Hearing Lizzo, Reading Lorde

This references Audre Lorde’s “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action” (1977), “Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power” (1978), and “The Uses of Anger: Responding to Racism” (1981), as compiled in “Your Silence Will Not Protect You,” published in 2017 by Silver Press.

Audre Lorde (Joan E Biren, 1980) and Lizzo (Theo Wargo, Getty Images, 2019)

The first time Lizzo made me cry I was alone in a darkened hotel room, illuminated by the television, which until a few moments before had been casting a red glow over the bed as election results came in on November 8, 2016. My work for an urban planning company had taken me to Fontana, California. By day, my coworkers and I surveyed the areas around schools and interviewed parents to assess the walk- and bike-ability of the sprawling suburb. It was almost always terrible. Wide, straight 4-lane roads were saddled with speeding cars and 18-wheelers from huge warehouses in the neighborhood. Compounding the roads hazards is some of the worst air quality in the country, the San Bernardino mountains trapping the pollution blown 60 miles east from Los Angeles. Administrators and teachers at the elementary schools we surveyed told us their students were terrified a would-be President Trump would separate them from their undocumented parents. 

Once the electoral college sealed our fate, I started flipping channels and caught the end of Samantha Bee’s show. She wore a magnificent sequined blue blazer befitting a would-be celebration of the first female president. Standing amongst the audience, she stared at us through the camera and told us to get to work before introducing Lizzo. The camera panned to the all-blue, all-woman stage. A glitter-faced saxophonist, trombonist, and trumpeter in sky blue tuxedos held a low, rumbling chord. A DJ and two dancers in cobalt unitards stood with their hands over their hearts. Lizzo opened with the first verse of Lift Every Voice and Sing:

Lift ev’ry voice and sing,
‘Til earth and heaven ring,
Ring with the harmonies of Liberty;
Let our rejoicing rise
High as the list’ning skies,
Let it resound loud as the rolling sea.
Sing a song full of the faith that the dark past has taught us,
Sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us;
Facing the rising sun of our new day begun,
Let us march on ’til victory is won.

Black music again provided an election soundtrack, albeit a sharp departure from the rejoicing gospel choir in Georgia broadcast into my living room in 2008. My sister and I drank celebratory beers on the couch in my house at university, the joy of the choir contagious and Obama’s tagline- “hope” -feeling very real. Eight years later, the first black president was to be succeeded by an undignified sexual predator too stupid to restrict his white supremacy to dog whistles. The new day was still the dark past, and victory was not won.

Lizzo’s voice is steady and clear. She sounds brave. Her voice dips lower, into a minor key of the dark past, and starts to crescendo at “sing a song full of the hope that the present has brought us.” She draws out the last, plaintive note, and starts to beam. She looks beautiful. Lizzo breaks her stoic stance by straightening her elbow, giving the arm holding her mic a quick rest. Her smile fades, then drops abruptly. Her face, for a split second, is deadly serious. She knows what she is about to do for this hope-drained audience. A photo montage of women in the US, including outgoing FLOTUS Michelle Obama, begins on the screen behind the band. The lights brighten and reflect off her sparkly pale turquoise leotard, her perfect complementary color. She and her dancers start moving, and over those first unmistakably bright chords of “Good as Hell,” she tells us the only person who can make America great is “you.” 

“Good as Hell” is a best friend building you up after a man lets you down. She takes you out and tells you to not take his shit. Lizzo’s resolute voice betrayed anger as she nearly spat “Boss up and change your life. I know we did this wrong, we can make it right.” Her (very cute) DJ provides backing vocals and stands behind Lizzo as Lizzo shakes her ass. She straightens up, the lyrics slow down, “cause he don’t love you anymore…” The music cuts out, and her voice soars. “…so walk your fine ass out the door.” She holds the door, and goosebumps rise in a wave across my body. The slow, quiet cry that started with the opening line of Lift Every Voice and Sing erupts into full-blown sobbing. As I watch the video approaching two dozen times to write this, three years later, it has the same effect on me, except by the fourth time my eyes just water. 

The second time Lizzo made me cry I was standing in the balcony at the O2 Kentish Town in May 2019, and over the driving first chords of “Cuz I Love You”-huge, like heavy metal, or opera, Lizzo strutted out, in a bright red leotard in front of a very female audience of 2,300. We all started screaming. Lizzo’s voice gives me deep chills, like water poured down my spine. Hearing this phenomenon in person, though, high up in an old theater filled with collective female ecstasy proved overwhelming. I burst into tears, to the amusement of another solo woman I befriended a few minutes before.

