Regardless of your personal feelings about hip-hop music, there’s a strong chance you likely exhaled an overwhelming sigh of relief when it was announced that Missy Elliott was this year’s recipient of the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award at the MTV Video Music Awards. Outside of the cutting-edge special effects, eye-popping choreography and futuristic panache often found in a Misdemeanor visual, her long-overdue acceptance of this award brings awareness to a much grander societal shortcoming.
While Missy set an indelible creative precedent throughout her long career, there’s no denying that there has been a lack of representation and, at times, an erasure of dark-skinned women from the entertainment industry’s narrative, despite their widely-known contributions. Although she faced discrimination, Missy continued to challenge the soceital perceptions of beauty and sexuality through her aesthetic when the odds were stacked against her, which inspired fans who looked like her to live in their truth. In the full scope of things, receiving such an honor is also a win for any dark-skinned woman who was ever cast out for being themselves.
“Missy never contorted herself to fit an image,” writer and cultural commentator Brooklyn R. White says of the Virginia native. “She was wholly her Black self from the minute we were exposed to her, and even before then. She made sure that we saw her, in raw, fearless form...Missy’s power lies within her belief in [herself].”
Since the beginning of her career, Elliott experienced being cast out in reaction to her look. During an episode of Behind the Music, she opened up about not being invited to appear in the video for Raven-Symoné’s “That’s What Little Girls Are Made Of” despite writing, producing and appearing on the song, because she “didn’t quite fit the image they were looking for.” Instead, her part was lip-synced by a lighter, thinner woman for the video.
However, she turned lemons into lemonade with the iconic visual for her song “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” Her much-emulated, inflatable, patent-leather suit was an audaciously symbolic middle finger to industry standards. The costume served as an exaggeration of her features; through it, she was bigger, Blacker and bolder than ever. Then, when her fashion decisions were coupled with director Hype Williams’ legendary fish-eye lens distorting our view to fit her perspective, Missy was able to display that being true to herself was the ultimate revenge.
Missy’s Afro-futuristic aesthetic for the “She’s A Bitch” video additionally flipped and reversed negative notions about dark-skinned women, as well as the meaning behind the word “bitch.” Instead of using the curse as demeaning, she used it as fuel to become entirely empowered. She moved along to the track while stuntin’ in dark lighting and even darker makeup, which served as flagrant-yet-fabulous disregard for ideal beauty in entertainment.
By way of some of her biggest videos, we learned that Black talent, beauty and creativity were not limited to those who fit society’s Eurocentric standards. As Missy spit in her track “Pass That Dutch,” she is “that bitch y’all slept on,” and when discussing the effects of discrimination in the industry, she’s not the only artist who this sentiment applies to.
In the ‘90s, Martha Wash, a gospel-rooted R&B and pop singer, was excluded from appearing in various visuals for songs that used her vocals in favor of a slimmer woman, such as Black Box’s “Strike It Up” and C+C Music Factory’s “Gonna Make You Sweat.”
Even more recently, pop singer Normani released a dance-heavy video for her new song “Motivation.” Many praised the rising star’s abilities, yet questioned her underutilization as a member of Fifth Harmony, where she was the only Black girl.
“I think the biggest, [most] lasting effect colorism has had is the general public not knowing about talented, smart, black creatives simply because of the way they look,” White laments. “There are singers, rappers, authors, and actors who don’t get the shine that they deserve. It’s not fair.”
This doesn’t go to say that there haven’t been dark-skinned women who have served as pioneers of acceptance due to breaking ground through visibility. White applauds not only Misdemeanor, but some of her contemporaries, Brandy and Lauryn Hill, for helping to further representation of dark-skinned artists. An established singer and actress, Brandy is often viewed as many girls’ first Black Princess, thanks to her role in ABC’s rendition of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s Cinderella. Hill’s solo album The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill catapulted her to public consciousness, resulting in TIME and Esquire covers, and a Grammy Award for Album Of The Year in 1999.
Today, there are a host of dark-skinned entertainment figures who have made career strides and prove that talent comes in all skin tones, and are doing everything they can to raise awareness about colorism. Oscar, Tony and Emmy winner Viola Davis affirmed that the “paper bag test”– a form of racial discrimination that allows certain privileges based on skin ton e– is still applicable in the 21st century. However, she says her rich skin tone is one of her biggest strengths.
“In the history of television and even in film, I've never seen a character like Annalise Keating played by someone who looks like me. My age, my hue, my sex," Davis explained of her How To Get Away With Murder character during an interview in 2015. "She is a woman who absolutely culminates the full spectrum of humanity: our askew sexuality, our askew maternal instincts. She's all of that, and she's a dark-skin lack woman."
Davis is not the only one working hard to fight the good fight. Oscar-winning actress Lupita Nyong’o wrote a children’s book titled Sulwe, which urges dark-skinned girls to love themselves. Afro-Latina entertainer Amara La Negra continues to raise awareness about colorism in the Latinx community. Black-ish released an episode earlier this year surrounding the effects of colorism and light-skinned privilege, showing that it’s not just an industry issue.
How do we continue to let dark-skinned black women know that their talent, beauty and contributions are appreciated? Will the overdue acceptance of Missy Elliott and more artists making their mark be a turning point? White says that it’s necessary to conduct conversations about the issues with colorism and appearance-based discrimination in order for the point to be understood. While we have made strides in terms of giving many dark-skinned artists much-needed visibility, she argues that until every beautiful Black girl feels that love, we still have a long way to go. However, Missy’s big award is definitely a big step towards long-term progress.
“Missy has been active since 1989, that’s 30 years of hard work,” she says. “She mostly speaks to young, dark-skinned Black women who have been shut out and prevented from lucrative or career-changing opportunities because of the way they look. She’s still speaking to them and showing that you can achieve your goals. She embodies success.”
Photo: Larry Busacca/Getty Images for Songwriters Hall Of Fame