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There’s a Lizzo lyric for every problem. Feeling less than beautiful? “Mirror, mirror on the wall,” Lizzo sings on “Juice,” “Don’t say it, ’cause I know I’m cute.” Had a rough day? “Come now, come dry your eyes/You know you a star, you can touch the sky,” she soothes on “Good as Hell.” Need to dance? Throw on “Tempo,” her recent collaboration with Missy Elliott. Lizzo’s music spans from straight-up hip-hop to guitar-blazing soul to anthemic funk-pop, but no matter the medium, the message is one of joy and empowerment. It’s feminism writ large, boisterous and unapologetic, in a style that feels entirely of this moment.
But Lizzo has greater ambitions than her own artistry. “The space I’m occupying isn’t just for me,” she says, taking a break to eat lunch between rehearsals for her upcoming tour. “It’s for all the big black girls in the future who just want to be seen.”
Lizzo–who sings, raps, dances and plays classical flute–isn’t the only artist spreading a message of self-worth, body positivity and unabashed female sexuality this year. The world of hip-hop and nominally “urban” music–long a space where men posture and women are objectified–is becoming a bastion of female strength and storytelling. In hip-hop, the personal has always been political, as artists mined life experiences to tell stories about the world we live in. But women have always had to fight for space in the genre, even as early rappers such as Missy Elliott and Lauryn Hill blazed a trail and successors including Nicki Minaj and Cardi B kicked the door open wider. The new artists breaking out are women whose messages are in line with the cultural movements surrounding feminism, identity and visibility.
Like Lizzo–real name Melissa Jefferson–who grew up in Houston. From a young age, she practiced classical flute. In college, she tried to balance playing in the marching band with her other skill: rapping. She dropped out, living out of her car while dealing with the death of her father. “His legacy to me was that he always wanted me to do [music], so why would I stop now?” she remembers. “That’s the only thing that kept me going during that time. There was nothing else.” She ended up in Minneapolis, where at her very first show a fan stopped her as she exited the stage. “She told me, ‘We need you. We need you to live here.’” So Lizzo stayed, honing her skills as a performer, not just as a flautist and rapper, but also as a singer and dancer. At one point, she says, she was playing as many as five shows a night with a number of indie groups. She toured with the indie pop trio Haim, released two EPs and worked with Prince at his famous Paisley Park home.
Now on her major-label debut album Cuz I Love You, out April 19, Lizzo continues to grow as an artist. She was always multitalented, twerking while playing her flute onstage, switching from rapping to singing in quick succession, and applying music theory to her dance tracks. Listeners seem ready to embrace that full range; “Juice,” which she has performed to energetic audiences on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon and Ellen, has more than 22 million Spotify streams.
Growing up, Lizzo says she lacked role models in whom she could see herself. “I have to be that person because I don’t see that person,” she says. “Because of who I am, my story happens to have a message to it.” She insists that her music speak for itself; it’s not her job, she says, to be a “beacon of change.” But it might be happening anyway, as she prompts listeners to look beyond the traditional confines of genre.
The history of hip-hop often skims over the contributions of its female voices. But they’ve been there all along: early MCs like Roxanne Shanté and Queen Latifah shaped rap in its nascent stages; Salt-N-Pepa and Foxy Brown set records with their chart-topping hits; and rappers like Lil’ Kim and Eve made names for themselves as outspoken artists who were forthright about their sexuality.
But as Columbia Records’ co-head of urban music Phylicia Fant explains, many–if not all–of these women received a co-sign from powerful male rappers, or were the singular girl in a hip-hop crew. And the composition of the industry at large, from the DJs to the radio programmers to the journalists, also skewed male, adds Tuma Basa, YouTube’s director of urban music. In turn, the audience for hip-hop was understood to be mostly men.
It’s only recently, thanks to the music streaming boom and the power of social media, that women in the world of hip-hop have been able to make their mark without receiving structural support from men. Women now, Fant says, understand they can do it on their own: “I don’t need a co-sign. I don’t need a crew. I’m using social media. I’m doing it my way.” This, she says, gives them the ability to “control their narrative before someone else can.” Basa agrees: “We’ve moved from the gatekeeper era to the tastemaker era.” He calls it the “Cardi B effect”: By gaining acceptance in the hip-hop community and scoring massive hits like “Bodak Yellow,” the Bronx-born rapper helped identify a female audience for rap and drew a blueprint for more artists to follow. “We’re experiencing a market correction,” Basa says. “Whatever sexism or exclusionism existed before, the platforms are evening it out.” Still, progress is slow; Spotify’s most popular hip-hop playlist, RapCaviar, listed almost entirely male artists in early April. “Even if there’s a shift, we’re not at the mountaintop,” Lizzo says.
