What Missy Elliott Did for Afrofuturism


Missy Elliott and her frequent collaborators have produced over two decades of music videos that we are going to attempt to justify as Afrofuturistic work.

– We don’t know if it’s fashion trends
00:01
making a comeback
00:02
or maybe our favorite shows getting rebooted,
00:05
but we’re feeling a tinge of nostalgia lately.
00:07
– So of course, we purposely fell down a rabbit hole
00:10
of late 90’s, early 2000s rap videos.
00:12
– And something interesting happened on our journey
00:14
once we got to Missy Elliot.
00:16
Her videos are still ahead of our time.
00:19
– The beat still slapped.
00:20
– Timeless.
00:21
– And the video concepts still blow my mind.
00:24
– Wow.
00:25
– [Evelyn] Was she an alien?
00:26
Dancing inside of, where is this?
00:29
Then the Teletubbies universe.
00:31
Did she predict Gmail?
00:33
– The minds of Missy Elliot and her frequent collaborators
00:36
combined to produce over two decades of what we think
00:39
can be classified as Afrofuturistic work.
00:42
And we want to explore how something like this
00:45
falls into the genre.
00:47
– Look, let’s just cut to the chase.
00:48
– This right here, purely a Missy Elliot
00:50
appreciation episode.
00:52
– And an excuse to binge watch music videos for work,
00:55
and maybe dance in inflatable trash bag.
00:57
What?
00:59
(upbeat music)
01:04
I don’t know about y’all but I feel like we learn best
01:07
by doing, so.
01:09
(upbeat music)
01:22
– We’re talking about Afrofuturism as a visual
01:24
aesthetic, not within literature.
01:26
Word to Octavia Butler, which is a whole nother rabbit hole.
01:30
If you’re interested in that, we’ll link to a video
01:31
that’s a good jump off.
01:33
– Now, Missy knows she’s ahead of her time.
01:35
– It’s futuristic, our music,
01:36
the music that we make is futuristic.
01:39
– And by being unapologetic about her body,
01:41
and her blackness,
01:42
she’s saying that people like her
01:44
do exist in these alternate realities.
01:47
– Yeah, now why would we need to remind people of that?
01:51
– Is it ’cause we’re hidden figures?
01:54
Rarely recognized in history,
01:56
let alone imagined in distant futures.
01:58
– Using Afrofuturism as a lens to understand,
02:01
or categorize art is to point out how black folks
02:04
have been underrepresented in speculative fiction
02:07
as a whole, like Sci-Fi.
02:09
In Missy Elliot’s case, music videos helped close that gap.
02:12
– The beauty of speculative fiction is its seemingly
02:15
endless possibilities.
02:16
But unfortunately, us earthlings are forever two steps
02:19
forward, one step back.
02:22
– Security sweeps of all decks are negative Mr. Spock.
02:25
No evidence of intruders.
02:26
– Very well, cancel red alert but maintain
02:28
increased security.
02:29
– (mumbles)
02:30
– [Hallease] People in 1968 were able to imagine
02:32
traveling through the Milky Way before comprehending
02:35
an interracial lip lock.
02:39
– And really, that’s where Afrofuturism comes in.
02:42
Where science fiction might just
02:43
erase human cultural differences and create a world
02:46
where we’ve evolved past race.
02:48
Afrofuturism imagines a world
02:50
in which black cultures thrive.
02:52
Like, imagine a future where your race exists
02:55
but doesn’t have to be a burden.
02:57
– And everybody knows Na’vi in Avatar was black anyway.
03:00
– What?
03:04
– Whoa! – Hey!
03:04
– Oh there you go. – Okay.
03:06
– Slow down.
03:07
– Intergalactic guns.
03:09
– I’m all right.
03:09
– That’s a lot. We come in peace.
03:11
– We’re humans.
03:13
Who barely ever come in peace, now that I think about it.
03:17
(electronic computer sounds playing)
03:20
Earth.