Many of Lizzo’s songs are in the same vein of “Good as Hell.” There’s anger in them- she has been wronged, mistreated, disrespected. She sings at us, to herself, at the man who is the source of her angst, but doesn’t dwell on him. She’s pissed but knows her worth, and is going to waste absolutely no more time on this bullshit. Instead of feeling sorry for herself, she instructs you how to eat her pussy, and celebrates the best partner she’s ever had-herself. In between songs, she told us “Whenever someone has a breakup, no matter the conditions, I always say congratulations.” Your heart will heal and you’ll be ok, but there you are, with the chance to make your life whatever you want it to be. She and her four spandexed Big Grrrls infect us with their ass-centric dancing, and neither they nor the audience stop moving.

Between the second and third times Lizzo made me cry, a freak event blew through my life like a maelstrom. A few weeks after the second time Lizzo made me cry, I fought and lost to five young men after they circled my date and me late at night on a London bus. As the bruising and pounding concussion symptoms faded, a photograph of it went globally viral, like a photo of bloodied white women would, catapulting the summer into an invasive, dystopic, exhausting episode. The incident plumbed in me a simmering rage, mostly impotent and unproductive, which at its peak landed me a night in jail scratching “ACAB” all over my cell. Otherwise, much of the summer was spent getting stoned and walking Regents Canal alone past dark, and struggling to write a master’s dissertation. I channeled my anger to worthwhile ends only twice: the first, in an op-ed criticising how the excessive media coverage both privileged and exploited us, and the second in a speech delivered on the Women’s Stage at London Pride lambasting the event for its pinkwashed corporate sponsorship, police presence, and lack of meaningful activism. Then the sensation faded, as all viral stories do, and was forgotten. 

By October I used all my free therapy sessions, was no longer terrified of groups of teenage boys, and carried on with my otherwise-good life. But I didn’t feel resolved. Not about the bus incident in and of itself (as I write this, the trial for the boys starts in 4 days, and I do not give a fuck about them). It wasn’t the first time I had confronted males harassing, assaulting, or stalking me or women around me. I am not shy, but valued my anonymity and privacy. The sudden exposure was terrifying, but having my angry op-ed widely shared, delivering an angry political speech, and, fuck it, even getting arrested, made me less afraid. I gained confidence and lost fear, but didn’t know what to do with this revelatory power, and felt unqualified to speak on anything else.

In early fall, I went back to the US for a visit. On the flight from London and during my two weeks of travelling, I filled my time reading, and re-reading, a collection of Audre Lorde. Black, lesbian, feminist, mother, she had much to be angry about from the time of her birth in 1934 in New York City to her death in 1992. Many of the essays in the collection were first delivered as keynote speeches or remarks at conferences to largely white audiences. She unapologetically holds everyone to account. In 1977, two months after a cancer diagnosis, her paper “The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action,” delivered at the Modern Language Association’s Lesbian and Literature Panel, demands her white colleagues to confront in themselves their silence in the face of racism, sexism, and homophobia they ostensibly oppose, yet force her to address and bear their emotional burden:

What are the words you do not yet have? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence? Perhaps for some of you here today, I am the face of one of your fears. Because I am woman, because I am Black, because I am lesbian, because I am myself-a Black woman warrior poet doing my work-come to ask you, are you doing yours?

Lorde neither denies nor represses her anger. Instead, as described in “The Uses of Anger: Responding to Racism” she translates her “well-stocked arsenal” “into action in the service of our vision and our future…a liberating and strengthening act of clarification, for it is in the painful process of this translation that we identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies.” Her words are precise as scalpels, slicing the tissue of capitalist and white supremacist society to reveal its insidious rot. How could she be anything but furious? Lives like hers remain the most devalued, and Lorde catalogues the wide-ranging, brutal evidence of this most damningly in her poems.  

Anger is a necessity in driving any narrative around oppression. Speaking about racism in the same essay, Lorde insists

the discussion must be direct and creative because it is crucial. We cannot allow our fear of anger to deflect us nor seduce us into settling for anything less than the hard work of excavating honesty; we must be quite serious about the choice of this topic and the angers entwined within it because, rest assured, our opponents are quite serious about their hatred of us and of what we are trying to do here.

