Fem the Future: How Janelle Monáe perfected the protest album of 2018 by CaitlinWritten by Caitlin Logan
Box office numbers, and they doin’ outstandin’
Runnin’ outta space in my damn bandwagon.
⁃ Django Jane, Janelle Monáe
As someone who wasn’t even aware of Janelle Monáe till Hidden Figures and Moonlight, and whose first introduction to her music came with the single release of Make Me Feel earlier this year, it’s fair to say I’m one of the late bandwagon jumpers. But what I lack in experience as a Fandroid (the official title for Monáe-lovers), I make up for in enthusiasm, and I’m here to spread the word to anyone who hasn’t yet caught on: we have a musical genius in our midst.
Not only that, but a woman who is using her art to send a strong political message that responds directly to the anti-woman, anti-Black, anti-gay, anti-migrant, anti-Other sentiment that defines the Age of Trump in America and beyond.
Yes, the protest album for 2018 has arrived and, fittingly, it’s full of tunes that make you want to dance in the sunlight, moonlight, club lights… Dirty Computer is a unique blend of pop, hip hop, funk, soul, rock – you name the genre, it’s in there, and it’s catchy as hell. For the first time in a long while, I’ve found myself listening to the same album on repeat, and dancing round the living room while I’m at it.
The album is accompanied by a 48 minute “Emotion Picture” featuring 8 of the album’s 14 tracks plus additional scenes, depicting a story of queer, forbidden love in a dystopian future where people who “look different”, or who “refuse to live the way they dictate”, or who “show any form of opposition at all”, are classed as “dirty computers” and are forced to have their memories erased, one by one. The message couldn’t be more relevant, and it’s delivered beautifully.
Dirty Computer is Janelle Monáe’s third studio album, and after months of anticipation through the release of singles Make Me Feel, Django Jane, Pynk and I Like That, it dropped on Friday 27 April. The day before, Monáe publicly stated for the first time that she identifies as bisexual or pansexual in a Rolling Stone interview. “Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women — I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker,” she said.
This followed from mounting speculation around her sexual orientation and the nature of her relationship with Westworld and Thor Ragnarok actor Tessa Thompson, who appears throughout the Dirty Computer videos and Emotion Picture as her love interest, Zen. All things considered, Monáe need hardly have “come out”, given how clearly her lyrics and videos spell it out.
Even before Dirty Computer, Monáe hinted at the topic in songs such as Q.U.E.E.N (originally entitled Q.U.E.E.R) on her second album Electric Lady, in which she asks: “Hey sister, am I good enough for your heaven?/ Say, will your God accept me in my black and white?/ Will he approve the way I’m made?/ Or should I reprogram the programming and get down?”
When the Make Me Feel video was released in February, fans went wild to see Monáe obviously singing both to Tessa Thompson and to a man when she says: “Baby, don’t make me spell it out for you/ All of the feelings that I’ve got for you.”
And when Pynk was released last month with a video teeming with vaginal imagery, Monáe let go of any remaining subtlety. “Pink like the lips around your, maybe/ Pink like the skin that’s under, baby/ Pink where it’s deepest inside, crazy/ Pink beyond forest and thighs,” she sings.
In an extended version of the song in the Emotion Picture, Monáe sings directly to Tessa Thompson’s character: “I don’t wanna hide my love/ I just wanna hold your hand and be the one that you think of / When you need a holiday, when you wanna drink rosé / I just wanna paint your toes and in the morning kiss your nose.”
The defiant queerness of Dirty Computer and the accompanying film is a powerful step for Monáe, who has spoken recently of how the android persona of Cindi Mayweather, which she adopted for her first two albums, served to protect her from a vulnerability and truthfulness which she has now fully embraced.
For many people, including those like Monáe who have struggled to come out publicly due the attitudes of their family or others around them, Dirty Computer’s insistence that queer relationships and desire be proudly represented and accepted is politically powerful in itself.
However, the album does not shy away from addressing its specific political moment. The first track to appear in the Emotion Picture is Crazy, Classic Life, which opens with a (notably more feminist) paraphrasing of the Declaration of Independence: “You told us we hold these truths to be self-evident/ That all men and women are created equal/ That they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights/ Among these: life, liberty, and the, and the pursuit of happiness.”
In this song, Monáe insists: “We don’t need another ruler/ We don’t need another fool/ I am not America’s nightmare/ I am the American dream.” It’s impossible not to read this as a comment on Trump’s presidency and its vilification of minorities.
Later, in Screwed, featuring Zoe Kravitz, Monáe sings: “you fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down” – sort of a hedonistic, nihilistic response to the world’s problems, before concluding with explicit political commentary, rapping: “The devil met with Russia and they just made a deal/ We was marching through the street, they were blocking every bill/ I’m tired of hoteps tryna tell me how to feel.”
In fact, Monáe explains on her website that the song was inspired by “the dismal morning of November 9 2016” and by a comment made by Gloria Steinam decades earlier after Shirley Chisolm’s unsuccessful presidential bid, where Steinman spoke of being tired of women not being taken seriously and said: “I’m just tired of being screwed, and being screwed by my friends.”
Seriously, how many mainstream musicians do you know whose work purposefully directs people to learn about political history and the words of feminist activists? Of course, this shouldn’t come as a surprise given that Monáe set up her own feminist organisation, Fem the Future, in 2016 to help women music executives, filmmakers and engineers – referenced in the lyrics to Django Jane .
The one full rap track on the album, Django Jane steps up the feminist vibes with lyrics such as: “And hit the mute button/ Let the vagina have a monologue/ Mansplaining, I fold em like origami/ What’s a wave, baby? This a tsunami.”
And through a series of so-fast-you-might-miss-them references to recent mainstream successes for black culture (Moonlight, How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, Viola Davis), she quips that there will probably soon be an “Emmy dedicated to the highly melanated”, meanwhile “they been trying hard just to make us all vanish”.
The deep contradictions facing American society today are further laid bare in the final song of the album, Americans, when Monáe fires off with a series of juxtapositions: “Die in church, live in jail/ Say her name, twice in hell/ Uncle Sam kissed a man/ Jim Crow Jesus rose again.”
Addressing racism head on, Monáe sings: “You see my color before my vision/ Sometimes I wonder if you were blind/ Would it help you make a better decision?”, before returning to the album’s unrelenting tone of defiant optimism with the chorus: “Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land/ I’m not crazy, baby, nah/ I’m American.”
It’s an amazing feat that Monáe manages to tackle so many issues without every losing a shred of artistry, nuance, or even fun. But don’t let the laid back vibes of Dirty Computer trick you into believing this is not a serious album, worthy of serious credit.
I don’t know about anyone else, but Janelle Monáe is just the queer feminist music icon I’ve been waiting for, and the time could not be more ripe for such a powerful, uncensored, intelligent voice in American culture.
Long live the protest song, and long live the live the Q.U.E.E.N, Janelle Monáe!
Caitlin Logan is our Volunteer Blog Editor. She is a journalist at Scottish news website CommonSpace and is particularly passionate about equalities and human rights. She likes writing (clearly), reading (a lot of young adult books), TV series binges (it’s a hobby when you’re this obsessed), seeing everything at the cinema that time will allow, and playing board and card games (because they are the future and you’re definitely missing out). Find her on Twitter @_CaitLogan.