This annotated playlist follows Missy Elliott's musical cinema. Paying particular attention to the use of speculative tropes, it argues that Elliott's work draws on Black feminist aesthetics to paint paths through memory, nostalgia, sexual autonomy, and spiritual rebellion. This mélange of speculative and sonic aesthetics creates what I call reverberative memory: a polytemporal structure that uses music and performance to tap into intergenerational memory. Using the aesthetic markers of speculative genres, Missy Elliott's videos fuse hip‐hop to the conjuring of the blues, providing a generative commentary on sexuality, Black femininity, gender nonconformity, and pleasure. This critical layering of the strange and uncanny provide a utopic space in which Black feminist life thrives. The methodological focus of this essay draws on an array of Black scholarship that maps historical formations of blues aesthetics in order to address Black women in the horror genre; constructions of gender, aesthetic, and sonic mapping that exists in the music video form; and the spiritual ontology of nostalgia. Chiefly, this playlist highlights the pioneering art of Missy Elliott across a body of work that centers the vibrancy and vitality of Black women.
As scholars ranging from Tricia Rose to Daphne Brooks have made clear, Black women performers’ aesthetic or critical innovations have tended to be disregarded, even where they have achieved popular or commercial success.1 Known for subversive music videos that range from sci-fi alienscapes to animated dolls and contagious viruses, Missy Elliott's bizarre yet ultracool aesthetic offers innovative uses of speculation surrounding sex, gender, body image, romance, joy, loss, and the oft-criticized role of Black women in entertainment, more specifically in hip-hop.2 In this annotated playlist, I suggest that Missy's powerful evocation of radical Black feminist energies harkens back to the legacy of blues women's Black feminism that Angela Davis explores meticulously in Blues Legacies and Black Feminism.3 Missy's challenge to sexual docility, European standards of beauty, and assumptions about women and labor follows her musical predecessors—Bessie Smith, Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, and Billie Holiday—while her music videos look both backward and forward in time in what I term a system of reverberative memory. Playing on the notion of musical reverb, which is characterized by electronically produced echoes or reflections of an original sound that decays overtime via absorption into objects,4 reverberative memory operates as a intergenerational continuity that thinks alongside Toni Morrison's rememory (literal and figurative histories)5 and Alvin Ailey's blood memories (generational dance).6 Reverberative memory contemplates musical performance on-screen that speaks backward to an awareness of Black women's ways of knowing while simultaneously inhabiting present and future potentialities. Thus, Elliott's visual and sonic collaborative projects combine the art of the remix with the aesthetic and sonic haunting of a networked generational knowledge to unfix linear time.7 And as the appeal of the pop star appearing in music video is, as critics like David James have pointed out, chiefly an erotic one,8 this annotated playlist demonstrates the entangled relationship between Black erotics, Black performance studies, and Black feminism to assert the iconic position of Missy Elliot's work within the broader scope of Black musical traditions through the conceptual apparatus of reverberative memory.
Directors like Hype Williams and Dave Meyers, working alongside Missy to contribute to the artist's titular and unique style, offer their own distinctive visual construction that brings to life the sonic performances of each video. Known for working with hip-hop's biggest stars in the late 1990s and early 2000s, Hype Williams invests in a proprioceptive reorientation of sight, using the “fish-eye” lens to magnify the up-close subject.9 Coupled with his use of monochromatic scenes and CGI (computer-generated imagery), Williams's direction adds layers to the visual cultures of what we now commonly identify as an Afrofuturist aesthetic; these motifs emphasize unknown potentialities of the future coupled with fantastic reimaginings of the past and present. Meyers has contributed equally to the speculative aesthetics of Missy's brand, creating in these videos a sense of otherworldliness intermingled with an acute sense of pop culture. While each of these directors has gone on to apply their different aesthetic styles to various projects, the speculative leanings of their directions have helped to build a style that Missy has continued to explore while working with different creative directors. In a 2018 interview with the Red Bull Music Academy, Williams explains, “Visual music [comes] from soul music.”10 This inherited legacy of putting soul into the moving image is at the heart of the phenomenon of reverberative memory, emphasized by the predominance of dancing and soul-singing in Elliott's work.
