Lizzo's Duet With History (and Madison's Crystal Flute)Roundup
tags: James Madison, pop music, popular culture, Lizzo
Grace McGowan is a PhD candidate at Boston University in the American & New England Studies Program. She took her undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature from University of Oxford in 2017. Her work explores how Black women writers use the classical tradition from Ancient Greece and Rome in their writing.
Dr. Ravynn K. Stringfield is an author, scholar and artist based in Virginia. She holds a Ph.D. in American Studies from William & Mary. Her research focuses on Black women and girls as creators and protagonists of new media narratives that are futuristic, fantastic and/or digital in nature.
At her Washington DC concert on September 27, 2022, musician and pop superstar Lizzo played a 200-year-old crystal flute that once belonged to James Madison onstage in front of an audience of thousands. While living in the White House, Madison continued to own and operate his Montpelier plantation in Virginia, where he enslaved over 300 Black men, women, and children. As a Black woman performer, Lizzo’s act of playing the crystal flute of an enslaver and former president in the nation’s capital created a moment of rupture in cultural history, bringing foundational questions about the very nature of history to the forefront. By playing this flute, Lizzo linked herself inextricably to the instrument and its historical provenance.
The performance forced Americans to revisit several questions: who “owns” American history? Who tells the story of American antiquities? Who do these objects and instruments, and by extension, their histories “belong” to? And how do these histories exclude the stories and presence of Black people? Through her performance, Lizzo remixed American history and inserted herself into the story of the Founders. In doing so, she also centered joy, fun, and pleasure in a way that resisted and reappropriated a white supremacist historical and cultural imagination around musical practice. Her duet with history recast a musical object traditionally associated with white wealth, power, and hegemony with Black joy and excellence. Through this, she imagined new ways of interacting with historical objects and telling their stories.
Lizzo engaged not just in self-making, particularly in her self-expression as a musician, but also history and even nation-making. As a classically trained flutist, and self-identified band geek, Lizzo brought together multiple musical influences in this moment onstage: from rap and hip-hop to American college band culture to classical flute music. This allowed her to center joy and pleasure in the experiencing, making, and learning of history. Although Black womanist scholars and thinkers have long insisted on the centrality and importance of pleasure, public celebrations of Black joy as radical politics have been increasing in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although there remain arguments about the extent to which joy can be, or should be, the antidote to white supremacy, introducing joy and enthusiasm to interactions with historical objects on this scale has an inarguable effect on how we imagine the lives of American antiquities. Through this performance, Lizzo became an educator, a connecting force, to the Founders and their historical moments, in a way that is unorthodox to traditional understandings of how archives and antiquities are interacted with, and by whom.
As a Black woman, Lizzo’s playing of this particular flute is subversive. Claude Laurent, a Parisian mechanic, made the flute at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Until Lizzo’s performance, the flute had never been played; it served instead as a marker of wealth, luxury, and exclusivity. It was an object to be admired only in leisure moments, moments that white supremacy and the institution of slavery forbade Black people from accessing. The history of classical music is itself rife with racism and elitism, and these spaces remain largely white to the exclusion of Black Americans. Lizzo played the flute to signal her expertise and proficiency in the overwhelmingly white space of classical music and historic archives.