If there’s one female rap artist who has maintained an unapologetic dedication to authenticity and personal vision, it’s Missy Elliott.
Although some members of the younger generation seemed to be unaware of the legendary MC, producer, singer, and songwriter until her 2015 Super Bowl performance with Katy Perry, Elliott has been instrumental to the evolving narrative of hip-hop.
Following six years off the air, Hip Hop Honors will return to VH1 with an all-female showcase intended to “applaud the women groundbreakers and innovators who led a movement and rose to the top of a male-dominated genre to make their voices heard.” In addition to Elliott, Queen Latifah and Salt-N-Peppa will be honored. The recognition and accolades for Elliott are more than deserved. She is a five-time Grammy winner with record sales amounting to over 30 million albums worldwide. Notably, she is currently the only female rapper to have all six albums reach RIAA platinum certified.
Elliott’s success has never relied on chasing trends. Her longevity is based upon her resistance, even outright refusal to adhere to narrow expectations. She fashions bravado out of the weird, surreal, cartoonish, and avant-garde.
From the very beginning of her career as a solo rapper, Elliott has utilized unforgettable visuals that embrace a brand of femininity and sensuality that dismiss the male gaze. Who can forget Elliott’s striking video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” the lead single from her 1997 debut album? The video contains all of the traits of a classic 90s hip-hop video, from the signature directing style of Hype Williams and the fish-eye lens to the loud neon color scheme and plentiful array of cameos, including Lil’ Kim and Puff Daddy. One of the most memorable outfits showcases Elliott in a shiny black inflated trash bag, big hoop earrings, and dark sunglasses attached to a sparkly headpiece. By donning such an outfit, Elliott eschews the notion that a woman in a hip-hop video must appear sexually enticing and be as close to naked as possible. Instead of presenting herself as passive arm candy, the trash bag outfit is an undeniable means of subversive control within a heavily male-dominated industry.
This isn’t to say that Elliott is in favor of a hierarchy of female sexuality. Rather, artistic choices such as the trash bag outfit challenge the idea that the traditional video vixen aesthetic is the only acceptable form of female sensuality and/or beauty. In other words, Elliott may not have the body of peers and past collaborators such as Trina, Lil’ Kim, or Foxy Brown, but that doesn’t mean she’s going to hide in a corner. Similarly, Elliott wears a Mega Man costume in the video for “Sock It 2 Me.” She’s not a femme fatale or a part of the scenery. She’s a superhero, an advanced android, a nonhuman fighting machine.
In an article for Dazed, writer Kat George points out, “Elliott, a pioneering woman in hip hop, wasn’t looking for the approval of the court of popular opinion…she wasn’t looking to be a trending hashtag. We often give artists like Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé applause for championing body positivity, because as ‘curvy’ women of colour, they’re presenting an ‘other’ in a predominantly skinny-centric, whitewashed industry.” Elliott’s feminism may be cut from the same cloth as the aforementioned pop culture titans, but I would argue that the rapper’s philosophy of body positivity involves elevating all body types and not just the 36-24-36 bust-waist-hip ratio deemed the only radical antithesis to white, supermodel, high-fashion thinness.
Even if she hasn’t outwardly labeled herself a feminist or appeared on stage in front of a huge, blazing FEMINIST sign at the VMAs, Elliott’s music has always been about championing women and disavowing sexist double standards. Take for example the still-relevant track, “She’s a Bitch,” from her 1998 album, Da Real World. The song addresses the fact that women are punished for being assertive or aggressive. A woman in a position of power is often viewed as a “bitch,” while her male counterpart is given a free pass on his behavior. He never faces a fraction of the scorn and scrutiny as the woman and is simply regarded as confident and self-assured. He’s just a man being a man, whereas the woman is believed to have violated some archaic rule of femininity and decorum.
Elliott raps, “She’s a bitch / When you say my name / Talk mo’ junk but won’t look my way / She’s a bitch / See I got more cheese / So back on up while I roll up my sleeves.” Elliott takes the word bitch and reclaims its razor-sharpness as a badge of honor, a marker of indomitable strength and capitalistic prowess. In a conversation with Interviewprior to the release of the song’s music video, Elliott said, “Music is a male-dominated field. Women are not always taken as seriously as we should be, so sometimes we have to put our foot down. To other people that may come across as being a bitch, but it’s just knowing what we want and being confident.”
