Photos: Sachyn Mital

Breaking Binary: Redefined Janelle Monáe Is Afropunk Immortal

Afropunk Festival continues to represent more than just music. Way more. And the photos here prove it.

Janelle Monáe

It’s always exciting to see one of your favorite artists reinvent themselves. Over the past couple of years, Janelle Monáe has moved beyond music, garnering acclaim as an actress (in such films as Moonlight and Hidden Figures) and demonstrating her activism at the Women’s March, including releasing a new protest anthem “Hell You Talmbout” (David Byrne closes his ‘American Utopia’ tour shows with this).

But in 2018, she’s freed herself from a self-imposed straight jacket. In the press buildup for her latest album Dirty Computer, Monáe confirmed rumors that she was queer. And for the supporting tour, she reinvented her show — ditching an actual straight jacket and a monochrome style for a more powerful presentation with color, backup dancers, squirt guns and more.

It is one of the best shows I’ve seen all year. I had caught Monáe at the Theater at Madison Square Garden and again, a few weeks later, at Afropunk Festival. (I hope to see her once more at Global Citizen Festival.) And it wasn’t just me looking forward to Monáe to begin, celebrities like Chris Rock charted a course to a VIP viewing area to watch her set as well. Her Sunday set was part of a day, for whatever reason, that had a lineup dominated by females (compared to the Saturday). Erykah Badu was the headliner.

And speaking of Saturday, while I only spent a couple of hours at Commodore Barry Park that day, the main stage was way behind schedule, so I mostly wandered around taking pictures of people. Attendees are a draw in their own right. The annual festival is always great to attend and has long been a safe space for all people. Afropunk defines itself as a “culture by the collective creative actions of the individual and the group. It is a safe place, a blank space to freak out in, to construct a new reality, to live your life as you see fit while making sense of the world around you.” That means hearing amazing music of all genres surrounded by people super-fashionably dressed in African or futuristic inspired attire. And artists like Badu and Monáe are strong representations of Afropunk. I wonder how explosive it could have been for Monáe to reveal her pansexuality at Afropunk instead of in the press given the festival’s ethos and her history as a previous performer there.

Artists I saw include Troi Irons, who releases Antihero a new full-length album this month. She performed a few songs as part of another act’s set early in the day but hung around to meet with media later. Mahalia Burkmar, an English songwriter, was another notable rising talent as she’s released a new EP Seasons this year. And then there was a great set from Fantastic Negrito, who I caught at Newport Folk and had released a new album Please Don’t Be Dead this past June.

Monáe returns to New York for two shows in September, a spot at the annual Global Citizen Festival and a show for Bustle Rule Breakers. Check out some photos of the fashionable people and some of the performers, like Jamila Woods, Nova Twins and more, below.






Janelle Monáe (with introduction)