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What Missy Elliott teaches us about sexuality and gender

June 12, 2017 // by Caitlin Swindell

Dr. Nikki Lane uses popular culture to teach people how to overcome their fear of difference by offering the space and language to discuss power, privilege, challenges, and oppression.

She is a lecturer at American University and the University of Maryland. In her writing, classrooms, and public lectures, she explores the connections between “The Popular” and race, gender, class, and sexuality.

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Image courtesy of Carletta G Photography.

In her article for the Journal of Homosexuality, “Black Women Queering the Mic: Missy Elliott Disturbing the Boundaries of Racialized Sexuality and Gender,” she elaborates on how Grammy award-winning rapper Missy Elliott has disturbed the boundaries around what is understood to be “appropriate” for black women within and outside of hip-hop culture. As a public program for Synthesize: Art + Music, she appears at MOCA Jacksonville for Art and Ideas: Dr. Nikki Lane on June 29 to expound on that paper.

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your academic background.

I am an interdisciplinary scholar trained as a linguistic and cultural anthropologist. Fun fact: I was born in Jacksonville. However, I was a military brat and spent most of my life growing up in Atlanta.

In addition to Missy Elliott, who are some other rappers, artists, and performers that you find making an impact in the wider discourse of gender and sexuality in hip-hop?

Nicki Minaj is an interesting figure in hip-hop. Right now, I'm watching Remy Ma, Lizzo, and Young M.A., an out, masculine (Dom) lesbian independent artist.

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Image courtesy of Carletta G Photography.

Music videos have allowed artists like Missy Elliott to merge visual art, performance, language, and music together. With a range of social media like Instagram and Snapchat, among others, rappers are in a sense constantly presenting themselves, their ideas, and their music in new ways.  What are your thoughts on this practice? Any advantages or disadvantages to consider?

Rappers have consistently been on the cutting edge of entertainment and technology. We have DJs because of hip-hop culture! Soulja Boy became a YouTube sensation before most people knew who he was, and he did this before YouTube was a bookmark in everyone's browser. This melding that you're talking about is not a surprise to me, and in fact, I believe we'll see more innovation from rappers at that nexus of social media and entertainment. I can't think of any disadvantages, except that artists have to be more deliberate and diligent about managing their image because so many people have access to them. The advantage, of course, is that they can reach more people, instantly.

What other projects are you working on?

I'm currently working on a book project that examines the use of the word “ratchet.” The term ratchet, in a very general sense, refers to those acts, individuals, and behaviors which are not socially acceptable within black middle-class ideologies. The book defines the concept of “ratchet” using the way that it operated in the discursive practices of my informants in Washington, D.C., examines how ratchet hip-hop operates through black same-sex desiring women's bodies, and finally considers the way self-representations of black same-sex women use ratchet aesthetics to construct “authentic” black queer women's performances. Using this very specific example of how ratchet is mobilized, I hope to consider the potential for thinking through the deployment of the term “ratchet” within American popular culture more broadly.

RSVP for Art and Ideas: Dr. Nikki Lane on June 29.

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