Is financial independence the key to feminism? It may not be the end-all, be-all, but it’s linked to freedom from the oppression of a male-dominated society. The motto of autonomy via financial prosperity is a theme that repeatedly pops up in Elliott’s work. An obvious hit is “Work It,” from 2002’s Under Construction. Elliott’s swagger encompasses the demand for sexual satisfaction to money as a means of individual empowerment. She declares, “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 ahead of the game.”
Not only can money provide empowerment, but so can sex. Songs such as “One Minute Man” take the stigma out of a woman’s need for sexual satisfaction by critiquing a man’s supposed bedroom skills. In “Hot Boyz,” a man’s attractiveness is dependent upon his ability to provide not only in the bedroom, but in terms of material goods and reputational clout. Elliott asks, “What’s your name, cause I’m impressed / Can you treat me good, I won’t settle for less / You a hot boy, a rock boy / A fun toy.” In the context of Elliott’s lyrics, men are never the center of her world, but they can serve as fun stepping stones or pleasurable distractions.
Without Missy Elliott, there would be a noticeable void in both hip-hop and R&B. Her latest single, “WTF (Where They From),” proves that Elliott’s creativity, though seemingly dormant since 2005’s The Cookbook, never left. The single, produced by longtime friend Pharrell, feels as fresh, energetic, and funky as anything on her previous albums. As she said in an interview with Billboard, “Unfortunately, breaking news, there is only one Missy.”
Beauty comes in all forms, but the institution of white supremacy demands that whiteness is the ideal.
When Lil’ Kim posted new pictures to her Instagram, people immediately noticed a glaring change. In addition to the blonde lace front, Kim’s complexion was noticeably whiter, almost ghostly pale. The iconic rapper and former Junior M.A.F.I.A. member looked like a complete stranger, unrecognizable when compared to the images of her in memorable videos such as the color-coordinated “Crush on You” and later hits such as “How Many Licks” and “No Matter What They Say.”
Filters and careful photo editing may have exaggerated Kim’s startling new look, but this transformation didn’t happen overnight. Over the years, Kim has revealed that her low self-esteem and low self-worth stem from the unconscious belief that blackness is undesirable. Like many young girls and women, Kim absorbed the poison of racist beauty standards. Although Kim has never confirmed to using skin-whitening or bleaching products, one cannot help but read between the lines. The pictures shared on Kim’s Instagram feature a person miles away from the woman who hit MTV’s VMA red carpet in a lavender wig, sequined jumpsuit, and matching pasty. In one display of irony, Kim is wearing a “Black Girls Rock” t-shirt. She’s got long, flowing, light blonde hair, her skin is several shades lighter, and her nose is slimmed down, probably contoured with heavy makeup. She looks like a combination of Kim Kardashian and Faith Evans.
In an interview with Newsweek, Kim reveals that an early age, she felt like she wasn’t good enough. Citing her father’s rigid standards as the source of her anxiety, she says, “It was like I could do nothing right. Everything about me was wrong–my hair, my clothes, just me.” This set the stage for Kim’s feelings of inadequacy. Later on, she says, “All my life men have told me I wasn’t pretty enough–even the men I was dating…Guys always cheated on me with women who were European-looking. You know, the long-hair type. Really beautiful women that left me thinking, ‘How I can I compete with that?’ Being a regular black girl wasn’t good enough.”
It seems that Kim has been unable to break free from ideology that cherishes whiteness and dehumanizes blackness. The seed planted in early childhood thrived on a succession of loves who upheld a color-struck hierarchy. The sexism and racism of the music industry only allowed such self-loathing to expand, burrowing deeper.
Notice how Kim mentions that her ex-boyfriends favored women who were the “long-hair type.” She’s not talking about black women with long hair. She’s actually talking about whiteness, or specifically, physical traits that denote whiteness. White beauty standards vehemently reject natural hair. Despite the growing number of black women who have put down the hot combs, straightening irons, and relaxers, natural hair is still viewed as “unkempt” and “unprofessional.” Black girls are sent home from school or threatened with expulsion for wearing their hair natural. Black women working as news anchors are criticized for wearing their natural hair on air. Mainstream society upholds the notion that wearing natural hair is a punishable act.
