- We don't know if it's fashion trends making a comeback or maybe our favorite shows getting rebooted, but we're feeling a tinge of nostalgia lately.
- So of course, we purposely fell down a rabbit hole of late 90's, early 2000s rap videos.
- And something interesting happened on our journey once we got to Missy Elliott.
Her videos are still ahead of our time.
- The beat still slapped.
- And the video concepts still blow my mind.
- [Evelyn] Was she an alien?
Dancing inside of, where is this?
Then the Teletubbies universe.
Did she predict Gmail?
- The minds of Missy Elliott and her frequent collaborators combined to produce over two decades of what we think can be classified as Afrofuturistic work.
And we want to explore how something like this falls into the genre.
- Look, let's just cut to the chase.
- This right here, purely a Missy Elliott appreciation episode.
- And an excuse to binge watch music videos for work, and maybe dance in inflatable trash bag.
(upbeat music) I don't know about y'all but I feel like we learn best by doing, so.
(upbeat music) - We're talking about Afrofuturism as a visual aesthetic, not within literature.
Word to Octavia Butler, which is a whole nother rabbit hole.
If you're interested in that, we'll link to a video that's a good jump off.
- Now, Missy knows she's ahead of her time.
- It's futuristic, our music, the music that we make is futuristic.
- And by being unapologetic about her body, and her blackness, she's saying that people like her do exist in these alternate realities.
- Yeah, now why would we need to remind people of that?
- Is it 'cause we're hidden figures?
Rarely recognized in history, let alone imagined in distant futures.
- Using Afrofuturism as a lens to understand, or categorize art is to point out how black folks have been underrepresented in speculative fiction as a whole, like Sci-Fi.
In Missy Elliott's case, music videos helped close that gap.
- The beauty of speculative fiction is its seemingly endless possibilities.
But unfortunately, us earthlings are forever two steps forward, one step back.
- Security sweeps of all decks are negative Mr. Spock.
No evidence of intruders.
- Very well, cancel red alert but maintain increased security.
- (mumbles) - [Hallease] People in 1968 were able to imagine traveling through the Milky Way before comprehending an interracial lip lock.
- And really, that's where Afrofuturism comes in.
Where science fiction might just erase human cultural differences and create a world where we've evolved past race.
Afrofuturism imagines a world in which black cultures thrive.
Like, imagine a future where your race exists but doesn't have to be a burden.
- And everybody knows Na'vi in Avatar was black anyway.
- Oh there you go.
- Slow down.
- Intergalactic guns.
- I'm all right.
- That's a lot.
We come in peace.
- We're humans.
Who barely ever come in peace, now that I think about it.
(electronic computer sounds playing) Earth.
- Third rock from the sun.
- We're from Earth.
(mysterious whooshing) Yes, like Chris Pratt.
- I prefer Pine, but sure, like Chris Pratt, definitely.
- The Chrises.
(electronic computer sounds playing) - So, it's complicated.
It's like, you know, it's a color palette thing, you know.
- Same species.
- Different color palette, that's it.
(mysterious whooshing) How do I do this?
There you go.
- Okay, okay.
- Okay, here we go, here we go.
There you go, there you go.
(electronic computer sounds playing) All right, Billy Dee Williams.
- That's the one.
(electronic computer sounds playing) - No?
Donald Glover 2018.
(electronic computer sounds playing) No?
Do y'all not watch TV?
- Okay, okay, no, no, no, wrong fandom, wrong fandom.
Hit 'em with it.
- USS Enterprise D. (computer whooshing) Okay, all right, okay.
All right, Levar Burton.
(electronic computer sounds playing) - Oh come on!
The rules of Afrofuturism as a visual medium are influx constantly.
It's a vibe, you feel me?
- Mark Dery's 1994 essay "Black to the Future" was the first time this term popped up.
Afrofuturism to him was speculative fiction that treats African-American themes and concerns using technology or prosthetically-enhanced future.
- My favorite definition is from Ashley Clarke who wrote an opinion piece for The Guardian in 2015, and curated "Space is the Place: Afrofuturism in Film" for the Brooklyn Academy of Music.
Clarke's definition says it is, "The centering of the international black experience in alternate and imagined realities".
(calming music) - In the video for she's a, director Hype Williams transports us to this luxe and sleek underground lair.
There is a highway tunnel where cars move at super speeds.
There is this 360 floor to ceiling circuit ward-esque room that lights up while the camera spins.
This alternate reality definitely had better internet than we did in 1999.
(dial-up connection sounds) That is rough, that is.
This technology-boosted universe is elevated even higher by Missy herself.
She is a menacing, yet ultra-smooth bald-headed super villain, dressed in the finest black vinyl.
Darth Vader is shaking.
- He could never.
Wesley Snipes wishes, Morpheus who?
Through the lyrics, we understand she is taking on this larger-than-life persona to reclaim and embody a word that's been used to demean women for being too cocky, or not nice enough.
- Like Clarke's definition provides, Missy is centering her experience as a black woman in hip-hop, and inserting herself as the ruler of her many domains.
This reality isn't dope in spite of her blackness it's cool because of it.
It could be the year 3000 and she's still (mumbles) She knows she gives you life.
