I wrote this paper as a final for my 400 level course in Black Women’s Writing. I don’t usually toot my own horn, but uh….toot toot !! Everything has been cited, so don’t even try it.
“Ain’t No Shame Ladies Do Your Thing”: Exploring Missy Elliott’s Decimation of the Black Rhetorical Condition
“Hip-Hop heroine” Melissa Arnette “Missy Misdemeanor” Elliott is as an award winning rapper, singer, producer, and songwriter. Missy Elliott rebuilt the idea of what sexuality and womanhood is. She worked to remove the belief that women were not allowed to speak about their sex life and insisted that there is nothing to be ashamed of. Through her writing Missy Elliott became seen as a hip-hop feminist who told her story, so that other women would be able to tell theirs. Today she is a renowned elite in the hip-hop industry and holds the throne for honing how a black woman writer writes for her life.
Growing up an only child in Portsmouth, Virginia Elliott discovered her passion for music at the tender age of 4. Her talent was stifled because she experienced a lot of abuse at an early age. When she was 8 years old her 16-year-old cousin continuously raped her for a year. Elliott also witnessed the domestic abuse her mother faced at the hands of her own husband for years. He constantly attacked her in their home leaving Elliott fearful for their lives. She mentioned to a newspaper that she used to be afraid to sleep over a friend’s houses because she feared her father would kill her mother while she was gone. Eventually, her mother found the courage to leave her husband and moved away with Elliott to begin their new life. It was at this point that Elliott said she could finally focus on her passion for music. In 1991 she began a girl group called Sista and asked her friend Timothy “Timbaland” Mosley to produce some of the group’s music. Eventually, they caught the attention of music superiors, but due to financial constraints the group never released an album and ultimately separated. Elliott and Mosley continued their partnership forming a songwriting-production team. They worked for many artists, but got their break when they worked with the late singer Aaliyah on her album One In A Million. Elliott and Mosley continued to work alongside one another for years and made names for themselves separately. Elliott went on to release 6 top selling albums, earn 5 Grammy Awards. After “producing multi-million albums”, participating in movies, creating and hosting her own reality show, and launching her own line Respect M.E. with Adidas Elliott warranted the title of ‘hip-hop’s first female mogul’.
Missy Elliot used her hip-hop to indicate the sexual experiences and desires of women that have often been swept under the rug. The rhetoric of pride through declaration used in her lyrics abandoned this meek persona and verified women as bosses in their own sex lives. Developing a rhetoric of pride through declaration to redefine sexual agency was an unprecedented task. Elliott took on the task and as a result became known as one of the most powerful forces working to destroy the “politics of science”. The politics of science was an unspoken tactic Black women used in their writing to encourage other Black women to avoid topics like power, sex, and abuse. Elliott decided that it was time for women to end their silence and tell their stories through song. Missy Elliott gave women the push they needed to talk about their abuse, their relationships, and their sex lives. Through her provocative-innuendo-female-empowering lyrics Missy Elliott used sex to empower women and redefined Black womanhood. Elliott told her story, asked rhetorical questions, used figurative language, and directness to define women based on their own standings. Through a rhetoric of pride that declared empowerment, pride, and redefinition of womanhood Missy Elliott’s songs “Meltdown”, “Work It”, and “We Run This” encouraged women to utilize their sex as a pronouncement of their strength and independence.
Before Missy Elliott appeared on the music scene there really wasn’t a place for women or feminism in the hip-hop industry. It was a male dominated field that focused on sex, money, and violence. Hip-hop feminist Gwendolyn Pough states it best in the introduction of Home Girls Make Some Noise: Hip Hop Feminist Anthology:
When studying feminism in relation to hip-hop, one thing becomes abundantly clear, most women emcees are not checking for the f-word. They won’t claim it; won’t label themselves with it; will not touch it. This is not to say that there are no feminist women rappers (viii).
Like many other female rappers Elliott does not identify herself as a hip-hop feminist, but she does not deny being one either. After the release of Beyoncé’s surprise album BEYONCE in late 2013 many fans took to twitter started the hashtag Black Fem Music campaign and discussed the way Black feminism was represented in music. Black feminist could not let the praise continue without including Missy Elliott in the conversation. @FeministaJones tweeted at the songwriter saying “@MissyElliott defied beauty standards, brought raw sexuality/sensuality & writer, producer, emcee & singer #BlackFemMusic”. Elliott retweeted this tweet and many others that applauded her for her contributions as a Black woman writer. One woman tweeted that Elliott “showed me that female strength demands acknowledgment and respect takes space whether given or taken.” Although, Elliott never acknowledged her feminist title her audience recognized her as a strong advocate for the equality of Black woman in hip-hop and society as a whole.