These racist standards are blazingly apparent when the fashion industry trips over itself to praise white celebrities for sporting familiar black hairstyles such as “boxer braids” (aka cornrows) and dreadlocks. Thus, when TV characters such as Annalise Keating from How to Get Away with Murder are shown removing their wigs and/or weaves, it’s groundbreaking. When Beyoncé calls out “Becky with the good hair” on Lemonade, she’s calling out the lie that kinky hair is ugly. The term “good hair,” when used in earnest, is carved from the language of white supremacy. Having good hair means that your hair is as close to straight as possible. Having good hair means you are reflecting white beauty rules.
When people on social media wonder why Kim “looks like a white woman,” they ignore the fact that through personal experience and unconscious influence, Kim has learned to view whiteness as a marker of superiority. In an article for The Huffington Post, Zeba Blay notes, “Like millions of dark-skinned women, [she] has been socialized to believe she is ugly and unworthy because she is not white or light…The difference between Kim and so many others who struggle with this specific kind of low self-esteem is that Kim has money and access to doctors willing to indulge and encourage her need to change herself into a different person.” Kim’s Instagram picture is the result of that money and level of access, not the aftermath of a spontaneous, irrational decision. It’s not that Kim simply wants to be white; she wants the acceptance that whiteness promises.
Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye shows how the desire for whiteness is mentally, emotionally, and psychologically destructive. Pecola, a young black girl, yearns for blue eyes. In chapter 3 of the novel, the narrator notes, “It had occurred to Pecola some time ago that if her eyes, those eyes that held the pictures, and knew the sights—if those eyes of hers were different, that is to say, beautiful, she herself would be different.” Pecola is fixated on blue eyes because she thinks that they are not only beautiful but also pose the opportunity to escape herself. Blue eyes would literally transform her perspective. She would shed the struggles of her current state of existence. For Pecola, blue eyes signify freedom from blackness.
Kim has fallen into the same trap as Pecola. Self-love seems impossible when external forces fuel their survival on your self-hate.
At what cost has Kim become a sex symbol? Only she can truly answer that question. However, studying the trajectory of her image can provide some unfortunate and disturbing truths. Instead of mocking Kim, we must remember that our society created this pursuit of whiteness. Over at Mic, writer Michael Arceneaux reflects on what led Kim to this dramatic image overhaul and wonders, “If everyone had played nice, would Kim have stopped doing this to herself? Kim is continuously uploading pictures of herself online that depict her as lighter and lighter in appearance. Kim wants us to see her this way.”
One can only hope that Kim has finally found the validation that seems to have eluded her.
Rihanna has gone from Good Girl Gone Bad to bonafide style icon, pop culture heavyweight, and international superstar.
In the past few years, she’s successfully turned her name into that of an influential tastemaker, a woman often imitated but never duplicated, who does what she wants, when she wants, without fear or worry of judgment or disapproval.
The release of her eighth studio album, Anti, marks a decidedly different direction in the Rihanna sound. In an interview with Vogue, she admits, “It might not be some automatic record that will be Top 40. But I felt like I earned the right to do that now.” Anti, unlike previous albums, doesn’t settle for a theme-driven package of perfectly produced pop bangers and radio-friendly tunes. From the SZA-featured opening track, “Consideration,” to the Drake-aided, dancehall-infused “Work,” Riri’s Anti prefers the visceral power of atmosphere.
Despite the variations in style and production per song, the album’s overall intent is to conjure a certain mood. Whether she’s venting frustrations with overwhelming love affairs gone wrong or lust at first sight, the album wields Rihanna’s voice as both weapon and refuge. In a poem written by Chloe Mitchell exclusively commissioned for the album, Mitchell’s words provide an unapologetic mission statement:
I sometimes fear that I am misunderstood.
It is simply because what I want to say,
what I need to say, won’t be heard.
Heard in a way I so rightfully deserve.
What I choose to say is of so much substance
That people just won’t understand the depth of my message.
So my voice is not my weakness,
It is the opposite of what others are afraid of.
My voice is my suit and armor,
My shield, and all that I am.
