By Lisa Butterworth
Photos by Asha Efia
This interview was previously published in Issue 04 of Got a Girl Crush Magazine (on sale now in the shop!).
“People like us can change the world,” Lizzo, née Melissa Jefferson, says into the microphone, addressing a rapt audience at Pittsburgh’s Stage AE venue. And for that moment you can tell that the crowd believes it, that we think we can. The Houston-bred, Minneapolis-based rapper with a bring-the-house-down singing voice has just finished performing one of her newer songs, “My Skin,” during an opening set for Sleater-Kinney. She had the lights lowered, asked everyone to light up their smartphones (the modern-day equivalent of actual cigarette lighters), and declared, fist raised, that “Black lives matter”—a powerful moment that sent chills down at least one spectator’s spine (mine). But even if you had never heard of the self-declared “big girl” in a “small world,” or her 2013 debut album Lizzobangers, full of catchy and politically charged songs, you probably wouldn’t be surprised by this powerhouse performance. Because when Lizzo takes the stage, you can tell something epic is going to happen. On this occasion, the 26-year-old bounded out to the Star Wars theme song, her big blonde, crimped wig undulating. She wore all black, but she seemed to light up from within. Between her feminism, fresh-to-death talent, and body positivity (if you haven’t seen the StyleLikeU video in which she movingly strips down, Google it immediately), it’s no surprise she was tapped by Sleater-Kinney to open the East Coast leg of their hotly anticipated tour. But we’re pretty sure this is just the beginning of her global domination. Because even though the crowd’s belief that they can change the world probably waned as they filed out of the venue, there is no doubt about Lizzo’s ability to do so. It’s a sentiment that was strengthened when we caught up with her by phone several weeks later and she got real about everything from the true meaning of happiness and music as activism to bullshit beauty standards and always stopping to smell the roses.
I got to see you open for Sleater-Kinney in Pittsburgh. It was such a powerful performance, sometimes the opening act doesn’t get much attention, but you had the crowd in the palm of your hand.
Aw, well, thank you. I was just doing my job, you know what I mean? All in a night’s work. I don’t know how other support acts do it, but we just totally immerse ourselves in the moment and share energy with all those people who are staring up at us.
Did you know Sleater-Kinney before going on the tour?
No, I knew Corin’s husband Lance Bangs but I didn’t know any of them. They heard my music from Katie who’s their auxiliary musician, the fourth member of Sleater-Kinney, and they asked me to come along. It’s funny, everyone’s like, “How did this happen?!” There’s no actual story behind it except for it’s a small world.
I got one of your hats at the show, which says GRRRL on it, because I loved your set but also because the Riot Grrrl movement was really important to me. Is that an intentional reference?
It wasn’t intentional. It’s funny how that came about. Our crew, we were doing these things called Girl Parties. We decided to drop the vowel and then someone suggested that we put three Rs because there are three of us in the group. Then our manager was like, “Hey, do you guys know about the Riot Grrrl movement?” and sent us all of this literature. Then our DJ was like, “You guys have to watch [Kathleen Hanna’s documentary] The Punk Singer and you guys have to know what is going on right now,” and from then on I was into it. We do represent and stand for the things that the women of the Riot Grrrl movement stood for and represented. It’s like we just caught something in the universe and held onto it and perpetuated it.
Have you always been a musical person? What were you like as a kid?
I was a bookish child; I really liked reading and writing—fictional stories, fantasy novels. I was really into astronomy and stars and I wanted to be either an astronomer or a writer. Everyone else in my family was so much more musically inclined than I was. But I played flute from fifth grade to college and I went to school for music performance in flute, so that’s when music started to take over. From there I took my literature skills and utilized them musically by writing poems and songs—pop songs, R&B songs.
It’s cool that you were able to combine your talents like that.
When you’re a kid and you’re just doing what feels good, your impulses are so much more readily available to move with, versus when you’re an adult and you’re like, “Aww, I really want to do this but I got bills to pay.” So I was just going slow in a sense and a lot of times against the grain. Like, singing was something that I had just decided to not do. I was like, “I’m not the best singer so I’m just not gonna sing.” [Laughs] And then eventually I broke when I was 19. I was like, “Dude, I’m gonna sing, I don’t care. This is what I want to do.” I keep just looking back like, It’s really working out! [Laughs]
Do you feel like Minneapolis has played a big role in the musician that you’ve become?
Oh yeah, the way that they support arts here, I’ve never seen anything like it. They just want to discover all the time, versus other places where they don’t want to know about someone they’ve never heard of. Here they just dig and dig and dig in the folds of the music scene and they find these jewels and gems. I mean, I wasn’t hiding by no means—my personality and what I was doing, I was kind of sticking out like a sore thumb. But also the collaborative nature of the artists here challenges you to step outside the box, because an electronic producer will hit you up and be like, “I want you to rap or I want you to just make dolphin noises on this song,” or a hardcore noise band will have a rap blitz and bring all the local rappers on stage. Everyone is dipping and double dipping, it’s delicious. That helped me break a lot of mental barriers that I had about what it means to be a performing artist. And it also gave me this huge confidence boost because people were like, “You’re good, play here, get on this song, do this, be in this video,” and I was like, “Okay!” Doing everything that I could cause YOLO, you know? [Laughs] I did it, Minneapolis just put the cherry on top of the sundae.
