Quinn Whitney Wilson is a real-ass bitch.
This is as much my assessment as it is Wilson’s personal ethos. This is, by her own definition, the standard by which she approaches everything in her life — a series of questions that guide all of her art: Is it real? Is it cheeky? Does it feel right? If it doesn’t check those boxes, she won’t do it.
As the creative director behind iconic flautist, pop sensation, and all-around bad bitch Lizzo, Wilson’s unique artistic sensibility weaves its way through all of her work. For anyone who has followed Lizzo for any period of time, you can point to her historic performance at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards as one of the most memorable snapshots in her meteoric rise to superstardom. Lizzo, donning a trench coat, flanked by Black backup dancers, while proclaiming “Why men great ‘til they gotta be great?” and “If he don’t love you anymore, walk your fine ass out the door.”
It was an assertion, an affirmation. And it was all delivered in front of a larger-than-life inflatable Black ass.
It was the performance that launched a thousand think pieces: on body positivity, on Black women’s sexual agency, on our present relationship to feminism. From the Black women in cloud-covered leotards and afros to the emphasis on the interplay between nature and the body, we have Wilson, in large part, to thank for it.
“All we can really do, if we're being genuine to ourselves and art, is represent what we know. And what I knew was being Black is beautiful and being thick is beautiful,” she says, of the impact that night had on the cultural conversation that followed.
Wilson began her work with Lizzo as a makeup artist at 17, and the two have been creative collaborators ever since. Now, at 27, Wilson can’t put a name to how her art has evolved over the decade that they have been working together, necessarily, but she is assured about her intentions.
She isn’t in this to generate conversations, though that is a natural result of Black women being unapologetic about their bodies and their voices. What she wants to do is be honest: “We’re just showing what we thought was beautiful and needed to be seen . . . We needed the rest of the world to catch up to us.”
And Wilson isn’t interested in stopping anytime soon.
Her work is in constant forward motion, fueled largely by necessity. If they need a photographer, for instance, Wilson will pick up the camera and handle it herself, even if it isn’t her primary artistic medium. It’s due in part, she says, to her desire to tell stories in as many ways as possible, but also because she likes the creative control it allows her. Keeping as many things in-house as possible makes for a more cohesive vision.
Wilson and Lizzo’s work depends on that cohesion, that closeness, refined over the course of their time together. That dynamic has also given Wilson space to dig into her distinctive vision — a sense of exploration and play that shines through even the most serious topics.
“I think that I like to be able to talk about serious issues in a cheeky manner because we don't have to have it be so fucking deep and dark and delivered to us in that way. And I think that there are people who do that really well, but I'm just not one of them.”
Wilson has always thought of her work in grand terms — in big, beautiful images of Black women and Black womanhood, but the shift in resources in recent years has made executing those ideas more attainable than ever before. An image of Lizzo’s Grammy performance leaps to mind when thinking about Wilson’s expansive vision for portraying Black women beautifully. Lizzo, in a glittering black gown, directing an all-Black orchestra on music’s biggest stage before the image shifts to Black ballerinas twirling in effervescent tutus against a backdrop of lilting strings.
Glamour said the performance is “all you need to see right now.” Rolling Stone called it “truly showstopping.” My group chat blew up with texts proclaiming “LIZZO IS THAT BITCH, PERIOD!” But Wilson refuses to think of the aftermath of a big show, good or bad. The critiques and the praise are beside the point.
“I am kind of selfish in the way that it's like I'm not really thinking about people receiving anything other than if it's my people, then yeah. I want them to feel a sense of belonging, and I want them to feel a sense of recognition and understanding. But other than that, I just kind of feel like you take what you take from it.”
She’s in the business of making people feel things, hopefully good things, but it all comes back to her gut instinct.
“If it feels wrong then I'm not going to do it, but if it feels right then yeah. I have to follow my gut or else the work isn't going to be good,” she says. “I'm not thinking about how it's going to be received in terms of audience; if I did that I wouldn't be able to create shit.”
It’s one of the reasons why the formality of an interview still doesn’t feel quite natural to her, she says after hesitating in response to a question about her personal style. Wilson wants to be in control of her own narrative, wants to drive the conversation about her self and her art on her own terms, but she is all too familiar with the importance of visibility, especially for someone like her.
Having a gay, Black woman out in front, she says, has impact too great to be ignored.
Her Instagram has become a sort of playground for her in that way. From photos with and of her girlfriend, singer and songwriter King Princess, to images demanding justice for George Floyd, to selfies with a full face beat, Wilson is always crafting and curating a story that is as playful as it is exploratory. Much like the videos she directs and the tours she designs, her instinct and talent are carrying her to create images of free Black womanhood that command attention.
In short, Quinn Whitney Wilson is doing whatever the fuck she wants. Down to the way she chooses what to wear in the morning, she’s following her instinct, without allowing any outside influences to colour her judgement. Her personal style is one that is driven by the same discernment that drives her creative direction.
“I like to make sure that whatever I'm wearing this day is fitting the comfort of how I feel about my body. Some days I want to be baggy and I don't want my tits and ass to really be out there and to show, but other days I really want all my cake to be seen. So, it just depends on what I'm feeling that moment about my body.”
Wilson simply isn’t going to allow you to box her in. She’s going to do the work, and she’s going to do it on her own terms, especially right now. As protests continue around the country — fueled by the murder of George Floyd in Wilson’s hometown of Minneapolis earlier this summer — Wilson is reevaluating the goal of her art with a newfound sense of urgency.
Earlier in the pandemic, Wilson and King Princess quarantined together at the latter’s family home in Hawai’i. But in an interview with Vogue UK in June, Wilson remarked on the necessity of committing herself to movement work outside of what is comfortable, and the desire she felt to immerse herself in the Black Lives Matter protests in her current home of Los Angeles. She didn’t feel comfortable watching the protests rage on without adding her voice and her body to the mix.
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“It's not just a movement, it's supposed to be a way of life. And the fact that we have to say that this is a movement is really fucking disrespectful and ridiculous. It shouldn't be a singular,” she tells me. “It's not a moment in time, this is something that needs to be reestablishing of a system that has oppressed people of colour and nonbinary folks for all of our fucking lives.”
Taking care of herself during this time has been a challenge, she says. We’re in a complicated moment in our history, one that demands our attention and our sacrifice and our commitment, all while braving a global pandemic. It has taken a toll on her mentally and emotionally. But much like with her work, Wilson soldiers on, despite any of the roadblocks and hardships that have appeared over the past few months.
When asked what’s coming next for her, Wilson’s goals are straightforward. She wants to keep making art that matters and that centers Black women in a beautiful light, and she wants to keep her head up.
“I'm working a lot, and I'm working out, and I'm making a smoothie every day, and I'm taking the time that I need when I need it. I'm just listening to myself.”
She’s listening to herself, and we’re listening, too. And we can only guess that what comes next will be even bigger, even bolder, even more badass and Black-ass than ever before.