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Lizzo's Ted Talk

A Love Letter to Lizzo and Twerking: “Because Black Women are Undeniable”

In August 2021 singer, rapper, songwriter and flutist Lizzo delivered a TED talk entitled ‘The Black history of twerking – and how it taught me self-love’. Lizzo’s rise to fame had as much to do with her undeniable talent as it did with what she represented culturally and socially. To me she was the embodiment of a revolt against the racialised and gendered hierarchies and ideals that have consistently tried to hide and condemn bodies like hers and seeing her shaking her ass in the big leagues has given me unparalleled joy. So, you can imagine my excitement sat watching her deliver a TED talk on the origins of twerking, it’s co-option by white women and the role it played in her journey to self-love. 

The Origins of Twerking 

It’s truly a sin that in an age where twerking has become so prominent in pop culture, the majority of us have no clue where it originated from. Lizzo explains that twerking is directly derived from Black culture, having “a direct parallel to West African dances like Mapouka”, traditionally a dance “for West African women to be used as a celebration of joy, religious worship, or a dance to do at a wedding to show you were down to marry.” These dances were brought to America by Black women through transatlantic slave trade “to the ring shout and what became the Black American Church”. Over the years twerking proliferated “every Black club in the South” but would not become mainstream until the 2003 release of Beyoncé’s hit song “Crazy in Love” and her use of the “Uh-Oh” dance in the music video.  

Co-option and Erasure 

Whilst twerking originated with Black people and culture and was introduced into the mainstream by a Black woman, it was not until ten years later that twerking was popularised. In 2013 Lizzo released her debut project “Lizzobangers” and two months later, Miley Cyrus released her album “Bangerz”. Miley would go on to release a music video for her single “We Can’t Stop”, in which she was twerking, a far cry from her Hannah Montana days. Later, she performed alongside Robin Thicke at the VMA’s and gave a twerking performance that seemed to turn the world upside down overnight. Lizzo recounts that “the media described twerking as, I quote, “disturbing and disgusting.” Critics blasted twerking as something that was exploiting and over-sexualizing young women.” However, in the meantime Miley’s career was skyrocketing into a new era of success, all off of the back of her co-option of Black culture. Lizzo describes the bittersweet feeling of twerking being popularised by a white woman but also using the popularisation of twerking to rise her profile and career.  

“Everything that Black people create, from fashion, to music, to the way we talk, is co-opted, appropriated and taken by pop culture. In this TED talk I’m not trying to gatekeep, but I’m definitely trying to let you know who built the damn gate.” 

Lizzo is right, the co-option of Black culture and the erasure of Blackness from such popular trends goes far beyond twerking. In fact, a vast majority of popular culture online and offline originates in Black culture. A good example of such is so-called “internet slang”. Gen Z and the online spaces that they have created to express themselves have been characterised by use of certain vernacular that has been widely dubbed “internet slang”, but in fact the origins of these words and phrases such as “lit”, “slay”, “period” and “chile”, to name a few, can be traced to AAVE (African American Vernacular English). This vernacular is born out of slavery and segregation and the cultures it produced. To this day though when Black people use this vernacular it is branded “bad English” whilst when used by non-Black online communities it earns social praise.  

Twerking and AAVE are just two examples of an extensive list and that’s exactly why Lizzo has made it her mission “to do everything in my power to prevent the erasure of Blackness from twerking.” 

Representation, Self-Love and Beyond 

Another of her goals was to demonstrate the powerful impact that twerking has had on her life, her relationship with her body and her voice, and its social and cultural significance.  

Lizzo describes growing up hating her ass, she explains “I always felt like my body type wasn’t the right one or the desirable one. (…) I grew up in an era where having a big ass wasn’t mainstream, I grew up watching movies where women were like “Does my ass look fat in this?” like it was a bad thing”. 

Representation matters. Growing up not seeing yourself in the people you’re viewing on the screen has impacts that last way past childhood. Only last month I went to see “Spider-Man: No Way Home” and teared up in the cinema watching Zendaya playing MJ, wondering if I would’ve grown up more secure in myself, prouder and more confident if I’d seen myself in the mainstream. I remember being utterly baffled at my secondary school friend’s discussion of Beyoncé’s ass and thighs as undesirable and too big. Encountering this after growing up in a household that had always taught me Beyoncé and her body were the very pinnacle of beauty left me disillusioned and insecure as a teenage girl who looked nothing like the white women my peers looked up to. It of course goes further than this and into all different sectors of life, not seeing Black people in positions of power often leaves Black children feeling that they are incapable and unworthy of reaching certain levels of success, which has a knock-on effect in ability to perform at school, effecting career prospects as well as self-concepts.  

“That was the first time I’d ever seen a pop star do something like that and I wanted to be just like her. Beyoncé gave me permission to be myself, to be bootylicious.” 

Lizzo seeing Beyoncé’s “Crazy in Love” video changed her relationship with herself (“All hail Beyoncé” indeed), twerking changed her relationship with herself – “Twerking made me feel empowered, it was my secret language, my sauce.” But the impacts and possibilities of twerking go way beyond Lizzo’s personal journey to self-love 

“For me, twerking is a pearl of optimism. It’s a form of self-expression, freedom – confidence. (…) Twerking is a deep, soulful, spiritual practice. (…) It’s contributing to the liberation of women and people around the world.” 

Twerking is a Black cultural phenomenon, its origins are way deeper than has been pedalled in the mainstream and its possibilities are endless. Looking back 40 years, when Black and brown people created break dancing, it was originally not taken seriously, villainised and connected to gang activity and violence. Today, it’s an Olympic sport. I wonder what the next 30 years will bring for twerking. No one can be certain, but watching Lizzo using her voice, being loud, taking ownership and in doing so reclaiming the narrative and even changing it to allow space for and celebration of the bodies that have been systematically alienated and oppressed, gives me hope.  

“Twerking is not a trend, my body is not a trend. I twerk for the strippers, for the video vixens, for the church ladies who shout, for the sex workers – I twerk because Black women are undeniable. I twerk for my ancestors, for sexual liberation, for my bitches. Because I’m sexual but not to be sexualized. I twerk to own my power, to reclaim my Blackness, my culture. I twerk for fat Black women, because being fat and Black is a beautiful thing.”