But, Lorde teaches us, it is not just anger suppressed that compromises one’s work. Before reading “Uses of the Erotic: the Erotic as Power,” I lacked the vocabulary to fully describe the depths of Lizzo’s artistry as songwriter and live performer. It is that amalgamation of distinct femaleness, self-respect, and the “deep and irreplaceable knowledge of my capacity for joy” Lorde names the erotic, which “comes to demand from all of my life that it be lived within the knowledge that such satisfaction is possible.” It is rooted in self-connection, but for Lorde also provided

the power which comes from sharing deeply any pursuit with another person. The sharing of joy, whether physical, emotional, psychic, or intellectual, forms a bridge between sharers which can be the basis for understanding much of what is not shared between them, and lessens the threat of their difference.

Lizzo’s eroticism-now that I have the right word for it-is exuded in her concerts. It encompasses but extends beyond her sexuality, and is not just a stage gimmick to spellbind her audiences. In interviews, she describes the long process (going to therapy, recovering from a bad fall) it took to fully love herself especially, not despite, her big body and dark skin: “the thing that I like about myself the most is the thing that’s weaponized against us.” She promotes real self-love and care, the kind Audre Lorde referred to during her second battle with cancer, in which caring for herself, in the face of disease and a society that devalued her life because of her gender, sexual orientation, and race, was a radical political act. In recent years this concept has been perverted by brands “empowering” women via targeted ads for yoga pants and moisturizers. 

The third time Lizzo made me cry was six months after the second time. I was at the back in a crowd of 5,000 at the O2 Brixton, the second audience of such a size in that many nights. I met up with the lady who had hugged me when I burst into tears at the concert in spring. We all screamed again, and chanted her name. The Big Grrrls again dazzled us with their athletic routines and kept us in perpetual motion. Lizzo’s leotard-based costumes were commensurately glammed up for the bigger crowd-a lavender feathered robe she lounged around the stage in for “Lingerie,” and sequined gold pants: “100%” across her ass, “THAT” on one thigh, “BITCH” down the other. 

She makes it look effortless, but the show must be exhausting. She hits and holds all the high notes. Her big voice doesn’t break once and she never sounds out of breath despite extremely aerobic twerking. She talks to us between songs, above her long-time DJ Sophia Eris’ (herself a talented rapper) seamless interludes. She tells us about blocking the Jerome of her album after he DM’d her. We scream. She asks where all the big bitches are. There are many screams. She tells us that tonight we’re all big bitches. We all scream. Collectively, we know all the words to her songs and are feeling ourselves. She tells us to give it up for all the black British girls. We scream. We listen to her tell us to take care of each other, to take care of ourselves, because there’s a lot in the world to be fighting and it’s enough to get a bitch down. She is pro-black, pro-queer, pro-us, pro-herself, and we scream assent at everything that comes out of her mouth. On this night, the O2 Brixton is church, we are worshippers, and Lizzo is the rapture. 

Lizzo didn’t believe herself destined for superstardom. She explained in a Rolling Stone interview Cuz I Love You is the result of honing her multi-genre talents, learning to be vulnerable through therapy, and nurturing unconditional love for herself. It is deeply erotic, and to use Lorde’s words again, a “liberating and strengthening act of clarification” impossible without realization of her anger precipitated by the events she sings about on the album. 

Inspired and taught by these two women, I am learning to transform my silences into words and action. Like Lorde, I find myself in academia for the next few years, led here in part by my experiences working for the urban planning company. My complicity in the US military-industrial complex for four years and privileges that landed me at a university confer a responsibility to wield my own scalpel. My research must peel back the necrotic layers of our white supremacist, capitalist society manifested in the wholesale of cities’ infrastructure and land to billionaire developers and multinational corporations, enabled by the governments looking for higher tax revenues at the expense of their constituents’ ability to live there. This work is fueled by anger caused by the injustice and violence of the privatization of the once-public, but it is not without joy. It connects me to my neighbors and forces me to be active in my community. When talking about it with acquaintances from different backgrounds I am surprised by the voluble examples from their own cities’ deliberate ruin. The author Reni Eddo-Lodge, in her preface to Lorde’s collection (“Your Silence Will Not Protect You”) describes adding her voice to a great chorus working towards change. I draw strength from joining such a chorus-it’s harder to drown out. Listening to Lizzo and reading Audre Lorde brought forth internal clarity in the wake of a bizarre life experience, and I can start doing my work.

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