The Shapes We Mae

ON TOP OF THE STARS: An Afrofuturist Read of "WTF (Where They From)"

Mindful MediaLily MyersComment

by Katherine Gibbel

The first shot of Missy Elliott in her newest music video for “WTF (Where They From)” shows her in a sparkly hoodie, matching lipstick, ski glasses, and giant hoops. Her brilliant music video not only delivers a song whose anthem we can play over and over again (like I did today in the office…) but it disrupts the mainstream whitewashing of a traditionally Black musical tradition. She both calls out contemporary artists who appropriate the genre and alludes to canonical afrofuturist works that resituate rap and hip-hop in their historical tradition. Paying homage to her antecedents and projecting Black lives and Black art into the future, Missy Elliott affirms the creative, brilliant, and resonant Black roots of her music. Afrofuturism is a blend of sci-fi, fantasy, afrocentrism, history, and cosmology that critiques the oppression leveraged against people of color today; an afrofuturist aesthetic insists on both interrogating historical events of the past that have marginalized those same people and also insists on a future of Black lives and Black art. Missy Elliott has already been hailed as an afrofuturist artist, but her most recent single requires the same sort of breakdown and investigation of all of the intellectual traditions upon which she builds. This song and music video create a compelling Black feminist dialogue with previous afrofuturist works. The cool thing about afrofuturism is the mindfuck of interrogating “history” within an aesthetic context that relies heavily upon a rather optimistic idea of the future. But for Black artists who daily encounter systemic oppression—born from the middle passage, from slavery, from the plantation—reckoning with the past becomes necessary while considering the nebulous future. Elliott elegantly negotiates the past with undeniably futuristic looks—averring her indisputable place in sonic history, but also establishing herself as ‘ahead of her time.’

The first glimpse of Elliott in the music video she wears mosaic mirror pieces. At first glance, she looks fucking awesome, but after my second, third, or maybe fourth rewatching of the music video, she began to remind me of someone (although, for the record, she still looked awesome). Some folks on the internet have talked about how she looks like the most amazing disco ball you have ever seen, but her clothes reminds me of George Clinton—especially of Clinton emerging from a spaceship in Parliament’s album “The Mothership Connection.”

Their silver hoods or hats, space-age glasses, the disco-inspired ensembles, whether literally like a disco ball or via the metonym of go-go boots: these are images that echo each other. It’s important to ground Elliott’s opening in this formative image because Clinton’s album Mothership Connection is a paragon of afrofuturism. Pharrell Williams raps on the track: my mind is a spaceship. Clinton, along with Sun Ra, was one of the spaceman pioneers of the afrofuturist sonic philosophy that happened back in the 1970s. Both Sun Ra and Clinton maintained at times that they were from another planet—bringing a new resonance to the title of Elliott’s song. “Where They From” is never stated, but always understood to mean authentic—no matter whether it’s the South Bronx; Portsmouth, VA; Brooklyn; Compton; Atlanta; St. Louis; New Orleans; or Jupiter. The diaspora her music comes from includes outer space, specifically the Black re-visioning of outer space. The connection with George Clinton takes on new meaning when we also consider Parliament’s song “Free Your Mind… And Your Ass Will Follow.” Elliott raps: Man I’m so futuristic, big lips and big, big, big hips. She draws the ass and the embodiment of her art into her lyric, intertwining what it means to be an afrofuturist with her physical body.

The body figures heavily into this song and video, the female body in particular. At the end of her first verse, Elliott advocates for people eating her out and sings praises for her own body. She raps, "I'm a Big Mac make you wanna eat that/ Like m-m-m-m-m yak it to the yak/ Junk in the trunk make you pumps in the bump/ Girls wanna have fun make you sticking out your tongue." Aside from both the killer rhyme and rhythm in those lines as well as the stacked references (Yakety Yak, Pumps in the Bumps, and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun), Elliott makes it clear that cunnilingus and, more generally, the female body are tantamount and crucial, but also fun and something you want. Just as she did in her song “Work It,” Elliott remakes the female body into a site of pleasure and power. The Black feminist revision of common conversations surrounding sex in hip hop and rap—which are often phallus-centric—is so incredible and subversive. The way Elliott makes that “Big Mac” (i.e., pussy, for those of you who didn’t catch it the first time) and “big, big, big, hips” into celebrated and powerful body parts turns the template of “big penises, tiny waifish women” in the music industry on its head. And I love it. Elliott lauds her “junk in the trunk”—she frees her mind and her ass follows. 

