Lizzo, Whitney Houston, and The Curious Case of “Racial Transcendence”

Home Culture and Entertainment Lizzo, Whitney Houston, and The Curious Case of “Racial Transcendence”

We should be taking white audiences to task for seeking to divorce Black artists from their race instead of critiquing artists like Lizzo and Whitney for their contributions to pop.

When Prince died April 21, 2016, many a music fan was completely caught off guard. Tributes flooded any and every social media platform. The Eiffel Tower lit up purple. It’s a day that’s pretty hard to forget. I distinctly remember canceling all my plans to cry into a half-eaten container of Talenti Southern Butter Pecan gelato and wail to tracks like “Raspberry Beret” and “1999”. But amid our collective grief, an interesting phrase popped up to eulogize the legendary Purple One. And what was this magical phrase, my dear reader?

It was that THE Prince Roger Nelson had, somehow, “transcended” race.

The phrase was irksome at best, virulently anti-Black at worst, and was, of course, plainly untrue if you look at his life, his music, and particularly, his commitment to bringing Black women to the top with him. Reality didn’t stop news pundits from parading around the wretched phrase and they would do so again when Muhammed Ali died two months later, a declaration made bitterly ironic by the late boxer and anti-war activist’s dwindling appearances due to the progression of Parkinson’s disease.

It’s a phrase that I abhor and that I suspect other Black people do as well. But it is one that has become increasingly relevant as the years have gone by and as discourse on pop culture has become more accessible, thanks in part to the advent of social media. One way to track such discourse is by looking at pop songstress and rapper Lizzo, who has become an undeniable lightning rod when it comes to conversations about Black entertainers chasing “mainstream” success and the idea of “selling out” audiences. However, such discourse always conveniently leaves out that Lizzo’s supposedly “newfound” fame is quite literally ten long years in the making.

Who is Lizzo?


Born Melissa Viviane Jefferson in Detroit, Michigan on April 27, 1988, Lizzo would later move to Minneapolis at the age of 21 to pursue music full-time. But music had always been something on her mind and heart, starting with the founding of girl group Cornrow Clique with her friends at age 14 and her decision to study classical music—with a concentration on the flute—at the University of Houston. After her move to Minneapolis and battling homelessness, Lizzo took methodical, yet collaborative steps to break into the music industry. Such steps included the formation of the rap/R&B girl group Chalice before she would go solo and release her debut hip-hop album Lizzobangers—which generated glowing reviews from outlets like The Guardian and landed her at the top of Star Tribune’s Twin Cities Critics Tally in 2013. The chatter around the budding star continued when she landed on Time’s “14 music artists to watch list” in 2014 and performed alongside former Chalice bandmates Claire de Lune and Sophia Eris on “BoyTrouble”, a song from 3rdEyeGirl and, you guessed it, Prince’s Plectrumelectrum album that same year.

Rubbing elbows with the Purple One proved to be a good omen for her, particularly because she would go on to be the musical guest on Late Show with David Letterman that year and then release her second studio album, Big Grrrl Small World—landing her on Spin’s list for “50 Best Hip-Hop Albums of 2015”. She would sign with Atlantic Records the following year and celebrate her first-major record label release with the EP known as Coconut Oil. Critics at the time praised it, but also noted that while it departed from the artist’s usual Hip-Hop/R&B fare, it retained those roots and instead sought to incorporate messages that “explor[ed] themes of body positivity, self-love, and the journey to those ideals”. But her breakthrough would not truly arrive until 2019, as noted by Taylor Crumpton of Okayplayer, when “Truth Hurts”—which was originally released in 2017 and then re-released this year as a part of her Cuz I Love You album—was heavily featured in the Netflix’s Someone Great and gleefully embraced by Vine-reincarnation TikTok, to incredibly viral results. And lead to her well-deserved spot on at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100.

