“I can speak a little German,” Lizzo told the packed hall in Cologne’s Palladium on Wednesday night. “Ich liebe dich!” I love you!
Musicians tend to love their audiences. Their career depends on their fans, after all. But on the first stop in Germany on her Cuz I Love You tour, the US rapper and singer-songwriter was preaching a different type of love — self-love.
In a shining silver corset and backed by reflective-Lycra-clad dancers, Lizzo unleashed powerful, searing vocals, hyper-energetic choreography that included plenty of booty shaking, and pumped up talk about embracing yourself and others. The evening was an empowering musical celebration of self-affirmation that has helped earn Lizzo legions of enthusiastic fans around the world.
Lizzo radiates a combination of class, sass and positivity, all mixed together with an unapologetic in-your-face attitude, both in performances and press appearances alike. One week before coming to Germany, she appeared on the cover of the British Vogue December issue dressed in a curvaceously cut-out black Versace gown, her silhouette accented by prismatic colors and long nails.
It’s an image she herself could have used growing up. “When you don’t see yourself, you start to think something’s wrong with you,” she told Vogue, adding that the lack of visual representation of larger women of color took a greater psychological toll on her than she could have imagined.
Scrapped skin brings love
Born Melissa Viviane Jefferson in April 1988, Lizzo grew up in Detroit and Houston and started rapping as a teen. She studied classical flute performance at university in Texas before moving to Minneapolis, where she got involved in the rap and hip-hop scene around 2011. She released her first album, Lizzobangers, in 2013.
While Lizzo has become a messenger for loving your own body, she was not always comfortable in hers, and her personal journey from shaming her body to embracing it began not with a glamorous photo shoot but with a traumatic accident.
In an interview with US public radio broadcaster NPR, Lizzo said she had been swinging on a rope into a river when the rope suddenly broke and she flew to the ground, severely scrapping herself up. While she was healing, she realized then that her skin was her favorite thing about herself.
“It was in that moment where I realized I damaged my skin where I saw the value in it. And that was the first time I’d ever discovered my body love,” she said. The revelation inspired her song “My Skin” about learning to love one’s own body as it is.
“I love you, don’t forget it, you beautiful Black masterpiece!” she sings.
The single appeared on Lizzo’s second studio album, Big GRRRL Small World (2015), which was “all about self-love,” she told Urbanology. Vulnerability and strength were key themes of her third studio album, Cuz I Love You (2019), which launched her mainstream success and featured the hit lead single “Juice.” The album cover was a photo of her seated naked, her skin glowing, as she looks straight into the camera, at once exposed yet entirely self-possessed.
In between these longer studio albums came her 2016 6-track EP Coconut Oil, the first compilation with a purposeful overarching message of self-care. The lead single, “Good as Hell,” encourages a woman to do up her hair and nails and leave a failed relationship. “If he don’t love you anymore / Just walk your fine ass out the door,” she sings.
The title Coconut Oil, also the name of another single on the EP, speaks directly to Lizzo’s identity as a black woman. Coconut oil is moisturizing beauty product that some black women, including Lizzo, according to interviews, use as hair conditioner.
While Lizzo clearly sees herself as representing a black female community, she does not see her identity and her public role as exclusively bound by one category.
“I do feel a responsibility as a woman of color to make music that represents them. I also feel a responsibility to do other things. I’m a feminist. I’m a fat person. So, I need to be representing those people too, you know,” she told Urbanology magazine.
Her refusal to reduce herself to a single thing and her vocal celebration of diversity, including sexual and gender diversity, has led many to embrace her as an empowering role model.
Yet her broad popularity hasn’t kept some from critically questioning how she can consider herself a feminist when she has appeared nude in photographs and performs in lingerie costumes, such as her sequined bra-and-underwear outfit in the overtly sexual “Tempo.”
In response, Lizzo has pointed out that feminism has evolved overtime, with women moving from rejecting sexualization in the past to commanding it in the present. She has underlined that female bodies are positioned differently in public depending on a woman’s physical appearance.
“I feel like women who are smaller aren’t really given the opportunities to be body-positive or role models either because we’ve been conditioned to believe that women are using their bodies for the male gaze,” she told NPR.
As a large black woman, performing in tight, minimal clothing is an act of her fully defining herself, rather than an act of her selling herself with it, as it could be in other instances or eras.
“Get on this ride, baby, you gon’ have to buckle up / Thick thighs save lives, call me little buttercup / All means necessary / My ass is not an accessorary [sic],” she sings in “Tempo.”
For Lizzo, body positivity is not about trying to sell one certain image or getting others to love her as some ideal representation. It is about getting each individual to love themselves.
“I’m not trying to sell you me,” she said in the recent Vogue article. “I’m trying to sell you, you.”