Monday, February 02, 2015

Flip it and Reverse It: an essay-poem riffing on how Missy Elliott got you your groove back


I first wrote this essay about 2 years ago.  I put it in the world now for those whose introduction to Missy has been the Super Bowl half-time show; for the young-uns who I'm hearing hadn't heard about her before yesterday

Flip it and Reverse It:
an essay-poem riffing
on how Missy Elliott got you
your groove back

When I consider Missy Elliott, I think first of her videos – the Hype Williams authored fish-eye lens - turning Missy, the Missy of her first album, impossibly round and thick-lipped and surreal in the manner in which she takes up space, in that way that black folk who’ve had these complicated relationships with space, have had to side-step, slide, juke, strobe and robot their way into the room in order to feel comfortable in it, and by so doing fill it.

I think of that Missy, gloriously and unabashedly black and woman and blackwoman (I intend the conjoining), throbbing the narrow halls of Mr. Williams’ lens and coaxing us into new ways to think of these young women from the hood, who might be coming to claim what America has denied they should forever.

Put your thing down flip it and reverse it…

It’s a little early in this essay/performance to charge the mic and claim some outlandish shit.  Maybe I should build to this idea of Missy eventually taking up the mantle of the much maligned ‘hood-rat’ and using her to give pop culture arguably its first for real sex positive artist and performer and brand owner/builder who takes up space because she finally has decided it is her right.  Certainly we’d had Madonna, but Madonna is a white woman in America, and allowed some maneuver in the American psyche that ablack woman does not.  Before her, one could argue for Etta James but the time in which the light-skinned Etta James existed was even more fraught, and it’s hard to see Ms. James as in real ownership of that sex and sexuality and the ability to manipulate it in the way that Missy has.  And certainly we’ve had Grace Jones, but Grace Jones was otherworldly – in some quarters easy to dismiss as cartoonish.  Missy Elliott’s songs and persona as manifested in the videos, made use of cartoon to establish the real – a thick, lusciously beautiful woman who could make us all dance and sing/rap along to some of the most inventive poetry of the late 90s and early 00s.  Make no mistake, Missy Elliot was/is not a sex symbol.  She is a woman who has sex, and owns it in a manner that America is still uncomfortable with having it owned by anyone, much less a black woman.  This country’s history can’t imagine a black woman owning anything, least of all her own body.

From here on everybody’s gonna be dancing a little fucked up…

…is the translation of the Japanese epigraph at the beginning of Elliot’s Get your Freak On.  In the early 90s, Missy brought her homie Tim Moseley along for the ride as producer on an R&B group that was called Sista (originally fayze).  Mr. Moseley’s initial signing included work with Swing Mob which included Ginuwine, Jodeci and others.  Mr. Moseley became the legendary producer we know as Timbaland of course, and as one of Missy’s chief collaborators, developed a solo composition sound together that changed Hip-Hop.  Look, if you don’t understand that ‘changed Hip-Hop’ is not an easy cliché throwaway, then I direct you to at least go to Ginuwine’s ‘Pony’ and Jodeci’s anything, and recognize that what Missy culled out of the several collaborations she co-produced, sang a hook in or rapped with, is a movement that dragged hip-hop further into the mainstream than it had ever been to that point.  Other conversations can debate whether or not that was a good thing, but in the heavily male-dominated hip-hop pantheon, there are few game changers.  Among them are Rakim, the Notorious B.I.G., the Wu Tang Clan and N.W.A. Missy Elliott straddled the millennium like a colossus.  Her flow was smooth, her whole steez, a changeling.  She was a fat black woman who was proving her sexy, her dance skills, her hip-hop poetics and her business savvy.  She had a brilliant and ribald sense of humor in which she could play both the coquette and the vixen; or examined in more racially complex narratives, the idea in the imagination of American male whiteness that the black female body exists to fulfill either of these two purposes.  When I was reasoning with this argument in my head I called Dr. Shana Redmond, author of Anthem: Social Movements and the Sound of Solidarity in the African Diaspora – understanding of course that any black, feminist scholar of diaspora music had to peep Missy’s steez at some point.  Says the good Doc “the difficulty with Missy is that she has such a large visual repertoire, and they’re all such complicated texts, that is hard to pull one out and isolate it.  They kind of have to be read against each other…” That this is one of the challenges for students of Missy just serves to further underscore her importance of course.  Dr. Redmond continues “…for me the one that kinda does the most what you’re talking about is the Lose Control video with Ciara.  Her first line is about her body and it’s really just a silhouette of someone else’s body and when she jumps out it’s her head attached to some other black woman’s dancing, gyrating body.  That video has many different representations of the self – the self as herself but also the self projected onto someone else’s body, but always surrounded by beautiful, stereotypically fit women.  And Missy is not afraid of this.  She competes with these bodies… she knows she is the center of attention and she commands that space.”  Dr. Redmond goes on to cite the Work It video as an example as well.  In particular the line  Don’t I look like a Halle Berry poster?/ see the Belvedere playin tricks on ya… What is particularly subversive here is that in these projections of self onto other bodies and the blurring of the lines between herself and the more generally regarded as beautiful, Halle Berry, Missy is exploring both feminist and racially problematic standards of what beautiful is, and forcing the viewer to read her as both Mamie and Jezebel, but perhaps more importantly, forces the viewer to see Halle Berry and every other black woman as similarly complicated.  In this way, Missy brought the Hip Hop video as narrative abstraction into vogue.  Busta ran one step further with it, but Missy broke something open.  There is no Busta Rhymes without Missy – not the one we know anyway - and there isn’t the brash abstraction of Kanye’s videos off the My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy album, either.

