Issue 005 Winter 2023 Features

Life is But Missy Elliott’s Dream

In the 20 years since Supa Dupa Fly, Missy Elliot's visionary imagination is still yet to be fully comprehended.

By Clarkisha Kent

artwork by Raquel Hazell


I love a good creation story. The origin story of the cosmic.


It is quite fascinating to learn how different religions, cultures, or societies suspect that the universe came to be. My favorite will always be the Big Bang theory, mostly because thinking of the expansion of time and space keeps me grounded and reminds me of how minuscule our particular galaxy is in the grand scheme of the universe.

Simultaneously, as a survivor of the major Abrahamic religion known as Christianity, I find its creation story—that is, a primordial being randomly deciding that the universe needed something a little extra—hilarious. What was the motivation? Boredom? The answer is pending. Still. Perhaps the most compelling part of this story is when said primordial being decides that the first thing they’re going to do is pull a source of light out of the darkness.

By doing this, they are creating something out of nothing. Plucking the beginnings of life from a ceaseless void. Conjuring something out of nothing is a phenomenon that Black people have grown accustomed to—with Black women possessing highly specific knowledge on how to do so.

Missy Elliott is one such Black woman.


artwork by Raquel Hazell

In an Elle cover story that profiles the aforementioned superstar, astute observations on the relationship between creation and Black survival are made both by Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah’s pen and through Elliott’s words.1 Such survival is born out of hidden and waking knowledge that death follows us around like we’re big game. This should be demoralizing as fuck. Yet Elliott makes it known that while life takes an unjustifiably pugnacious stance against the standard Black person, she “wouldn’t be no other color, because if there’s one thing about us we never really had but we know how to—we know how to survive.”

Our survival has always required imagination and creativity, demanding that we become visionaries in big and small ways. This knowledge is woven into our art. With an understanding that our creativity remains a powerful way to circumvent a cosmic inevitability that would have us give up our time and our lives willingly.

For the (Black) visionary, the concept of time (à la Black temporality) remains at the forefront of their mind. It is even built into the Britannica Dictionary definition of visionary: “having or showing clear ideas about what should happen or be done in the future [emphasis mine].”2 A secondary definition adds that a visionary is a person “having or marked by foresight and imagination [emphasis mine].”3 As a visionary, Elliott has been lauded for her ability to hone her colossal imagination to bring forth all of the funky music, fresh fashion, and futuristic visuals that she is known for. But sometimes I don’t think such accolades are enough, because they can’t begin to comprehend the Brobdingnagian mind of Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott. But diving into it requires us to delve into what the visionary’s imagination is capable of.

Merriam-Webster considers “visionary” to be synonymous with “dreamer.”4 Mainly because dreaming is pivotal in the visionary’s process. So much so that Dr. Murray Hunter classifies dreaming as its own type of imagination (out of eight types).5,6 Because even as it is done unconsciously, while we slumber, it is known that much problem solving occurs during this vulnerable resting period for our minds.

You’ve gotta be creative to solve a problem. To make a name for yourself. To carve out your own path. Or, as we’ve discussed, to create something out of a void. And if you’re curious about what sort of problems Missy Elliott has solved by channeling her creative imagination into her work, I’ll explain with three of my favorite songs.


artwork by Raquel Hazell

There’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (1997), which was her first solo single and music video. By joining forces with the illustrious Hype Williams, Elliott sets out to make her debut big, fat, and flashy—all captured by June Ambrose’s out-of-this-world black Michelin Man suit.7 Elliott succeeds on multiple levels. Firstly, because the iconic fish-eye lens puts her, as a “new” solo artist, straight up in your face and in your living room as you take in these images for the first time. Secondly, because the suit accentuates every “problem” that studio executives claimed would hold her back in the music industry,8 which was, primarily, her fatness and Blackness.9 She, as Ghansah puts it, becomes “blacker, larger, lovelier, and gigantic.”10 And dares you to say something about it.

Then there’s “She’s a Bitch” (1999), in which, just as in “The Rain,” Elliott utilizes fashion as futurity by adorning herself in all black—with a trench coat that floats like a cape and a bald, bejeweled head to match. This is combined with the video’s monochromatic look and backup dancers that Elliott describes as “some ghetto S&M women.”11 This is all performed under a dark and tumultuous sky and joined by eerie shadows and fluorescent neon lights doing a delicious dance behind Elliott. She becomes an intimidating image, which is apt, seeing as she is simultaneously destigmatizing and reclaiming the concept of a “bitch.” Or, per the monochromatic theme of the entire video, a Black bitch.