On the thin line, Black musicians must straddle for “mainstream” success

Lizzo’s journey is one that shows someone who is a proud musical nerd, someone who holds deep-rooted respect for hip-hop/rap and R&B, and someone who has no problem with paying and exceeding her dues in the business while showing a clear affinity for a genre—pop—that allows her more space to explore the themes that she wants to, like body positivity. With this being the case, why do Blacker audiences hesitate to let her rock? Or dismiss her music as “not Black enough”? Or worse, accuse her of making music solely for white women and white gays?

There’s no singular answer for these questions, of course, but one can confidently say that Lizzo is not the first Black woman—or person—to have them leveled at her. Late musician Michael Jackson garnered similar criticism for not only his public (and private) struggle with vitiligo but the vast difference between albums like Off The Wall (which many musical fans argue is a Blacker and more cohesive album) and Thriller (his biggest and more “mainstream” album) and despite his start with the very Black Jackson Five. Beyoncé herself has received similar criticisms, particularly because of her I Am Sasha Fierce album and her perceived apolitical nature, but was able to deflect much of it at the beginning of her career with her involvement in the very Black Destiny’s Child and with her relationship with street-approved Jay-Z in lead single “Crazy In Love”. And then later on with the more political Lemonade. If you want a more apt example for the plight that Lizzo has seemingly found herself in, one need not look any further than the late Whitney Houston. Houston’s meteoric rise and subsequently catastrophic fall is the stuff of Greek tragedy, and while she is certainly not above reproach, I would argue that her fall was through no hubris of her own and a direct result of being pulled in wildly different directions by her family and Black and “mainstream” audiences alike.

Whitney Houston

After bursting onto the music scene with under the guidance of people like Clive Davis and with the backing of people with soul and gospel credibility like cousin Dionne Warwick, mother Cissy Houston, and honorary auntie Aretha Franklin and with the voice to back it up, Houston was famously referred to as “Whitey” Houston by Rev. Al Sharpton (who never apologized), the self-proclaimed spokesperson of Black people. She was booed at the 1989 Soul Train Awards, where she would later meet Bobby Brown—another Black musician with street cred and with whose union (I’d argue) shielded Houston from “not Black enough” criticisms later in life. Black radio stations didn’t want to mess with Houston because she was too pop. Too clean. Too bland, supposedly.

It was a criticism that lacked nuance and didn’t at all account for the incredibly thin line that both Black and female artists—with Houston being both—had to walk back then to appeal to multiple audiences and to attain “mainstream” success. Houston famously blasted the lack of empathy and blistering display of misogynoir continuously leveled against her in 1991 when she spoke to Ebony:

I know what my color is. I was raised in a black community with black people, so that has never been a thing with me,” Houston explained“Yet I’ve gotten flak about being a pop success, but that doesn’t mean that I’m white… Pop music has never been all-white.”

It’s a criticism she never truly recovered from nor deserved, especially as many in the business rightfully pointed to the careful and meticulous way Houston was packaged at age 19 by Arista Records, who stated per the documentary Whitney: Can I Be Me that they “didn’t want a female James Brown”.

On the additional hurdle that Lizzo faces: Fatphobia

Missy Elliott, Queen Latifah, Lizzo

Lizzo joins a very long line of Black artists who have been lambasted for going overboard to appeal to “mainstream” audiences. But she remains one of the few to deal with—on this level—the intense criticism that also accompanies being Black and fat as well.

Fat/plus-sized rappers like Queen Latifah and Missy Elliott preceded her. And they faced their own criticisms (particularly Elliott) from people who projected on them, sought to desexualize them, and put them in a box. Lizzo and Elliott—with whom she collaborated with on the track “Tempo”—share a passion for being unapologetic about their fatness, their rhymes, and their sex appeal. But there is something visceral and even sinister about the criticisms around Lizzo now, but also and particularly in 2019. There were Twitter whisperings about Lizzo being “corny” and putting on supposedly cringeworthy performances for white audiences as a fat Black person—no doubt a dig at her penchant for twerking while performing with her flute—but that criticism didn’t have a face until Azealia Banks took her perma-banned Twitter fingers to Instagram in September.

