The world is finally ready for Lizzo: Her recent effort, Cuz I Love You, cracked the Billboard Top Ten (and knocked Beyoncé’s Homecoming out of the number one spot on iTunes) this year and her accompanying tour sold out so fast she had to release a second set of dates before it had even begun. The singer also has a million followers on Instagram and counting. One might even be tempted to call this her moment, but Lizzo (born Melissa Jefferson), who released her first solo project six years ago, is not about to let y’all do that. “I’ve been doing the same work but just on different platforms. It just elevates,” she tells ESSENCE in our latest digital cover story. “There’s so much I wanna do. I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of making it or being it. It, for me, is a long journey.”
Tucked away in the corner of the downstairs bar at the Public hotel in New York City, she’s in the middle of a whirlwind of photo shoots, interviews and appearances before flying to California for Coachella. In short, our girl is tired and has a million things on her mind: “In my head I’m already on tour. I’m so in the future all the time that smelling the roses is a struggle for me.” Never one to shy away from dropping gems, she adds, “It’s a defense mechanism; we gotta protect ourselves ’cause this world doesn’t protect us.”
The opportunities that are finally meeting Lizzo’s preparation are a result of divine timing by way of the social media age and our love for celebrities who somehow manage to find the balance between being uncensored and socially conscious online without coming off as annoying oversharing know-it-alls. Lizzo has mastered the art. “I think that people love authenticity and they love to see people truly enjoying themselves,” she says. “My social media is very self-serving. I do it for me. Even if I have 500 followers and no likes, I can still go on tour selling my show out and be fine. And I always wanna kind of keep it that way—like my social media is something that needs me more than I need it.”
Other Black female artists who have managed to fall into the unapologetic and/or carefree-Black-girl category—like Cardi B and Rihanna, for example—don’t usually look like Lizzo. That aspect reflects a timely movement, #bodypositivity, which counteracts our unhealthy addiction to Eurocentric beauty standards. (“There’s no term for body negativity, because that’s the norm.”) The movement has allowed an environment primed to celebrate Lizzo for being naked on her album cover or showing off her cellulite and rolls while rocking lingerie or a bikini in a magazine spread or on social media. And while she’s far from the only one doing it, her ability to take it to the next level is groundbreaking—especially when she does it in designer clothing that usually only comes in sample sizes. When you think of big girls who rap, sing, own their sexuality, have fashion moments and make the top ten on the charts, the list is quite short. In fact, there’s only one other name on it and it just so happens to be another Melissa.
Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott walked so Lizzo could fly. “Seeing Missy exist in her truth was like, Oh, I can exist in my truth. She didn’t try to hide anything, lie or cover anything up. She was as weird and freaky as she wanted to be. And I thought that was special,” says Lizzo, who grew up in Houston embarrassed of her own nerdy ways. “I want girls who look like me to feel that way [about my music].”
While Missy’s lyrics have plenty of X-factor, Lizzo has definitely taken the ball and run with it. While Missy often opts for funky tracksuits or edgy silhouettes, Lizzo will pop up onstage in a thong leotard. The 31-year-old Taurus loves every inch of her body. And being a proud fat Black woman isn’t just a form of activism, it’s who she is.
“I made a decision to be myself because I knew I had no choice,” she says while sipping white wine. “Sometimes the label ‘unapologetic’ bothers me because it can be loaded, because it means we have to apologize for something in the first place. I’m not ignorant to the fact that we had to have a demeanor of lowering ourselves culturally just to exist. But I’m trying to shake up the narrative about how we’re supposed to act.”
Like many who have chosen to live a liberated existence, Lizzo has had to worry about how her mama and ’em would react. She used to be afraid to curse on tracks because she knew her great-grandmother might hear it. And even though her great-grandmother has since passed, Lizzo will still hear it from some of her Detroit cousins when she posts a picture of her naked body because they mistake her actions as a need for attention. “I’m doing this for myself,” she says firmly. “I love creating shapes with my body, and I love normalizing the dimples in my butt or the lumps in my thighs or my back fat or my stretch marks. I love normalizing my Black-ass elbows. I think it’s beautiful.”
Cherishing herself has allowed Lizzo to create beautiful music too. Her most popular songs are empowering anthems about loving the skin you’re in: On the single “Truth Hurts,” she offers the popular line: “I just took a DNA test / Turns out I’m a 100 percent that bitch,” and on Cuz I Love You, there’s “Soulmate,” which is about choosing to be your own because who knows how to love you better than you?
But don’t confuse her mostly upbeat tempos for a lack of lyrical depth. Some of her most lit songs were written through tears. “I wrote ‘Soulmate’ when I was in the studio and I was so depressed,” she shares. “I needed to write a song about who I wanted be so a year later when I’m rehearsing for Coachella I could say those words knowing, ‘That was the old me.’ ”
Lizzo’s music is self-care in action. It’s how she loves herself in a world that doesn’t always love her back. That vulnerability makes her so special. She sings and lives her truth boldly and transparently so that just maybe we can get the courage to join her.
“These songs are for my big Black girls. Everyone can enjoy them, but I want to help us,” Lizzo muses. “This music is medicine and I’m trying to get it to my sisters. It’s so exciting to me to finally be at a level where I have exposure to my Black sisters, my big sisters, my Black trans sisters. It’s not about being poppin’. It’s not about being famous or fashion. It’s about being better and making sure that this world can hear us and respect us.”
Sylvia Obell is an entertainment journalist for BuzzFeed News, where she currently hosts Hella Opinions, a weekly Black culture show that broadcasts on Twitter.
Photographer: JD Barnes—@jdthecombo
Hair: Shelby Swain—@theshelbyswain
Makeup: Grace Ahn—@gracegraceahn
Manicurist: Sunshine Outing—@pipbuzzz
Styling: Jason Rembert—@jasonrembert
Prop Stylist: Christopher Stone—@stonecoldprops