“Take a seat; you are not involved, and hit the mute button. Let the vagina have a monologue.”-Janelle Monáe, “Django Jane”
She didn’t have to say a word. Her pinned-up hair that fitted her black suit-and-tie ensemble spoke volumes before she even uttered a lyric. It was in 2010, nearly a year since the music world lost its most visionary icon, Michael Jackson, that Janelle Monáe debuted the video for “Tightrope”. In one of her most popular videos, the Kansas City, Kansas, native brings to life this alternative universe titled The Palace of Dogs, in which dancing, which can be used as a symbol for other trends and identities that clash against the status quo, becomes a form of resistance. Picture it (or better yet, watch it on YouTube)— a bunch of black kids dancing in a system that’s aimed for their demise. “Tightrope” isn’t just a groovy song that’s catchy. No. Janelle Monáe ensured that her song wouldn’t be sanitized into this simplistic pop song narrative by creating a stunning visual which was incipient of afrofuturistic themes that her artistry has been known to represent.
She didn’t have to say a word. Monáe’s pinned-up hair that was now accompanied by outfits that showed off her figure evoked the message of her simply not giving a damn about any label that people wanted to place on her. In 2013, more than a year after the death of Whitney Houston (who was both a representation of respectability and empowerment for black women), Monáe teamed with Erykah Badu for the video of “Q.U.E.E.N”. With the lyric “the booty don’t lie” that’s sung throughout the song, the single is a female empowerment anthem that defies any form of respectability politics used to oppress women’s bodies, especially those of black women. It’s visualized through a museum that keeps rebels, like Badu and Monáe of the fictional Queen Project, from time travelling. However, Badu and Monáe are freed once the record plays.
She didn’t have to say a word. But I’m glad she did. I attended the Women’s March in Washington D.C. last year and saw Monáe speak. She stood with the Mothers of the Movement, a group of black mothers whose sons were the victims of police brutality, before she sang “Hell You Talmbout” which was a song about the systemic racism embedded in black communities. Then, I saw Monáe give impressive performances in both “Moonlight” and “Hidden Figures”, films that uplifted the identities for which she is an advocate in her music—black women and the LGBTQ+ community.
Yesterday, Monáe released the videos for two stylistically different singles— “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane”— ahead of her upcoming album “Dirty Computer”, which is set to be released in April. It’s the first time that Monáe has released new music since the death of her mentor, Prince. Both of the videos are individually effective and are deserving of being analyzed separately.
Resembling the San Junipero episode of “Black Mirror”, “Make Me Feel” is a Prince-esque single that co-stars Tessa Thompson. In the video, Monáe shows her attraction for both Thompson and another guy, which could allude to her being bisexual. Regardless, the video is a powerful representation of Monáe embracing her unfiltered sexuality. “Django Jane”, with its display of African regality, is a “Formation”-reminiscent visual that more explicitly proclaims the power of black women and their contributions to humanity. In the current moment of #MeToo, a dialogue that has completed neglected black women, Monáe makes it plain in “Django Jane” that black women have always been deserving to be in the conversation. However, the highlight of the song is Monáe’s impressive flow, which is arguably the best display of her rap skills yet.
The salience of Monáe’s ability to portray various universes and futurist ideas throughout her music adds footprints in the sand that lead to waves of the creativity expressed by contemporary black female artists who have gone against the grain of tradition. Further, it’s an overshadowed notion that the various styles and identities portrayed by current black female artists lead to varying representations of black womanhood that are needed. There’s Beyoncé, the queen, whose image and lyrics have been vicarious for the dreams of black women. Her groundbreaking 2016 album “Lemonade” amplified that position. There’s Solange, who represents this avant-garde, pro-black aesthetic. There’s SZA, whose nonchalant yet candid way of expression has been beautiful to witness. There’s Rihanna, who’s unapologetic bad-assery apexed when she released her underrated classic “Anti”. And there’s Cardi B, the hit rapper who’s sheer display of agency over her body takes the style of predecessors like Lil Kim and Nicki Minaj a step further. Janelle Monáe, through her music, places all of those styles and themes in alternative realities that allow black women the freedom to dream.