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Missy Elliott’s Style Brought Black Women Together

Four trailblazing writers weigh in on the 20th anniversary of Supa Dupa Fly.

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I can’t remember the exact moment I saw Missy Elliott’s music video for “The Rain” for the first time, but I remember how I felt when I did: completely and utterly in awe. In her spectacular profile on Missy for Elle’s June issue, Rachel Kaadzi Ghansah pinpoints this moment with reverent clarity. She recalls watching the video in her cousin’s basement on a hot summer day in Atlanta: “The vertiginous beats, the cacophony of thunderclaps, and her movements — both fluid and staccato — put me on the floor. I lay there, sweating in that Southern humidity, wondering what I had just seen.”

The same was true for me. Whenever that video appeared on my mother’s television set, I would glue my eyes to the screen for the next four minutes, studying every outfit Missy wore, every dance routine she executed, every facial expression she made. Even at 10 years old, I knew that the way she rapped, carried herself with confidence, and experimented with her looks was unprecedented — especially when it came to hip-hop’s portrayal of black women.

A still image from the “The Rain” music video.
Image: The Goldmind/Elektra

There is no simple metric to measure what Missy Elliott has contributed to hip-hop music, let alone the culture. Her debut album, Supa Dupa Fly — which was released 20 years ago this month and is being rereleased on vinyl on July 14th — is considered to be way more than just a rap album. It was a disruptive demarcation of a genre that obsessed over women yet disregarded them at the same time. It was an auditory exploration of various soundscapes, rhyme schemes, and vocal abilities. But most importantly, it showed a black woman with otherworldly artistic merit embrace the complexities of who she is through her style.

Elliott’s fashion sense only amplified her originality and was best captured in her videos. She is wildly masterful when it comes to the way she concocts her treatments; Missy employs visuals that are mesmerizing, innovative, timeless. Supa Dupa Fly spawned "The Rain," in which Elliott magnified her full-figured body with a black plastic suit. "Sock It 2 Me" displayed Elliott's intergalactic aspirations and were eclipsed by bright wigs and matching camouflage outfits. Her fearlessness inspired a generation of black girls to not only push boundaries, but also reiterated that they are, in fact, enough.

One of the most powerful facets of Missy’s career is her ability to bring black women together. Whether it was on songs like “Ladies Night” or the “I’m Better” remix (which was released earlier this year), she exemplified the importance of black women sticking together. To continue with that sentiment — and in honor of today’s reissue of Supa Dupa Fly — four trailblazing black women writers open up about what Elliott’s style meant to them.

Ijeoma Oluo, editor-at-large at The Establishment: "When Missy launched her solo career in the mid-’90s, dominating the charts and MTV video countdowns, I hadn’t seen anyone like her on my TV screen before. She was like a bolder, brasher, and yet even more fabulous version of the dressed-to-the-hilt black women heading out to the clubs on a Saturday that I knew in real life that were always turned into tiny brown versions of white women in pop culture representations. To know that she can come back around all these years later and STILL do it better than anyone else and have me dancing like I'm 15 again... that is some black girl magic right there. The tracksuits, the immaculate denim, that amazing puffy black outfit — Missy didn't come to play with these hoes."

Rawiya Kameir, culture editor at The Outline: “It was always Missy’s hair that did it for me. Her style in general was, of course, awesome in the literal sense — how could you not be blown away by someone who made black plastic look like couture? But there’s something about her hair — especially in those early days — that made the past and present look like the future. A walking black hair magazine! I’d seen fingerwaves before, but on her they looked especially right. Just unbothered and untethered. Styles that required a lot of work and a lot of maintenance looked like they just grew out of her head that way — perfectly. Whether it was a pixie, a weird asymmetrical cut, or a bob, there was always a lot of color and life... just like her music.”

A still image from the “One Minute Man” music video.
Image: Goldmind/Elektra

Hannah Giorgis, special projects editor at The Ringer: “I don’t have a conscious memory of seeing Missy Elliott and immediately knowing she inspired me, my style, or how I approached the world. The way Missy influenced my life was much quieter, slower. I watched her videos as a teenager and thought she was doing things I didn’t normally get to see black women do: sing and rap brazenly about her body, wear everything from fly kicks to literal trashbags, cut and braid and straighten and slick her hair however she wanted. Missy felt god-like, so far from my personal reality that I looked to her more as a fictional character I loved than as a possibility model for my own aesthetic. I took thrills in the way she rebelled against what black women were expected to do. And that impulse she had influenced the way I think I have to present myself in public. I think of Missy when I have a little extra swag in my step, a little more bounce in my bop, a little more gel in my hair.”

Jamilah Lemieux, vice president of News and Men’s Programming at Interactive One: "Missy came into prominence when I was about 12, and I was very fortunate to see this incredible diversity of feminine representation in hip-hop thanks to her, Lil’ Kim, Lauryn Hill, Foxy Brown, Da Brat, etc. You can't end a sentence about female rappers today with 'etc.,’ and that's truly sad. It's great to see Missy get her flowers while she's here to accept them. She was so far ahead of her time sonically, visually, and lyrically. It seems we're just now starting to catch up. Missy represents what black women have always deserved from hip-hop, but have often struggled to grasp: a balance of power, pleasure and position that you rarely see in any artist and producer. She rapped, she sang, she fucked, she smoked, she served looks. If anyone has ever been a 'carefree black girl,’ it was Missy shaking her ass in a garbage bag, wearing a short set surrounded by girls in stilettos and making 2026 beats in 1996."

For Oluo, Kameir, Giorgis, and Lemieux — and for me — Missy represents the kind of fullness and agency that black women were denied for so long. Throughout a career that spans two decades, she not only placed herself front and center in genre of music that constantly sidelines women — she flipped it on its head. Missy: Here’s to another 20 years of great music, groundbreaking videos, and impeccable style.


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