Missy's rapping and vocal styles are accented by the production and original rhythms of beat-guru, producer, and friend Timbaland. Timbaland's multilayered percussive tracks enable Elliott to further haunt the beat. Together, their craft provides a perfect harmony of dislocated time. The percussion and vocal performance engender matrixes of complexity. As Jason King explains, “[Timbaland's] body of work is often described in terms of space-time metaphors like ‘space age funk’ and ‘futuristic funk.’ . . . A journalist calls the Timbaland sound ‘back to the future’ music . . . , while Sasha Frere-Jones deems his sound ‘ancient modernism.’”11 This cocreation of polytemporal construction further develops the play of reverberative memory at work in the sonic performance.
To foreground the concept of reverberative memory, it is essential to read Missy's videos as well as sonic performance through the lenses of conjure, possession, and monstrosity. While Missy's music and music videos may not be classified as invested in any kind of genre conformity, the aesthetic choice to prioritize the weird and the uncanny fuel a new connection to the ways in which we think about the uses of horror and Black feminisms.12 Here the visual horror aesthetic operates as a transformative dance with fear to usher in forms of play and pleasure. Reverberative memory, then, becomes instructive.
In what follows as a critical playlist, I examine four well-known—and well-remembered—music videos by Elliot and collaborators with attention to features of visual horror or gothic tropes that tantalize the eye and invite audio-viewers to pick apart the structures of gender conformity, dominant beauty standards, and normative perceptions of pleasure: Beep Me 911 (Earle Sebastian, 1998) traverses the inheritance of the blues while playing with the notion of animated dolls; She's a Bitch (Hype Williams, 1999) explores the stereotypical depiction of “scary” Blackness while offering paths toward a posthuman future; One Minute Man (Dave Meyers, 2001) recenters Black women's pleasure while breaking and refiguring the body; and Work It (Dave Meyers, 2002) places Missy as the conjurer who can bring together various points in time and space. Each video—provided as tracks in a playlist of sorts, following in chronological order of debut—demonstrates the evolution of Elliott's emphatic destruction of “misogynoir,” while simultaneously reinforcing images of sexual and personal autonomy, self-love, power, and care.13
Although this playlist does not include all of Elliott's music videos, it does indicate the different expressions of reverberative memory that open space for Black, feminist, and queer attitudes, characters, and performances: that is, the doll, the B/witch, and the freak. I examine how Elliott's use of the uncanny and the eerie invoke new sites of not only sensuality but plurality; it is evocative of the way Amber Musser describes the moment of performative citation or invoking the ancestors via the captured image as “to be in time, to inhabit a moment, is to be made legible through that which came before.”14 By invoking the manifestations of “the freak” and “the B/witch” in its various iterations exhibited by the videos discussed below, Elliott haunts viewers by remediating the ancestral logics of generations of radical women before her. It is in these sites deemed scary, foreboding, and forbidden that Elliott can battle the logics of patriarchy, misogynoir, fatphobia, and capitalistic consumption that threaten what Kevin Quashie terms the “aliveness” of Black lives.15
Track 1: The Dolls Are in Control in Beep Me 911
In the video Beep Me 911, Missy Elliott and the R&B trio 702 pose as dolls, haunted speculative vessels, who occupy a dollhouse while refusing the attentions of sex-seeking males (fig. 2). Through a series of peep shows and sneaking, Timbaland & Magoo (costumed as black Kens) access the inner workings of the dollhouse while Missy, burlesque dolls, and 702 disjointedly pose and dance to lyrics hauntingly presented in a melancholic key. While the video may respond to another video that debuted in the same year—Barbie Girl (Peder Pedersen and Peter Stenbæk, 1997) by Aqua, which showcases Kens and Barbies of the band having a good time in mock Mattel fashion—Beep Me 911 is cast to soulfully melancholic reverie of a woman spurned by her lover. The dolls construct a community of collective performance as they twirl in exotic dance fashion around bars and barriers meant to keep male dolls away. They are not interested in participating with Timbaland & Magoo's doll alter egos but instead occlude or create hostile scenarios that forge an interiority away from the desires of men. They continue their own play, dance, and create life-adjacent scenarios of their own designs. Ultimately, the dolls are in control. By traversing the myriad signifiers held within the image of the doll and the burlesque dancer, Beep Me 911 stands as a direct confrontation of sexual markets and consumerist logic to offer different choices in viewing Black women embracing their own sexuality beyond the logics of commodification.
