted, “I wish I could afford a Lazerbeak beat,” and he responded, “Just give me a case Mike’s Hard Lemonade.” After Lizzobangers, she entered what she calls her artsy-fartsy phase, which, like any good indie musicians in 2015, included bangs, a visit to Bon Iver’s Wisconsin studio, April Base, and a Pitchfork mention. The album that resulted, Big GRRRL Small World, persuaded Atlantic to sign her, and she moved to L.A., taking as much of her Minneapolis crew as she could. Next thing she knew, she was opening for acts like Sleater-Kinney, Florence + the Machine, and Haim.