Monday evening Missy Elliott received MTV’s VMA Video Vanguard Award and her performance during the show was so stunning and well executed fans both in the audience and at home found themselves jumping out of their chairs to cheer her on.
For those who are hardcore hip-hop aficionados, Elliott is a living legend. In fact, if you talk about women in hip-hop and Black women’s contribution to music in general, it’s almost impossible not to end up mentioning her and/or someone she’s heavily influenced.
So now that she’s finally gotten the long overdue praise that her fans have always known she deserved, it feels like the perfect time to sit down and quickly unpack the five biggest lessons that this Virginia native has taught us in these 20-plus years of her career.
Failure is a part of Success
We live in an age where everyone wants to be famous. But what nobody tells you is, a lot of celebrities had to endure soul crushing rejection and a series of false starts, before ever becoming a “overnight success.” And in this respect, Missy is no exception.
Her first stab at super stardom came when she became a member of a group called Fayze, which featured Elliott, La’ Shawn Shellman, Chonita Coleman, and Radiah Scott. At the time the aspiring entertainer also enlisted production help from her friend Timothy Mosley, who would later come to be known as mega producer Timbaland.
Eventually the group changed their name to Sista, and in 1994 released their first (and only) album called 4 ALL THE SISTAS AROUND DA WORLD before their momentum seemingly came to a grinding halt.
But despite the setback, Elliott and Mosley were undeterred and continued to put one foot in front of the other until success came knocking on their door.
Somewhere right now, someone who just got dealt a devastating blow is reading this. And the lesson to take from Missy is simple: Don’t stop until you get where you’re going.
Weird Black girls are Everything
Music videos are usually meant to appeal to our collective vanity. Most artists want to look as thin, young and beautiful as possible and often have people on set to ensure that not a single hair is out of place.
But Missy Elliott is not most artists and from the day she came into our collective consciousness she’s always prioritized her artistry over everything else. Even if it meant singing while wearing a huge black trash bag.
When the video for “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)” came out in 1997, the world had never seen anything like it. Up until then female rappers were meant to be corseted vixens who first appealed to the male gaze in order to get a platform to showcase their talent.
But Missy has always chosen to play by her own rules and embrace ever ounce of not just her body but also her free agency to play with her image however she sees fit, regardless of what anyone thinks.
As a result, she became an innovator who not only changed the game but also planted the seeds for artists who we are just now falling in love with.
“You know what? If she can do it…[sic] she’s a was a weird Black girl and I’m a weird Black girl!” singer/rapper Lizzo once gushed to The Breakfast Club about Elliot, after being asked who inspired her when she was growing up. And in a full circle moment the rapper has gone from being the Houston’s native’s inspiration to also being a friend and collaborator.
If you’re a weird Black girl, this is your reminder to create your own lane rather than get caught up in trying to conform.
You can’t fake talent
Listen, self esteem is great, and the right marketing can make a star out of just about anybody these days. But nothing in this world, will ever be able to compare to the rush of excitement an audience feels when they realize they are in the true presence of greatness.
Be it writing, producing, rapping or dancing, Elliott has the sort of talent, drive and discipline that we only see in other living greats like Beyonce and Serena Williams. She doesn’t just rely on gimmicks to get her by, she puts in the work, and it always shows.
For anyone feeling impatient about making their dreams come true and seeking to take a short cut to the top, the lesson from Missy in this instance is to never underestimate how important it is to work on your craft, even if no one is looking. This is especially important if you want to have any sort of longevity.
Be loyal to your tribe
Missy’s acceptance speech at the VMA’s was a master class in tribe loyalty. She is living proof that you can make it to the top and still hold onto kindred spirits you meet along the way.
“I promised I wouldn’t cry because I cry every award [show], but the Video Vanguard Award means so much to me,” she gushed Monday evening. “I have worked diligently for over two decades. I never thought I’d be standing up here . . . it don’t go unnoticed, the support and love you’ve shown me over the years.”
She then went on to thank a slew of people including God, her mother, Aaliyah, Timbaland, Busta Rhymes, Janet Jackson, Peter Gabriel, Madonna, MTV, and even threw in a shout out of appreciation to Kid Fury and Crissle West, co-hosts of popular podcast The Read who have been vocal supporters of her work on social media.
If that wasn’t enough, she also sent massive love to all the dancers who have helped her music videos reach icon status over the years and to the dance community as a whole. Elliott explained to viewers that these unsung heroes are the “icing to the cake,” and the “beat of the heart” that make her performances feel like magic.
Anyone and everyone who is good to Missy knows explicitly that they are appreciated and will be uplifted in her presence. The lesson we can all learn here is that no one is too big or too important to show grace.
Which brings us to our last lesson of the day…
Let your legacy speak for itself
There has been a lot of posturing and beefing happening the last few years amongst female emcees who believe they’re icons and are mad they aren’t getting the recognition or the respect they deserve.
Folks are putting out dis tracks, getting into physical altercations at events and watching their fanbases go to war, all to defend work that spans no more than a decade at best.
And in the midst of all that hoopla, there is Missy. Who has been in the game longer than all parties combined and whose track record of innovation would put most contemporaries to shame. She could have been salty for it taking so long for MTV to give her the props that she’s always been due. She could have been bitter, angry, and stingy with praise. She could have even played victim and waxed poetic about how women of her ilk never get the respect they deserve.
Instead, she chose to let her legacy speak for itself. She opted to be grateful to her fans and also be supportive of those who have come after her. She chose to operate from a place of abundance and keep doing what she loved until we all had no choice but to come to the conclusion that her work was iconic.
Maybe that’s the greatest lesson of all from this amazing soul who is now being presented to a whole new generation: cream, always rises to the top.