The beginning of the video opens with Missy, dressed gorgeously in a high-collared golden gown with a high plasticky-weave ponytail to match her doll glamor, sighing expressively, longingly, sensually. The beat drops shortly, and Missy's sighs turn into bluesy humming as Timbaland ad-libs words like “say what, say what” in a call-and-response sequence that is familiar in Afro Diasporic oralities, especially the blues, where the leader may ask a question and the response, in this case humming, follows. The sigh seems filled with the promise of a particular kind of temptation of ecstasy as well as weariness. This open-mouthed sigh at the beginning of the video aligns with Musser's insightful reading of Lyle Ashton Harris's Billie #21, in which Harris's citation of Holiday opens a conversation around Black womanhood and excess: “In particular, Holiday is expected to index—in a formation that Moten describes as what the audience ‘want[s] to hear and what they already know’—something about the relationship between black women and pain and pleasure.”16 Missy's sigh cites the troubled dynamic of toxic masculinity commingled with the desire to maintain the relationship, which is both a past and present issue; the blues are implicit in this representation of love, while it riffs on the ways in which women of a bygone era called out their mistreatment in song. Equally, the sigh sounds pleasurable—a fusion of the erotic and betrayed intimacy—giving the audience the cues to both see and understand the doll's blues. This fusing of pain and pleasure becomes the focus of the video.
The open-mouthed sigh concludes just before the staccato sounds of Timbaland's beat-making and the disjointed stop-and-go movements of dancers in cages. The beat offers ways to think about temporality as always in flux, subdivided, and breaking. The doll's ability to dance in sync with the beat and yet remain behind or ahead, at times causes the necessary sonic perception of doll-like stiffness to complement the fantasy. This breaking beat, always entangled with Missy and 702’s blues notes, creates sonic and visual rifts that allow the past to seep into the present, similar to the doll-like joints painted on the doll's knees and elbows that invite viewers into the fantasy of an all-black dollhouse with Missy as the supreme doll. She responds in stop-and-go action with her doll sisters, relishing in the exercise of their limbs as they vacillate between fluid body rolls and stiff appendage flapping and muscle isolations.
The metaphor of the doll operates as an interlocutor for the potentialities of Black women's agency within their own bodies: in this metaphor the doll body is reread as full of life and determination, unlike its previous status as empty vessel. It thus speaks to the contradictory terms that Black women negotiate as they fashion agency in terms of sex-gender norms and the excesses they are often assigned to represent or perform. The dolls’ presence seems to easily mock the traditional premise of Barbie: the dolls appear in burlesque clothes and do not conform to the safety of white suburbia in which Barbie bodies are images of Western perfection, in all its anatomical incorrectness. Instead, these dolls are full-bodied, complete with thick thighs and melanated skin. Their existence speaks to a different kind of consumption, an unspoken desire of fetishization and exploitation so often experienced in Black womanhood. This performance suggests a reverberative recalling of historical precedent described by Jayna Brown's insightful review of the history of burlesque performers and its impact on modern popular cultural performance.17 This historical indexing of the Black burlesque dancer as a reminder of the legacies of enslavement speaks to the continuous exploitation of this kind of creative work. While past historical depictions of fetishized movement encapsulate Black women's relationships with sexiness and their bodies, I do not offer, nor does Brown, a condemnation of these kinds of performances or deny the empowerment and sexual positivity Black burlesque dancers have found within their work.
