missy elliott and her award-winning black vernacular

January 14, 2019
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My cousin in South Carolina talks like there are rocks and honey in his mouth at all times. It’s a Southern drawl that sounds part Black American south and part Caribbean, with both cultures dancing on the tip of his tongue and tonsils, to create a seemingly new language.

The sweetness in his voice remains the same, whether he’s asking if I want a beer, or if I talked to our uncle who is in prison. My voice and phrases would probably sound closer to his if I didn’t learn how to develop a new voice and relationship with language. William Faulkner, and a life in corporate and academic atmospheres where I was asked to describe myself and my art for money, made it so I grew a second tongue, ensuring I could be understood by white people with the green.

Missy Elliott has a gift for crafting songs and creating lyrical content that is bold, campy, and culturally relevant, but now that she’s been inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame,  it’s her irreverence that I’m most proud of.

On one of Missy’s legendary recordings, her smash hit “Work It,” the Afrofuturist artist raps, “Ti esrever dna ti pilf, nwod gniht ym tup, Ti esrever dna ti pilf, nwod gniht ym tup.” It’s the reversal of what she just rapped moments before. In the fluffy, sexy confidence-boosting anthem, Missy Elliott puts language to her desirability, using sharp lyrics, camp, and inventive metaphors. The words in the song are so visual that each listen feels as if watching a great film, not listening to a song. And each time Missy Elliott’s decision to flip and reverse the lyrics comes on, I smirk and think about the folks in my family with honey and rocks in their mouths.

The historical significance of Missy’s achievement should not be overlooked. She is the first female rapper to be inducted in the Songwriters’ Hall of Fame, and brings with her a tradition of irreverence found in Black lyrics from Little Richard’s “Bop bopa-a-lu a whop bam boo” and “Tutti frutti, oh Rudy,” to Sugar Hill Gang’s “I said a hip, hop, the hippie, the hippie, to the hip hip-hop, and you don’t stop the rock it to the bang-bang, boogie say “up jump” the boogie to the rhythm of the boogie, the beat,” to Ella Fitzgerald’s bringing the jazz vocal practice of scatting to the mainstream. The reverence Missy is receiving for her lyrical irreverence feels subversive because, like negro spirituals, we know even the simplest or silly lyrics can be coded with freedom. In Missy’s case, it’s the erotic pleasure and celebration found in these sounds and stories that she is being awarded for. Not how close you can sound like canonized and lauded white songwriters who have a hold of language but struggle with touching my soul like my heavy-mouthed cousin.

Missy has always been a master of lyrics, but has never been a slave to language. She has been a servant to how lyrics and sounds can make one feel, knowing that even the most nonsensical arrangement of words can make sense if the feeling is right or if the mood is correct. And if one is fly — supa dupa fly — enough to bring energy to empty, silly phrases. That is Black magic; to rely on nothing but your sheer gift of translating energy into sounds and phrases, and deciding if it needs to be sensical as an afterthought, not the main event.

Seeing Missy Elliot being recognized for her songwriting and relationship with language feels like a shoutout to my kinfolk with the rocks and honey in their mouths that have difficulty getting jobs or being understood because people listen too closely for the words and don’t sit and listen for the feelings. Even when in full patois or Southern Geechee drawl, it’s the soul — a feeling — we’re all trying to express: fuck the vocabulary.

I know intuitively that Missy Elliott isn’t being honored for her lyrics or songwriting only, we’d be delusion to think she’s being honored for the same reasons as a Bob Dylan or Joni Mitchell. Elliott is being honored for keeping the cool and the feeling in language like Gwendolyn Brooks and Nikki Giovanni. She is being honored because she sees each stanza, each song as an excuse to create an experience. And aren’t we lucky that she always extends an invitation to us?