While Basa is hesitant to categorize Lizzo as specifically hip-hop–her music spans genres and incorporates many pop elements–she’s not the only woman of color who raps and is earning a following for her specificity, creativity and a message that’s tailored to a female audience. Rappers like the Grammy-nominated short-form specialist Tierra Whack; the masked Brooklyn artist Leikeli47; and the R&B-influenced, cerebral Noname represent a diversified new look and sound for the scene, refusing to conform to the expectations of the male gaze–or male listeners. Leikeli47 titled her 2018 album Acrylic, winking at the typically female ritual of nail care, while a recent–and notorious lyric–from Noname implied that one of her body parts “wrote a thesis on colonialism.” Others, like CupcakKe, Saweetie and the duo City Girls have also developed followings for their smart rhymes. “Every woman out there is looking for someone to connect to,” Fant says. “Now these young women have different options.”
For years, the few women who created a space for themselves in hip-hop have had to play by men’s rules; even Nicki Minaj and Cardi B, the genre’s two biggest contemporary stars, have been marketed with an eye to mass appeal, from their branding to the male artists with whom they’ve collaborated. This new wave of female artists, by comparison, are leading with their idiosyncrasies.
“These women who are telling their stories–look at how they look,” Lizzo says. “Have you ever seen anything like that before? Is it weird? Does it make you uncomfortable?” To her, it’s progress to have female artists in the public eye who don’t adhere to narrow standards of beauty or femininity. “It feels novel because we’re not the norm,” she says. “I post a lot of naked pictures of myself–one, because I look good, but two, because I want to normalize it. When I post these things, it’s not to be provocative. I’m sick of black women being [seen as] provocative because you’re not used to us.”
Fant says Lizzo’s confidence has effects beyond her own artistry, throughout the industry. “She represents a dream realized for women of color,” she says. “She shows me that we are not invisible.”
None of this would matter without great songs to back it up. But Lizzo’s sound, like her story, is one of undeterred self-love, a jubilant self-help manual delivered in danceworthy song form. You can hear it in “Juice,” a bouncy throwback party tune, or in “Tempo,” which celebrates her body. To Lizzo, the music is her self-care. “When you listen to a Lizzo song, some people might be like ‘Wow, she’s so happy all the time,’” she says. “But no, she’s working on being happy. I want my music to be a self-fulfilling prophecy of where I want my life to be.”
So far, it seems to be working; Lizzo says she’s already hit all her 2019 goals. Maybe biggest of all is her song with Missy Elliott, who in many ways is Lizzo’s precursor–an artist who showed her what might be possible in her own career. “She handed me a beautiful torch,” Lizzo says. Then she backpedals: “Maybe she doesn’t feel that way–maybe it would be wrong to assume that! But whatever she gave me, I’m clutching it so tightly.”
This appears in the April 22, 2019 issue of TIME.
Modern comedies tend to rely more on language than on sight gags to earn laughs. But Little–its basic plot conceived by 14-year-old Marsai Martin, of black-ish, who also stars in the film–earns its greatest laughs by riffing on visual contrasts of big and little, small and tall. Regina Hall plays Jordan Sanders, the head of a hugely successful Atlanta tech company: she’s rich, gorgeous, impeccably dressed–and unbearable. Her assistant, April (the marvelous Issa Rae, star and creator of HBO’s Insecure), endures Jordan’s tirades with increasing exasperation.
But after Jordan berates a little girl who innocently tries to show her a magic trick, another kind of magic happens: she wakes up in the body of her 13-year-old self (Martin), and when she tries to live her life the usual adult way, she’s reminded that it’s virtually impossible to be taken seriously when you’re just a little punk.
There’s a reason grownup Jordan is so awful: as a brainy, science-oriented kid, bullied by her peers, she vowed that she’d grow up to be rich and make everyone else’s life miserable. Pint-size former adult Jordan, as played by Martin, is pure delight. She has the same haughty mannerisms as grownup Jordan, and the same sense of entitlement, but they do her no good. In one of the movie’s best and most cathartic sequences, April tutors her tiny-tyrant boss in old-school manners, demanding to be addressed as “Miss April, ma’am.”
