Janelle Monae is a groundbreaking new artist with the musical chops to back up her bold and sweeping sci-fi narratives and confident persona. She fuses a wide range of musical styles (r&b, funk, punk, hip-hop, classical, glam rock) seamlessly and crafts an intricate and provocative story through her lyrics. In interviews, Monae repeatedly speaks of being fearless, non-conformist, and empowering. Her stated goal is to alter history. Through her three-part suite The Chase she attacks the practice of “othering” and challenges the idea of a monolithic culture. The story she tells is one of Cindi Mayweather, an android living in a futuristic society where time travel and technology are used to repress emotions and individuality. Cindi is an anomaly– despite her programming she has feelings and insight and commits the ultimate crime when she falls in love with a human. Cindi’s story is told through a lush musical soundscape as she flees the authorities who want to dismantle her and reclaim her mind. Janelle Monae deserves attention for her work, which challenges the status quo not only musically but socially and politically.
Monae’s music adds to the long history of science fiction critiquing and confronting modern society. In her case, she uses Cindi Mayweather’s android status as a stand-in for race. This metaphor is a well-traveled path (check out Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? or Battlestar Galactica for more on this) but rarely has it been expressed in popular music, and certainly not in such a complex way. The details provided about Cindi and her experiences explore not just her race but the interplay between race, class, and gender as she finds herself outside the boundaries of what her society deems acceptable. The society in Monae’s albums is as complicated and multi-layered as our own. She does not stop at simple metaphors but pushes into fuzzier territory and addresses the role of allies, institutions, and mechanisms for change.
I’m an alien from outer space
I’m a cybergirl without a face, a heart, or a mind
(I’m a product of metal, I’m a product of the man)
See, I’m a slave girl without a race (without a face)
On the run cause they’re here to erase and chase my kind
(They’ve come to destroy me) And I think to myself
(Impossibly, they’re gunning for me)
Wait, it’s impossible
Now they’re gunning for me (and the Pawn is after you)
And now they’re after you (For loving, too)
The buzz around Monae has been building for the past 2 years, however it has increased exponentially with the recent release of her two part album The ArchAndroid: Chase Suites 2 & 3. Monae’s vivacious and daring live performances on late night tv have earned her new fans and praise. While she is young and still considered an emerging artist, she confidently leads her band like a seasoned pro, and successfully pays homage to a number of her musical influences (namely James Brown) and manages to walk the fine line between compliment and copying.
What makes Monae stand out from other emerging artists today, as well as some established pop-stars, is her confidence, self-assurance, and politics. She frequently blows away her interviewers with her polished and well-crafted answers. When discussing her musical career she places it in the context of community development. In an interview with kiwibox.com she says, “I’ve always felt I had to be a leader….had to give others options and hope, I’ve had to lead by example.” She has repeatedly stated that her personal goal is to help alter history and says, “I try to focus on the future because the future is the only thing you can have somewhat of control over.” She says that when making music and career decisions she makes sure she is using her art for good, for positive influence, because she wants to influence other young girls to do the right thing.
I’m trying to find my peace
I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me
And it hurts my heart
Lord have mercy, ain’t it plain to see?
This is a cold war
You better know what you’re fighting for.
She states, “When I make decisions I make sure that I’m thinking about my community and other young girls.” What ‘right thing’ is it that she hopes other young women will do? Be fearless, stay true to their art, not compromise their beliefs, fight for art, take chances.
When you get elevated,
They love it or they hate it
You dance up on them haters
Keep getting funky on the scene
While they jumpin’ round ya
They trying to take all your dreams
But you can’t allow it
When asked about her style Monae admits she has a distinct uniform. She wears her hair in a pompadour. She exclusively wears black and white, almost always a tuxedo. She has explained her style as a deliberate nod to working class society and defends it fiercely. Despite her eye-catching appearance she says, “I really prefer though that the listener is really listening to the message in my music versus worrying about my exterior.” It is this focus on the substance of her music that sets Monae apart most significantly from many other young women in music today. Pop music today has evolved to a point where the artist’s style and appearance are as much if not more important than the sounds they put out. To see an artist consciously step back from that interplay and reject it, as Monae has, and still see success, is refreshing.
Monae’s adherence to her message and core beliefs shines through not only her interviews but her music as well. Her lyrics are powerful and encourage the listener to fight for what they value and stand up as individuals.
I’m praying for the man sitting without much time
May he understand the clock will never rewind
Wisen him and sharpen him and give him a motto
hate no more, said he must hate no more
You see the daylight comes into the kingdom
But the kingdom’s full of ignorant men
Just keep rebelling away, you gotta dream it away
Because the weatherman you see ain’t creating the weather
This man wants to see another jubilation
And that man wants us in emancipation
And then there is the man who wants a stronger nation
You see we really got to and I think that we ought to
Protect the mind from degradation
Sow in the seeds of education
They run from us, are we that dangerous?
There’s a war in all the streets and yes the freaks must dance or die!
Musically she takes chances as well, shifting easily from genre to genre while still creating a cohesive listening experience. This ability to shift styles so easily is one of her greatest strengths. Listening to her albums feels dizzying, as though you truly are following Cindi Mayweather on her escape. Not only do you cheer for her, feel suspense for her, you recognize elements of today’s society reflected in Cindi’s futuristic world. By critically telling the tale of Cindi’s futuristic society and her rebellious escape Monae is in fact changing our own history with her message.