- Hype's expensive visuals, Timbaland's hypnotically sinister beats and Missy's swag, combine to create a world where powerful black women don't need praise because they admire themselves.
- If that's too figurative for you then let's take the video for "Sock it 2 me" where Missy literally leaves Earth to have intergalactic adventures with Lil' Kim and Da Brat.
- You can definitely tell this was inspired by the Mega Man video games and Afrofuturism is all about ensuring you're present or represented in these imaginary worlds.
- And when you think about it, we even have preconceived ideas about what video game music is supposed to sound like, but what if we told you the soundtrack could be sultry and soulful?
In our particular society nerdy things are often coded as not black.
But this video bucks that notion.
We can participate and add a little different flavor to it.
- The future isn't all about space or tech gadgets though which is great, because what is this?
Sometimes it's a dystopian Earth.
Take "Pass that Dutch", and two years later "Lose Control".
Both were directed by Dave Meyers, another one of Missy's frequent collaborators.
- In "Pass that Dutch", it's an unknown virus taking over people's bodies, making them dance wildly.
I mean, sure, it's a drug reference but she also manages to river dance under the beam of a spaceship while dancers heel-toe in the cornfields.
Not to mention the beat itself, co-produced with Timbaland is the perfect rhythm for Double Dutch, which by the 1980s, was associated with early hip-hop culture in New York.
(bouncy music playing) - This video's brand of dystopian Afrofuturism is cemented at the end of the video when we completely switch gears and Missy is on top of a skyscraper, like King Kong.
The fact that she becomes this larger-than-life figure could be doing two things.
Reclaiming an otherwise negative image of black folks and rising above it all, or acknowledging her superiority within the hip-hop genre.
- But she uses this elevated status to be a leader, and directly address black people, and affirm our various experiences.
This is what Mark Dery's definition of Afrofuturism referred to, using alternate realities to acknowledge African-American concerns.
- Similar to "Pass that Dutch", "Lose Control" exists in a frantic dance-filled dystopia.
Again, black culture is allowed to exist in this deserted place.
Of course we are here kicking up dust in talk ticks and teems.
Even when she's referencing past time periods visually the music reminds us we're still listening to the soundtrack of Missy's mind.
- And when you really think about it dance is sort of an ancient technology.
Stay with me, stay with me.
Used over generations as a form of communication, and mind-control.
So when Missy said this beat was hypnotic, nothing is more Afrofuturistic than making a beat that will make anyone listening to it in the future lose control.
I think it works.
- There are devices present in almost all Missy videos.
These techniques show us that the world we're watching isn't like our own.
Even if intricate costumes aren't involved.
In the video for "The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly)" Hype Williams uses a fisheye lens to create a distorted perspective, so even in the shots when Missy isn't an alien balloon we know she isn't a mere Earthling.
Her eyes and lips pop out, kind of like those Snapchat and Instagram filters do now.
- They knew.
- They also play around with speed and skipping frames during choreography, adding to the robotic movements.
- She makes her world seem so natural that we forget our bodies don't really move like that which is another technique we see pretty often.
- [Hallease] She levitates in several videos including "Hit 'em Wit da hee", - In which magic can be classified as an ancient technology, thank you very much.
- [Hallease] Her head snakes toward you in "Get Ur Freak On", she takes her head off completely in "One Minute Man", and don't forget all the dance moves where it's her head and definitely not her body.
- [Hallease] It adds to her otherworldly persona and it's why we think of Missy Elliott as more innovative, magical being, than fellow human.
- No matter where we are in time or space Missy Elliott just works.
It's Afrofuturistic to insert our cultures into these worlds.
A vicious heel-toe can still exist a Nigeria Show key can still exist bruh.
Trina is in a Salvador Dali-inspired room.
We can literally be anywhere we want.
- And remember, this is simply a lens we're using to interpret a body of work.
Sometimes the backstory behind these videos is just a matter of budget.
Hype Williams is known for video concepts that make rappers seem larger-than-life.
- That's a gigantic hydraulic M coming out of water.
Most music videos wouldn't be able to do something like that nowadays.
Like, it may have been a million dollars just for that.
- Missy Elliott has inspired others with her ownership of writing, music production and performance style.
- Us?, We were just a coupe of Y2K tweens drawn to these videos.
For me, the connection is strong.
I grew up loving movies, but Hollywood always felt very far away and inaccessible.
It's because of Missy Elliott's videos that I wanted to become a Music Video Director and she's from Portsmouth, Virginia my family's hometown, which made telling stories in this short-form medium even more possible to me.
- And I was definitely that kid who dressed up and played pretend, and these videos show me it's not childish or silly.
It's cool to be imaginative and while we stan real life astronaut Mae Jemison or NASA mathematicians like Katherine Johnson as lovers of the Humanities, we use arts and culture to take us places we've never been.
- And Missy is still out here both in her own music and that of other artists.
She was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in June of 2019, only the third rapper to receive such an honor in its 50 year history.
Afrofuturism and striving to be visible even in our artistic imaginations is not only valid, but valuable.
So what will the future look like, with us in it?
(upbeat music) - Anything's possible.