It’s a peek into the problems forced upon Missy when she exploded on the scene as a Black woman in hip hop. “Bitch” has always been about exerting creative control over self-assured women who are very vocal about their autonomy.12 And it was something Elliott had probably grown accustomed to hearing, particularly because her debut included her taking creative control of her work and her image as both a songwriter and producer—something she promised herself she would do after being purposely excluded from the “That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of” (1993) video.13 A light-skinned, skinny woman ended up sporting Elliott’s disembodied voice alongside a young Raven-Symoné. And Elliott made sure that would never happen again.


artwork by Raquel Hazell

And lastly, there’s “One Minute Man” (2001), where she addresses the problem of one-pump chumps. Although present-day music “fans” wish to desexualize Missy Elliott and pit her against newer rap girls like Megan Thee Stallion, Cardi B, Flo Milli, and the like, Elliott’s proud ownership of her sexuality and desires has always been present in her work (see “Work It” [2002]).14 “One Minute Man” is my favorite example of this. In the song, she tells two-pump chumps that they need not apply and shows them exactly why by demonstrating her own sexual prowess . . . and rendering the psychedelic image of detaching her own head from her body. And Elliott lets you know she’s with the shits by showcasing her head and body dancing—separately. This is a freaky bitch, in every sense of the word, and you are not allowed to enter her bedroom unless you’re ready to sweat.

Elliott’s warning to the cis het men who have been sexually phoning it in is further emphasized by her superb world-building skills. Visuals such as women being rocked to sleep in cribs (after presumably strenuous physical activity) and oversized and distorted clocks that have been turned back—or hilariously enough, have stopped working altogether—come together to create the Get Ur Freak On Hotel, which, yes, charges you by the minute, you fucking cheapskate. Elliott’s vision and lyrics are so effective together that in a 2001 interview with The Observer, she stated she never came across a one-minute man again.15

Problem solved.

The music industry, like the world, was not built for Black women. And especially not for dark-skinned, fat Black women. And it remains extremely hostile to us. Nevertheless, a visionary like Missy Elliott reminds us that harnessing just a sliver of your imagination is a powerful weapon in a world that is invested in your downfall rather than your survival. And surviving as a Black woman, by creating something out of the nothing that this world gives us, is one of the most spiteful and most important things you can ever do.


Footnotes:

1. Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah, “Her Eyes Were Watching the Stars: How Missy Elliott Became an Icon,” Elle, May 15, 2017, https://www.elle.com/culture/celebrities/a44891/missy-elliott-june-2017-elle-cover-story.

2. https://www.britannica.com/dictionary/visionary.

3. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/visionary.

4. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/visionary.

5. Murray Hunter, “Imagination May Be More Important than Knowledge: the Eight Types of Imagination We Use,” Review of Contemporary Philosophy 12 (2013): 113.

6. Argumentative Penguin, “Understanding Your Creative Engine — the 8 Types of Imagination,” The Writing Cooperative, September 26, 2018, https://writingcooperative.com/understanding-your-creative-engine-the-8-types-of-imagination-5265ebdae79f.

7. Nikki Ogunnaike and June Ambrose, “How Missy Elliott’s Iconic ‘Hip Hop Michelin Woman’ Look Came to Be,” Elle, May 17, 2017, https://www.elle.com/fashion/a45334/the-untold-story-of-missy-elliotts-iconic-supa-dupa-fly-video.

8. https://www.songfacts.com/facts/missy-elliott/the-rain-supa-dupa-fly.

9. Ted Kessler, “Missy in Action,” The Observer (Guardian News and Media), August 5, 2001, https://www.theguardian.com/theobserver/2001/aug/05/life1.lifemagazine7.

10. Ghansah, “Eyes.”

11. Missy Elliott on Behind the Scenes of ‘She’s a Bitch’ (1999),” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WMupKbGrpjI.

12. MTV News Staff, “20 Years Ago, Missy Elliott’s ‘She’s a Bitch’ Video Redefined What Hip-Hop Could Look Like,” MTV, April 19, 2019, https://www.mtv.com/news/qenf3y/missy-elliott-shes-a-bitch-20-year-anniversary.

13. Ghansah, “Eyes.”

14. Nichole Perkins, “With ‘WAP,’ Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion Honor Women’s Pleasure,” Bitch Media, August 13, 2020, https://www.bitchmedia.org/article/wap-cardi-b-megan-thee-stallion-reclaim-womens-sexuality.