Janelle Monáe Is The 21st Century's Time Traveler
It's not enough to make list after list. The Turning the Tables project seeks to suggest alternatives to the traditional popular music canon, and to do more than that, too: to stimulate conversation about how hierarchies emerge and endure. This year, Turning the Tables considers how women and non-binary artists are shaping music in our moment, from the pop mainstream to the sinecures of jazz and contemporary classical music. Our list of the 200 Greatest Songs By Women+ offers a soundtrack to a new century. This series of essays takes on another task.
The 25 arguments writers make in these pieces challenge the usual definitions of influence. Some rethink the building legacies of popular artists; others celebrate those who create within subcultures, their innovations rippling outward over time. As always, women forge new pathways in sound; today, they also make waves under the surface of culture by confronting, in their music, the increased fluidity of "woman" itself. What is a woman? It's a timeless question on the surface, but one deeply engaged with whatever historical moment in which it is asked. Our 25 Most Influential Women Musicians of the 21st Century illuminate its complexities. —Ann Powers
Janelle Monáe is many people in alternate timelines at once. She's an archivist of right now, interpreter of back then, dreamer of one day. She imagines black people into the future in the midst of past and present threats of erasure. And after two studio EPs and three albums, the full scope of her work illuminates how the past, present and future might exist simultaneously. Who we were, who we are and who we'd like to be swirl and layer until timelines merge.
She's Cindi Mayweather, an android on the run from an oppressive government dressed in black and white. She's Jane, a human who holds onto her memories even as powers-that-be aim to systematically erase them. She's a singer and actress; a queer, black woman who grew up in Kansas, City, Kan. to working class parents; an Atlanta transplant who sold her CDs and sang on Atlanta University Center library steps before signing with Bad Boy in 2008.
Monáe's first self-released demo album The Audition (2003) was situated in both the present and the future. "Lettin' Go," a song about getting fired from Office Depot, appears on the same project as "Metropolis," a four minute primer for the Afrofuturist world that Cindi Mayweather would love and live in. The universe she accelerated herself into was centuries away from the right now.
Monáe received the first of several Grammy nominations for "Many Moons," a song from her 2007 release Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). In Metropolis, androids are "the Other" in a dystopian reality set in 2719. The story of Metropolis revolves around Cindi Mayweather – just one of the characters Monáe would perform as, onstage and off, for much of her career.
These characters allow Monáe to sometimes speak in symbol and shadow. Timelines blur then sharpen, and visions of the future collide with present realities. "Left the city, my mama she said 'Don't come back home / These kids round' killin' each other, they lost they minds, they gone,'" she sings in Metropolis' "Sincerely, Jane." Even when Monáe sings in character, the sense of something immediately true to her own life bobs into and outside of these voices.
"[The inspiration for 'Sincerely Jane'] was a letter from my mother, and she was basically warning me of all the things that were going on in Kansas," Monáe said to Public Radio International in 2009. "And it was just her plea to tell me to stay where I was and run to the future because my present was not a safe place for us to be."
The idea of envisioning a reality uncoupled from the structures that tie us to a threatening present is the power and affirmation of imagining black futures. Ytasha Womack, author of Afrofuturism: The World of Black Sci-Fi and Fantasy Culture describes Afrofuturism as "an intersection of black cultures as well as imagination, technology, mysticism, and liberation." For Womack, "the value in exploring these ideas is the very real understanding that it liberates us."
Monáe's cinematic 2010 album The ArchAndroid finds Cindi Mayweather in Metropolis' far-future, still trying to get free. "Running fast through time like Tubman and John Henry," Mayweather navigates "Neon Valley Streets," to illegally be with the human she's fallen in love with, Anthony Greendown. Although their robot-human relationship is centuries away from now, Monáe connects it to medieval symbols of love and courting: men on horses and women locked away in towers.
Inherent to all forward-looking work, from music to tech to organizing for social change, is what Dr. Moya Bailey, author of Vampires and Cyborgs and professor of Women's, Gender and Sexuality studies, calls "radical imagination." A term dependent on the work of late activist Grace Lee Boggs, it asks us to create and interrogate images of the world that we want so that they might propel us into the future. Afrofuturism re-affirms that the imagination is a necessary tool for dismantling old structures.