Although Little bears some similarities to the 1988 kid fantasy Big, it’s a thoroughly modern comedy, one that lives comfortably with the idea that women can hold power and authority–though because they’re human, they can misuse it, too. And its costuming, by Danielle Hollowell, counts as pure visual comic artistry. Little Jordan is way too small for big Jordan’s luxe outfits, but she insists on wearing them anyway: And so we see small Jordan–her hair a mass of natural curls rather than a straightened businesswoman bob–flopping around in oversize striped silk pajamas, or strutting into the school she’s been forced to attend while wearing an expensively cut pink bell-bottomed pantsuit. The extra fabric may swamp her tiny frame, but it hardly cramps her style. She’s got room to grow, as both a woman and a girl.
This appears in the April 22, 2019 issue of TIME.
Every morning, my Japanese wife Hiroko gets out of bed before dawn and boils hot water to make tea for her father. It hardly matters that he died six years ago. The household altar on which she also lays out his favorite snacks sits next to the boom box on which she’ll soon be blasting out Green Day’s “21st Century Breakdown.” When she gets a day off from the Paul Smith store where she sells semipunk English fashions, she travels two hours–each way–by train to talk to her grandmother, who left this earth in 1979. Hiroko still remembers how whenever she kicked a chair as a little girl, her father told her to apologize. The chair had a soul and heart too, he reminded her. What had it done to harm her?
Some of this may sound strange to the fashion-mad kids in Tokyo’s Harajuku district. The ancient capitals around which Hiroko and I live, Nara and Kyoto, take Japan’s traditions more seriously than do the rebuilt cities of modern Japan. And Hiroko in her autumn years is certainly more diligent about honoring old customs than she might have been in her springtime years. Yet the fact remains: on arriving in Kyoto in 1987, from midtown Manhattan, I was struck most by the trendy girls in fishnet stockings, the ubiquitous burger joints, the sound of pinball racketing through fluorescent shopping arcades. After 32 years around my adopted home, I’m most startled by the resilience of everything that’s old.
Geopolitically, this hasn’t been a blessing. Japan regularly finishes close to the bottom in all of Asia–far behind North Korea, Cambodia and Indonesia–when it comes to English-language proficiency. At Princeton, where I’m teaching this month, the classrooms are full of students from Shanghai and Mumbai and Singapore; I have yet to encounter a single one from Japan. As the number of international visitors to Japan has surged, from 5 million in 2003 to 31 million last year–the number may reach 40 million with the Tokyo Olympics next year–the country is eager to make foreigners feel at home. Yet what draws us visitors to the island nation is not how familiar it feels but how distinct.
Many might say, in fact, that Japan has not strayed far from the hermit kingdom it remained for more than 200 years, when any citizen trying to leave the islands was executed. In recent years it’s found that marketing its past is almost its only way of fashioning a future, economically. After urbanist Richard Florida at the University of Toronto measured 45 countries for their closeness to tradition, modern-seeming Japan came out No. 1. Culturally, this makes for an evergreen advantage: the birthplace of sushi and manga and ramen is in no danger of being mistaken for anywhere else. In an age of global migration, the continuity of Japan has become selling point as well as affliction.
I look at the calendar in my neighborhood in suburban Nara, and almost every event seems to speak for an agrarian, long-ago Japan that hovers around us as vividly as my late father-in-law does. Bonfires to propitiate the gods in the hope of a good harvest. A lantern festival illuminating the sacred forest around one of the country’s most revered Shinto shrines. A ceremonial cutting of the antlers of some of the roughly 1,200 wild deer that roam, untethered, through the city’s downtown. Japan’s retrograde treatment of women, of anyone who acts differently–of people as dark-skinned as I am–has left it increasingly out of sync with the global order; but I urge my friends to visit because even McDonald’s will be serving moon-viewing burgers to go with the harvest moon this September.
This month my neighbors are streaming out into temple gardens to bawl drunken songs under the frothing cherry blossoms. On May Day, a new imperial era arrives as Crown Prince Naruhito ascends the Chrysanthemum Throne. But changing constantly on the surface seems almost a way in Japan of ensuring that nothing changes very much deep down. Next month, and next year, Hiroko in her leather jacket will still be urging our daughter, on her days off, to make the long trip from her smoothie shop to pour fresh water on her great-grandmother’s grave.
Iyer, a contributor to TIME since 1982, publishes a new book, Autumn Light: Season of Fire and Farewells, on April 16
This appears in the April 22, 2019 issue of TIME.
