July 1st is rap icon Missy Elliott’s birthday.
If you are an older millennial, then you remember Missy “Misdemeanor” Elliott’s musical reign over the late ’90s and early 2000s. A master of dope yet wacky aesthetics, she successfully gave our generation Afrofuturist artistry and hypersexuality at the same time. Picture Elliott’s seminal classic from 2001, “Get Ur Freak On,” in which she yells “Quiet, hush ya mouth. Silence when I spit it out.” What follows is the etched-in-our-brains visual of airborne saliva being ejected from Missy’s mouth and landing in the mouth of an unsuspecting male dancer. The video is four genius minutes of Elliott hitting a bop in a dank cave with a celebrity entourage and encouraging her listeners to let their freak flags fly, with this particular nod to Elliott’s lyrical prowess and an allusion to the sexual exchange of bodily fluids.
Elliott’s debut album Supa Dupa Fly was released in 1997, along with the visual for its single “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” (which sampled Ann Peeble’s “I Can’t Stand The Rain”). The music video gave us Black women’s signature ’90s finger waves and an iconic Hefty-bag inspired ‘fit, so it goes without saying that Missy was — and still is — iconic. Even more so, when I look back at Missy’s career, she taught an entire generation of women to embrace sex positivity. I mean, after all, there is a line in“The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” in which the rapper asks, “Can we get kinky tonight?”
Elliott’s sexuality was unconventional, unapologetic, and uninterested in catering to the male gaze.
She fearlessly embraced a brand of sexuality that was domineering and eccentric, but just as nasty and frank as some of her peers like Foxy Brown and Lil’ Kim. But Elliott’s body was secondary to the eroticism found in her music. She was a dark-skinned, plus-sized woman who rapped and sang about demanding sexual pleasure, while her aesthetic consisted of baggy clothing and bizarre visuals that often literally distorted her physical form. Thus, she gave a big “fuck you” to the notions of a sexual status quo that told Black women to be a certain way, and rebelled against supposed restrictions on female hypersexuality.
In fact, most of Elliott’s musical catalog reads as a campaign for sexual satisfaction. Many of us were too young to really be listening to songs like “One Minute Man,” in which she raps, “Break me off, show me what you got / ‘Cause I don’t want no one minute man.”
We probably didn’t know what we were singing along to when watching the music video for “Sock It 2 Me,” in which Elliott and Da Brat are dressed like some hybrid of video game and anime characters, while Elliott croons “I was lookin’ for affection / So I decided to go swing that dick in my direction.”
If a Black female rapper proudly proclaiming to seek out dick and affection while dressed like a cartoon character isn’t the definition of subversion, then what is?
Elliott used her body as a vessel to subvert conventional eroticism, giving us images that were eccentric and that some might even call grotesque. In many ways, her music championed the intersections between body positivity and sex positivity by filling her songs with audible moans, sexual aggression, and kinky oddball-ism; her physicality had no bearings on her getting off when and how she wanted.
Black women’s bodies and their sexualities have historically fallen victim to exploitation and fetishism, so we must celebrate when Black women exercise agency over their sexual pleasure.
And Elliott did that, with her messages in songs like “Werk It,” where she tells a partner to “Go downtown and eat it like a vulture.” No sexual act was off limits and her body did not limit her. The right to pleasure and the right to explore our sexual selves are lessons that Elliott taught us, and we are grateful.