Writing for Billboard, Julianne Escobedo Shepherd notes in her review of Anti that Rihanna “exists on the languorous edge of Carefree Black Girlness, all Instagrams from Saint Barts and red carpet stunting and relaxed dismissals of thirsty men pretending to know her.” Rihanna, both the brand and the public persona, does not thrive on attention, but rather the seductive thrill of self-fulfillment. Her image is not necessarily about accessibility or even likeability, but unabashed ownership of the self. She is not concerned with role-model status. On the contrary, obeying such strict demands would compromise her sense of authenticity. The Rihanna brand doesn’t just advocate independence, because independence without the foundation of self-fulfillment is a hollow achievement.
The concept of the Carefree Black Girl seems to have been born from social media and (Black) Tumblr culture. In an essay for Refinery29, Jamala Johns explains, “There are varying ways in which the title is bestowed, but a common tone connects everything. It’s the freedom and exuberance of simple moments and pleasures: clutching flowers, enjoying the company of your equally stylish friends, reveling in creative endeavors, and even finding the ethereal beauty in not-so-carefree moments.” She adds, “For women of color, such basic depictions continue to go underrepresented.”
The Carefree Black Girl attempts to soften and humanize the crushing, insular cage of the Angry Black Woman. The Carefree Black Girl is radical in the sense that she does not submit to the expectations dictated by the establishment of white supremacy. The Carefree Black Girl realizes that pain is a part of life, but she does not drown under the weight of struggle. The Carefree Black Girl searches for freedom and self-fulfillment beyond society’s paltry offerings. She seeks what white supremacy routinely denies her: the ability to radiate inner peace despite the harsh cruelties of everyday life. This does not mean that the Carefree Black Girl is not allowed to feel self-doubt, anxiety, fear,or disappointment.
Anti is as joyous as it is melancholy. Tracks such as “Desperado” and “Never Ending” showcase the unraveling of romance and the portrayal of love as a force of destruction and ruin. In the world of Anti, to be in love does not promise salvation. Love itself is often two-faced, a fight for domination and control. “Desperado,” which samples background vocals from “Waiting Game” by Banks, talks about a lover who is on the run and the prospect of escaping with him. Rihanna sings:
If you want, we can be runaways
Running from any sight of love
Yeah, yeah, there ain’t nothin’
There ain’t nothin’ here for me
There ain’t nothin’ here for me anymore
But I don’t wanna be alone
It is not love that motivates this unexpected union, but the tortured desire to run away. Similarly, “Never Ending,” written by Dido and Paul Herman, contemplates the mixed emotions of opening one’s heart after a devastating breakup. She sings:
They’ll never understand
This feeling always gets away
Wishing I could hold on longer
Why does it have to feel so strange
To be in love again, be in love again, be in love again?
Love is not portrayed as a magnificent source of pure happiness and freedom, but an unpredictable and mysterious enigma with its own agenda. Anti’s vision of the Carefree Black Girl is not superhuman or inhuman. She is complicated and vulnerable and does not sacrifice self-awareness for the comfort of oblivious denial. Billboard notes the moody peaks and valleys of the album’s sound, declaring, “Anti is evidence that being America’s foremost Carefree Black Girl is a beleaguering endeavor, one destined to land a bad gal in a bout of depression now and again.”
Looking inward is not always pleasant, and the truth is not always flattering, but self-reflection can act as a healing salve and serve as a defensive barrier against the antagonistic violence of white supremacy. Rihanna’s Anti is fueled by the basic principles of the Carefree Black Girl ideology. Yet listeners cannot discount the unflinching chameleon nature of the album or the fullness of its emotions. Anti presents the idea that the Carefree Black Girl is not about blocking out negativity or distress, but about using these emotions to achieve self-actualization. In other words, Black girl, in all your contradictions, you are enough.
It’s always been assumed that I’m a “strong” person. The seductive dream of the Strong, Independent, Self-Sufficient Woman envelops unsuspecting black girls like veils of opium smoke.
You keep killing yourself so that others will live, as if you are a brown-skinned Joan of Arc, riding high on a chorus of persuasive voices, fooled into believing that you are learning the rites of warriors and not spells of decay and self-immolation. You keep thinking that to burn is to display a force beyond resolve, a dedication to stoic holiness. You are by no means a god but a sacrifice named “martyr.”
Black girls are rarely, if ever, held in the same regard as other minorities. Between respectability politics and misogynoir, the space to exist is limited, constricted enough to turn a diamond-bright mind rabid. We are not the model minority, which is another form of racism and friend of white supremacy. We are not regarded as superhuman, but inhuman, impervious to the violence of unpredictable emotions because we were not born with sensitivity.
