Why Missy Elliott’s feminist legacy is criminally underrated

Because if you love Nicki and Beyoncé, it’s important to appreciate the artist who paved the way

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Missy Elliott in “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”
Missy Elliott in “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”via YouTube.com

Before Beyoncé performed in front of a neon “feminist” sign, before Lady Gaga had an artist throw up on her on stage to expose sexism and before Nicki Minaj twerked her ass to subvert the male gaze, Missy Elliott was bringing feminism to mainstream music. Over her impressive 25-year career, Elliott’s message has been clear, and that’s that women, whether conforming to heteronormative gender binaries or not, are equal to men, as important as men, and as powerful. She’s been devoted to promoting the idea that women can act, rather than just appearing, and that a noisy woman with an opinion is a valuable thing, and moreover, that this woman has nothing to apologize for.

Carving out a niche for women in hip hop in the early 90s along with Lil Kim and Queen Latifah, Elliott has maintained a strong feminist voice in an industry and genre that thrives on misogyny and homophobia; bigotry that is directly antithetical to everything she stands for. From body and sex positivity, to being a champion for women-supporting-women, Elliott shouldn’t be forgotten when we talk about feminism in pop. Indeed, she should be celebrated for carving a path to it, revered for her take-no-prisoners attitude to feminine autonomy, and, moreover, you should be irrepressibly excited that she’s got a new album coming in 2016.

Feminism is a predominant dialogue in the current pop music landscape, and accolades are poured upon any artist who jumps on the bandwagon. But what we see on screen and in music can often feel like a vapid gesture ­– feminism harnessed to create headlines, rather than purposefully directed to upheaval of the status quo. For instance, the aforementioned Beyoncé, who used part of a Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s TED Talk on feminism in her 2014 track “Flawless” (a song which also asks women to “Bow down, bitches”), also released a song, on the same album, where she allowed her husband Jay-Z to rap about how he was going to beat her up like Mike Tyson or Ike Turner. Of course, we can’t expect our pop feminists to be perfect, but sometimes it feels suspiciously like feminism is being used to sell albums and concert tickets rather than push an actual political agenda.

For a generation that sees “Anaconda” as the pinnacle of pop music feminism, it’s important to remember what came before so that we can view everything else through a critical lens. That is, to understand that right now feminism is a hot commodity, and that sometimes it’s the buzzword that’s needed for an artist to garner the right kind of critical attention. Elliott, a pioneering woman in hip hop, wasn’t looking for the approval of the court of popular opinion (although being ridiculously talented and creating amazing music, she obviously got it anyway), and she wasn’t looking to be a trending hashtag. We often give artists like Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé applause for championing body positivity, because as “curvy” women of colour, they’re presenting an “other” in a predominantly skinny-centric, whitewashed industry.

“Elliott has always favoured personal style and self-confidence over male-dictated beauty ideals”

That does have some truth to it, of course. These women are different and interesting – to an extent. But they are both still preoccupied with feminine aesthetic perfection, and both project an image that is largely in keeping with traditional masculine desire. Elliott, on the other hand, addresses body positivity from a much more (and I use the following language for lack of a better word) authentic, or at least genuine angle. That’s not to devalue anything Bey and Minaj have achieved in subverting gender norms, but just to say that Elliott did so without ever having patriarchy-approved sexiness at the epicentre of her campaign. For instance, in the video for “I’m (Really) Hot”, Elliott appears in parachute pants and puffy jacket or jeans and a hoodie, perfectly comfortable rapping about how gorgeous she is without ever feeling like she has to conform to pre-prescribed notions of beauty. In “The Rain [Supa Dupa Fly]” she appears in her now iconic, inflatable, body encompassing suit, while in “Sock It To Me” she wears cartoonish, form contorting costumes. Elliott has always favoured personal style and self-confidence over male-dictated beauty ideals. As a result, she makes beauty something highly individualistic, and in the process, empowers body image to be whatever the wearer of that body chooses it to be.

At the same time as actively seeking to break rules associated with the feminine aesthetic, Elliott has always been a champion for women, prescribing to the “all boats rise” theory of success. By building other women up, Elliott did something that few other artists have done, and that’s really cultivating the talent of other women – not with a cursory verse or on stage appearance like some Taylor Swift concert – but by actually spending time with other talented women and helping them to grow and thrive in their careers. Ciara owes much of her early success to being under Elliott’s wing, with Elliott writing and appearing on Ciara’s breakout hit, “1, 2 Step”. Elliott has also been generous with artists including Eve, Lil Kim, Lil Mo, Lady Saw, Charlene “Tweet” Keys and Da Brat, collaborating on verse performances, writing, and production. Elliott’s music has reflected this idea of female solidarity, as she’s shared her spotlight willingly and gleefully. She’s even got Beyoncé on her 1998 track “Crazy Feelings” and again in 2002 on “Nothing Out There For Me”, notable as Beyoncé is known for her aversion to performing with other women (until her recent collaboration with Nicki Minaj). Elliott’s song, “Best Friends” with Aaliyah, is a further testament to her commitment to dispelling the myth that women should be wary of one another, as the track is a tribute to female friendship and how empowering female solidarity can be.

In that same vein, Elliott also supports autonomy in female sexuality. As a survivor of sexual and domestic violence, her sex positivity reads almost like a war cry, and as such is both powerful and profound, reclaiming her own body as well as encouraging other women to reclaim theirs. From sex work (in “Work It” she raps “Girl, girl, get that cash/ If it's 9 to 5 or shakin' your ass/ Ain't no shame, ladies do your thing/ Just make sure you ahead of the game”) to self-pleasure (in “Toyz” she sings “I gotta bag full of toys/ And I don't need none of your boys”) Elliott’s sex-positivity is absolutely unconditional and inspiring. She doesn’t reject any form of female sexual desire, her own desire being fluid (which also makes her a strong ally for the LGBTQ community), but rather, promotes female desire to something as brazen and important as male desire. As with her body positivity, her sex positivity rejects the passive/submissive sexuality imposed upon women by patriarchal norms, favouring something aggressive, hungry and honest, instead. In “Hot Boyz” Elliott demands “Can you treat me good/ ‘Cause I wont settle for less,” and rather than conforming to the paradigm that male approval/love is the ultimate goal for a woman, asserts a desire for something more – respect. And, of course, as she articulates in “Work It” to have her sexual partner, “Go downtown and eat it like a vulture.” Meanwhile, Elliott fiercely defends a woman’s right to sexual autonomy, rapping “How you studying these h*es?/ Need to talk what you know/ And stop talking 'bout who I'm sticking and licking/ just mad it ain't yours," to attack the slut shaming tabloid press in “Gossip Folks.”

Railing against sexism, Elliott has been seminal in reclaiming the language of oppression. In “Throw Your Hands Up” Lil Kim raps, “If you can’t wear the name, don’t try to use it,” which leads into “She’s A Bitch”, where Elliott raps “She's a bitch/ When I do my thing/ Got the place on fire, burn it down to flame.” Everything Elliott has done in her career has fit into this narrative of gender equality and feminine empowerment, and even more so than the adored “feminist” pop stars of today, Elliott committed to her cause that was, and hopefully will continue being, the nucleus of her art. If her first release “WTF (Where You From”, which takes on the appropriation of black culture in pop, is anything to go by, Elliott’s got something real to say in 2016. And nothing is more exciting than the queen coming back to show the current generation how pop feminism is done.



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