Letters to Missy Violet

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And I would watch them change to different things. Now the doctor is going to be a fireman, but still, when it came to me, I wanted to be a superstar. They thought I was the class clown.

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But I was like, 'I'm going to be a superstar. The black sculptor Augusta Savage once said of her father that she believed his violence was the result of him trying to whip the "art out of her. So he beat her and tried to break her down. Missy's father beat her mother almost every single day. He dislocated her arms; he berated her. He hit Missy only once, but the violence and instability in her life were relentless. She was eight when an older boy, a family member, saw her vulnerability and preyed upon it—he began molesting her in the afternoons. Unable to stop her father, put off her molester, or save her mother, Missy shut her door.

She turned her room into something that she describes as her Wonderland. This was where she would write fan letters to her favorite singers, the Jacksons, with the unexpressed hope that they would appear, see how musically gifted she was, and come to her rescue.


Missy----Violet (continued)

The Hype Williams—directed videos that would define her sensibilities decades later were conceived in spirit in this workshop. Here, she practiced singing along to the radio or to the records her family gave her. And before each performance, she twisted her doll babies' arms up, so they were frozen, forever applauding her. There are two ways to look at a story like Missy Elliott's. The first is within the context of that little girl now.

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All grown up, in her mid-forties, talking with me while wearing four diamonds in her ears that are bigger than my eyes. This is the woman who will tell you matter-of-factly, "I believe that I spoke it all into existence," and can explain year by year how she actualized her vision, but gives glory to God that she did. The other way to see this enormous dream is as one that was steeped both in pragmatism and what could not be helped: fate. Although she does not call it this, Missy Elliott believes in the technology of the self, the idea that we can alter our lives by what we create and transmute, and in doing so, we can become invincible.

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For her, black innovation, black America's ability to overcome all odds and create, are a kind of passed-along technology. Missy survived abject poverty and years of abuse by tucking herself into sound. She was young, but when she listened to music, she found it impossible to be casual about it. Instead, she immersed herself in the process; she became the song's student. From her father, she learned to listen to the Temptations and Marvin Gaye. When she wasn't studying, she practiced.

Missy Elliott had no Joe Jackson. She was no man's babe in the woods. She was self-actualized, self-realized, self-taught. By the time she reached high school, Missy had started cutting class to invite friends over to rehearse in her living room, and her once-high grades plummeted. All of this alarmed her mother, who'd packed up a moving truck after her father had left for work one day; the two were living on their own. Her mother knew Missy was intelligent and just wanted her daughter to do the right thing, not realizing yet that for her daughter, music wasn't a sign of delinquency, but her path toward the only future she could envision for herself.

We were discussing her rocky years in school, during which she was identified by her school district as having both a "genius" IQ and being in extreme danger of failing every subject, when Missy asked me if I had ever heard of Poe. I turned it into a rap! Got an A! Then she stopped to think, and she got reflective. Because I murked that.

Missy Violet by Barbara Hathaway - AbeBooks

I murked that. It was around then, in high school, when her friend Magoo connected her with Timbaland and Pharrell Williams. Timbaland, she said, "had a little Yamaha keyboard, and Tim's hands are humongous. He was able to take the claps, the little dog sounds, and make beats with it. Then I just started rapping and singing over him playing with the Yamaha.

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Tim was very quiet. Pharrell was way on planet Mars. And, you know, I was just whatever. I was kind of crazy. But for whatever reason, we all understood each other. The geography of Virginia—Southern, hanging off the edge of the East Coast—also inadvertently fortified their sound. They had very little access to what was trending, and it set them free to experiment and make music from what they had. I will never forget when I first met Pharrell, even being from Virginia, he always was so different.

I remember him coming into the studio, and he had some jeans on, and he had the cuffs where they came all the way up to his knees! And I had never seen cuffs that big in my life! And I was like, 'What part of Virginia he from? At the time, Pharrell and Timbaland were in a group called Surrounded by Idiots, and Missy had an all-female rap group called Fayze. Missy had never performed for anyone this famous before, but she knew what people like James Brown and Tina Turner had done. She took that workhorse approach and told the other girls, "I will need y'all to kick a leg up and put that cane on the floor!

Alice Walker once asked in her essay "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens": "How was the creativity of the black woman kept alive, year after year and century after century, when for most of the years black people have been in America, it was a punishable crime for a black person to read or write? When Missy walked out the door of her mother's house in and drove away from Portsmouth, she was doing what her mother could not.

She has what Walker described as "the living creativity some of our great-grandmothers knew, even without 'knowing' it. When Katy Perry asked her to appear for exactly 2.

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Missy hadn't released an album since She's said that backstage, having had a panic attack that required medical care the night before, she swore to herself, "If I can get over this [first] step, then I know all my dance steps will be on point. Missy Elliott's mind thinks in bloom, and ideas emerge like buds pushing up from the ground. The Super Bowl story prompts her to tell me that typically she would be most comfortable having this conversation sitting on the floor. Or maybe to remember that this adulation was not always there.

In the video, a thin, light-skinned model who has swallowed Missy's voice raps along with Raven. The rejection was so painful that Missy gave up on trying to be a star and devoted herself to songwriting. Three years later, she and Timbaland would write and produce the majority of Aaliyah's classic album One in a Million. When the record labels circled back around, this time they understood: They were signing someone who wanted her own imprint, with complete creative control over her music and the ability to freely write and produce for others.

There is an early New Yorker profile of Missy that once referred to her look in "The Rain" as being that of a "cyber mammy. There is nothing about Missy now, or then, that could belong in anything but a prosperous, liberated future. She even sings in "Work It": "Picture blacks saying yes sir, master? We knew nothing of her pleasure. If anything, the trash-bag suit in "The Rain" was about taking it all with you—the rarely spoken-about black woman's pleasure principle.

And who has written more songs about being sexually satisfied and self-satisfying than Missy Elliott? The knowledge that you are beautiful.

Letters to Missy Violet by Barbara Hathaway (2012, Hardcover)

It is having been denied, and returning tender, exuberant, monumental, and hyperdimensional. Although I am shy, I was never afraid to be a provocative woman. The outfit was a symbol of power. I loved the idea of feeling like a hip-hop Michelin woman. I knew I could have on a blow-up suit and still have people talking.

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  • It was bold and different. I've always seen myself as an innovator and a creative unlike any other. What is off-putting about some of the interpretations of Missy Elliott's style is that they apply a retrograde framework to a woman who is so firmly from the future. And in doing so, they put undue, incorrect emphasis on her body, and assume things that tell us nothing about her and everything about the erasures that occur to women like her. No ratings or reviews yet. Be the first to write a review.

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