Power Up: Janelle Monáe, Afrofuturism, and Plurality

Janelle Monáe
The Electric Lady

“Do I contradict myself?

Very well then I contradict myself,

(I am large, I contain multitudes.)”

— Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself”

Suite I: Revelation

At the Grammys in 2011, Janelle Monáe rises from beneath the stage. Her back is to the audience and draped in a James Brown cape to match her pompadour. A quick camera shot captures a certain look on her face—jittery, determined, a this-is-happening-now-you-better-get-ready pep talk of a stare—as the anthemic keyboard intro of “Cold War” plays out. Under her breath she counts off. The song launches: “So you think I’m alone?”

I’ve listened to all of The ArchAndroid and replayed the videos for “Tightrope” and “Cold War” over and over, but after only a few seconds, this performance is a revelation on multiple levels. One of them answers a simple question: Great album, killer songs, fascinating concept, but can she pull it off live?

By Monáe’s standards, the first verse and chorus are shaky; she’s just barely flat, reaching for the song as it races ahead of her. Monáe slips the cape, grabs the second verse and chorus, and finds her footing. But it’s not until she wrenches out “cold” in the last line of the chorus that she lifts off: the sound unfurls into one, two, three different vowels, unguided and free. No matter where it goes, her voice is right.

It’s a stunning, colossal performance, the kind of thing rarely seen on the Grammys. But maybe we can only see such a thing on the Grammys, where the scale and planning are so massive that any breach of those limitations feels like a jailbreak, even if it lasts only two minutes and 40 seconds.

Janelle Monáe Cold War Performance 53rd Grammy… by PopulerMuziginRenkleri

Suite II: The Mothership Connection

Is anyone in pop music right now more compelling than Janelle Monáe?

At once playful yet deadly serious, near-delirious yet acute—so often she’s looking at you with alert, knowing eyes—Monáe backs up her concepts with talent. Too many pop artists lack both, but you’re more likely to see talent wasted on having nothing much to say. Not Monáe, who speaks urgently about things that matter to her and that she thinks should matter to you.

That’s as much a risk as it is a dare in the American Wow of pop culture, inviting all sorts of nasty comments, or worse, neglect. Monáe’s audience can’t match Katy Perry’s or Justin Bieber’s in the pre-adolescent fixation of American pop, and maybe it never will, but once you hear her, I don’t know how you can turn away. While most pop singers bounce from one marketable persona to another, Monáe stands her ground in this Afrofuturist vision she’s been creating for about a decade. Other pop artists are tourists; she’s building a city.

Before I first heard Monáe’s songs in 2010, I thought had no idea what Afrofuturism was—but then I realized, I did. Sun Ra. Parliament-Funkadelic. Patti Labelle’s garish late ’70s costumes (half-remembered on my part). The one Octavia Butler novel I tried to read in high school, which was too smart for me, too daunting, so I turned to The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The predominance of black cyborgs in comics. Even, at times, Prince.

As a recent article in Ebony lays out succinctly, Afrofuturism is an aesthetic house with many rooms. A perspective conceived within the African-American community in the 20th century, and a term coined by cultural critic Mark Dery in his crucial essay “Black to the Future” from his 1994 book Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture, Afrofuturism combines African cultural roots with science-fiction in order to redefine black identity in the present. On one level it claims artistic possibility for those who have traditionally been excluded from speculative genres in various mediums, from fiction to pop music to comics and film.

On a deeper level, Afrofuturism empowers by widening the lens of identity, drawing sharp distinctions between perception and reality. In “Forms of Future/Past: Afrofuturism and the Visual Technologies of Resistance”, the introduction to an upcoming anthology on the aesthetic, John Jennings writes that:

…Afrofuturism is a lens that renders reality via a pantechnological perspective. It views everything as a type of technology. Afrofuturism embraces the artifice and fully exploits the fact that all things that we think define us are merely constructions that function as prosthetics that produce various effects relating to their users’ needs. Throughout history, Black people, particularly oppressed Black people, have instantly noticed the affordances of various types of technology while under various forms of control. The most important affordances of these liberation technologies have always been freedom, equity, and agency.

Jennings is both an artist and a professor of visual arts at SUNY Buffalo, and his ongoing work with Stacey Robinson, entitled Black Kirby, speaks to the theories at work in Afrofuturism. Black Kirby exhibits the duo’s illustrative reappropriation of comics legend Jack Kirby’s instantly recognizable artwork and characters, and according to its mission statement, “remix[es] his style, forms and ideas to explore themes like Afro-futurism, social justice, representation, and magical realism.” The drawings are appropriately, cosmically grand. There’s no missing the point of seeing Magneto’s helmet on Malcolm X or the awesome power of a Black Galactus.