Me I’m Supa-Fly / supa supa fly

I promised myself before I began this riff that I wouldn’t do the thing where in effect I diminish the artist by only talking about her in relation to other female artists.  It insults; and doesn’t speak to the truth about her brilliance and talent and influence, but only briefly I must renege.  Check it: the unholy triumvirate of Capitalism, Racism and Patriarchy make it so that almost no manifestation of race or gender gets to happen without white men deciding how it breaks into the world.  Everything else is othered and none gets to break into the world and the psyches of consumers in such a way as to remove power from those who own the means of deciding how we see all things.  This essay might have strived to stay away from the pontification, but there is really no way to speak critically on the success of black, woman art and pretend like there isn’t a particularly difficult crucible within which it is being formed.  Hip hop gave us Foxy Brown vs Lil Kim (who even now is still beefing with Nikki Minaj).  It gave us Trina vs Khia,  Foxy Brown vs Nikki Minaj, Remy Ma vs Foxy Brown, Roxanne Shante vs Everyone.  While some of these battles were born of the same hip-hop (also West African diasporic) spirit that gave us the memorable men’s battles, it’s hard to not see this as the women’s hip-hop version of Ralph Ellison’s battle royal (see Invisible Man) – in this case succumbing to the mistaken idea that there can only be one woman at the top at one time.  Elliott subverted that idea; erected a tent under which she invited Yo-Yo, Eve, DaBrat, Trina and others, who might at the time have been legitimately considered her competitors.  This sort of smart, art/business model continues to ensure that long after Missy’s recordings are off the charts that she continues to remain relevant.  Elliott made way more allies than enemies during her stay at the top of the charts and in this way created a model (if not directly, at least in spirit) for the likes of Lil Wayne, Eminem,  Jay-Z and Kanye, all of whom have stayed relevant for much longer than the average pop-star, partly by collaborating with everyone they possibly could.  For the millennium then, Missy embodies one of the fundamental ideas of hip-hop culture, by being a hub of community building and inclusive work.  Indeed, if this isn’t the symbolic work of the black woman to her community post-slavery and beyond, then nothing is.  And this is where we return to…

…balance and rotate all tires - Ludacris

In his essay Supa Dupa Fly: Black Women as Cyborgs in Hiphop videos, Steven Shapiro says of Missy’s video for The Rain  …tell(s) stories of black female empowerment, in the face of deeply engrained racism and sexism. And they both (Missy and L’il Kim) do this, not by resisting postmodern transformations, and not putting forth inspirational fables; but by fully embracing, and plumbing the depths of cyborg-becoming; and Shapiro is correct, except that I’d like to suggest something additional, one more level on which Missy Elliott’s images of self and blackness and womanhood as presented through her lyrics and videos, are working.  This accepting of the post-modern transformation is part of a larger effort to finally shed the two most identifiable (and perhaps damaging) tropes which want to signify black womanhood.  It is in this way too that Missy further complicates the Jezebel and the Mammie.  In that very video, one of Missy’s first in her solo career, she dresses in a puffed-up garbage bag, and together with the Hype Williams fish-eye lens, further amplifies the idea of her curves, now not as matron though, but as conqueror, her lips (itself a trope of absolute, unforgivable blackness, itself the object of such shame and self-hate within our communities and often the element most cartooned in the blackface tradition) periodically blown up while sensuously colored.  The very elements of the back woman’s body that have for so long suffered the burden of being examples of ugliness, become objects of beautiful, objects of sexy as demanded by the owner of them, and in the infectious beat, the dance which churches its way into our bodies, and Missy’s declaration me, I’m supa-fly, black women (and more importantly black girls) are – even momentarily – given their groove back; black mothers redeemed as desirable and authoritative at once.  And Missy stays asserting both at the same time, an idea which (let’s be honest) confounds the working lives of white women as well.  Even when she appears with Puff Daddy or her childhood friend and producer Timbaland, or outsized personality Busta Rhymes, she continues to occupy center-stage not as dominatrix, but as authority on equal footing with her male counterparts, center stage in the work she authors and will not surrender, or demure behind.  Prince couldn’t get me change my name, Papa…
Maybe you didn’t recognize all of the tributes paid to dead rappers and R&B singers in every video.  Maybe you did.  Maybe you didn’t recognize that almost every video features a young girl among the dancers, moving in vocabularies that defy conventional ideas of what young girls should look like.  Maybe you did notice this.  Maybe you noticed that they were of all ethnicities.  Maybe you’re wondering about how Missy Elliott’s weight-loss factors in.  Missy’s call before you come I need to shave my chacha is not a boast.  It’s a matter-of-fact (note her tone) call out to her claiming of what the male gaze (an always commodifying one) might be inclined to call ‘loose’.  And still, as speaker here, I risk, as a man committing the crime of defining a black woman’s body and lifestyle for her.  Still, what you’re noticing is the results of choice; a woman taking full responsibility for all of her body’s decisions – I lost a few pounds on my waist for ya… She manipulates – minus any negative connotation of that word – what we think we know we like.  She straddles the millennium playing sleight-of-hand with taste, and in a world that says your body isn’t necessarily always yours, what could be more black, or more woman or more blackwoman than that?

To schedule a reading or an appearance please contact Ofer Ziv at Blue Flower Arts at 845-677-8559 or email