"When I think about our radical imaginations, I want us to get out of our current ideas of how the world works," Bailey says. "So, even in our most radical futures, with the exception of Octavia Butler, there's a lot of assumed monogamy, a lot of assumed heteronormativity, we're still in a capitalist system, etc. There ends up being a replication of a lot of the hierarchies that we have now."
In Monáe's radical imagination, we see both the existence of these old hierarchies — the android as Other, the rule of an authoritarian regime — and, through the stories of her narrators, a path beyond them.
Womack notes that creating images of the future was the work of Sun Ra and his Arkestra, as well as George Clinton and Parliament Funkadelic. Wondaland Arts Society, the record label and artist collective Monáe co-founded, also reflects the communal experience of imagining black futures and, by doing so, inhabits a future where our communities survive.
Wondaland expands on the way that Monáe plays with time. The label's headquarters feature red-painted walls with clocks stuck in different hours. Atlanta-based band St. Beauty, part of the collective, often sings luxuriously about the now, stretching out a moment to explore all of its textures. The 2015 hit "Classic Man" by Jidenna, another Wondaland artist, was an image of black masculinity that transposed a paradigm of respectability from the past onto realities of today. Time is even evident in the tension between the futures that Monáe imagines and the present that she navigates as a queer, black woman and artist whose image is marketed as well as her art.
In another offering of what black masculinity can be, "Classic Man [Chopped and Screwed]" can be heard in Moonlight, the Oscar-winning movie that illuminates a gay black man's life through vignettes in time. Monáe's role in that film and in the 2016 film Hidden Figures were also exercises in time-travel. Set in the 1960s and filmed in the months leading up to the 2016 election, Hidden Figures allowed Monáe to be — at least for the moment — in the black past and in the black present simultaneously.
Musically, Monáe's vision of the future drew closer with Electric Lady (2013). By the time she released Dirty Computer in 2018, Monáe had shifted to an image of reality that felt familiar.
"It's a reality that you're literally stepping into," Womack says of Monáe's representation. "To talk about the near future is to acknowledge that things are transforming and changing and that you play a role in that immediate change."
In the album and its visual counterpart, there's color and joy that spans timelines. The project's rollout came with an announcement tied to Monáe's most contemporary character, herself, publicly sharing her queerness for the first time. This is digital archiving: building records of now and preserving histories to analyze, celebrate and re-interpret in the future.
In Dirty Computer, we see queer love in the face of a government that seeks to erase memories. Moments tied to specific instances in recent musical memory accompany images of a future reminiscent of both past and present. Neoprene and neon exist in the same timeline as hovering pink vintage cars. It's in this layering of time that we're reminded that the present moment is not just in conversation with the past, but that the past continues into the present moment.
In light of the current and continued marginalization and silencing of black, brown and queer communities, Monáe's work reminds us that it's not just collective memory that informs our future. When we document the ways we intimately and publicly exist in these moments in time, we build that future, too.
And Monáe shows us that we don't need to be tied to one vision of the future. We can create worlds that help us process current hierarchies and others that try to break out of those structures. Through this imagination, our vision of what's to come sharpens and adapts.
This idea of "practicing futures" is explored in Emergent Strategy: Shaping Change, Changing Worlds by adrienne maree brown. "Imagination turns Brown bombers into terrorists and white bombers into mentally ill victims. Imagination gives us borders, gives us superiority, gives us race as an indicator of capability. I often feel I am trapped inside someone else's imagination, and I must engage my own imagination in order to break free," brown writes.
Actress Tessa Thompson, a close friend of Monáe, points to the way she wields this imaginative power in "A Revolution of Love," a short video about Monáe's quest for tenderness: "Inside the space of make-believe, we have the ability, in sort of an aspirational way, to create the world that we live in. To create a word that is more joyful, that is more pleasantly challenging, that is more free. That's Janelle to me."
Monáe's time travel reminds us that while the present may be unsafe, the intimacies of right now are worth savoring. How we may love and with whom we may find love brings us light and longing in absurd and hateful circumstances. It inspires action. It not only anchors us in the present moment while considering the whole past, but it propels us into a new vision of the future: perhaps one that will be extricated from systems that oppress us; that is free, queer, black and only as far away as we can see on the horizon.
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