Afrofuturism wrestles with and reshapes the ways that power is produced and maintained. The exclusion of black people from the vast majority of science-fiction literature, television, and film in the twentieth-century may not have been intentional, but it was never purely accidental, and the resulting message was that unless you were white, you had no significant place or role in these visions of the future.

Maybe that’s why so much of the pioneering work of Afrofuturism emerged from popular music, in Sun Ra’s cosmic jazz and P-Funk’s interstellar funk, drawing on African-American traditions to question the legitimacy of the power structures of other art forms and musical genres. In an essay from 2010 at The Quietus, John Calvert traces Afrofuturism’s musical stops from Hendrix to Kraftwerk-inspired Detroit techno before examining Monáe’s The ArchAndroid: “Monáe’s appropriation of the historically ‘non-black’ genres of rock, electronica, MGM musical orchestration, cabaret and folk music allows her to transcend ideological borders…”. Music is but a technology, a tool. It can be used to implicitly or explicitly create walls or break them down.

Suite III: Prosthetics in a Cold War

If the “artifice” Jennings describes includes the plastic surface of pop music, then we might remember that plastic is easily malleable. It just takes a little heat. What we make of it is up to us. The artifice can itself become a “liberating technology”, a new and empowering language.

Likewise, when he writes that “…all things that we think define us are merely constructions that function as prosthetics that produce various effects relating to their users’ needs”, it’s hard not to think of Janelle Monáe’s android persona, Cindi Mayweather, who is literally a mechanical construction composed for the usefulness of others. In a culture hellbent on what Paul Virilio has described as “deterrence”, a kind of permanent cold-war terror of the unknown, simply being aware of the artificiality of those constructions is the first step toward self-empowerment and engagement.

That’s what’s happening in “Cold War” and, most evidently, the song’s single-take video, in which Monáe is in close-up the entire time. Time code speeds along in the lower right-hand corner, emphasizing both the constructedness of the art and its unmediated genuineness. We’re watching what promises to be an unedited first take, and it is. For the first minute-and-a-half, Monáe lip-syncs as Mayweather, gracefully robotic, her head panning from one side to the other. Then she arrives at the line “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me,” and she breaks.

First, she laughs; she’s on camera and knows it, and she says something to someone off-camera. But this is really the nervous, self-conscious reaction before the cry she can’t hold back. Monáe tries to continue lip-syncing, bows her head and pinches her fingers over her nose, tries to wave away the emotion, and eventually gets back on track. A tear slips down her cheek.

In another video, on another face, this would seem maudlin, but because the camera has focused on her face the entire time, and because that face is so dignified and stern—this is a warning, not a seduction, or plea; some quality is held in reserve, protected—it’s a powerful, genuine moment.

As Mayweather, the “something wrong” is clearly her supposedly inauthentic status as an android. As herself, Monáe might be confronting similar charges of inauthenticity and unworthiness aimed at her or others. I don’t know, and can’t know for sure. But what I see if a confrontation with and victory over decades upon decades of systematic, institutionalized white supremacy, intentional or not. Unfortunately we can imagine so many racist and sexist ways in which a young black American woman might be told something’s wrong with her, and it’s not difficult to imagine that in terms of racism’s grip on popular consciousness, that we continue to live in a cold war.

“All things that we think define us are merely constructions that function as prosthetics that produce various effects relating to their users’ needs”—the “us” in that sentence here most clearly applies to black Americans whose bodies, like Mayweather’s, were for centuries viewed as cultural products. But we’re all androids, one way or another. Some have been more prostheticized than others, yes, but we’re all affected by definitions which suit someone else. When we’re awake and self-aware, we realize we have the power to rebuild ourselves as we please, exchanging one prosthetic for another, or the power to reconceive those prosthetics and use them for our own ends.

One way is through art, maybe even pop music.

Suite IV: Liberation Stories

While Afrofuturism resists the modernist urge to mourn a lost, natural past, it also resists postmodernism’s taste for empty pastiche, a mere reflection or, at best, loose assemblage of just so many pop culture fragments. Unity of self, the knowable self, is still possible, but there is no getting back to the glorious past—which, by the way, wasn’t so glorious for a great many people.

The importance of narrative, and specifically Monáe’s telling of an epic story, is that by its very nature, story leans forward, propulsive and, to use John Gardner’s term, profluent. Drawing from history, it writes history, too.

Monáe began crafting her epic in 2003 with a self-released EP titled The Audition, and followed through with the Metropolis (Chase Suite) EP in 2007. Both establish the ongoing narrative of Monáe’s alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, a top-of-the-line android who faces shutdown for falling in love with a human. A short “emotion picture” for Metropolis’ “Many Moons” captures the concept succinctly: Cindi performs her kinetic blend of neo-soul-funk-punk while her sister androids parade down a fashionista runway, sold to the highest bidder. The parallels between this dystopian auction and America’s history of slavery would be more chilling if Metropolis didn’t resemble American Idol. Maybe that’s more chilling than I’m giving it credit for.