Elliott's ability to transfigure her form to be both doll and puppeteer gives her the agency to enact her own sort of play, one where she is no longer manipulated by the controlling forces of male desire. The music video reflects this imaging: Missy, the doll Madam, appears outside the dollhouse to watch the Kens enter at their own peril. Her lyrics frame a continuation of older blues songs in which a woman is abandoned by her lover. Although the lamentation is soulful and sorrowful, there seems to be a particular kind of angst, a residual note of anger that fuels the woman's agency: “Why you played on me, wasn't I good enough for you?” The questions, as the song progresses, are rhetorical. The seemingly beseeching words create tension between the singer's purported self-consciousness against the videos’ expression of agency and revenge. Equally, the Madam's doll sisters grow in their ability to exercise freedom over their own potential. As Timbaland-Ken enters the doll cage, he is overwhelmed by the sexy lap dances and groping that the dolls enact. What appears to be an orgy turns into horror-fueled consumption in which the Ken doll is danced into a state of immobility whereby he can only lie in place. Equally, the Magoo-Ken suddenly disappears with a spin of his chair during the peep show. The video ends with the Magoo-Ken having escaped in a car without his partner, only to be crushed under the Madam's doll boot.
The evolution of the embrace of the large-bodied, dark-skinned Black woman's aesthetics then becomes directly confronted in the video She's a Bitch, which enlists visual markers of Black women's agency of a different kind.
Track 2: Inky Blackness and the B/Witch in She's a Bitch
She's a Bitch (Hype Williams, 1999) deepens the conversation around horror, femininity, and the confrontation of “misogynoir”—a portmanteau of misogyny and noir that Moya Bailey deploys to describe an intersectional use of misogyny aimed at Black women that combines racialized and gendered oppressions. Elliott's refusal of the emotional abuse leveled at Black women and Black femmes alike in Beep Me 911 becomes an all-out battle in Elliott's refiguring of “the bitch” in this work. The She's a Bitch video showcases Elliott costumed all in black, including black makeup and inky background (fig. 1). Elliott sports a bald head, rhinestone eyebrows, and black leather trench coat. Elliott's queer fashioning of what Steven Shaviro argues is a Black cyborg aesthetic participates in popular trends of the time—notably The Matrix (Lana Wachowski and Lilly Wachowski, 1999), which came out the same year as this video.18 My reading of this video considers the acknowledgment and dismissal of monstrosity via Williams's directorial genius and the construction of an ultra-black monster aesthetic.
By performing Blackness to an overdetermined limit where Blackness becomes literal—that is, chromatic blackness—Elliott deconstructs the language of misogynoir in which the nightmarish “bitch” becomes a powerful symbol of the past, present, and future. The lyrics “She's a bitch” trouble gender binarism that plagues the rap industry. On the one hand, “bitchiness” tends to be assigned as a negative metric designed to deny women's authority when they try to exert it, as seen in other hip-hop representations: in the music video for Queen Latifah's U.N.I.T.Y. (Mark Gerard, 1993), for example, Latifah is labeled a bitch for calling out sexual harassment. On the other hand, Elliott subverts the “Bitch” trope, engaging it as a term of empowerment that highlights her ability to move beyond participating in the game of dominance organized by a surveillant gendering gaze. Thus, she operates outside the binary constructs of woman and man from which Blackness has so often been excluded. Reverberative memory embeds the future into past constructions of Black women, creating a rippling effect in which the negative construct shatters to reveal the possibilities that lie outside Western conceptions of the feminine.19
In this reading, I am inspired by Tavia Nyong'o's formulation of “crushed blacks” to think about the opacity that the visuals offer in the video. Nyong'o writes, “If underexposed blacks on film are not simply devoid of content, but, to the contrary, filled with incommensurabilities, traces of a past life untranslated into our own, might we not instead find ways of valuing those zones of indistinction for, and not in spite of, their mystery?”20 It is through the monochromatic imaging of black on black with gray and white that the audience is confronted by the depth of blackness in constructing a posthuman “all-black-everything” aesthetics.21 Coupled with the racialized, derogatory slur “spook,” the historical depiction of Blackness as monstrosity, as ill-intended shadow, and as the maliciously supernatural is intersectional with Black women or feminized others viewed as “bitches.” Thus, the “inky bitch” conceptually harnesses a power to conjure, to shape and change modes of existence, bringing to fruition the radical witch that Imani Perry describes thus: “The witches are engaged in doings that are challenging: they are presenting ideas and orders that threaten to open up the dominant logic, shift the terrain of what is regarded as mattering.”22 Elliott's use of blackness confronts the layering of these meanings in which the negative associations with Blackness are deconstructed; the beauty of the costuming and of the scenes become artwork that embraces the velvety depth of blackness extrapolated to its fullest potential.