03:20
– Third rock from the sun.
03:21
– We’re from Earth.
03:22
(mysterious whooshing)
03:24
Yes, like Chris Pratt.
03:26
– I prefer Pine, but sure, like Chris Pratt, definitely.
03:29
– The Chrises.
03:30
(electronic computer sounds playing)
03:31
– So, it’s complicated. It’s like, you know,
03:34
it’s a color palette thing, you know.
03:37
– Same species.
03:38
– Different color palette, that’s it.
03:40
– Different.
03:40
(mysterious whooshing)
03:42
How do I do this? Okay.
03:45
Star Wars. There you go.
03:47
– Okay, okay.
03:48
– Okay, here we go, here we go.
03:49
Finn. There you go, there you go.
03:51
John Boyega.
03:52
– Ay.
03:53
(electronic computer sounds playing)
03:55
All right, Billy Dee Williams.
03:58
– That’s the one. – 1980.
03:59
– Yeah.
04:00
(electronic computer sounds playing)
04:01
– No?
04:02
Donald Glover 2018.
04:04
(electronic computer sounds playing)
04:05
No? Do y’all not watch TV?
04:07
– Okay, okay, no, no, no, wrong fandom, wrong fandom.
04:10
– Oh! Okay. Hit ’em with it.
04:11
– USS Enterprise D.
04:13
(computer whooshing)
04:14
Okay, all right, okay.
04:15
Us? All right, Levar Burton.
04:18
(electronic computer sounds playing)
04:19
– Oh come on!
04:20
– Really? Okay.
04:20
The rules of Afrofuturism as a visual medium
04:22
are influx constantly.
04:24
It’s a vibe, you feel me?
04:26
– Mark Dery’s 1994 essay “Black to the Future”
04:29
was the first time this term popped up.
04:32
Afrofuturism to him was speculative fiction
04:35
that treats African-American themes and concerns
04:38
using technology or prosthetically-enhanced future.
04:41
– My favorite definition is from Ashley Clarke
04:43
who wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian in 2015,
04:46
and curated “Space is the Place: Afrofuturism in Film”
04:50
for the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
04:52
Clarke’s definition says it is, “The centering of the
04:55
international black experience in alternate and
04:58
imagined realities”.
04:59
(calming music)
05:04
– In the video for she’s a, director Hype Williams
05:07
transports us to this luxe and sleek underground lair.
05:10
There is a highway tunnel where cars move at super speeds.
05:13
There is this 360 floor to ceiling circuit ward-esque
05:17
room that lights up while the camera spins.
05:19
This alternate reality definitely had better internet
05:22
than we did in 1999.
05:24
(dial-up connection sounds)
05:25
That is rough, that is. Sounds rough.
05:27
– Yeah. This technology-boosted universe is elevated
05:30
even higher by Missy herself.
05:32
She is a menacing, yet ultra-smooth bald-headed
05:35
super villain, dressed in the finest black vinyl.
05:38
Darth Vader is shaking.
05:40
– He could never. Wesley Snipes wishes, Morpheus who?
05:44
– Yeah. Through the lyrics, we understand she is taking on
05:47
this larger-than-life persona to reclaim and embody
05:50
a word that’s been used to demean women for being too cocky,
05:54
or not nice enough.
05:56
– Like Clarke’s definition provides, Missy is centering
05:59
her experience as a black woman in hip-hop,
06:01
and inserting herself as the ruler of her many domains.
06:05
This reality isn’t dope in spite of her blackness
06:08
it’s cool because of it.
06:09
It could be the year 3000 and she’s still (mumbles)
06:13
She knows she gives you life.
06:14
– Hype’s expensive visuals, Timbaland’s hypnotically
06:18
sinister beats and Missy’s swag, combine to create a
06:21
world where powerful black women don’t need praise
06:24
because they admire themselves.