“We’re very well along,” says President Trump about U.S.-China trade talks. “Significant work remains,” caution his spokespeople. Negotiators representing the world’s two largest economies have worked hard for months to resolve long-standing conflicts over market access, protection of intellectual property, and other issues that led Trump last year to order billions of dollars in tariffs on Chinese goods. The two remaining outstanding goals appear to be U.S. willingness to quickly lift tariffs and Chinese willingness to allow the U.S. to verify that China is keeping its promises, but optimism is in the air that a deal will soon be done.
For good and for ill, there are significant similarities between this agreement and the 2015 nuclear deal the Obama Administration struck with Iran. Both involve lengthy, complex negotiations among teams of both technical experts and seasoned diplomats. As with the Iran deal, the U.S.-China agreement will be greeted with extraordinary fanfare. And, perhaps most important, these are both deals agreed to by the representatives of governments that deeply distrust each other.
That’s why a U.S.-China trade pact, like the Iran nuclear deal, is unlikely to last very long. One of Iran’s bitterest complaints is that the Obama Administration left many sanctions in place even after the nuclear deal was signed. Trump may well do the same with China, and the threat that Trump will abruptly tweet out new threats will hang over future relations. China, like Iran, will allow for some sort of verification process to prove it’s keeping its end of the deal, but the President may not always be satisfied with the result, particularly if U.S. and Chinese officials interpret the agreement differently, because of their economic interests and essential mistrust of each other.
A further similarity: other governments will be left with the mess when the deal breaks down. A series of reports issued earlier this month underscore just how many interested parties there are. The Asian Development Bank says trade disputes between Washington and Beijing create the most important current risk for Asia’s regional economy. The International Monetary Fund notes that today’s global supply chains leave South Korea and Japan, as well as Germany, Italy, the U.K. and France, especially vulnerable to an economic slowdown triggered by tariffs. The World Trade Organization warns that tit-for-tat tariffs, like those at play in the U.S.-China trade war, threaten global jobs, growth and economic stability.
Donald Trump wants a deal. He needs a major political win to open his campaign for re-election, and there are few other foreign policy achievements he can credibly claim. Chinese President Xi Jinping wants a deal too. He’s managing a long-term slowdown of China’s economy and needs to avoid criticism at home that the “new era” of Chinese power he has proclaimed has forced his country and its economy into an unwelcome international spotlight. The negotiators representing the two governments want an agreement that will satisfy the political needs of their Presidents while resolving enough problems in U.S.-China trade relations to give the deal a chance to stand the test of time.
But mistrust extends well beyond the men at the top. China and the U.S. will compete for domination in coming years across the political, economic, security and technology arenas. A signed agreement can make an important difference to limit this competition. It can also be destroyed more quickly than it was constructed. Just ask Iran.
This appears in the April 22, 2019 issue of TIME.
You may have heard of Tim Ryan’s cousin. Sitting on a barstool in an office-park brewery in West Des Moines, Iowa, Ryan tells the tale of how cousin Donny called him up two decades ago, shell-shocked and soon to be out of a job at the electrical-parts factory where he’d worked for seven years. The last thing Donny did was box up the equipment he’d been running to ship it to China, along with his job.
It’s an anecdote that Ryan deploys often. It’s also one that could have come from the mouth of President Donald Trump, whom Ryan is now running against. An eight-term Democratic Congressman from a largely white, working-class part of Ohio, Ryan has just launched a presidential campaign built around the plight of the people Trump dubbed the “forgotten men and women” of America. And even a few years ago, the 45-year-old swing-state Congressman may have looked and sounded like a presidential candidate from central casting, a man following the path taken by eight Presidents from Ohio to the White House.
But as the 2020 race gets under way, Ryan barely registers in the crowded Democratic presidential contest. The party is fielding its most diverse group of contenders in history, including firebrands, pioneers and coalition builders. In a race dominated so far by policy ideas like free college and breaking up monopolies, there’s little sign of an opening for a little-known Midwestern Congressman who was against abortion rights until 2015 and has made rebuilding the party’s connection with blue collar voters the centerpiece of his campaign. Most of the latest polls in Iowa and New Hampshire didn’t even ask about Ryan, who faces a steep climb just to qualify for the first Democratic debates in June.
But even as they dismiss Ryan’s chances, many Democrats say the party should heed his message. To win back the White House, they say, Democrats first need to win back workers who share the frustrations Ryan sees when he’s out with his family. “I could win Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin; rebuild the blue wall; and take out Trump,” Ryan tells TIME. But that’s not all. “I don’t want it to be just about beating Trump. It’s got to be about totally forging a new politics in the country that realigns things. It’s got to happen.”