How long before I’m no longer asked to carry all this weight?
In a revealing interview with Pitchfork, recording artist Janelle Monáe mistakenly confesses to the interviewer that she’s sought therapy for emotional issues, which were possibly exacerbated by a breakup while attempting to work on a new album. “I really wanted to grow into this person who could handle everything,” she says, “and I didn’t know that that’s just kind of impossible.”
The Kansas City native, who grew up and still is a devout Christian, adds that therapy was taboo in such a religious and cultural environment. She notes, “I didn’t like the idea of therapy at first. In the black community, nobody goes to therapy. You go to your pastor or you go to the Bible.” Mainstream American culture and black culture have little patience or empathy for mental illness. Mental illness is viewed as a weakness, a lack of self-control, as serious as a child’s temper tantrum dotted with forced tears.
To say that I grew up in a household that understood religion to be the shepherd to my immortal soul would be an exaggeration. On the other hand, my parents may not have shared religious practices, but the sincerity of their beliefs were equally fierce. My mother, who is Filipino, was born and raised in a country where the vast majority of the population identifies as Roman Catholic. She desperately tried to get me to mimic her unquestioning loyalty. In a way, my mother was just passing along what she already knew. Despite years of CCD classes, I didn’t pick up my mother’s enthusiasm.
In contrast, my father hadn’t been pushed into religion by familial pressure to preserve traditions. My father’s mother did make him tag along to Sunday services. Yet no matter the consistency of her efforts, my father rejected the Episcopal Church. When he reached his midtwenties, he ignited his interest in religion and spirituality. He considered himself a Born Again Christian. The specifics of my parents’ beliefs may have greatly differed, but they practiced them with similar fortitude and humility. Neither liked the idea of playing around with a Ouija board; both cringed when someone admitted they didn’t believe in God.
My parents never could fully grasp the realities of living with a mental illness. I internalized a lot of things, bottled up darkness to feast on later, a form of self-sabotage. They couldn’t understand how I could be so depressed. I had grown up in the suburbs with a dog and an impressive Barbie collection. There was a roof over my head, I had my own bedroom, there was always food on the table. What was the problem? I knew my enemy, but I couldn’t flesh him out for my confused and frustrated parents. He was a lonely figure who could slip out of descriptions. He was a language I couldn’t articulate.
How do we escape this weight that seems destined to break our backs? It’s enough to make you wish for a fatal dose of oleander to drink.
Due to various barriers and the stubborn bigotry of gatekeepers, pop culture has yet to fully move away from harmful, emotionally compromised, stereotypical depictions of black girls and women. This is not to say that nuanced protagonists don’t exist. They’re just rare and under the radar.
In the case of Janelle Monáe, resistance meant moving away from the super-fly cyborg persona of her debut and embracing a much more vulnerable perspective. The aloof, technological sensation hailing from another galaxy traded in visuals reminiscent of George Lucas and Octavia Butler for multilayered R&B grounded in emotional fluidity. For example, in the track “Electric Lady,” Monáe mentions spaceships and outer space, but the core of the song is about women’s empowerment. She sings,
She’ll walk in any room have you raising up your antennas
She can fly you straight to the moon or to the ghettos
Wearing tennis shoes or in flats or in stilettos
Illuminating all that she touches
Eye on the sparrow.
If anything, the conflict between persona-heavy mythology and lyrical openness seems a bit more balanced.
I can’t help but think that Monáe’s decision to reformulate the sci-fi-heavy aesthetic is the result of a shift in her thinking. Now that she no longer feels the “impossible” urge to be her own savior or no longer feels that she has to do everything, it has opened new possibilities in her art. She is no longer using the cyborg persona (as much) to filter the emotions and ideas that shape and inform her music. The world looks different when you feel as though you don’t have to constantly be on guard, vigilant against cracks in your appearance.
I grew up believing that seeking help was the coward’s impulse. But the Strong Black Woman and her sermons never brought me back to life. The Strong Black Woman consciously and unconsciously contributed to my shame. The preachings of the Strong Black Woman did not help my art or my will to live. The Strong Black Woman wants me to be Superwoman, but I would rather be a woman, receptive to the contradictions of being human.