A Duet With History: Lizzo and James Madison’s Crystal Flute

A Duet With History: Lizzo and James Madison’s Crystal Flute

Grace B. McGowan

t her Washington DC concert on September 27, 2022, musician and pop superstar Lizzo played a 200-year-old crystal flute that once belonged to James Madison onstage in front of an audience of thousands. While living in the White House, Madison continued to own and operate his Montpelier plantation in Virginia, where he enslaved over 300 Black men, women, and children. As a Black woman performer, Lizzo’s act of playing the crystal flute of an enslaver and former president in the nation’s capital created a moment of rupture in cultural history, bringing foundational questions about the very nature of history to the forefront. By playing this flute, Lizzo linked herself inextricably to the instrument and its historical provenance.

The performance forced Americans to revisit several questions: who “owns” American history? Who tells the story of American antiquities? Who do these objects and instruments, and by extension, their histories “belong” to? And how do these histories exclude the stories and presence of Black people? Through her performance, Lizzo remixed American history and inserted herself into the story of the Founders. In doing so, she also centered joy, fun, and pleasure in a way that resisted and reappropriated a white supremacist historical and cultural imagination around musical practice. Her duet with history recast a musical object traditionally associated with white wealth, power, and hegemony with Black joy and excellence. Through this, she imagined new ways of interacting with historical objects and telling their stories.

A Black woman stands in a large room with an ornately decorated domed room. She is playing a flute.
Lizzo with a flute from the Dayton C. Miller collection in the Library of Congress Main Reading Room, September 26, 2022. (Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)

Lizzo engaged not just in self-making, particularly in her self-expression as a musician, but also history and even nation-making. As a classically trained flutist, and self-identified band geek, Lizzo brought together multiple musical influences in this moment onstage: from rap and hip-hop to American college band culture to classical flute music. This allowed her to center joy and pleasure in the experiencing, making, and learning of history. Although Black womanist scholars and thinkers have long insisted on the centrality and importance of pleasure, public celebrations of Black joy as radical politics have been increasing in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. Although there remain arguments about the extent to which joy can be, or should be, the antidote to white supremacy, introducing joy and enthusiasm to interactions with historical objects on this scale has an inarguable effect on how we imagine the lives of American antiquities. Through this performance, Lizzo became an educator, a connecting force, to the Founders and their historical moments, in a way that is unorthodox to traditional understandings of how archives and antiquities are interacted with, and by whom.

As a Black woman, Lizzo’s playing of this particular flute is subversive. Claude Laurent, a Parisian mechanic, made the flute at the beginning of the nineteenth century. Until Lizzo’s performance, the flute had never been played; it served instead as a marker of wealth, luxury, and exclusivity. It was an object to be admired only in leisure moments, moments that white supremacy and the institution of slavery forbade Black people from accessing. The history of classical music is itself rife with racism and elitism, and these spaces remain largely white to the exclusion of Black Americans. Lizzo played the flute to signal her expertise and proficiency in the overwhelmingly white space of classical music and historic archives.

Laurent engraved this flute with Madison’s name and the date 1813 on a silver joint near the mouthpiece, demonstrating Madison’s ownership. So when Lizzo made music with the flute, she intervened in the history of an instrument that symbolizes white political power and human objectification. As a Black woman musician, her performance pushes against narratives that keep American history white and Black joy silent and marginal to national stories, or misused and appropriated as in the long tradition of American minstrelsy and vaudeville. Lizzo’s duet with history promotes a way of engaging with history that involves facing hard truths but also finding joy and collaboration in the process. Remixing is pivotal to this phenomenon. In “Remix a Myth & Sing a Black Girl’s Song,” Ravynn K. Stringfield wrote that:

The practice of remixing itself is ingrained in Black cultural practice: sampling is a characteristic of hip hop; taking scraps of food and reimagining them into a feast formed the creation of American soul food; and weaving otherwise discarded bits of worn cloth into intricate quilts remain valuable skills. For Black women and girls, this practice allows for a playful form of experimentation that can result in exploring vehicles for self-making, especially in the digital age.

Lizzo’s performance ultimately allowed her to make something new from something over two centuries old. Through it, she recombined American histories to tell a new story about belonging and who such a history “belongs” to, a history that white supremacists would exclude her from claiming or reimagining as a Black woman.