Monáe’s breakthrough album The ArchAndroid (defined by the artist as a treatise on “self-realization”) furthered the story with suites two and three. Here, Mayweather is becoming self-aware of her power and messianic role and, it seems, more concerned with the collective good for an oppressed people: other androids. In this regard, “Tightrope” and its video are important, and not just because they’re both fun as hell and fascinating. The song’s lyrics are a familiar me-against-the-haters declaration—in the context of ArchAndroid, this has greater than normal significance—but the video is a party. The dancers’ choreography and dress are loose enough to maintain their individuality.

The only woman in the group besides Monáe even looks hesitant, taking her cues from Monáe briefly; when she joins the others in the foot-glide, her face lights up with a smile of accomplishment, like she’s just now gotten the dance right. It’s a beautifully humane moment. Monáe is front and center most of the time, but rolls in and out of frame, and her face is never shown in extreme close-up until nearly three minutes into the video. The burden is on Cindi, but it’s clear she’s a leader.

This fall’s The Electric Lady builds on the star maps of Monáe’s previous recordings, from the opening James Bond-esque strains of “Suite IV Electric Overture” to the gospel-with-a-martial-backbone “Victory”, wherein synths pop and a fuzzed-out guitar emerges from the background. Monáe has said that The Electric Lady is about “self-actualization”, and that’s not only applicable to Cindi.

Yes, she’s become the leader from the underground, moving through the shadows and the airwaves, her subversive pop on the verge of inciting a revolution. But from the spoken-word “radio call-in” segments, it appears the androids have formed an underground resistance around her. In one segment, DJ Crash Crash warns against violence, pleading that only love and dancing are the ways to revolution.

Whereas The ArchAndroid‘s take on love centered on the forbidden relationship between Cindi Mayweather and “Mr. Greendown”, The Electric Lady includes fellow androids and those who paved the way. “Ghetto Woman” reclaims the pejorative, detailing the hard work of poor and disadvantaged mothers whose low-wage labor has helped women like Monáe and her alter-ego do better. It’s an example of appropriation, since in this world, Cindi technically has no mother. Yet she can claim one, or many, including women like Dorothy Dandridge and, in an incredible prog-soul meditation, “Sally Ride”.

Most critics have noted Monáe’s ability to jump from and fuse together so many musical genres, which is astonishingly convincing in its own right, but that ability, as Calvert argued about The ArchAndroid, serves a progressive ideology. By incorporating whatever genre suits her, Monáe critiques the inherent limitations of genre- and authenticity-fixation, wherein only certain communities are “allowed” to work in certain styles and judged accordingly. Traditionally the power balance in this discourse has favored whites, and so the Euro-pop and even prog-rock leanings of some of Monáe’s songs unbalance that power. Rip it apart, frankly. But she carries this even further by so fluently blending all of these genres, not merely presenting them song to song. This is her city; she’s created her own tourism bureau.

This cohesion-through-variety is the “multitudes” Whitman spoke of, and in Monáe’s hands and voice, a response to W.E.B. Du Bois’ critical notion of “double-consciousness”, wherein the African-American is constantly aware of self and the self as seen by whites. In 1903 Du Bois wrote that “One ever feels his two-ness,—an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body…”. In Monáe’s version, the self becomes so grand, so multiple, that double-consciousness recedes and unity asserts itself. The soul has always been that complicated yet whole, she argues, we just have to see that potential in ourselves and others.

Monáe’s narrative aids in the unification-through-multiplicity project. In literary terms, The Electric Lady takes a third-person omniscient stance, jumping from Cindi’s narrative to what’s happening in Metropolis. “Our Favorite Fugitive (Interlude)” even gives voice to android liberation detractors. (Does it matter that they all sound white? Or am I alone in hearing that?) It’s not an uncommon tactic; the “radio call-in” segment has appeared on numerous hip-hop and R&B records. On Fear of Black Planet, for example, Public Enemy included an actual call-in show in which Chuck D and the show’s host listened to widely disparate opinions, subtly letting the racist ones condemn themselves. It’s a reminder that identity is also a house of many rooms, and that at least one of those rooms is public-access.

Ultimately this narrative approach allows for more diverse identities to appear, a plurality rather than a hegemony. The narrative creates a landscape and we each find a place of our choosing. Be it through Afrofuturism or another aesthetic, “liberation technologies” free the individual to be more than a narrowly-defined self and a community to be more than what the pop market dictates. They, you, me—we have always been more.

Pop music often makes us smaller, less—but in Janelle Monáe’s vision, “popular” again means more.