In the era in which the United States selected its first female presidential nominee to a major party, it’s an exciting and empowering time to be a woman. It’s been nearly 70 years since the fight for women’s rights began, but since its beginnings with leaders like Sojourner Truth and Susan B. Anthony, it has blossomed into this gigantic family tree, welcoming individuals of all different shapes, sizes and colors. And in this new wave of feminism and girl power, a new leader has stepped up: Houston-bred vocalist, Lizzo.
Lizzo struts into the VIBE headquarters with a larger than life personality. She charismatically scoots past her four-woman posse and slides into a rolling chair at the Editor-in-Chief’s personal desk. She isn’t Taylor Swift, Emma Watson or the “typical” feminist we see broadcast across our televisions, magazines and news feeds. The rapper-singer is a black woman with curves that Kim Kardashian can’t touch and Poetic Justice braids that can’t be appropriated. Although pop culture is slowly transitioning into this realm of self-acceptance, you can tell Lizzo’s confidence has always been there. She celebrates her quirkiness and bubbly personality in a way that only seems authentic. And once she begins to dive into her upbringing, it’s clear to see how she got to that state of being.
Born Melissa Jefferson, Lizzo grew up in the Cogic Church of God in Christ, a Pentecostal Christian denomination in Detroit. Growing up surrounded by a large extended family of great grandmothers, aunties and cousins came with its fair share of restrictions. “There were a lot of things you couldn’t do,” she recalls. “You couldn’t go to certain movies. You couldn’t go to baseball games. You couldn’t listen to any secular music—music that is not about the Lord. We couldn’t wear pants to church. They had their eye on me.”
She admits that her loyalty to the Christian faith kept her grounded, but it was the freedom that came with her big move to Houston that thrusted her into her music career. “Houston had a huge influence on my music and my sound,” she says of the Texas metropolis. “It was the city that turned me into a rapper because rap and screwed-up music was happening. It was just an amazing time to be young, ready and hungry.”
And finally, it was the open-mindedness of Minneapolis that made her well-rounded. “Minneapolis will embrace you and all of your weirdness,” the MC says. “It will take who you think you are, break it up and make you find a new you—the new creativity in you. I didn’t know how to marry the rap side, the gospel side and the weird indie side, and Minneapolis taught me how to do that.”
While Lizzo gave props to the cities that made her, she couldn’t go on without shouting out the female MCs that laid down the foundation. “Crime Mob was the big reason why I started [rapping], because of Diamond and Princess’ verses. I was like oh my God, this girl just came through shaking her dreads, throwing these bows and busting these heads,” she says with a chuckle, before name dropping her heavyweight influences. “I think seeing somebody like Missy Elliott on television and always at No.1 was huge because that made it possible for me to believe that I could do it too. I’m still really influenced by Missy Elliott because of the way that she carries herself. Even now, throughout her entire career, she was always open and very positive. And of course we lived in the Lauryn Hill era. We’re so blessed to [have lived] during The Miseducation.
There’s a piece of Lizzo’s influences projecting from her in the office now. She’s got the boss-like attitude of Diamond and Princess from the “Rock Your Hips” music video and the untraditional style like Missy (she’s currently wearing a rose, sweetheart cropped top). But she seems to favor Lauryn the most—not for her rhymes or melodies, but for her inability to be placed in just one category. Like Ms. Hill, Lizzo isn’t just a singer or just a rapper. According to her, she’s a vocalist.
“At this point, I’ve just been calling myself a vocalist because I’ve been just a rapper and not a very good singer. Then I worked on becoming a good singer, and now I’m a good singer,” she says. At this point, she’s pauses all dialogue, motioning for her cellphone which shows a SnapChat picture captured by one of the members from her entourage. “Cute,” she exclaims with a grin, before pressing play on the rest of the interview. “Now, I’m trying to find an in-between, like a really great blend of my rapping and singing. I think through working with people like Ricky Reed and all of the people at Atlantic, I’m finding a really nice spot.”
But it’s cool if you call her a rapper, she doesn’t mind at all. “I love being called a rapper, even though people are like, ‘You should just call yourself a singer.’ I’m like naw, I’m a rapper. I started off as a rapper,” Lizzo says. “The only way I care about [labels] is when it comes to getting a check. If [it] gets me a bigger check, then you can call me what you want.”
Fat check or not, the vocalist isn’t ready for listeners to smush her into one sound, however. “I think genre is so played out,” she says. She uses Beyonce’s Emmy-nominated visual album, Lemonade, as proof of this thesis, explaining how the Houston-raised singer mixes a plethora of sounds from country, pop, R&B and trap. “I thank God this is happening right now while I’m trying to make music because I don’t know what I would have done when you had to have the same style on every track. I think that there’s a spectrum to music. I don’t think there’s just categories. And on the spectrum, I’m starting to lean towards R&B-pop with a little bit of grime on it.”
Lizzo’s sound is a melting pot of genres, mixing in pop, funk, R&B, grime and rap. Songs like “Ain’t I” from her sophomore album, Big Grrrl Small World and “Werk Pt. II” from her 2013 debut album, Lizzobangers are proof of her knack for blending hardcore rhymes with pop and grime instrumentals. Her 2016 feel-good single, “Good As Hell,” which was also featured in Ice Cube’s Barbershop: The Next Cut, is the final ingredient that blends it all together.
