Image: Haleigh Nickerson, Soul Out The Blocks, 2017
by Haleigh Nickerson
Haleigh Nickerson is a multidisciplinary artist originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, currently living and working in Los Angeles, CA. Nickerson’s works explore race, gender, desire and power through works that take the form of photography, video/film, sculpture, installation and performance.
TO CONSTRUCT SPACE (AS THE PLACE)
Me I’m supa fly, supa dupa fly, supa dupa fly (I can’t stand the rain!)
Me I’m supa fly (‘gainst my window) supa dupa fly, supa dupa fly (I can’t stand the rain!)
Me I’m supa fly (‘gainst my window) supa dupa fly, supa dupa fly (I, I can’t stand the rain!)
Me I’m supa fly (‘gainst my window)
The text Vibe Hip Hop Divas is a compilation or archive of the rap and hip-hop mavens of the late 90’s to the early 2000’s. Vibe Hip Hop Divas travels through the genealogy of female rap music, starting with Roxanne Shante werking through Queen Latifah, Salt N Peppa, Foxy Brown, Lil Kim, Trina, Missy Elliott, Erykah Badu, and various other musical mavens. Not only does this compilation function as an archive, it attempts to trace constructed black female identity.
In Karen Renee Good’s “Vibe Hip Hop Divas” article on Missy Elliot, Feeling Bitchy, Good presents a quote by former VIBE editor and chief, Hilton Als. Hilton Als states: “The New Negro is an inventive amalgamation of past and future trends that are indigenous to black American style. Generally, the new negro who is “new” every decade or so –is female, a woman who considers her marginal status a form of freedom or challenge: she takes the little she has been given and transforms it into something complex, outrageous, and ultimately fashionable (Vibe Hip Hop Divas, 150).” Hilton Als describes and relates the idea of the New Negro in terms of contemporary black female identity. Als proposes Missy Elliot as an example for helping us understand W.E.B. Dubois and Alain Locke’s concept of the New Negro. The concept of the New Negro understands black identity as being a raw construction. This construction of black culture/ black identity has emerged out of the tumultuous history of displacement. Like Hilton Als, I am understanding black female identity as being a compiled site, where an overlay occurs and many overlays occur. This compiling and codification emphasizes a ‘making of something out of nothing;’ a clear formation of identity. This being essentially a strategic combination, compiling or piecing together of scattered information or fragmented parts … assembled together … forming a new and transgressing into expansion. Just like Missy Elliot, the canon of black female rappers are also uniquely comprehensive formations of contemporary identity. All of these women have taken what ‘they have been given and transformed it’ into a vast array of complex universes … where in which they are writing new multifarious mythologies and exploring their own worlds that are distinct, spaces of freedom, and simulative futurity.
They have used hip hop and style as a direct avenue to possibility through ways that they could and still do form the frameworks of their transforming identities and progress. Missy Elliott is one of the many reigning hip hop icons known for her innovative prowess. Apart from her #mastery in constructing rhymes, music, and cultivating style, She is known for her embodiment of constructed transformational identities. Throughout, Elliott has functioned as a shapeshifter, donning new lewks and identities in her many performances and narratives that ultimately push our understandings of culture and imagination forward. A shapeshifter is a body whom is continuously taking new shape or form. Dr Aimee Meredith Cox describes the essence of the ‘shapeshifter’ in Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship by writing, “…the act of shifting spaces is a critical grounding concept. Black women are out of necessity, inherently shapeshifters. Thus, understanding the ways in which Black women make sense of their lives by theorizing the present and imagining the future is essential for supporting the ways of living that resist dehumanization implied in normative scripts… (Cox 25) Cox theorizes how black women and girls shapeshift in navigating cultural landscapes, spaces and the world around them at large. She examines realities of how in specific terrain black women must shapeshift as a survival mechanism in direct response to hardship and travails in setting or structure. Alternatively and expanding beyond notions of survival, Shapeshifting is an intuitively cultivated skill or Superpower that gives one the ability to exceed or transcend imposed limits, defaults, confines, and boundaries. The act of Shapeshifting provides access to freedom. Perhaps, in my practice, where I inhabit different identities and spaces, and frameworks as well, there is a desire or attempt to encapsulate the shape shifter-ness of a complex, changing, and moving body/self to gain further understanding of identity, power, and space in its entirety.
Elliott is known for navigating imaginative spaces of constructed blackness. In these spaces of constructed, imaginative blackness, she moves and werks freely in a playful melodic manner (like in her music videos Get Your Freak On, The Rain [Supa Dupa Fly] and countless others). Elliot shapeshifts to the pervasive yet steady beat of the erotic. In Audre Lorde’s essay Uses of the Erotic: The Erotic as Power, Lorde writes, “The very word erotic comes from the Greek word eros, the personification of love in all its aspects – born of Chaos, and personifying creative power and harmony. When I speak of the erotic, then, I speak of it as an assertion of the lifeforce of women; of that creative energy empowered, the knowledge and use of which we are now reclaiming in our language, our history, our dancing, our loving, our work, our lives (Lorde 55).” Elliott and the canon of black female artists rebel. They undeniably and unapologetically flaunt themselves, their sexuality, and their style freely. In an attempt to navigate the male dominated space of hip hop/ rap, these Divas have cultivated that freedom themselves. They radically construct Space (as The place). They create a portal (where they leap and beam through time and space) a clear space by making themselves heard, re-asserting their bodies and identities, reclaiming their sexuality, their stories, voices, and power as women within the framework of hip hop music. Missy Elliott has reconfigured and taken the space of challenge and transformed it into a free roaming space. Carving Out… Constructing… Creating free.
Audre Lorde. Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches. Trumansburg, NY: Crossing Press, 1984. 55.
Dr. Aimee Meredith Cox. Shapeshifters: Black Girls and the Choreography of Citizenship. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015. 25.
Karen Renee Good. Feeling Bitchy. From Vibe Hip Hop Divas. 2001.