These images, thus, become reincarnated into a framework of futurity wherein Elliott appears to live inside of an imagined computer mainframe in which blue and white lights demonstrate her kinship with inkiness and bitchiness as a vital framework that is built to last. The video's confrontation with the hue and historical depiction of blackness demonstrates the depths of opacity in which full Black women's lives are not up on display and are equally not defined by stereotypes. Elliott wields inky bitchiness as a formidable power in the lines “She's a bitch / You can't see me, Joe / Get on down while I shoot my flow.” Elliott's gender bending utilizes the language of hip-hop's hypermasculinity to “shoot [her] flow” onto rappers who are beneath her, thereby inverting the misogynistic language against the male gaze by combining images of technological futurity, deeply black obscurity, and her own contemporary power (silver ankh necklace, silver lipstick, black fur coat) to replace the monstrous with the magical. Perry's theorization of the feminist artist-as-witch demonstrates that Elliott's craft remodels a stereotype of Black women while allowing for sensuality and play—a primary feature of the video One Minute Man (Dave Meyers, 2001).
Track 3: Satisfaction and the Art of Freakiness in One Minute Man
One Minute Man begins in both snark and decadent extravagance. Greeted by actress Shar Jackson, sporting a flamboyant 1970s-inspired zebra-striped pimp hat, viewers enter the “Get Ur Freak On Hotel,” where rooms are charged by the minute. The name of the hotel continues the authority of “the freak” that “Get Ur Freak On” poses, but via images of literally floating body parts, elevates freakiness, sexual expression, and satisfaction in the domain of Black women's subjectivities. Missy, in green and white livery to match her smoothly moving bellhops in the setting of a grand hotel reminiscent of a Hollywood glamor and opulence of the 1920s, dances from the background to the foreground before she delivers a bold and provocative message.
Missy begins by singing in a smooth R&B voice that contrasts with her more familiar deep staccato rap style. The lyrics start “Boy I'mma make you love me / make you want me . . . and I'mma give you some attention, tonight.” This call opens with a deep and bold seduction in which Missy claims that her sexual favors will produce an intimate response from her man, subverting the mythology of gendered performance in which women are “prone” to falling in love during the sex act. From the very beginning Missy's agency establishes a world of her own design in which her pleasures are prioritized through a series of surreal and uncanny images where she floats and raps in a state of decapitation that encourages us to abandon societal expectations and to welcome this new form of pleasure.
Missy and her cornrowed lover appear in a dimly lit room with East Asian decor. Missy occupies the background while the man watches her from the foreground, keeping her at the center of attention. Missy dances for her lover in an awe-inspiring performance of floating. Suspended by wire in the supernatural style of Hong Kong action films, she is a high-level martial artist engaging proprioceptive strategies that make her large Black body weightless, free to creep and moon-bounce while simultaneously shedding the negative mapping imposed on her body by Western standards. In her analysis of captured images of floating black bodies, Lauren McLeod Cramer illustrates a salient point: “Suspension presents a provocative set of aesthetic possibilities because allowing blackness to float means unmooring it from the histories, policies, and technologies that cohere the notion of blackness, most notably in the realm of representation.”23 Missy's “unmooring” disrupts the expectations of “acceptable” bodies in favor of embracing the Black woman's body without fetishization. Audiences watch with her lover, both infatuated and tantalized by the untethering of her form. Missy's floating showcases sexual freedom made possible through her body, not despite it, regardless of actual contact with the partner that occupies the position of observer-participant, to break the mold of objectification that is imposed on Black sexuality.
