" ‘Missy Elliott’s music] sounds like it was made by a yet unidentified species on a planet with an unpronounceable name, in a solar system that exists outside our space-time continuum entirely. Who else you know was rocking track suits made of mercury, kryptonite, and lasers in 1998?’– Justin Charity
In the 6th grade I wrote a report for black history about an influential black figure in my life. Everyone in my class chose the same few archetypal black leaders that the basic black history curriculum promotes: Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, and the occasional Malcolm X for those who wanted to go against the grain.
I chose Missy Elliott.
And I didn’t know why. At the time, I didn’t know much about her life or career. All I knew was that she made good music.
I can recall reciting the lyrics to her verse in when I was 5 years old in daycare from her 1997 track with Nicole Wray, “Make it Hot”. I remember seeing her music video with the Spice Girls’ Mel B, “I Think I Want You Back” when I was 6 and daydreaming about being a part of the set. It was nothing like I’d ever seen before. All throughout the 90s, I watched her orchestrate the musical careers of burgeoning new artists–from Genuwine, to hip hop’s favorite princess, Aaliyah. I learned every word to Lil Kim’s verse in “All About the Benjamins,” – arguably one of the greatest hip hop songs of all time – to which The L.OX. memberSheek Louch revealed that the main architect behind the rap anthem was Missy. Everyone I knew spent their formative years trying to figure out what she was saying with her famous gibberish lyrics in the song “Gossip Folks.” Decoding Missy lyrics had become a childhood pastime in its own right. When the new millenium hit, Missy shook up my world, fortifying her stronghold in entertainment, with unintelligibly catchy lyrics, unearthly conceptual music videos, and little kids in tracksuits breakdancing to “Work It”.
Fast forward ten Black History Months later, and I’m here writing about Missy Elliot, again.
Missy’s performance with Katy Perry at this year’s Super Bowl, stands as the most-watched Halftime showin Super Bowl history. Missy’s music profit experienced a resurgence like no other; her iTunes sales jumped 2500 percent. This whopping increase was a product of exposure to an entirely new demographic, super young pop consumers who have no idea who Missy is and what she has done for hip hop culture and the music industry as a whole.
For almost 20 years, Missy Elliott has been a force in both the background and forefront of music. Aside from her obvious talent – the smooth singing, unorthodox rap style, insane songwriting skills, and natural musicality – there is one noteworthy feat to her long-lasting cultural imprint; her ability to make timeless music. Missy’s sound travels beyond the constraints of genre and time. It’s magical enough to send old heads down a nostalgic funk, hip hop and R&B lane, while hooking in young, oblivious pop listeners, leaving them in awe and clicking away on iTunes to hear more of what they’ve missed.
In 1999, cultural critic Touré chronicled Missy’s new style in “I Live in the Hiphop Nation.” He wrote, “Traditionally, hip hop has been hypermodern, disdaining the surreal for fritty images of urban life. But Missy Elliott and her producer, Timbaland, have constructed a postmodern aesthetic that manifests, on her latest album, Da Real World, in references to the sci-fi film The Matrix and videos in which Missy dresses as if she were in a scene from Blade Runner. Her music also has a futuristic feel, from Timbaland’s spare, propulsive beats filled with quirky sounds that evoke science fiction to Missy’s experiments with singing and rhyming, as well as using onomatopoeias in her rhymes. They have become part of the Nation’s sonic vanguard, as well as door-openers for a new genre: hip hop sci-fi.”
The Super Bowl performance was Missy withstanding the tests of time. Her ability to rip down stages 20 years later, as she stated in her tweet addressing those Halftime viewers who thought she was a new artist, is a product of the Afrofutristic nuances within her artistry.
Afrofuturism is an ideology and movement grounded in the re-envisioning of the past, present, and future of black people’s positioning in the material world. Through innovations of science fiction, historical fiction, and fantasy, Afrofuturism functions through the black diasporic lens and serves as a radical departure from traditional Western artistic and historic expression. Every dimension of Afrofuturism – the aesthetic imagery, the sonic components, the spiritual elements – promotes a different type of modern black culture, one that enables an alternative, almost mythical view of tomorrow’s reality. It is about existing in a space devoid of the forces that tether blacks to a bleak, suppressed reality. Afrofuturism is an alternate reality; where present-day problems and joys of blacks are critiqued and explored, re-examined, re-imagined, and retold.
The phrase was coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in his 1994 essay “Black to the Future.” Artists and thinkers usually associated with afro-futurism include Octavia Butler, Afrika Bambaataa, John Coltrane, Outkast, Flying Lotus, Janelle Monae, Sun Ra as early as 1956 with Super -Sonic Jazz and George Clinton, as early as 1975 with his Starchild alter ego who spoke of “certified Afronauts, capable of funkitizing galaxies.”
Missy Elliott is a strong addition to that list. Her art explores themes of unrefined black culture, women’s issues, feminist ideology, staunch sexuality, classic hip hop stilo, atop an otherworldly mentality. Her music and persona paint a holistic image of blackness, womanhood, and artistry that offers a liberating new vision of creativity and life. Missy’s work delved into this alienesque motif; no one in the game looked or sounded like her. A heavyset black woman, with beautiful makeup, fingerwaves for days, donning the flyest, most outlandish outfits – like her infamous inflated garbage bag jumpsuit https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hHcyJPTTn9w –, hitting the hardest, smoothest dance moves, and crooning/rapping to an instrumental similar to to what you’d hear if Martians dropped mixtapes.”