Ryan admits that he is a long-shot contender. “For me, it’s Iowa, New Hampshire,” Ryan says, sipping a locally made pint of Foxy Blonde ale. “I have to do really well. I don’t know what that means in the field of 19 people. It used to be three tickets out of Iowa, and now maybe it’s, like, six?”
The Congressman’s politics can be equally hard to interpret. It’s easy to caricature a former NRA guy who has supported corporate-tax cuts and tried twice to dethrone House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for being out of step with today’s Democratic Party. But Ryan is no centrist. He may not be for the Green New Deal as it stands, but wants to partner with the private sector to develop new environmentally friendly technologies to replace a vanishing manufacturing sector. He’s a self-described progressive, but one who doesn’t sign on to far-left ideas like abolishing ICE or the Electoral College. And he’s a yoga and meditation devotee who wrote a book on the practice of mindfulness and another on food policy.
Ryan grew up in Niles, Ohio, a small city on the outskirts of the once mighty industrial hub of Youngstown. He and his brothers were altar boys at Our Lady of Mount Carmel Catholic Church, where his priest celebrated a private mass for Ryan’s family and close friends just hours before Ryan delivered his announcement speech on April 6. The priest played to the choir with his sermon, telling the clan to hold out hope for Ryan’s candidacy. After all, the priest said, the Pharisees doubted that someone from Galilee could be a prophet, let alone found Christianity. “It was the best homily,” Ryan chuckles. “A President from Niles? Come on.” (Ryan is in on the joke; President William McKinley was born there, and the Congressman launched his original House campaign from the McKinley presidential museum.) In a party marked by rising secularism, Ryan remains devout. “To me, my faith is about love and compassion,” he says.
A standout high school quarterback, Ryan was recruited to play at Youngstown State. A knee injury when he was 19 sidelined him and sent him studying political science at Bowling Green. Between stints working for his local Congressman, the troublemaking James Traficant, and a term in the state Senate, he earned a law degree. In 2002, after Traficant was indicted for bribery, racketeering and tax evasion, Ryan, then 29, ran for his former boss’s job and won, making him the youngest Congressman in the country at the time. (Though Traficant was expelled from the House, he still got 15% of the vote in 2002 as a jailhouse candidate and 16% in 2010.) The district is now among the poorest in the U.S., and Ryan has used his perch on the powerful House Appropriations committee to bring home millions of dollars in grants.
Ryan has long mused about running for higher office. Whether he can compete with a host of better-known and more dynamic competitors is a different question. At a moment when rivals like Elizabeth Warren are rolling out well-formed policy proposals honed with input from think tanks and networks of advisers, Ryan is serving as his own policy chief. He lacks the online fundraising army that has powered candidates like Bernie Sanders, Kamala Harris and Pete Buttigieg. Nor does he have the big-dollar backing of contenders like Joe Biden and Cory Booker.
The reality of his candidacy comes through as a kind of humility bordering on fatalism. Before sitting down for a beer with TIME, Ryan fielded questions from potential Iowa caucusgoers gathered on the brewery’s concrete floor. “This will not be easy,” Ryan told his crowd. “I’m not a superstar. I’m not a savior. I will tell you I will jump in the foxhole with you, and we will get this done. We are smart enough, we are creative enough, we are courageous enough, to pull this off. But it will be a long slog.”
Few Democratic observers believe Ryan has a chance of emerging as the nominee. But there is evidence that his peers should be listening to his pitch. For all the energy on the party’s left flank, the Democrats’ path back to the House majority ran through the Midwest in 2018, driven in large part by suburban women who have soured on Trump’s bravado. Many Democrats are eager for presidential candidates who promise big changes, but plenty of voters in the heartland simply want to believe politics can be practiced across the aisle, as Ryan has shown in working with GOP colleagues on defending Ohio military bases and fighting Great Lakes pollution.
Cousin Donny is hardly the only person in this part of the country to have been affected by the economic upheaval of the past decades. In fact, Ryan says it was another family member’s call that spurred him to seriously consider a White House run. In November of last year, his stepdaughter Bella called in tears. Her friend’s father was soon to lose his job, she said, when the local General Motors plant closed its doors. Ryan was reduced to tears too–“It was brutal,” he recalls–and sparked to action.
This appears in the April 22, 2019 issue of TIME.