In her essay “Personal Narratives and Rhetorics of Black Womanhood in Hip-Hop” Pough states that hip-hop:
Provide [women] entries into the public sphere and offer the women a chance to tell their stories while making social commentary. The texts serve dual functions as life stories and messages texts, with each author attempting to uplift and heal others through the telling of her story.
Hip-Hop affords writers like Missy Elliott a space to bring their stories to life. It is plausible to infer that Elliott wrote about sex as a form of healing for herself. Her song lyrics then became healing for other women. The biggest example of story telling as a technique is in the 2005 track “Meltdown” off of Elliott’s sixth album The Cookbook. The story within “Meltdown” tells of an unsatisfactory sexual relationship Elliott had with a former lover and how that pushed her into the bed with another man:
I broke up wit my ex, I couldn’t take his sarcasm / Every time we bone, I had to fake an orgasm / Moanin’ and groanin’ tried to make him feel manly. I’d rather use my toys, plus my hands come in handy/ I finally told him that my heart was somewhere else/ Whenever we sexed I wished that he was someone else.
The purpose of this story is not simply to tell of a sexual experience Elliott had. Rather it speaks of the control women had over their sex lives. It was not common for women to be the one to decide who satisfies her sexual cravings or if she was even satisfied. Looking at Alice Walker’s character Celie from The Color Purple as an example, when she described sex with her husband to Shug Avery she says:” Mr. Can tell you, I don’t like it at all. What is it like? He git up on you, heist your nightgown round your waist, plunge in. Most times I pretend I ain’t there. He never know the difference. Never ast me how I feel, nothing. Just do his business, get off, go to sleep (Walker 78). This was the case for many women. Elliott challenged the notion that women had to lay back and simply accept mediocre. Instead, she restored their sexual agency and illustrated women as leaders in their sex lives. One of the song’s messages was if you aren’t happy with one man then move on to the next one and be proud of it. Did this make her less of a woman? Less of a feminist?
Challenging the norms of a black feminism is a task Elliott does frequently in her writing.
Her songs incite pride in being a woman, pride in having sexual needs, and pride in achieving them by any means necessary. Missy Elliott lyric’s were “social commentary” that extinguished the idea that women couldn’t be openly sexual and instead encouraged women to embrace and flaunt it. This rhetoric of pride through declaration redefined what it meant to be a feminist. Elliott advocated for the “social, political, and economic equality of the sexes”, but also insisted that they got their share of nookie as well. Long before Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie made an appearance on Beyoncé’s song “Flawless” saying “we teach girls that they cannot be sexual beings in the way that boys are” Missy Elliott was advocating that this be a part of feminist work. She wanted women to realize that their equality to men extends into their sexual lives. Men are taught and encouraged to be sexual, but women were not. Telling her stories of sexual escapades Elliott informed women that they could and should be this sexual being too.
Storytelling is not the only successful technique Missy Elliott used in her song lyrics. A part of her artistic genius is Elliott’s use of figurative language in her writing. Elliott mastered how to utilize figurative language in her stories to articulate her experiences to her listeners. This defied the types of writing Black women were used to producing because Elliott did not shy away from vulgarity. In “Meltdown” she describes the feelings her new lover gave her through metaphors and similes: “He got that magic stick that make my little pussy quiver. Juices runnin’ like a river slowly down my kitty litter”. Referring to the male and female genitalia as a ‘magic stick’ and ‘kitty litter’ adds to the art of Elliott’s writing. She also insinuates that performing oral on her partner “taste[s] like candy”. Missy Elliott saw it as her duty to get women to be okay with their sex lives and create a society where they had a space to feel comfortable talking about it. Telling her stories throughout figuritve language made it easier to talk about and gave a more vivid picture. Figurative language was also an arousal tool that stimulated the ears of the listeners. The similes and metaphors helped paint the picture of what a Black woman’s sex life is truly like. Elliot livened her story and gave women the push they yearned for to tell their own. Pough writes:
these contemporary hip-hop autobiographies are intended to instigate progress social struggle. Along with critiquing society and giving advice on how to enact new possibilities, these autobiographies are concerned with issues of identity construction as they pertain to Black womanhood (113).
Illuminating sex life through comparisons of candy and flowing rivers was done to give identity to the woman as a sexual person. Elliott made it so that not only were women included in the conversation about sex, but also they felt proud to do so.
