Excerpt of “Ain’t No Shame Ladies Do Your Thing”: Exploring Missy Elliott’s Decimation of the Black Rhetorical Condition
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 figurative 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.