It's not often that a sustained note followed by a trill, played on a flute, makes headlines around the world. Mostly the story ran as a human interest item. Conservative publications in the United States expressed outrage. Andrew McCarthy, a Republican, was quoted as saying that all those involved "should be deported." And that's a mild example.
On 27 September 2022, Grammy-award-winning American singer and rapper Lizzo's performance was interrupted when Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford, curator of the Library of Congress flute collection, walked on stage with a 200-year-old flute. “I want everybody to make some noise for James Madison’s crystal flute, y’all!” Lizzo yelled, before making history.
It is believed that President Madison's flute had seldom, if ever, been played. The flute was made by Claude Laurent of Paris in 1813. Madison never acknowledged the gift. “Mr. President, I took the liberty of sending to you about three years ago, a crystal flute of my invention. Please allow me to express to you the desire that I would have to learn if it has reached you and if this feeble homage of my industry has been agreeable to you,” Laurent wrote.
The flute is reputed to be one of two items rescued by Dolley Madison when the British invaded Washington in 1812. The other item was a portrait of George Washington. The Library of Congress has the world's largest collection of flutes – more than18 000. To publicise the collection and popularise it with younger generations, the Librarian of Congress, Carla Hayden, invited Lizzo to inspect the flutes. Besides being a rap star known for her twerking, Lizzo is a classically trained flutist.
When Lizzo asked if she could play the Madison flute at her upcoming Washington concert, the custodians readily agreed. Elaborate security measures were put in place, and Lizzo was asked to only play the instrument for a few seconds. The reason that those few seconds resonated around the world are profound, and go beyond the age and value of the instrument.
Lizzo is a body positive African American woman known for performing in skimpy dancer's leotards. In Lizzo's words, "It was kind of political and feminist in my eyes to have me, a full-figured dancer, wearing leotards, showing and celebrating curves and being Olympian in strength, endurance, and flexibility.” In September 2021, Lizzo gave a TED talk on twerking and it's roots in both African and African American culture. President James Madison was a slave owner.
The significance of Lizzo playing the flute of a slave-owning President intrigued and delighted many news followers around the world. For conservative Republicans it was like a red flag to a bull. Either way, the profile of the Library of Congress and it's flute collection has received a massive boost by Lizzo's brief appearance with the priceless instrument.