How Lizzo and Cardi B are reclaiming classical design

By Grace B. McGowan 5 minute Learn

It isn’t typically {that a} pop star releases a music video that aligns so nicely with my academic research.

However that’s precisely what Lizzo did along with her new track, “Rumors.” Within the video, she and Cardi B costume in Grecian goddess-inspired attire, dance in entrance of classically impressed statuary, put on headdresses that evoke caryatids, and rework into Grecian vases.

They’re including their very own twist to what’s referred to as the classical tradition, a mode rooted within the aesthetics of historic Greece and Rome, and they’re solely the newest Black girls artists to take action.


White supremacists wield the classics

The classical custom has been massively influential in American society. You see it within the branding of Venus razors, named after the Roman goddess of magnificence, and Nike sportswear, named for the traditional Greek goddess of victory; within the names of cities like Olympia, Washington, and Rome, Georgia; in the neoclassical architecture discovered within the nation’s capital; and in debates over democracy, republicanism, and citizenship.

Nonetheless, within the Nineteenth century the classical custom began being wielded towards Black individuals in a particular manner. Particularly, pro-slavery lobbyists and slavery apologists argued that the presence of slavery in historic Greece and Rome was what allowed the 2 empires to grow to be pinnacles of civilization.

Despite the fact that historic Greece and Rome traded with, fought towards, and learned from historic African civilizations equivalent to Egypt, Nubia, and Meroë, the presence and affect of those societies have tended to be downplayed or ignored.

As an alternative, historic Greek and Roman aesthetics had been held up as paragons of magnificence and inventive sensibility. Classical statues such because the Venus de Milo and the Apollo Belvedere are typically thought of the apex of human perfection. And since marble statues from antiquity have, over time, lost their painted colors, it’s influenced the widespread perception that every one the deities had been imagined as white.

For these causes, Black girls have hardly ever appeared in classical depictions and reproductions.

After they did—and particularly in Western neoclassical artwork—it was often within the type of mischaracterization or mockery.


For instance, in Thomas Stothard’s 1801 engraving Voyage of the Sable Venus From Angola to the West Indies, he depicts a Black girl within the fashion of Botticelli’s Birth of Venus romanticizing the harrowing trauma of the slave commerce’s Middle Passage. Within the mid-Nineteenth century, Sarah Baartman, a Black South African girl, was paraded round Europe and placed on show on account of her giant buttocks. She was derisively dubbed the “Hottentot Venus.”

Black artists push again

On the flip of the twentieth century, nonetheless, Black girls began reclaiming classical deities of magnificence, equivalent to Venus.

Pauline Hopkins, a author working in Boston for The Colored American Magazine, performed a pivotal function. A 1903 subject of the journal revealed an editorial with no byline, although there’s scholarly consensus that Hopkins penned the piece.

The editorial argued, controversially, that the models for two paragons of classical beauty had actually been enslaved Ethiopians.

“Authorities in the art world demonstrated that the most famous examples of classic beauty in sculpture—the Venus de Milo and the Apollo Belvedere—were chiseled from Ethiopian slave models,” Hopkins wrote. Although it is difficult to know for sure, her editorial proposes an exciting set of possibilities around how African people and civilizations influenced classical beauty standards.

During her time with the magazine, Hopkins also wrote several serialized novels, including Of One Blood, which was revealed over the course of 1902 and 1903.

In it, the protagonist discovers a hidden African civilization referred to as Telassar that has retreated from the world and so was capable of escape the ravages of colonialism and the trans-Atlantic slave commerce. The protagonist discovers that he’s the inheritor to Telassar and ought to be part of forces with Queen Candace to convey the nation out of hiding and take its place on the planet. Hopkins ceaselessly describes the good great thing about all the ladies within the novel when it comes to their likeness to the classical deity Venus.

In each the editorial and the novel, Hopkins questions the very concept that the classical custom could be deemed “white” or “European.” She calls on her readers to contemplate whether or not these aesthetics and magnificence beliefs had been, in reality, rooted in African traditions, solely to be corrupted and co-opted by white supremacists.

Different artists have adopted Hopkins’s lead. Toni Morrison’s fiction has reworked tales from the classical custom, together with Euripedes’s Medea and Ovid’s Metamorphoses. In Morrison’s novel Tar Baby, the protagonist is a mannequin who’s depicted because the “Copper Venus” in {a magazine} unfold.

Extra lately, Beyoncé announced the birth of her twins, Rumi and Sir, by adapting Botticelli’s 1480 portray Start of Venus. In the meantime, artist 3rdeyechakra has inserted Black feminine artists, equivalent to Beyoncé, Megan Thee Stallion, and Lizzo, into work of classical deities like Venus and Aphrodite.

[Photo: Lizzo Music]

An previous custom with a brand new twist

Which takes me to Lizzo’s joyful and gleeful reclamation of the classical custom in her new music video with Cardi B.


In a track that focuses closely on feminine empowerment and physique positivity, Lizzo and Cardi B deploy the visible imagery, trend, artwork, and structure of the classical period whereas additionally populating it with individuals and our bodies which have so lengthy been excluded.

Lizzo and her dancers carry out their choreography atop classical columns, positioning themselves because the muses—an allusion, maybe, to the Black muses in Disney’s animated movie Hercules.

The our bodies of the statues in Lizzo’s video are not the chiseled physiques you’re accustomed to seeing in museums, whereas the assorted Grecian-style vases are painted with photos of girls in bondage gear, acting on poles, and twerking. Lizzo and Cardi B additionally carry out in entrance of statues that are intentionally centered on the buttocks. It’s an allusion not simply to classical statues just like the Venus Callipyge—which interprets to “Venus of the gorgeous buttocks”—but in addition a playful dig at a tradition that historically has hypersexualized the bodies of Black women.

I’d by no means recommend studying the feedback part of any YouTube video. However with “Rumors” you don’t should scroll for very lengthy earlier than coming throughout a heated debate round “cultural appropriation” within the music video. Some say that it’s Greek and Roman artwork that’s being pilfered and sullied.

However to me, it’s simply one other instance of Black girls attempting to stake their very own declare to the sweetness, pleasure, and energy of this custom.

When Lizzo and Cardi B contact their acrylics in a gesture harking back to Michaelangelo’s well-known Creation of Adam portray on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel, they’re transfigured right into a Grecian vase in a flash of lightning.

Similar to that, the centrality of Black girls to the classical custom is now not only a rumor. It’s true.

Grace B. McGowan is a PhD candidate in American research at Boston University.