06:26
– If that’s too figurative for you then let’s take the video
06:29
for “Sock it 2 me” where Missy literally leaves
06:31
Earth to have intergalactic adventures
06:34
with Lil’ Kim and Da Brat.
06:36
– You can definitely tell this was inspired by
06:38
the Mega Man video games and Afrofuturism is all
06:41
about ensuring you’re present or represented in these
06:44
imaginary worlds.
06:46
– And when you think about it, we even have preconceived
06:49
ideas about what video game music
06:51
is supposed to sound like,
06:53
but what if we told you the soundtrack
06:55
could be sultry and soulful?
06:57
In our particular society
06:58
nerdy things are often coded as not black.
07:01
But this video bucks that notion.
07:03
We can participate and add a little different flavor to it.
07:06
– The future isn’t all about space or tech gadgets though
07:09
which is great, because what is this?
07:11
Sometimes it’s a dystopian Earth.
07:13
Take “Pass that Dutch”,
07:15
and two years later “Lose Control”.
07:17
Both were directed by Dave Meyers,
07:19
another one of Missy’s frequent collaborators.
07:21
– In “Pass that Dutch”, it’s an unknown virus
07:24
taking over people’s bodies, making them dance wildly.
07:27
I mean, sure, it’s a drug reference
07:29
but she also manages to river dance under the beam of
07:32
a spaceship while dancers heel-toe in the cornfields.
07:36
Not to mention the beat itself, co-produced with Timbaland
07:39
is the perfect rhythm for Double Dutch,
07:41
which by the 1980s, was associated with early hip-hop
07:45
culture in New York.
07:46
(bouncy music playing)
07:54
– This video’s brand of dystopian Afrofuturism
07:56
is cemented at the end of the video when we completely
07:59
switch gears and Missy is on top of a skyscraper,
08:03
like King Kong.
08:04
The fact that she becomes this larger-than-life figure
08:07
could be doing two things.
08:09
Reclaiming an otherwise negative image of black folks
08:12
and rising above it all,
08:14
or acknowledging her superiority within the hip-hop genre.
08:17
– But she uses this elevated status to be a leader,
08:20
and directly address black people,
08:22
and affirm our various experiences.
08:24
This is what Mark Dery’s definition of Afrofuturism
08:27
referred to,
08:28
using alternate realities to acknowledge
08:30
African-American concerns.
08:32
– Similar to “Pass that Dutch”,
08:33
“Lose Control” exists in a frantic dance-filled dystopia.
08:37
Again, black culture is allowed to exist
08:39
in this deserted place.
08:40
Of course we are here kicking up dust
08:41
in talk ticks and teems.
08:43
Even when she’s referencing past time periods visually
08:46
the music reminds us we’re still listening
08:48
to the soundtrack of Missy’s mind.
08:50
– And when you really think about it
08:52
dance is sort of an ancient technology.
08:55
Stay with me, stay with me.
08:56
Used over generations as a form of communication,
09:00
and mind-control.
09:02
So when Missy said this beat was hypnotic,
09:04
nothing is more Afrofuturistic than making a beat
09:07
that will make anyone listening to it in the future
09:09
lose control.
09:11
What? I think it works.
09:14
– There are devices present in almost all Missy videos.
09:18
These techniques show us that
09:19
the world we’re watching isn’t like our own.
09:21
Even if intricate costumes aren’t involved.
09:24
In the video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)”
09:27
Hype Williams uses a fisheye lens to create a
09:29
distorted perspective,
09:31
so even in the shots when Missy isn’t an alien balloon
09:34
we know she isn’t a mere Earthling.
09:36
Her eyes and lips pop out, kind of like those
09:39
Snapchat and Instagram filters do now.
09:42
– They knew.
09:45
– They also play around with speed and skipping frames
09:47
during choreography, adding to the robotic movements.
09:52
– She makes her world seem so natural that we forget
09:55
our bodies don’t really move like that
09:58
which is another technique we see pretty often.
