If you’re one of the handful of pop culture luddites like me who were unfamiliar with Lizzo, I offer a brief introduction. She’s a 34-year-old internationally renowned singer, songwriter, rapper, Grammy winner, and oh-by-the-way, classically trained flutist.
She might also be called, and I don’t think she’d mind, a badass big Black woman. (She’s referred to herself as a big Black Woman—openly explaining how long it took her to love her body image.)
And now she’s driven some of the country’s far-right “influencers” to the edge of apoplexy. In their eyes, she’s an emblem of our national degradation. Why? Because she played James Madison’s crystal flute. In the Library of Congress. And later, briefly, on the stage during her act before thousands of her young fans.
Dressed in a skimpy sequiny garment, Lizzo carefully accepted the priceless instrument from the hands of a library curator. And then, joyfully, she sounded a note–and then trilled, while twerking her substantial tush—apparently, one of her customary moves.
How will the stature of President James Madison ever recover? American civilization is doomed, squeal the naysayers. And how on earth did this woman make her way into the Library of Congress (LOC) to perform this foundation-shattering act in the first place?
Answer: She was invited—by another badass Black woman (considerably smaller in size), the LOC’s librarian, Dr. Carla Hayden. I wrote about Dr. Hayden and the LOC previously. She’s an inspirational figure who came to President Obama’s attention when she headed the Baltimore library system, rebuilding it into what she called “the people’s university.”
As I noted in that post, when Hayden wondered aloud what she could bring to the LOC, Obama responded that he’d seen all the LOC’s treasures because he was the President. “What can you do to make sure that all these treasures are open to the general public?”
So that’s been part of her mandate since she began her ten-year term in 2016: to make the LOC and its hundreds of thousands of treasures more accessible to the public. Under her guidance, the LOC is a living library that speaks to generations old, young, and in between, and as diverse as America is.
When Hayden heard that Lizzo was planning to be in Washington, she tweeted to her about the LOC’s collection of 1700 flutes, which includes the priceless crystal one that had been made for James Madison—but never played by Madison or anyone else. Dolley Madison had carried it from the White House as the British entered the city in 1814. It became a family heirloom.
On the LOC blog, you can read all about the flute, one of 17 created by a French craftsman named Laurent that form part of the library’s collection. The article stresses that the library’s curators made sure it could be safely played without damage.
“This sort of thing is not as unusual as it might sound. Many of the Library’s priceless musical instruments are played now and again—even the five-stringed instruments by Antonio Stradivari.”
On this link, you can also watch and listen to Lizzo’s thrilling performance on a “more practical flute.” With the backdrop of that magnificent building, Lizzo transformed that “more practical flute” into one imbued with a bit of magic.
As April Slayton, the LOC blog writer, described:
“Cameras snapped and video rolled. For your friendly national library, this was a perfect moment to show a new generation how we preserve the country’s rich cultural heritage. The Library’s vision is that all Americans are connected to our holdings. We want people to see them.”
Similar care was given to transporting the Madison flute to Lizzo’s concert.
“When Library curator Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford walked the instrument onstage and handed it to Lizzo to a roar of applause, it was just the last, most visible step of our security package. This work by a team of backstage professionals enabled an enraptured audience to learn about the Library’s treasures in an exciting way.
“’As some of y’all may know I got invited to the Library of Congress,’ Lizzo said, after placing her own flute (named Sasha Flute) down on its sparkling pedestal, which had emerged minutes earlier from the center of the stage. Following the aforementioned, highly popular Twitter exchange between Lizzo the Librarian of Congress, the crowd knew what was coming.
“‘I want everybody to make some noise for James Madison’s crystal flute, y’all!’ They made more noise than the instrument, having been at the Library for 81 years, has been exposed to in quite some time. Maybe ever.
“She took it gingerly from Ward-Bamford’s hands, walked over to the mic and admitted: ‘I’m scared.’ She also urged the crowd to be patient. ‘It’s crystal, it’s like playing out of a wine glass!'”
Then she trilled—and twerked.
“’We just made history tonight!” she exclaimed. ‘Thank you to the Library of Congress for preserving our history and making history freaking cool! History is freaking cool, you guys!’”
This was not the history certain segments of the population want America’s school children to learn.
Forbes, which I think of as a fairly mainstream, business-oriented publication, ran two articles about the Lizzo brouhaha.
One piece bore the title “Lizzo Plays A 200-Year-Old Crystal Flute, Accidentally Summons A Swarm of Trolls.”
The writer quotes several of the snarlers. Jenna Ellis, a former Trump lawyer who might do well to lower her profile these days, called Lizzo’s performance “a desecration, purposefully, of America’s history.” Matt Walsh, a “right-wing influencer,” labeled it “a form of racial retribution, according to the woke left.” You get the idea.
The second Forbes article, “Why Lizzo Playing A Flute From The Library of Congress Is Important,” addressed some substantive issues.
“Lizzo bringing greater attention to instrumental music, and playing the flute as a highly popular entertainer is vital, especially for young children watching who might not be able to envision themselves as musicians.
“Participation in the arts is associated with an increase in academic achievement, enhanced cognitive skills, increased creative thinking, a greater sense of belonging in school, and perhaps most important, a greater compassion for others. According to The College Board, students in music performance and music appreciation scored 57 points higher on verbal and 43 points higher on math [on the SAT] than students with little arts participation.”
The writer points out that education budgets for music and art are generally small–even more so in schools in disadvantaged areas. A National Endowment for the Arts study found that at-risk kids who had minimal involvement in the arts were far less likely to go to college than those who’d had “intensive arts involvement” (48 percent compared to 71 percent).
“Moderate arts involvement matters to students, but greater exposure and involvement is more powerful and allows for lifetime benefits. Despite criticism from some circles, Lizzo is bringing much needed, large-scale, attention to instrumental music at a time when the nation needs it most. Moreover, her actions showcased the history of music and the Library of Congress’s larger collection for larger audiences across the nation.”
Role models matter. As I noted in my earlier post, Carla Hayden has said her love of books and learning was nurtured in no small measure by a book titled “Bright April” that was her first glimpse of a work about a little girl who looked like her.
How lovely it would be if some of the kids who were wowed by Lizzo’s discussion, playing, and introduction to “freaking cool history” were inspired to move in a new direction.
Sunny Hostin, one of the hosts on the TV program The View, observed about Lizzo:
“This is the promise of America. You have a slave’s [descendant] playing the 200-year-[old] flute by someone who was a slave master.”
“Racial retribution”? Good grief! If this is racial retribution, let’s be grateful that in 2022, the non-violent movement has been expanded by a powerful new symbol: a big, immensely talented Black woman joyfully, musically twerking.
PS: Preventing the Library of Congress’s funding from being slashed by small-minded Republicans is just another of the zillion reasons we must vote to elect Democratic majorities on November 8th!