This is a reverberative echo back to foremothers and sisters who shared the same capability of describing sexual relationships among Black women of an earlier period. In describing “Ma” Rainey's “Barrel House Blues,” which “celebrates women's desires for alcohol and good times,” Davis asserts, “This signifying blues, in drawing parallels between male and female desire, between their similar inclinations toward intoxication, dance, and sex, launches a brazen challenge to dominant notions of women's subordination.”24 While Elliott is not performing the literal blues music that Davis describes, she is invoking a bygone generational musical inheritance by cracking the “male gaze” of sexual exploitation that was prevalent in hip-hop videos of the late 1990s and early 2000s. Through reverberative memory, Missy curates a new mode of representation that relies on the old teachings of an unapologetic auntie who speaks her sexual satisfaction out loud.
Missy removes her head from her body, an action that allows Missy access to play with herself in a different way (fig. 3). As her untethered head sings “Follow my intuitions, what you wishin’,” her male date in the background, looking supremely confused, continues to follow her guidance in the act of seduction: he does not hesitate to oil his chest as he lays languidly, anticipating being kept up “for a long time” by his seductress. The removal of Elliott's head acts as a visual play on words, in which Missy “gives head,” or performs fellatio, without ever touching the man in the background. The double entendre of the moment allows Elliott to luxuriate in the sensual discourse of foreplay and desire without positioning her as the exploited “giver,” whereby she still holds both power and pleasure within her own body. By constructing this space of surrealism Missy battles the expectations of the female Black body as instantly public, commodified, and consumed. Her refusal of objectification further opens space for ecstasy and agency, in radical opposition of the status quo.
Track 4: The Conjuring MC
Perhaps one of the videos most clearly situated in horror genre aesthetics, Missy Elliott's Work It (Dave Meyers, 2002) borrows from Black horror movie images to queer the politics of desire. The first scene shows a bee-covered Missy, invoking the famed horror classic Candyman (Bernard Rose, 1992), as musical partner Timbaland remixes the song “Request Line” by Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three before dropping the beat.25 The first seduction starts with Missy's ability to inhabit or possess the beat. In the first scene where she appears, viewers see Missy scratching a record covered in bees, alluding to Candyman, the malicious spectral protagonist who haunts the Chicago hood of Cabrini Green after being lynched in the early twentieth century. Elliott inserts herself into the Candyman form, with eyes supernaturally jet black, to allude to the fact that she possesses the music while she is simultaneously inhabited by something that gives her supernatural abilities to strike fear in the hearts of other MCs, thus making her flows unparalleled (fig. 4). Immediately following the next scene, Missy is pulled across a desiccated playground. However, she is not distressed; this supernatural force exists within or beyond her—perhaps both. Reverberative memory is at work here in the ability to infuse the song and video with the early beginnings of hip-hop sound, Kangol hats, and break dancing. Timbaland and Missy sample older hip-hop to reinvigorate a new generation, working with the visual performances of young girl dancers throughout the video.
From there, Missy becomes the arbiter of spellcasting, even reflected in the lyrics in which she reverses “I put my thing down, flip it, and reverse it” to play on the superstitious beliefs that demonic messages in popular music could be heard only when the records were played backward. The song follows Missy's sexiness and her ability to bewitch a man, when she tricks an unsuspecting date into believing that she is Halle Berry. Instead of playing into the dynamics of acceptable beauty standards, Missy's use of the strange and the uncanny demonstrates that she is powerful enough to transform into any form that she chooses to bewitch the senses by assuming and then discarding attributes that are arbitrarily assigned value.
In one scene, Missy seems to bring eras together in a Black beauty salon where stylists don magnificent afros while styling their straight-haired clients (fig. 5). She dances across the scene counter to the perfect unity of the stylist with her own 1980s hip-hop attire, calling into being a networked consciousness of sisters who are equally participating in the same conjure work. Here, she invokes a reparative reverberative memory of depictions of the funk era spliced with weaves and braids of the contemporary moment that generate her connection to recurring sites of Black womanhood across eras.26 By conjuring a hopping back and forth between nostalgic moments, Missy's use of time operates therapeutically, whereby Black women's sexual desires, communal gathering, and ability to feel joy through their bodies’ movements are allowed the freedom they deserve. She speaks in spells, boldly putting her pleasure into incantations that are informed by a genealogy of blues conjure women, or what, in their discussion of Lemonade by Beyoncé (2016), a fellow inheritor of the blues legacy, Kinitra Brooks and Kameelah Martin in conversation with Angela Davis explain, “Blues ideals focused on the corporeal, acknowledging the importance of the needs of the flesh, the need to dance, to make love, to drink, and to feel.”27 Missy becomes an inheritor of this blues/conjure legacy, which she makes both apparent and visible in the realm of the speculative.