In a now-deleted post, Banks took shots at Lil Nas X, Cardi B, and Adele, but saved her most vitriolic commentary for Lizzo. Referring to her as a “dumpy fat girl spectacle” and ridiculing her commitment to body positivity, Banks accused her of “making a fool of her black self for a white American public” before invoking incredibly vile and disgusting misogynoiristic history by referring to Lizzo as a “millennial mammy”. Of course, these comments were a not-so-subtle reminder that Banks is a miserable chucklefuck and likes to take shots at anyone who is moderately doing better than her. But in a way, I thank her, because what Banks paradoxically shows—besides the incredibly vast range of her professional jealousy and her blistering lack of self-awareness at her own hubris that has her sacrificing chickens in order to finally break from the Cardboard Hot 100—is that music audiences, both Black and white, are tremendously uncomfortable with Lizzo’s own comfort and self-acceptance.

And of course, as is the case with bigotry like fatphobia, it’s never just coming from one source. Since Banks piped up last September, the fatphobia that Lizzo faces from both celebrities and civilians alike have spiked. Black and White. In December 2019, Lizzo faced a renewed onslaught of fatphobic, faux “concern” when she wore cutouts to a Lakers game. She was targeted by health quack and hack Jillian Michaels this past January after AM2DM host Alex Berg tee’d her up for the kill. That same month, Twitter trolls made her the butt of a heinous joke about being “dropped” on Iran. On the very last day of March, Great Value Perez Hilton incarnate Jason Lee—who is also fat, by the way—attempted to invoke the “Good as Hell” rapper as a punchline to make fun of Tyra Banks weight gain and was swiftly checked by Queen TS Madison. And around four days ago, she was stopped from twerking on Diddy’s Instagram Live during Easter because the music she was twerking to wasn’t “family-friendly”, but last time I checked twerking to “Back That Azz Up” as Draya did afterward is not exactly family-friendly either, but hey. Fatphobes gonna be fatphobic.

You got exhausted reading all those instances of fatphobia I listed didn’t you? If you did, good. It’s supposed to be exhausting to read, and even more exhausting to experience I imagine. But most of this exhaustion comes from the fact that the kind of ridicule she’s undergoing—both in terms of dabbling in pop music AND being—is unprecedented really. To be honest, we haven’t seen anyone—since Missy (and I’d even put a qualifier here because people often and purposely forget how sexual Missy was in her music…because she was fat), but especially Queen Latifah—be fat, successful, and happy in the “mainstream” and the fact that Lizzo seems to be brazenly filling that role now—and in a way that’s usually discouraged in fat folks—has made all sorts of audiences really uncomfortable and really fucking mad. And you can see it in the icky way white pundits call her “brave” for merely breathing and the way that other Black and non-white detractors have opted to write dissertations on why they don’t like her and her music… instead of just saying they don’t like her and her music, or just shutting the fuck up.

RECOMMENDED: Unraveling The Fatphobia Behind The Criticisms Of Lizzo

In short, many aren’t as unhinged as Banks, Michaels, or certain internet trolls and won’t stoop to clearly declaring their hate for joyous fat girls like Lizzo with their chest. Because it’s clear that fat people—online and in real-life—aren’t keen on taking such abuse in silence and to the chin anymore. It’s slowly (VERY SLOWLY, mind you) becoming taboo to be a fatphobic weirdo-fuck. And for people who aren’t keen on being seen as fatphobic dickheads but still are still equally bigoted and looking for some outlet to level it against the rapping songstress, criticisms of Lizzo and her music not being “Black enough” provide cover. And the same people will engage in revisionist history and pretend that she has only ever courted white audiences, even as history and her own discography say differently. It’s all pretty fucking disingenuous really. But if one is legitimately so-called “concerned” about the role that whiteness may play in popular music, then one should take white audiences to task for seeking to divorce Black artists from their race before truly enjoying said music, rather than dragging the artists.

And they should do that with the knowledge that there is a unique flavor of racism—mainly American—that allows this erasure to happen.

But that’s not Lizzo’s problem. Nor was it Whitney’s. And it shouldn’t be their cross to bear.