Meet Missy Elliott’s Protégée, Sharaya J

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After Missy Elliott’s surprise BET Awards performance with Pharrell Williams Sunday night, and last week’s release of Faith Evans’ new track, “I Deserve It,” on which Elliott spits an old-school style verse, the music world has been abuzz with news of her long-awaited comeback. During nine long years out of the spotlight, Elliott’s kept herself busy collaborating with younger artists like Katy Perry, Jazmine Sullivan, Little Mix, and K-pop star G-Dragon. But her most exciting project by far is priming her protégée, Sharaya J, who also appears on the Faith Evans track, to enter through the breakdancing, mold-busting doors that Elliott and her peers pried open.

Sharaya J is a Hawaiian-born, New Jersey-raised rapper, dancer, and choreographer who shares Elliott’s passion for baggy pants and wild lipstick. She was a dancer before giving any thought to becoming an artist in her own right, appearing in Alicia Keys’ video for “Teenage Love Affair” and The-Dream’s “Shawty Is a Ten,” and dancing on the big screen in Step Up 2 The Streets and Step Up 3D. But as the legend goes, when Missy Elliott met Sharaya, she noticed a “star quality” in the young choreographer and offered to groom her into an artist, with a warning that the process wouldn’t happen overnight. With her turquoise hair and loud outfits, Sharaya has an urban-android look that places her amidst the likes of 2010 Nicki Minaj, Janelle Monae, Amber Rose, and FKA twigs, yet her musical style is distinctly Elliott-influenced.

But it wasn’t just music that brought Elliott and Sharaya together. Their opinions on authenticity, feminism, hard work, and the music industry are freakishly similar, whether because Sharaya’s absorbed her mentor’s values or because the two talented women were destined to intersect. They’ve each discussed the importance of pouring your all into one song or album, ignoring the pressure to constantly release new music, and instead allowing the work ample time to permeate into the culture.

“[The album cycle] didn’t use to be [so fast],” Missy told Fuse in February. “It used to be that your album was such a classic that it could go on for two years, and then you drop another joint… Your brain needs time to refresh!”

Much Sharaya’s intrigue stems from this slow process, which she probably learned from Elliott. She’s making us wait, and she seems to actually care about quality in an age of instantly downloadable singles. “I want to be able to grow gradually and make sure it’s authentic to the people,” she told Vibe Vixen. Echoing her mentor, she continued: “I’m not one of those artists that wants to put out 17 records every 2 days… Back in the day we knew all the words to songs… Now a lot of the times it’s in one ear and out the other, and that’s why these songs aren’t becoming classics.”

In this spirit, Sharaya J only has a few tracks available, though she’s been working with Elliott since 2010. Her first is “BANJI,” an acronym that stands for “Be Authentic, Never Jeopardize Individuality.”

Sharaya explained the message of BANJI, which has become a central tenet of the Sharaya J brand, to Vibe Vixen:

I had a meeting with some execs and they asked me to spit 8 bars but instead I decided to perform. I called my girls to do it full out and we gave a whole performance, the next day they called and said, “we want to sign you but the only thing we need you to do is get a weave, wear less clothes, rock pumps, and that would be perfect.” I can do all those things but I want the option to dress how I want to dress. I want to be appreciated for my talent first, if you think I’m cute, that’s good. So I turned down the deal, I rather take down the chance of not getting a deal and make this work than change who I am and go against the grain of everything I stood for.

Sharaya’s focus on individuality reads like a page out of Elliott’s book as well. Elliott emerged in the wake of artists like TLC and Lil Kim, who performed in midriff-bearing tops and skimpy ’90s outfits. Instead of succumbing to industry standards, she stuck to her tracksuits, innovative dance moves, and confident rhymes, and became the only artist in recent memory who could make a handful of pubes feel like a standalone character in a music video.

Elliott has taken Sharaya under her wing not only as a fellow female artist, but more importantly as a dancer — which Elliott believes can be a thankless job. When Sharaya performed “BANJI” at Carnival with a stage full of hip hop dancers — including a Missy mainstay, a precocious dancing child — Elliott emerged from backstage mid-song (around 3:30 in the video below) to “show y’all that Missy’s been reppin’ dancers for years.” She continued, “I’m one artist that appreciates dancers… y’all are a big important part of artists’ shows, and y’all don’t get enough credit that y’all should. So I wanna thank y’all personally.”

Though she’s still in the early stages of making a name for herself as a performer, Sharaya already has another high-profile fan aside from Elliott: fashion designer Alexander Wang. Sharaya and her second single, “Smash Up the Place,” appeared in a June 2014 promotional video for T by Alexander Wang, where she starred alongside Chris Kattan, reprising his Mango character from Saturday Night Live (skip to 5:32 for Sharaya’s first appearance, and 7:16 for the song). Her confident, full-voiced delivery and the song’s stomping beat show a clear path of evolution from classic Missy Elliott to Sharaya’s own style, filling a hole in the music industry that’s been empty for nine long years.

As we await more of Sharaya’s energetic dancing and rapping, and anticipate the fruits of Missy’s own comeback, we’ll leave you with the official “Smash Up the Place” video, which Elliott both produced and directed.