In the spirit of remixing and collaboration, this historic duet was brought about through the efforts of Carla Hayden, a Black woman librarian at the Library of Congress. Hayden reached out to Lizzo through Twitter to let her know about the Library of Congress’s historic flute collection. Lizzo then visited Hayden and the Library to practice with the crystal flute. As the Library of Congress asserted, “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.” Historians and archivists were aware of the power and significance of such a collaboration with a pop icon like Lizzo in bringing items from the collection and their stories to a mass national, and international, audience. Lizzo was not only a Black woman playing a white supremacist flute but also the first person to play it. By introducing the “playful” to the realm of the archive, and the historic collection, she illustrated new ways historical objects and narratives can be engaged.

An older Black woman in a mask shows a younger Black woman a large book laid on a table. The younger woman is laughing.
Lizzo and Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden with flute vault curator Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, September 26, 2022. (Photo by Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)

This was all done in front of a public audience at a concert, a venue for leisure and full of gaiety and noise, rather than in the pristine and silent space of the archive. At the concert, Lizzo took the flute gingerly and walked across stage to a roar of applause. She raised the flute to her lips and blew a few notes and those watching saw the joy and surprise on her face. Joy and surprise are the hallmarks of this performance. Lizzo embodied the music fan as she heard the first notes from the flute. Dressed in a beautiful, shimmering metallic one-piece with sparkly eyeshadow to match, holding the crystal flute, she was beautiful, radiant, luxurious. She adjusted her fingering, the huge screen behind her showed her sparkly acrylics covering the holes in the glass as she prepared to play a few trills. As she played, she did a gentle but unmistakable twerk. The crowd cheered and applauded as she held the flute aloft and walked it back to its keepers from the secret service and Library of Congress. Lizzo combined her own cultural production and musical identities with the historical cultural work and identity of the flute to create an intricate remix of the two that could not have been imagined when the flute was originally created. Her love of music, her fan appreciation of the beautiful crystal flute, positions her in the long, complicated legacy of the instrument.

Although people accused her of irreverence towards the fragility of the flute and the story of Madison, Lizzo placed herself alongside it. The fragile glass flute serves as an apt metaphor for the fear of shattering American history and identity that many feared would happen if anyone outside an elite inner circle handled the instrument. As a Black woman, Lizzo engaged with historic objects in a way that highlighted their deep connections to centuries of white supremacist violence while illustrating the deep fragility of American myth-making that so many still cling to.

By centering joy rather than seriousness or gravity, Lizzo brought a new perspective to the ways national history is engaged. This adds a new dimension to the flute and its place in our history as part of a national origin story that has been overwhelmingly white and male for much of the nation’s existence. In her few minutes with the crystal flute, Lizzo once again remixed a history and aesthetic cultural tradition from which white supremacists have long attempted to exclude Black people, particularly Black women. Her duet with history recast a musical object that traditionally is associated with white wealth, power, and hegemony. It showed that history can and should be handled by those outside of the chosen few and that there are ways to open conversations outside of ivory towers. It also shone a light on the performative outrage that is much more concerned with the wellbeing of a glass flute and all it represents than with reckoning with the hard truths of American history.

Featured image caption: Lizzo plays President James Madison’s 1813 crystal flute in the flute vault at the Library of Congress, September 26, 2022. (Courtesy Shawn Miller/Library of Congress)

Grace McGowan is a PhD candidate at Boston University in the American & New England Studies Program. She took her undergraduate degree in English Language and Literature from University of Oxford in 2017. Her work explores how Black women writers use the classical tradition from Ancient Greece and Rome in their writing, specifically iterations of the “Black Venus". Her article “I Know I Can’t Change the Future, But I Can Change the Past: Toni Morrison, Robin Coste Lewis, and the Classical Tradition” was published in Contemporary Women’s Writing under OUP in 2020. Her essay "In 'Rumors', Lizzo and Cardi B Pull From the Ancient Greeks, Putting a New Spin on an Old Tradition" was published in both The Conversation and The Boston Globe and has reached a readership of approximately a million people.

Grace was awarded the Helen G. Allen Humanities Award and the Angela J. and James J Rallis Memorial Award from Boston University for her dissertation work in the humanities in 2022. Her work on Phillis Wheatley Peters was awarded an honorable mention for the Mary Kelley prize under the New England American Studies Association in 2021.