10:00
– [Hallease] She levitates in several videos including
10:02
“Hit ’em Wit da hee”,
10:03
– In which magic can be classified
10:05
as an ancient technology, thank you very much.
10:08
– [Hallease] Her head snakes toward you in
10:09
“Get Ur Freak On”, she takes her head off completely
10:13
in “One Minute Man”,
10:14
and don’t forget all the dance moves
10:15
where it’s her head and definitely not her body.
10:19
– [Hallease] It adds to her otherworldly persona
10:21
and it’s why we think of Missy Elliot as more
10:23
innovative, magical being, than fellow human.
10:26
– No matter where we are in time or space
10:28
Missy Elliot just works.
10:30
It’s Afrofuturistic to insert our cultures
10:33
into these worlds.
10:34
A vicious heel-toe can still exist
10:37
a Nigeria Show key can still exist bruh.
10:41
Trina is in a Salvador Dali-inspired room.
10:44
We can literally be anywhere we want.
10:46
– And remember, this is simply a lens
10:48
we’re using to interpret a body of work.
10:50
Sometimes the backstory behind these videos is
10:52
just a matter of budget.
10:54
Hype Williams is known for video concepts
10:56
that make rappers seem larger-than-life.
10:58
– That’s a gigantic hydraulic M coming out of water.
11:04
Most music videos wouldn’t be able to do something
11:06
like that nowadays.
11:08
Like, it may have been a million dollars
11:09
just for that.
11:10
– Missy Elliot has inspired others
11:12
with her ownership of writing, music production
11:14
and performance style.
11:16
– Us?, We were just a coupe of Y2K tweens
11:19
drawn to these videos.
11:20
For me, the connection is strong.
11:22
I grew up loving movies,
11:23
but Hollywood always felt very far away and inaccessible.
11:27
It’s because of Missy Elliot’s videos
11:28
that I wanted to become a Music Video Director
11:31
and she’s from Portsmouth, Virginia
11:32
my family’s hometown, which made telling stories in
11:35
this short-form medium even more possible to me.
11:38
– And I was definitely that kid
11:39
who dressed up and played pretend,
11:41
and these videos show me it’s not childish or silly.
11:45
It’s creative.
11:46
It’s cool to be imaginative and while we stan
11:48
real life astronaut Mae Jemison or
11:51
NASA mathematicians like Katherine Johnson
11:53
as lovers of the Humanities,
11:55
we use arts and culture to take us places
11:58
we’ve never been.
11:59
– And Missy is still out here both in her own music
12:03
and that of other artists.
12:05
She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame
12:07
in June of 2019, only the third rapper to receive
12:10
such an honor in its 50 year history.
12:13
Afrofuturism and striving to be visible
12:16
even in our artistic imaginations
12:18
is not only valid, but valuable.
12:20
So what will the future look like, with us in it?
12:22
(upbeat music)
12:26
– Anything’s possible.
12:28
Over here at Say It Loud, we wanted to take you
12:30
to Space figuratively, but real Space is cool too.
12:33
PBS is bringing you the universe with Summer of Space
12:37
which includes six incredible new science and history
12:40
shows streaming on PBS.org and the PBS video app.
12:43
Along with lots of Space-y episodes from our show friends
12:46
at PBS Digital Studios, so make sure to check it out.
12:49
The link is below.
12:51
– [Hallease] What’s your favorite
12:52
Missy Elliot video and why?
12:53
Let us know in the comments.
12:54
Click here to watch The Storyscape explain
12:57
Afrofuturism in books and click here to watch an
13:00
interview with Tomi Adeyemi, author of
13:02
“Children of Blood and Bone”,
13:03
a fantasy novel based on Nigerian folklore.
13:06
And click here to watch more of Say It Loud.
13:09
– Subscribe, give this video a like, follow us
13:12
on social media @sayitloudpbs and we’ll see
13:14
y’all next time.
13:15
– Bye. – Bye.
13:17
(upbeat music)
13:29
(electronic calming music)

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