Elliott’s fourth album Under Construction showcased more of her lyrical brilliance and brought her much success. Under Construction went double platinum, becoming her best album, and earned her two more Grammy nominations including Best Rap Album and Album of the Year. The album’s first single “Work It” soared to the top of the Billboard charts and earned Elliott the 2002 Grammy for Best Female Rap Solo Performance. This song explores the world of females as dominants in the sex industry while encouraging women to utilize their sexuality for advancement. Elliott used direct lyrics in “Work It” as another technique to present Black women in the leading role. Gone were the days of Celie where women just laid back and allowed their lover have their way with them. Elliott writes “Not on the bed lay me on the sofa / phone before you come so I can shave my chocha”. Majority of the song features Missy as the dominant one. She directly gives her lover orders and functioned as the master. Within that song Missy Elliott also encourages women to use their sex appeal to their advantage. “Girl, girl, get that cash/ If it’s 9 to 5 or shakin’ your ass/ ain’t no shame, ladies do your thing/ Just make sure you’re ahead of the game”. Elliott does not beat around the bush with her audience. Her directness shows that she is not going to be like those before her and ignore the fact that women did take their clothes off for money. Stripping as an occupation was not a talking point in feminist arguments; it was one of those matters that was shushed by the Rhetoric of Silence. In “Work It” Missy Elliot reformed something that was frowned upon into something that is now accepted. She did not shame women for using their bodies to their advantage. Instead she encouraged it.
It is impossible to mention “Work It” without acknowledging the rhetorical questions Elliott performs in the chorus of the song. “Is it worth it? Let me work it” is repeated steadily throughout the song. This constant rhetorical questioning once again speaks to the sexual agency she is giving to the black woman. This question insinuates that the Black woman has the ability to satisfy the man despite contrary belief. Elliott is taking away the sexual power from the man by questioning his abilities. This power is then restored to women who are given the opportunity to decide whether or not they want to “work it”. Asking this question emphasized the Black Woman’s independence from masculine sexual power.
Elliott’s later track “We Run This” appeared on her 2005 album The Cookbook. Like “Work It”, “We Run This” is a track surrounded by praising women and showing their strength and independence from the man. Missy Elliott motivates women to give a voice to their sexual feelings and embrace the things about themselves that make them sexually appealing and desirable. She writes “You don’t want me have to show ya/ How I hop on the beam, flip it over/ What up? I’m tore up, sho nuff/ I ain’t scared to take it off”. These lyrics serve as a gateway for women to become comfortable with talking about sex. Missy Elliott is not just singing about the way her lover pleases her, but that way that she pleases him as well. The statement “we run this” proves that women are no longer okay with being third-class-citizens. They have made their way to the front of society and are taking over.
The strength in Missy Elliot’s writing is rooted in her ability to demolish the Black Rhetorical Condition. The Black Rhetorical Condition insists that Black people as a race are synchronously desired and devalued. In the case of the Black woman she is desired for many reasons including her physical sex appeal, but then devalued for that same reason. Black women have come to be known as exotic sex animals who are then shamed and viewed as whores for that same reason. Missy Elliott transformed the reason why Black women are desired into the same reason for them to be valued. Through story telling, figurative language, directness, and rhetorical questions Elliott removed the stigma of shame for being sexually desirable and replaced it with pride. Male hip hop feminist Michael Jefferies tributes Elliott for being an artist who:
Received the most attention without casting herself as a cash-obsessed, insatiable sexual vessel…Missy has combined eccentric rap and dance styles with lavish music video production to build a self-image that pays homage to hip-hop history and innovation. She maintains her artistic integrity while simultaneously affirming her sexual desires and material preoccupations (Jefferies 220).
Elliott was able to break the hold of the Black Rhetorical Condition because of the way she presented herself. As oppose to her colleagues, Lil’ Kim and Nicki Minaj, Elliott talks about sex, but does not present herself in the traditionally sexy way in person. Kim and Minaj are considered sex symbols in the music symbols. They are lusted after, but disrespected for their explicitly sexual qualities. Men lust after them, but may not respect them because they are only perceived as sex toys. Elliott, on the other hand, is known for wearing baggier clothing, eccentric fashion choices, and an overall tomboyish demeanor. So much so that many question if she is a homosexual. Regardless of her sexuality Elliott shattered the rigid definition of sexy. After listening to her lyrics men lusted after her and respected her as an emcee because she did not prance around in booty shorts and tank tops. Although, Elliott encouraged women to explore and utilize their sexiness she proved that that was not the only way to be sexy. She was desired and valued. Although, she did not present herself to be the most feminine person her lyrics were still believable and proved that a woman does not have to be overtly sexual to have her sex appeal.
Missy Elliott is a contemporary example of Black women who write for their lives. Elliott used her life experiences to work towards improving her life and those who listened to her. Techniques like story telling, figurative language, directness and rhetorical questioning were incorporated to get her message across. Elliott was a strong advocate for having pride in being a woman and all that entails. The rhetoric of pride through declaration she applied to her lyrics gave women an opportunity to redefine who they wanted to be as Black women. Elliot seized the chance to renew women their sexual agency. As a songstress she returned pride, and empowerment to being a sexual Black woman while reversing the Black Rhetorical Condition. It is no wonder Missy Elliott is called the hip-hop heroine after rescuing Black women from the darkness of silence and shame.
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