Melissa Arnette Elliott (born July 1, 1971), better known as Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott, is an American rapper, dancer, and record producer. She began her musical career with an all-female R&B group, Sista, and later became apart of the Swing Mob collective along with childhood friend Timbaland, with whom she worked on projects for Aaliyah, 702, Total, and SWV. However, due to lack of finances Sista wasn’t able to produce an album and ultimately broke up. After many collaborations and features, Missy launched her solo career in 1997 with her debut album ‘Supa Dupa Fly,’ which included hit singles “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” and “Sock it 2 Me.” The album debuted at number three on the Billboard 200, which was the highest-charting debut for a female rapper at the time.
Following, Elliott released album Da Real World (1999) producing singles “She’s a B**,” and top five hit “Hot Boyz,” which remained at the number one spot on the Hop Rap singles chart for 18 weeks. Her later works including “E… So Addictive (2001), Under Construction (2002), and This is Not a Test! (2003) gained her international recognition that yielded hits such as “Get your Freak On,” “One Minute Man,” and “Work It.” Elliott went on to win four Grammy Awards and sell over 30 million records in the United States, alone. She is considered one of the best-selling female rap artist in history. Through her claim to fame, she was able to dispel the theory that ‘gangsta rap stole the fun from hip-hop,’ and express her creativity through her music and visual aids.
The term, womanist, was coined in 1979 by Alice Walker, who defined womanist as a “black feminist or a feminist of color” and likened “womanism to feminism as purple is to lavender” (Walker, 1983). From that point on women of color adopted the term, womanist, as a way to address the intersections of race and gender. Womanism proved to be an ideal concept for African American women that both rejected and accepted feminism. Examining the role that Missy Elliott had in redefining the female patterns of identity in Hip Hop is enhanced by looking through the womanist lens. The womanist framework is ideal because it provides a culturally based and gender specific filter that affirms the inseparable nature of oppressive identities faced by African American women.
The role of women in Hip Hop has evolved over the course of time. Since the beginning, women participated in Hip Hop culture as MCs, DJs, dancers, and graffiti artists; yet, their influence and prominence has constantly remained inferior to that of their male counterparts. However, in the mid- to late 1980s there was a wave of feminist/womanist artist that used their music for women’s empowerment—particularly centered around sexuality. Artists such as Queen Latifah and Salt-n-Pepa were among the first to do so; a second generation emerged in the mid 1990s, including artists like Missy Elliott. These women spoke about the daily struggles of sexism and set the tone for women’s empowerment in Hip Hop.
However, these messages become overshadowed by the increasingly misogynistic themes expressed by mainstream male artists. These themes popularized in the 1990’s by gangsta rap and Dirty South rap, which is closely associated with strip club culture began to drown out the positive messages of these women. Instead, the music industry promoted women artist who emphasized their sexuality and tended to isolate women that didn’t fit the “video vixen” prototype. The commercialization of mainstream Hip Hop, has been acquired through an increase in sexualization of African American women, likening women to materialistic gain. This hypersexualization of the women’s body is a unique to African American women throughout all of history and has been further normalized as an identity trait for African American women in both academic and popular culture.
As Hip Hop continued on a path of sexual materialism and exploitation of women for economic gain, the presentations of African American women became highly sexualized—which is not a new concept and is prevalent historical portrayals of African American women. This portrayal of African American women led to a limited script of womanhood seen throughout the media which included the Jezebel, the Mammy, the Matriarch, and sassy Sapphire, and the Welfare Mother (Hooks, 1992). As time has changed remnants of these scripts remain especially in pop culture, but they’ve taken a turn. We now have scripts such as the Diva, the Gold Digger, the Ride or Die, and the Baby Mama to sexually exploit African American woman based on heterosexual and patriarchal culture of Hip Hop (Stephens & Phillips, 2003).
With the rise of feminist and womanist, like Missy Elliott, the stereotypical view of African American women as only sexual beings has been disputed. Through her creativity and innovation, Missy Elliott has broken the boundaries of female patterns of identity in the Hip Hop industry and proved overt sexuality isn’t the only way to rise to the top.
Changing the Visual Narrative
Missy Elliott is famous for her creative videos. However, unlike most female artist in the rap industry, Elliott didn’t exude sexuality through scantly clad outfits and sexual gestures in her music video. Hypersexualizing the black woman body was not the goal in Elliotts videos; instead at the center of her highly sexual songs the videos changed how black female sexuality can be represented. The traditional “video vixen” image was replaced with Elliott’s masculine-dressed body. Due to this unique style, Missy has been snubbed by various media sources because she doesn’t have the traditional video girl look. Despite the pushback from traditional media, Elliott aims to change the unrealistic view of black women, often found in rap videos.
In the opening sequence to Elliott’s “Lose Control” video, Elliott has her male and female backup dancers wear the same exact blue sweat suits. Even though the clothing choices do not immediate identify her dancers’ genders, all of them are still dancing in provocative ways. In which, Elliott is putting male and female sexuality on a more even playing field. Elliott’s “initiative and presentation of sexuality as power goes against the stereotypical image of black women in hip-hop” (White 615)
Word Play: Dominating the Rap Game Lyrically
Missy Elliott has been one of the female rappers at the forefront of using lyrics to increase the dialogue on black women’s sexuality. In Elliotts well known song “Work It,” she provides a space for black women to talk about sex as subjects, as opposed to an objectified lens. The lyrics “you do or you don’t, you will or won’t you/ go downtown and eat it like a vulture” allows women to talk about taking control of their own sexuality; instead of placing women into a submissive and materialistic light that had been posed by male rappers. However, Elliotts approach to sexual expression in her lyrics extends and almost appropriates black male rappers. Using masculinity as a tool, inadvertently risking the female authenticity but due to the complexity and the intent she uses this mimicry to assert herself within the rap game. Elliott, not only challenges the way that black women are discussed in the traditional rap game but it magnifies the exclusion of black women’s sexuality from the conversation.
Missy Elliott has constantly pushed the boundaries of women in rap and continues to assert herself as a staple in the rap industry. Through female empowerment and breaking the cycle of female hypersexuality Missy Elliott has laid the path for women to express their creativity through music and visual aids—in any way they please.
Eberhardt, Maeve (2016). Subjects and objects: linguistic performances of sexuality in the lyrics of black female hip-hop artists. Gender & Language, 10 (1): 21-47
Emerson, R (2003). “Where My Girls At: Negotiating Black Womanhood in Music Videos.” Gender & Society, 16(1): 115-135
Hawkins, Stan. The Routledge Research Companion to Popular Music and Gender. Taylor &Francis, 2017
Sellen, Eliza (2005). Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliott: Rapping on the Frontiers of Female Identity. , 6(3), 50-63. http://vc.bridgew.edu/jiws/vol6/iss3/6/
Stephens, Dionne & Phillips, Layli (2003). Freaks, gold diggers, divas, and dykes: The sociohistorical development of adolescent African American women’s sexual scripts. Sexuality and Culture, 7 (1): 3-49 https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF03159848
White, Theresa (2013). “Missy ‘Misdemeanor’ Elliot and Nicki Minaj: Fashionistin’ Black Female Sexuality in Hip Hop Culture—Girl Power or Overpowered?” Journal of Black Studies, 44(6): 607-626