Elliott's ability to cite, extend, and challenge the work of Black women who have come before her has been the hallmark of her artistry. In that artistry, reverberative memory suspends inky B/witchiness so that the signs and effects of her work perform a kind of “metrics from below”: that is, a rubric for understanding the complex statements and undercurrents that come along with the revolutionary and resistive praxis of Black feminist thought. In her work, then, speculative tropes continue to offer Black women the ability to reimagine and conjure the spirits of ancestral logics to deal with the circumstances of their reality both past and present. Elliott's work, in turn, speaks of the life lived beyond the hypercommercialism of fame, so it lends itself to reading for those senses of Black life explored by Nyong'o in terms of “dark vitalism” and by Quashie, as mentioned earlier, in terms of “Black aliveness.” In this tense and dark aliveness, the fullness of Black life is complexly indescribable, teeming below the surface, frustratingly out of reach of static representation, receptive to, and projective of, reverberative memory. Reading Elliott's work as comprising underexplored critical interventions, we grasp the potential for complexity and beauty echoing through her hauntingly prophetic lyrics straddling the lines of life, death, and rebirth: “There will be more of us to come.”28
The notion of speculation I use throughout the essay considers two approaches: the estranging practices of imagination in speculative fiction genres/aesthetics and Saidiya Hartman's critical fabulation first appearing in the essay “Venus in Two Acts” that uses pieces of historical account to document the erasures of lived experiences of enslaved Black folk. Hartman, “Venus in Two Acts,” 4.
Jamila Wignot, dir., Ailey (2021).
McLeod, “Hip Hop Holograms,” 119. Ken McLeod's analysis of hip-hop identifies it as continuously haunted, and as a new way of thinking about how haunting can be used. McLeod draws on the Derridean concept of hauntology: “Hauntology in music is often tied to notions of retrofuturism or technonostalgia whereby artists evoke the past typically by employing the spectral sounds of old music technologies” (119).
Afro-horror, also known as Black horror, utilizes contemporary horror tropes infused with concerns from the African Diaspora around anti-black racism, trauma, and triumph. This term is as much critical as descriptive of the genre or metagenre and includes, but is not limited to, theorizations from scholars like Robin R. Means Coleman, Kinitra Brooks, and Maisha Wester. See Coleman, Horror Noire; Wester, African American Gothic. Please also see Cooksey and Thomas, “Afro-Gothic,” a special issue of liquid blackness: journal of aesthetics of black studies.
Jayna Brown's description of the history of the burlesque dancer: “Light-skinned, limber legged, and boisterous Black women on the burlesque stage carried with them the history of the fancy girl trade and practice of placage centered in New Orleans and extending across the Caribbean. . . . The fancy girl auction block was an exhibition in which the black female body was rendered as commercial territory” (Brown, Babylon Girls, 106).
This theorization of thinking beyond the Western constructions of woman is of course indebted to Hortense Spillers's “Mama's Baby, Papa's Maybe.”
Imani Perry writes about “witch artists” in thinking about the way that women refigure themselves in art and society as a praxis of liberation (Perry, Vexy Thing, 173).
Rock Master Scott and the Dynamic Three, “Request Line,” A-side of The Roof Is on Fire (Profile Records, 1984).
As Badia Ahad-Legardy puts it, “Afro-nostalgia satisfies reparative desires, providing an opening in which to contend with the past as a matter of reckoning, regeneration, and reclamation” (Ahad-Legardy, Afro-Nostalgia, 21).
Elliot, “Babygirl Interlude/Intro.”