Every Missy Elliott Moment Matters: Examining the Music and Motivations of an Icon
Dissecting the living legend’s expansive 20+ year career and the significance of her long-overdue Video Vanguard Award honor.
On August 26, Missy Misdemeanor Elliott was presented with the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the 2019 MTV Video Music Awards. It’s a high honor, having been bestowed upon other equally legendary visionaries like Janet Jackson, Hype Williams, and Beyoncé (all of whom Missy has worked with over the course of her three-decade-long career), and was notably overdue. Missy fans across the globe spent years rallying for Elliott and her historic music videos. Monday night’s honor was an opportunity for the Virginia native to strut her stuff, and show us exactly why she’s one of the best to ever do it.
Missy started off her medley of hits with Iconology’s “Throw It Back,” an aptly titled track that enumerates a few of her finest cuts, while encouraging the signature high-energy dancing that marks much of her visual work. The legendary performer hit the stage in a shimmering jumper and a matching trench coat, conjuring up the early days of her career when she first brought Afrofuturism to her art. Missy Elliott and her longtime costume designer, June Ambrose, worked together to create dazzling outfits that reflected present fashion sensibilities, but also still looked to the future for inspiration (Missy debuted a live performance of “Throw It Back” within a literally lit [LED] and mirrored set.) “She’s landed on earth, so she’s in more of a hip-hop version of a spacesuit with an oversize[d] parka and this beautiful crystal fabric and off-white sneakers so it’s low-key—or low-key for Missy,” Ambrose told Vogue.
Not many have been able to blend Afrofuturism, Black feminist themes, sexual liberation, and sheer style as seamlessly and consistently as Missy has. For over 20 years, her Hype Williams and Dave Myers-directed visuals have served as dreamy glimpses into a world where Black women are at the forefront — both ideologically and physically. In her video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” in which she donned a vinyl and patent leather jumpsuit (not a trash bag), she took up space and made sure that her words, thoughts, and sense of cool were front and center. Some dark-skinned Black women, especially those who are artists, are seldom granted that opportunity, often having to play background to someone else’s foreground. But not Missy. And hopefully, with the work she’s contributed to Black artistic canon, the chapter of rampant colorism will close out sooner than later.
For the rest of her seven-minute performance, Elliott ran through “The Rain,” “Hot Boyz,” “Get Ur Freak On,” “Work It,” “Pass That Dutch,” and “Lose Control.” Ambrose recruited the same vintage Alain Mikli glasses that Missy first wore in the 1997 video (that fit nicely over Missy Elliott’s braids that were neatly tucked into a high bun comprised of braids, twists, and dreadlocks) for her performance of one of her most memorable hits, and Missy changed the weather better than your favorite rapper ever could. s the call for the legalization of marijuana has become increasingly popular and the Yee-Haw Agenda has fully taken the world by storm, her inclusion of “Pass That Dutch” was more ahead of its time than aptly timed. For “Work It”, Missy brought out the break dancing former child star Alyson Stoner, who also had a top spot in the original video. This continued Missy Elliott’s long-time passion for highlighting the importance of the art of dance And, as she stated in her acceptance speech, how the people behind the moves aren’t “props,” they’re forces.
Elsewhere in Missy’s acceptance speech, she shouted out other hip-hop and pop artists who created stunning, influential music videos, including Busta Rhymes and Janet Jackson. This sparked a conversation about Black art, as well as the widespread desire for Busta to win the Video Vanguard Award. Missy Elliott has never been one to hog a moment— she frequently collaborated with or allowed artists to appear in her music videos (Tommy Lee in “Lose Control;” Eve, Ja Rule and Ludacris in “Get Ur Freak On;” and Teyana Taylor in “Throw It Back.”) Elliott has also written for and shared ideas with some of the most respected folks in music and fashion: she wrote and sang background for her late friend Aaliyah on multiple tracks from her One in a Million album, and she also gave Misa Hylton the idea to design a breast-baring one piece for Lil’ Kim at the 1999 MTV VMA’s. Shining solo is one thing, but wanting your peers and artists that you believe in to shine as well is a power move reserved for the greats.
No one has blazed trails quite like Missy. No one has her vision, and no one can debate her status as a musical genius. She’s uncontainable and out-of-this-world but grounded by spirituality and her own humanity. Speaking generally is often unstable territory, but it’s safe to say that the world truly adores Missy Elliott. The way she champions and shows up for herself, Black people, and other women puts her in a league of her own and has made her one of the most revered musicians of all time.
When Elliott first hit the VMA stage, a medallion that read “ICONIC” dangled around her neck. That wasn’t a one-time prop— the necklace belongs to Missy Elliott and encapsulates the scope of her expansive career up until that show-stopping performance.
Missy’s the hottest ‘round, and that flame isn’t burning out any time soon.
Brooklyn White has written for HelloGiggles, Bitch, PAPER, and more. You can follow her @brooklynrwhite.