As she juggled classes, dance rehearsals, a part-time job and preparations for Southern University’s homecoming week, Gaybrielle Dixon squeezed in the time this fall to audition for a music video on campus.
She stood barefoot in a ballroom as the infectious voice of Lizzo echoed around her, singing a now-famous opening line paired with a piano riff: “I do my hair toss, check my nails.” Dixon let her body do what she has trained for since she was 4, improvising a dance and praying that God would give her the right movements and facial expressions to make her stand out.
She tried to remain calm when she found out that she’d be starring as one of the main characters in the new music video for Lizzo’s No. 1 single, “Good as Hell.”
“I didn’t want to lose it in front of them because I had to be like a professional, but afterward, I got in my car and all I could do is scream,” said Dixon, 23, who goes by “Gabby.”
Dixon and several other Southern students became mini-celebrities overnight thanks to their roles in the music video for Lizzo, who has skyrocketed to fame over the past year with soulful music that crosses pop and hip-hop genres and blends messages of female empowerment with a down-to-Earth persona. When she rereleased her 2016 song “Good as Hell” this year, the single topped radio charts and enticed listeners to let an earworm grow inside of them until they could repeat every refrain of “Baby, how you feeling?”
Lizzo, who grew up mostly in Houston, fell in love with black marching band culture as she played flute in middle and high school, before going on to study classical music and flute at the University of Houston. After years of struggling to find success in the music industry, she’s had a breakout year with eight Grammy Award nominations — the most of any artist.
The 31-year-old wanted her new “Good as Hell” video to be a love letter to both marching band culture and historically black colleges and universities. Angela Guice, the video’s executive producer, said in an interview with The Advocate that she and director Alan Ferguson had a top-five list of HBCUs they were considering, but that Southern’s famous Human Jukebox band and Fabulous Dancing Dolls were always at the top of their list.
“It just had the best combination of a really great band with amazing uniforms and colors that would really stand out and pop and, of course, the Fabulous Dancing Dolls that had such a unique style,” Guice said.
They reached out to Southern in the fall and university brass agreed, and a week later, Lizzo came to film amid her tour, which included two sold-out shows in New Orleans. Guice and Ferguson visited the Southern campus beforehand, embedding with the band, scouting locations, coordinating Dancing Dolls choreography with Lizzo’s choreographer and giving Lizzo’s costume designer only about a week to customize her own version of the blue band uniforms and white Dancing Doll ensembles.
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A location contract between Southern University and the production company, which The Advocate obtained through a public records request, shows that the company agreed to pay Southern $12,500 to film there.
Kedric Taylor, the Southern band director, had previously told the students that someone famous might be coming for a visit, but it was only a few days ahead of time when band members found out it was Lizzo.
“They didn’t know whether to scream, whether I was kidding … they didn’t know how to react,” Taylor said. “They were just amazed that someone of her caliber would be able to come to our band room and make a music video.”
Once she headed to Baton Rouge, Lizzo’s visit wasn’t exactly a secret.
“Attention,” Lizzo clapped her red-manicured hands outside of a plane in an Oct. 29 Instagram video. “This is how a bad bitch goes from San Francisco to Baton Rouge. You bitches can’t even spell Baton Rouge,” she laughed, jokingly spelling it in her caption Bat’in Ruch.
Southern posted an invitation the same day for students to join a “major video production featuring a #1 Billboard recording artist.” And a blue school bus with Lizzo’s name painted across it was parked outside of Southern’s campus during homecoming week, where she would later film scenes eating Flamin’ Hot Cheetos and twerking alongside saxophone, tuba and trombone players.
No. 1 Billboard recording artist Lizzo said Tuesday she was flying to Baton Rouge, where a bus emblazoned with her name showed up at Southern …
But the details of what Lizzo was making — and how prominently some of Southern’s students would be featured in it — remained under wraps until the music video dropped Dec. 9. The people making the video hoped to use students, rather than actors, to play the main roles because they wanted it to feel as authentic as possible, Guice said.
During a casting call a few days before Lizzo arrived, the director and producers knew they wanted the video to follow a storyline of women experiencing various hardships – breakups, struggles to keep pace with the rest of the band, being the only female on a drumline — and to show “how music can transform you and make you feel good as hell,” Guice said.
”We couldn’t have cast these kids better if we tried to here in Los Angeles — they were just fantastic,” she added.
Southern’s landscape and students became the heart of the music video rather than background props. Lizzo becomes one of them, playing flute as she marches and winks with the marching band in a custom version of their blue uniform with an “L” sequined across the front.
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The video opens with a label indicating it takes place at Southern University in Baton Rouge, and it closes with a thank you to the Human Jukebox and Dancing Dolls. In the meantime, the featured students go on journeys of self-love and acceptance, themes Lizzo promotes in her live shows.
Dixon’s character begins the video by moping over a photo of a guy — presumably an ex-boyfriend — on her phone, while the rest of the Dancing Dolls are getting into costume. A friend pulls her up, snaps her uniform into place, swipes a makeup brush over her eyes and starts to dance with her in the locker room.
As the video goes on, Dixon is featured repeatedly, arching her back as she leaps through the air, swinging her head as she spins alone in the locker room. Those scenes — just like her audition — came from her freestyling to Lizzo’s music, rather than performing given choreography, Dixon said.
By the end of the video, she and Lizzo exchange nods as they dance alongside each other in formation on the football field. Her ex-boyfriend becomes old news — as Lizzo puts it, “if he don’t love you any more, walk your fine ass out the door.” As the Dancing Dolls perform on the field, the ex shoots back a forlorn stare.
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While Dixon and other Southern band members who are featured in the video had to take on personas, Human Jukebox drum major Tre’Von Ceasar said the guidance he got was that he simply had to be himself during filming. As drum major for the past three years, Ceasar already had his signature move down pat: the “drum major backbend” of bending over backward until his head touches the grass while keeping his hands at his side.
Taylor, the band director, also said his own role in the music video might have come a bit too easily. He’s shown shaking his head at a saxophone player who can’t get her steps right.
“I guess it’s one of my normal faces,” he laughed.
Though it’s hard to tell in the music video, the Human Jukebox was playing “Good as Hell” live in the scenes alongside Lizzo in their band room, on the football field and in the stands. Ceasar was a fan of her music — especially her song “Juice” — long before she came to shoot the video, which made meeting her even more exciting for him. He and the others described her as warm and fun, hugging people rather than shaking hands.
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“She’s really down to Earth,” he said. “It was like talking to somebody I would meet in class, but it’s Lizzo.”
Nobody at Southern knew when the video would be released or what the final product would look like. Most found out it had finally dropped when their friends and family started messaging them on Dec. 9 to congratulate them. They rushed to find the video and watch it on repeat.
Dixon opened Instagram after receiving a flurry of texts and found the video posted everywhere. She said it was an exciting cap to her time at Southern and her three years as a Dancing Doll; she graduated Dec. 13 with an English degree and plans to pursue a career as an actress.
“I go look at it and I’m very excited, but it was also like, ‘This is your chance to work even harder to get where you want to be,’” said Dixon, who grew up in Orlando, Florida.
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Ceasar recalled the magic of watching the Human Jukebox back when he was a high schooler in Lake Charles, and how the band’s performances made him want to go to Southern. He said he hopes the video’s exposure — with over 6 million views on YouTube to date — and Lizzo’s embrace of the Human Jukebox will inspire other students to apply to Southern and to join the band as well.
Taylor also expects the video’s release to earn the legendary band an especially warm welcome when they perform at the famous Rose Parade on New Year’s Day in California.
“They’ll know who we are by that video,” he said.