Dancing involves the ass, the bodily incantation of sensual and pleasurable aesthetics. Elliott’s dancing in WTF is nothing if not fucking amazing and pleasurable to watch. The skill and talent in that film, wrapped up in some stunning futuristic cellophane outfits, incorporates both the forward looking elements of afrofuturism, while also calling into question the way particular Black forms of art, like dance, have been appropriated. Elliott’s verses, too, focuses on dance. “The dance you doing is dumb/ How they do where you from/ …That’s how they do it where we from.” She contends that the ‘dance’ began where she, the speaker, is from—not the questionable and inauthentic origins of her subject. She questions the second person in her chorus, some subtle shade calling out the appropriation of various dance techniques—presumably twerking, but also probably referencing the countless millions of things white people have stolen from Black people. Many have implied that Elliott’s song directly implicates Miley Cyrus—especially when you consider the line “sticking out your tongue”—who was critiqued for her deployment of Black bodies and dancing techniques like twerking and yet still likes to claim (wrongfully) that she brought the dance to its current fame.

While I do think that Elliott’s song can be read as an eviscerating and shady rebuke of Cyrus’ cringe-worthy performances, replete with tongue, I love how Elliott’s refrain may also refer to many appropriative artists past and present—from Elvis, to Cyrus, to Kenneth Goldsmith. Moreover, the song works beyond its surface-level function of a callout. For example, Elliott has a lyric, “Can’t take it, them chicks been faking;” as one annotator writes on Rap Genius about Elliott’s line, “There a multiple possible targets for this line, but Missy’s public stance has always been to avoid beef… Missy always considered herself a true emcee, and she has the catalogue to back it up.”

Elliott does catalogue an impressive number of other important hip hop artists. Her verses archive the great innovations of hip-hop since the 90s. Some references include: Kelis [“percolation,” “Boys to the yard”], MC Hammer [“pumps and bump”], The Coasters, [“yak it to the yak”], and her own pivotal songs including “Work It” and “Pass That Dutch.” Her archival and reference-embedded song does more than just name names: she creates a dialogue that expands over decades. Elliott has always been cutting edge; she creates songs like no one has heard yet and so when she says, “Ugh I’m so far ahead of y’all man I’m on top of the stars,” no one doubts her. And again, the cosmic register of the afrofuturists lends her words double meaning. Her lyrics operate in different valences. On the one hand, she’s asserting herself as the top dog with the broad call out of cultural appropriation, but on the other hand she places herself in outer space, just as Clinton and Sun Ra and Janelle Monae have done. Furthermore, even while Elliott makes claims that she is the best who is “on top of the stars,” she’s also gives voice to other artists, both her contemporaries and her predecessors.  

The visual cues in WTF pay homage to rap with “Biggie 97” beanies and Adidas track pants: at once current and nostalgic. It flexes back to George Clinton, to Sun Ra, and farther back still—to the roots of Black sound and music, and back to the future, where she always seems to be looking. One of her "mantras" (according to Hilton Als) back in the 90s was "We give our music a futuristic feel. I don't make music of videos for 1997—I do it for the year 2000." So much of her music does feel futuristic. In addition to Clinton, Kelis, Hammer, et al, Elliott list of allusions and references includes The Matrix, a paradigmatic forward-looking and futuristic aesthetic that further confirms her stakes in a "ahead of the time" zeitgeist. 

While Elliott does a remarkable job of braiding past key players and prominent cultural touchstones in her work, she makes space at the same time for the new generation, for up and coming artists she cares about and has spent time cultivating and nurturing. Sharaya J., an artist who has collaborated with Missy Elliott before and whom Elliott represents on her label Goldmind Inc., dances in the video. The music video for Sharaya J's work in music videos like "Banji" features an aesthetic equal parts queer, contemporary, and nostalgic: the same seductive and compelling components that makes afrofuturism the nexus of some of the most fascinating art and academic trends.

Elliott and her team build and craft a type of community that insists upon the future of Black music, art, and film in a distinct afrofuturist fashion. Not only is Elliott outfitted multiple times in visionary outfits, but her back up dancers and collaborators also look the part. As my brother pointed out in an email to me, " The alley setting with the flares in combination with the low-tech cyborg sleeping quarters they dance in are completely dystopic. The EL bands on the dance crews outfits are a futuristic technology that is on the forefront of wearable technology/fashion. There are many other design and choreography choices that [can] be attributed not just to Missy but to the team behind the video."

And he is right. Zanmi films, one of the producers of Elliott's newest videos, has worked on a lot of incredible films including the Afrofuturist QUEEN Janelle Monae's video "Yoga." For me, the takeaway point is that Elliott occupies a space as an artist that's all about creating a collaborative community that stretches both backward and forward in time. Her songs and videos reference the greats of the past, but also make room for emergent artists, producers, who are on the brink of the New Thing, who are bringing us—with their music and their art—closer toward tomorrow. 

Katherine Gibbel was born and raised in Brooklyn, NY. A graduate of Wesleyan University, she now lives and works in North Carolina. Her writing has appeared in East Coast Ink and xoJane.