You cover a lot of ground in your songs from race to gender to LGBT rights. Do you consider your music a form of activism?
That’s an interesting question. I’m not trying to be anything but myself and anything but free and I feel like a lot of times when people are like, “Oh, this is my song about so-and-so,” it can get really contrived. I want my art to always be an extension of my soul and how I feel and I never want it to be something that people put in a box or put on a pedestal. So I don’t want to say that my music is a form of activism ’cause I didn’t intend on that. Choosing to use my field as a forum to speak on things that I want to speak on, that I am unhappy with, or that need to change is the activism in my work. The music is always going to be an extension of that so sometimes if it touches you or it moves you then yes, and if it doesn’t and you just want to dance to it, then it is what it is. I really don’t want to be a one-trick pony; I don’t want to be that “activist rapper.” I want to be a musician and an artist that you can enjoy and that you feel. So if I’m like, “The rent is just too damn high,” and I make a song about the rent being too damn high then people will feel it. If I’m like, “Man, I look good tonight,” and I make a song about that I want them to feel that. I don’t want them to be like, “Well, why isn’t she talking about so-and-so anymore?” I’m speaking on how I feel and right now the world is in such an energy spike and everything is going through it. I’m gonna speak on it, I’m gonna put it in my music, but when all is right, or when all has changed, you’re gonna hear the change too.
People probably really connect with what you’re singing and rapping about. Do they ever share that with you?
Oh yeah, they definitely do. I get it a lot from women who look like me, thicker girls. They’re always like, “Thank you for just being you.” A lot of people are moved by me being able to say, “Black lives matter” on stage—people of all races. It’s really humbling. And it just motivates me to continue to be me.
I want to ask about your StyleLikeU “What’s Underneath” video. Why did you decide to do it and did it change the way you feel?
I didn’t know that I would have to take off my clothes. [Laughs] So the day of I was kind of underdressed. They were like, “Oh yeah, you’re supposed to have a certain amount of layers.” And I was like, “Oh my God, well, I guess I have my hair I could take off.” And that was scary. Doing that video kind of changed the game for me. It made me feel like, Well, anyone who wants to see what I look like in my bra and panties and no wig can go online and see this video. And that gave me this new sense of owning it that I’d never had before. All my music post making that video has been a reflection of that. It was a crazy pivotal moment. As women we are put in this world that has outrageous standards and these crazy fixed rules, and a lot of them are just bullshit. And I feel like all of my insecurities are born from that. I came into this world a happy, chubby brown baby with really kinky hair and grew up hating all of it. And now I can appreciate it and I feel like because I’m an artist and because there are people who listen to my music and look at me and are inspired by what I’m doing, it’s my job to love that and to help other people overcome and love that too.
You seem to have such a sunny disposition. Is that something that comes naturally to you?
It’s so weird. You’re you for so long that you don’t know how people perceive you and it’s just hard to even imagine. My friend in L.A., he was like, “You’re just always happy, huh.” I’m like, “Am I happy? Is this happy?” But I feel like my sunny disposition, which I appreciate, just comes from the way that I view the world. I find humor in a lot of things. I do get sad though, I do. I get really sad when I’m alone, and that’s something I need to work on. And I get really down on tour in between shows. But when I get around other human beings, especially people I’ve never met before, their energy excites me; I definitely feed and exchange energy. Then there are people who’ve known me for a while, like my mom, we know each other’s energies and sometimes I’m allowed to be mopey around her. So yeah, thank God I’m happy because the field that we’re in, I mean, we’re doing what we love every day so you can’t complain, but it is really emotionally taxing ’cause you’re giving so much. So I’m glad you think I’m happy ’cause I’m really trying to be. [Laughs]
Speaking of your mom, I saw your performance on Letterman and it looked like you maybe said hi to her on the air at the end?
I did. [Laughs]
That was so cute. Is she a big influence in your life?
Yeah, my mom is amazing; she’s a rock. She sang a lot when we were kids, and she still sings a lot. My mom is definitely where all my musicality, where the power comes from. And I just wanted to really, really, really stick it in the ground that that was my first national television debut. I want everyone to know that this is like the coolest thing in the world—“Hi Mom! I’m hugging David Letterman! I’m actin’ a fool.” [Laughs] for a very long time I’ve been going through the motions. Everyone’s always like, “You’re never freaked out,” or “You’re never star struck, you live like you’ve done all this before.” Well that’s good and it’s gotten me somewhere but then I don’t stop and smell the roses. So now I’m at this point in my career where I’m stopping to freak out and geek out and I’m gonna act like I’ve never been here before because it’s gonna pass and I want to enjoy it. [Laughs]
Lizzo is currently touring with HAIM on their "Sister Sister Sister" tour. You can find her on her website, Instagram, and Twitter. This interview was originally published in Issue 04 of our print magazine. Read our sold-out issues online through Issuu!