But even after placing herself on the musical spectrum, she confesses that her position isn’t permanent. She compares her loose standing to her evolving views on feminism. “I actually have never really categorized myself,” she says. “I never called myself a feminist until people started calling me a feminist because when it comes to public labels of yourself, I don’t like to come through saying I’m something because I don’t know how it’s going to change or how it will be perceived.” But nowadays, the only perception worth giving a damn about is her own. And she’s definitely a feminist.
“[Feminism] is about fairness between men and women. I think what’s fair is equal pay. What’s fair is getting rid of rape culture and misogyny. I think that all of these other things that they throw on – ‘Y’all are man haters’ – that’s not what feminism is to me. It’s really simple; it’s what’s fair between men and women and what’s going to make all of us better.” As we’ve seen it play out with more public feminist torchbearers, aligning with the title doesn’t come without its challenges. “For a black woman, it’s not an easy thing to go, ‘Oh I’m a feminist,’ because white feminism is so exclusive. It wasn’t for us for so long,” she says. “There’s beauty in reclaiming our womanhood and being able to call yourself a feminist no matter what. Just because you didn’t read Gloria Steinem, I don’t have to go through the feminist syllabus to consider myself [one]. At this point, I feel like I’m doing what a feminist does. I’m living how a feminist lives. And I believe what feminism is about; therefore I am.”
Lizzo’s music is a testament to the movement. Singles like “My Skin,” which speaks to body positivity and self-acceptance, is one of many tracks. Her messages continue from the studio to public events like her recent show at the Planned Parenthood event at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia.
The rapper sits up in her chair when asked to look back on her experience at the DNC, pausing before spilling it all in one great exhale. “That was intense,” she says. “It was an honor because Planned Parenthood has done so much for men and women. They deal with so much hate and they’re so targeted by people who don’t really understand them. So I feel such a connection. That’s what black people go through everyday; they must understand the struggle. It was a beautiful moment because outside there was literal adversity.”
“Outside, there were people who had ‘Abortion is murder’ signs with dead fetuses. It made all of us really uncomfortable. And not in the way that they wanted us to feel uncomfortable – in a way that’s not fair to another human being. They don’t understand anyone’s experience; they don’t know why women choose to abort babies. They also don’t know that Planned Parenthood provides condoms and helps with STDs, and does so many other things than just abort babies. It’s so unfair that they’re targeted just for one part of the entire organization that does so much for women.”
— Stephanie Howse (@stephaniehowse) July 27, 2016
Despite the adversity on the outside, Lizzo delivered a stellar performance in high spirits to a crowd of fun-loving and welcoming individuals. It’s experiences like those, she asserts, that drive her to continue to speak on social issues through her actions and music. She may not be the poster child of the Black Lives Matter Movement, but she definitely doesn’t hold her breath in speaking on it. Through tweets and other posts on social media, she’s taken a stand against police brutality, and has said the names of Korryn Gaines, Alton Sterling, Philando Castille and others who have died as a result.
But when asked to comment on her motive for stepping up to the activism plate, she holds a look of confusion— one that, if she spoke in that very moment, would say: Why not? But hardly missing a beat, she says: “If you are an artist, how could you not reflect the times? And that’s Nina Simone, not me,” she clarifies. “I think it’s impossible. As an artist, we’re supposed to be emoting our feelings and turning it into art that is to be appreciated or used for healing.”
With more than 14K followers on Twitter, Lizzo understands that she has the power to influence an audience. But she wants people to know that her socially charged tweets and her music is not a ploy, but an oath to herself. “I do make my music consciously for the people,” she says. “I have dedicated myself to positive music because I feel like there’s a lack of it. But at the same time, the creation of it is so personal that I just have to be real with myself. Somehow, through the grace of God, it’s digestible.”
Lizzo thanks her producers and coaches at Atlantic Records for honing her skills thus far, but the best is yet to come. A new project is coming out at the year’s end. She’s oozing with excitement to spill all of the details concerning her third album, but when she directs her gaze onto her manager who is standing in the corner of the office, the vocalist is cautioned to hold off until later. But with a little prying, she talks about what’s in store.
The feeling when your new project has a title & sequence.. 😬👍🏿💯
— |L I Z Z O| (@lizzo) July 21, 2016
Her untitled album is an extension of her previous works, and while fans will find a parallel to Lizzobangers and Big Grrrl Small World, this time listeners will get a little taste of her gospel roots. “It didn’t really get a chance to come out in my first two projects, but now it’s gospel’s time to shine,” she laughs. The album, which she pegs as “soulful,” doesn’t include any features, although she still has her eyes set on her childhood idol, Missy Elliott. But feature or not, she’s sure the songs that made her rigorous selection process (which entails sitting in her room and listening to them over and over again), will really pop. “I’m excited about it,” she gushes. “These are the songs that connected immediately to not just me, but to the producers and my momma. We boiled all of the songs down to the flam-est; I think it’s going to be bomb.”
Lizzo is beaming from ear to ear as she goes on about the sequence of her forthcoming project. It’s nearing the end of the conversation, but it’s clear to see if she had more time to waste in her busy schedule, she could talk for at least another hour. Even though her music will take a step further, Lizzo explains her social agenda will prevail. “I just want to continue to build. It’s not just make a record and you’re done; you’re constantly moving. I want to keep making music. It’s my first love and my only love,” she says. And as a true leader of the new wave, she dedicates this next one to the black girls that rock and her BBWs.