Missy Elliot is on the cover of Elle Magazine and when I read that headline I knew I had to read the editorial. This was such an awesome read because as one of her biggest fans there is a lot I do not know about the rapper. I mean I know her music but she is not much of a sharer of her personal life.
We know her characters and what she delivers to the public and thats it. The way she is makes her that more intriguing and Elle did a fantastic job.
What does it mean to be a shy black woman performer in a world where black women are never thought to be shy? Before I went to meet her, I had read articles that decided it just wasn’t possible that Missy Elliott is shy.
The Guardian wrote that “scary diva is what you expect”; they do not explain why they expected her to be scary, they just say it. In the same way that no one explains what I should expect when I’m told over and over again that Missy Elliott is very shy, without anyone offering a larger understanding of what it might mean. Would she need to be coaxed to open up?
Would she not answer my questions? At the shoot, the photographer yells out to her: “Don’t be shy—I love it! Let’s turn the music up.”
Although I got the sense that others were fretful about how this “shyness” would manifest itself in our conversation, after I watched videos of her performing in concert, I was not.
What no one seems to realize is that Missy, like most shy black girls, had long ago been forced to master a certain skill: to hammer down her shyness, along with any fear, to some low, unseen place deep inside of herself, and keep it there until she could step over it, again, again, again.
From the moment I walked on the set, I assumed that Missy Elliott was someone who had this skill, that her ability to rise was ingrained, and I wasn’t there for long before we are all watching just that: Missy the Performer—exuberant, high-stepping, arms up in the air, roof-raising, and hair whipping—taking over the monitors and smiling like a woman who has released five platinum albums, possesses four Grammys, and has sold 30 million records and knows very well how to overcome being called scary or feeling shy.
How she avoids labels and boxes
“For those of you who hated / You only made us more creative.” The double entendres, the hair flipping, the irreverent eye rolls, the smirks, the wink, and the symbolic power of putting on an ink-colored balloon suit and becoming blacker, larger, lovelier, and gigantic with daring weren’t lost on me.
Pharrell Williams, who has known and worked with Missy for almost 25 years, calls me on her behalf one Sunday afternoon. He talks about her properly, like she is a sonic theory, a leader, and a woman he adores as a creative liberator.
“We came up in a time where we were always told no. Where we were always placed in a box. And she defied it. Over and over again. She defied the physics that were dictated to us. She ignored the gravity of standards and prejudices and stereotypes. She ignored that gravity.”
Her early life
She was born in Portsmouth, Virginia, to Patricia, a dispatcher for the power company, and Ronnie Elliott, a former Marine. She was their only child, and her parents named her Melissa Arnette Elliott.
Missy told me that when the other kids in her class were asked what they wanted to be, they changed their minds every other week. “It would come to me, and I would be like, ‘I’m going to be a superstar!’ And the whole class would bust out laughing. But every Friday I would say the same thing.
And I would watch them change to different things. Now the doctor is going to be a fireman, but still, when it came to me, I wanted to be a superstar. They thought I was the class clown. But I was like, ‘I’m going to be a superstar.’ So when I would get in my room, it was like, if y’all don’t see it, I’m going to create it myself.”
The black sculptor Augusta Savage once said of her father that she believed his violence was the result of him trying to whip the “art out of her.” The expression of her artistry, her voice being utilized outside of him, was an affront to his masculinity.
So he beat her and tried to break her down. Missy’s father beat her mother almost every single day. He dislocated her arms; he berated her. He hit Missy only once, but the violence and instability in her life were relentless. She was eight when an older boy, a family member, saw her vulnerability and preyed upon it—he began molesting her in the afternoons.
Unable to stop her father, put off her molester, or save her mother, Missy shut her door. She turned her room into something that she describes as her Wonderland.
This was where she would write fan letters to her favorite singers, the Jacksons, with the unexpressed hope that they would appear, see how musically gifted she was, and come to her rescue.
The Hype Williams–directed videos that would define her sensibilities decades later were conceived in spirit in this workshop. Here, she practiced singing along to the radio or to the records her family gave her. And before each performance, she twisted her doll babies’ arms up, so they were frozen, forever applauding her.
There are two ways to look at a story like Missy Elliott’s. The first is within the context of that little girl now. All grown up, in her mid-forties, talking with me while wearing four diamonds in her ears that are bigger than my eyes.
This is the woman who will tell you matter-of-factly, “I believe that I spoke it all into existence,” and can explain year by year how she actualized her vision, but gives glory to God that she did. The other way to see this enormous dream is as one that was steeped both in pragmatism and what could not be helped: fate.
What she says about compromising her art
I want to know more about her absences from the spotlight. What is it like to re-enter a world where Twitter can determine who becomes president, where music can feel like it was created to last for exactly for one minute and then disappear into the ether?
Yeah, it is a brave new world, she agrees. But she isn’t despondent. Not at all.
“One thing I won’t do is compromise.” She takes another sip of juice and thinks for a moment. “I will never do something based on what everybody else is telling me to do. And have to kick myself in the ass every night,” she says, drawing her head back and shaking it.
“Nah. I have to make sure that it’s right,” she continues. “I’ve been through so many stumbling blocks to build a legacy, so I wouldn’t want to do something just to fit in. Because I never fit in. So….”
I wait for her to finish her sentence, but she doesn’t. Her smile just grows into a laugh, a shy one, and then she shrugs. As if to say, Take it or leave it, love me or leave me.
It’s a blueswoman’s confidence, the realest shrug in the world, a gesture that comes from knowing full well that most of us made our choice about her a long time ago.
You must read this entire interview! Head over to Elle here.