The Long Road To Missy Elliott’s MTV Video Vanguard Award

At her career peak, Missy Elliott’s iconic music videos were must-see TV. From the 1990s to the early aughts, Elliott’s avant-garde approach to visualizing her hits was groundbreaking.

In 1997, she set the bar high with her debut solo video “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly),” where she rocked her iconic blow-up black patent leather suit and helmet goggles, looked into the camera and proclaimed, “Me I’m supa fly, supa dupa fly.” For “Sock It 2 Me,” she and Lil’ Kim float around space in red and white robotic superhero suits, while escaping alien villains. In “Work It,” Elliott was the queen bee, DJing unbothered inside a hive, with bees crawling on her face.

There are so many more moments that proved Elliott’s visual excellence. From the style direction, set design, special effects and choreography, Elliott always brought her A game. Her style uniquely fused imaginary worlds with the around-the-way-girl aesthetics of the ’90s like door knocker earrings, finger waves, puffer jackets and baggy sweats. (If you haven’t followed her on Instagram and Twitter, she’s a legacy artist doing social media right, providing explainers on fun facts behind her epic work.) And for as long as Elliott has been at the forefront of creating unforgettable music videos, it was surprising to her fans that she had not received the MTV Michael Jackson Vanguard Award, one of the most coveted honors celebrating music videos.

“I am Humbly Grateful to be receiving the MichaelJacksonVideoVanguard Award😭🙏🏾❤️ I Thank my FANS “Supafriends” who fought diligently  to see this day come🙏🏾@KidFury @crissles who rooted for years 4 me🙏🏾 I am crying happy tears😭Thank you God @MTV@vmas am SO HUMBLED,” she tweeted. She’ll receive the award during the broadcast on Aug. 26.

The MTV Video Vanguard Award was first given to David Bowie in 1984. Since then, it’s gone to several artists whose legendary work arrived long after Elliott’s reign — like Kanye West, Justin Timberlake, Beyoncé, Rihanna and Pink. For this reason, fans felt Elliott’s trophy was long overdue and took their grievances to social media, expressing the sentiment that MTV was erasing her legacy as a black female artist who creates imaginative music videos.

In 2016, the artist Trapcry called out MTV in a tweet: “How long is @MTV going to wait to give @MissyElliott her well deserved MJ Video Vanguard Award? #VMAs #2017?” In 2018, singer-songwriter Dawn Richard made her own plea for Elliott and pitched herself for the tribute: “dear @mtv please give @MissyElliott her Vanguard Award… and when you do the tribute please put my ass on the roster so i can cry then dance my soul off.  k. bye.”

Two years later, when MTV failed to deliver, fans mobilized and made their feelings loud and clear, using the hashtag #MissyAppreciationDay on the same day the MTV Video Music Awards aired. R&B sensation Tevin Campbell was among those who showed love.

With Elliott’s acknowledgment of her fans in her tweet, it’s clear their ongoing efforts to protect her legacy is the reason MTV is finally honoring her. And it’s yet another example of how much fans on social media in 2019 are elevating voices that were at one point on the margins of the mainstream music industry. After Billboard removed Lil Nas X’s now monumental hit “Old Town Road” from the country charts for not being country enough, people began asking why black artists are often limited to hip-hop categories when they’re exploring other genres in their music. Through social media, Lil Nas X leveraged support to gain the longest running No. 1 Billboard song in the country, and has taken over the country, hip-hop and pop charts.

In a similar fashion, rapper Megan Thee Stallion’s mantra “hot girl summer” was first pushed on social media by her fans (before corporations co-opted the phrase with cringe-inducing tweets). Now, Megan Thee Stallion is enjoying more fame and higher sales thanks to the popularity of her motto. By promoting the mantra, fans made room for a new woman in rap to shine, a much needed change in a genre that hasn’t seen this many flourish since the late 1990s and early 2000s. 

Although MTV honoring Elliott later this month feels like another social media fandom success story, it’s important to note that hip-hop fans and artists who hadn’t forgotten about her contributions were already commemorating her genius in their own work. Take this a 2015 episode of The Read podcast, during which co-host Kid Fury schooled younger rap fans on Missy’s numerous contributions to music video history. 

“Missy Elliott has never ever in her life played with a video,” Fury said in a 20-minute lecture on her creative intricacy. “You’re talking about the era of ′Access Granted’ and ′Making the Video,′ when bitches would set a time and a date to sit in front of the fucking TV and figure out how she did this shit.” 

Missy has clearly influenced other musicians with her bold ideas and visual brilliance. Solange Knowles drew inspiration from Elliott’s “The Rain” suit for her 2017 Met Gala outfit. In 2018, Kendrick Lamar, who has built up his own catalogue of exquisite music visuals, said Elliott was his blueprint for thinking big. 

″[W]e’d be watching Missy Elliott videos back in high school, and Busta Rhymes videos. They were always big inspirations,” Lamar told Billboard. “So by the time we got to the point where we can mass produce visuals on that level, we said to each other ‘We all in’ and that we’ve been waiting for this moment.” 

In 2019, the love for Elliott continues. Lizzo’s “Tempo” video, which features Elliott, incorporated her signature surreal elements. (Elliott glides in, standing atop a car with its wheels on fire.) In August, R&B singer Ari Lennox incorporated a silver backdrop in her “BMO” music video, another nod to Elliott’s “The Rain (Supa Dupa Fly).” 

Even if MTV didn’t follow through by saluting Elliott with the Video Vanguard Award, her magic has been secured in the memory of younger black artists. And that recognition makes Elliott a winner — if she was ever seeking validation.

Fans are eager to see what scenes from Elliott’s catalogue will be recreated for the primetime stage during her Vanguard performance at the VMAs, when a younger generation that may not be as familiar with Elliott’s work will be exposed to her greatness.

She deserves this moment.

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