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Lizzo Played A 200-Year-Old Crystal Flute In Concert, And Its History Is… Controversial

Photo Credit: Shawn Miller / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain
Photo Credit: Shawn Miller / Library of Congress / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain

A singer, entertainer, and classically trained flutist, Lizzo became the only known person to play a 200-year-old crystal flute. The rare flute is not only a historical artifact itself, but also has a notable background from before it landed in the Library of Congress’s flute collection. Its history and Lizzo’s performance using the flute have caused some controversy among her fans.

The flute belonged to former President James Madison

Portrait of James Madison
Portrait of James Madison, the ‘Father of the Constitution,’ by an unknown artist (oil on canvas from the White House collection, Washington DC), 1816. The portrait was commissioned by James Monroe. (Photo Credit: GraphicaArtis / Getty Images)

The crystal flute was rescued in 1814 after the British invasion of Washington during the War of 1812. It previously belonged to James Madison, who was one of the founding fathers and the fourth president of the United States from 1809 to 1817. The instrument has since had a home with the more than 1,800 flutes held in the Library of Congress’s historical collection.

Madison was involved in politics before he became president, serving in the Continental Congress, acting as a leader in the Virginia Assembly, and helping to frame the Virginia Constitution in 1776. Eventually, made major contributions to the ratification of the Constitution as one of the authors of the Federalist essays, and in Congress, he helped frame the Bill of Rights.

James Madison was a slave owner

Front view of Montpelier Estate
Montpelier, the lifelong home of James Madison in Orange County, Virginia. (Photo Credit: Carol M. Highsmith / Buyenlarge / Getty Images)

Alongside these major contributions in the history of America, however, Madison also proposed the Three-fifths Compromise, which allowed slave owners to count only three out of every five enslaved people to offset their taxes. Madison essentially believed enslaved people should not count as much as free Americans.

Madison and his wife, Dolley, were slave owners and used enslaved people to run their household. Like many other slave owners in Virginia at the time, Madison was fearful that the enslaved people that worked for him would revolt. The Madisons kept enslaved people at their Montpelier estate in Orange County, Virginia, and they also hired enslaved people from other slave owners when they moved to Washington, DC.

It was during the War of 1812, when the British invaded Washington and set fire to the White House and the Capitol, that the crystal flute was saved. It is Madison’s previous ownership of the flute is that has caused so much controversy after Lizzo’s performance.

Lizzo is a classically trained flutist

Lizzo holding a flute and reading sheet music held by another woman
Flute vault curator Carol Lynn Ward-Bamford displays sheet music while Lizzo plays a piccolo from the Dayton C. Miller collection, September 26, 2022. (Photo Credit: Shawn Miller / Library of Congress / Flickr / Public Domain)

Before she became an incredible pop star, headlining sold-out concerts and spreading a message of self-love, Lizzo was training as a flutist. She began her musical journey while in the fifth grade and consistent training helped to refine her talent and sharpen her flute-playing skills.

When she was off to college, she attended the University of Houston where she majored in music on a scholarship. She joined the university’s marching band and played the piccolo. In her junior year, she dropped out of college and after a bumpy period in her life, she went on to become one of the world’s pop superstars.

Lizzo played the crystal flute at a concert

Lizzo performing on stage with two backup dancers
Lizzo performs onstage during the opening night of The Special Tour at FLA Live Arena on September 23, 2022, in Sunrise, Florida. (Photo Credit: Jason Koerner / Getty Images)

On September 27, 2022, Lizzo took to the stage at her sold-out concert in Washington, DC, with Madison’s crystal flute in hand. She began to play the over 200-year-old flute while also twerking – a skill she’s gone viral for in the past. She said while on stage that playing the flute was “like playing out of a wine glass.”

Lizzo was given this unique opportunity after Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden reached out via Twitter, inviting the classically trained flutist to visit their collection and give a couple of them a spin. Following the performance, Hayden said she was “thrilled” to see Lizzo play the historical instrument and was happy to have helped make it happen.

The performance caused some controversy

Lizzo and Carla Hayden looking at flutes
Lizzo was invited to the Library of Congress to explore their extensive flute collection before her performance in Washington, DC. (Photo Credit: Shawn Miller / Library of Congress / Flickr / Public Domain)

Well before 2023 saw Lizzo accused of misconduct by several dancers, her flute performance caused a lot of division among Lizzo’s fans. Some saw it as a symbolic moment of progress, noting how Lizzo is an African American female superstar who collaborated with the first African American and first female Librarian of Congress.

Others shared a different opinion, seeing the performance as unnecessary reverence for someone who had owned slaves. The flute was escorted on stage by police, and some fans have said that if they were in Lizzo’s position, they would have never put the flute to their lips knowing it once belonged to a slave owner.

More from us: Why Are People Still Partying on Plantations?

Lizzo, however, enjoyed the performance. At the end of her flute-playing, she reminded the crowd that “History is freaking cool, you guys!”

Samantha Franco

Samantha Franco is a Freelance Content Writer who received her Bachelor of Arts degree in history from the University of Guelph, and her Master of Arts degree in history from the University of Western Ontario. Her research focused on Victorian, medical, and epidemiological history with a focus on childhood diseases. Stepping away from her academic career, Samantha previously worked as a Heritage Researcher and now writes content for multiple sites covering an array of historical topics.

In her spare time, Samantha enjoys reading, knitting, and hanging out with her dog, Chowder!