From Concept to Reality: Janelle Monáe and the Liberating Power of Music

I love concept albums. Artists who take a long-form approach to storytelling through music exhibit a mastery of their craft that one rarely encounters, and their work calls for a deeper level of engagement. Unconcerned with straightforward showcases of versatility, these albums choose instead to explore a focused range of themes. Individual songs on a record bolster and further illuminate the messages explored in other songs. Repeated phrases, recurring melodic motifs, and clearly defined emotional arcs in the albums’ sequencing command listeners’ attention and ask them to think critically about the music that they hear. Through their theatrical presentation, they dive deep into the consciousness of the performer. Whether the themes explored are didactic or simply expressive, they resonate with the artist enough to inspire a record’s worth of songs . With concept albums, we are granted the opportunity to engage intimately with outward expressions of artists’ personal values, and we have much to learn from grappling with these boldly vulnerable projects.

Popularized in the late 1960s and early 1970s, concept albums have become something of a milestone in the careers of musical superstars. In some cases, the albums serve as reminders of well established musicians’ artistic prowess. In other cases, concept albums announce upcoming artists’ entrance into the industry and demonstrate their worthiness to be mentioned in the same breath as more recognizable names. Concepts may be loose and abstract, or they may be clearly defined. They may explore universal experiences, or they may consider experiences specific to an individual or community. They may choose to participate in current discussions of their era, or they may express something more timeless. A concept album does not need to adhere to any stringent requirements to meet the definition of the term, but they all share a common commitment to a profound interrogation of a particular subject through music, and for people like me who take great pleasure in literary analysis of music, they are a dream come true.

Janelle Monáe must share my enthusiasm for the concept album. At this  point her commitment to her Metropolis concept has expanded across an EP and, not one, but two albums. To describe it briefly, her Metropolis concept (inspired in part by Fritz Lang’s 1927 film of the same name) follows a messianic android named Cindi Mayweather as she aims to dismantle the structural oppression of androids by humans in a dystopian future. When Cindi falls in love with a human man named Anthony Greendown, she is sentenced to “immediate dissembly”– a parallel scenario to the lynching of black men alleged to have been sexually or romantically involved with white women in the Jim Crow era. Monáe’s songs are ostensibly born from Cindi’s experiences running from and resisting the pursuit of the human powers that be. Standard lyrics about life and love mingle with sci-fi elements to characterize an allegorical representation of real class, race, sexual, and gender dynamics. And what within Monáe’s concept is the purest and most potent form of resistance for Cindi and her pro-droid alliance? Jamming.

In a skit from Monáe’s second record, The Electric Lady, a caller into a pro-droid radio show demonstrates a sentiment to rise in violence against human oppressors before the radio host cuts him off denouncing the idea as “rusty, dusty, nano-thinking nonsense.” The host elaborates, “Love not war. We are tired of fires. Quiet, no riots. We are jamming, dancing, and loving.” Through the euphoric feelings that music elicits, droids and their sympathizers experience a universal truth that transcends the divisions of their reality. The non-violence of the droid resistance reveals their vision for liberation. Their victory does not come from hurting or vanquishing their human oppressors. Instead, the droids echo the sentiments of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. when he said, “I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be, and you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be… This is the inter-related structure of reality.” Droids seek a mutual liberation with humans, evangelizing them through the infectious sense of freedom jamming elicits. Music, in Monáe’s concept, is the perfect weapon because it is a tool of transformation rather than destruction.

This musical opposition to systemic inequity also characterizes Monáe’s aspirations for her own career in the real world. Monáe makes music for the cultural Other. Explicitly in her lyrics, she demonstrates an intersectional feminism that seeks to represent women of all different backgrounds. For instance, the acronym in the title of “Q.U.E.E.N.” featuring Erykah Badu, stands for the Queer community, Untouchables, Emigrants, Excommunicated, and Negroids– groups whom Monáe actively seeks to uplift. However, Monáe intends for this expression of liberation for the Other to resonate universally. All of us,” she has said, “[have] felt like the Other at some point.” For Monáe, music is a tool to empower the disenfranchised in reality, and her concept reinforces that function through the fantastical depiction of its indiscriminately transformative power in the Metropolis suites.

When Janelle Monáe announced her forthcoming album “Dirty Computer” on February 23rd, she indicated that the album would be accompanied by a short film which she has described as an “emotion picture.” Dirty Computer’s accompanying motion picture will be the first narrative-centered film project Monáe has coordinated with her music, but visual companions in the form of music videos have always been an important medium for Monáe to demonstrate the liberating power of music so central to her Metropolis concept.  Like Monáe’s previous videos, the music videos for Dirty Computer’s singles “Make Me Feel,” “Django Jane,” and “Pynk” do not exist within the universe of Monáe’s Metropolis suite, but they bring the impact of Cindi Mayweather’s musical revolution to our own world.

Monáe has described “Make Me Feel” as a song about being free. In the music video, the conservative black and white costumes in which she has historically performed have been traded in for vibrant, form fitting clothes. Monáe finds herself framed by women’s legs running back and forth between two romantic interests: one woman and one man. Monáe has previously made fleeting references to her attraction to women in her music, but she has never officially addressed her sexual preferences publicly. “The lesbian community has tried to claim me,” she has said, “but I only date androids.” Perhaps Monáe intended the “Make Me Feel” video as a coming out of sorts. In reference to Dirty Computer, she has said, “I know there are a lot of things I haven’t discussed, and I think this is the album that you’ll get an opportunity to get a closer glimpse into my mind and into my heart.” Now, Monáe demonstrates a more candid and unfiltered expression of her sexuality. In the song and video, Monáe takes unapologetic ownership of her identity and finds the power and joy inherent in it.   

“Django Jane” also emphasizes the strength inherent traditionally marginalized identities. The video sees Monáe seated on a throne as she recounts the struggles she has endured, confronts the systems she intends to tear down, and revels in her own successes to this point. From her exalted place on the throne, Monáe pridefully points to her Otherness as the validation of her authority. She wears a suit and an African cap traditionally worn only by men called a kufi, subverting gendered expectations of her clothing as a woman. She speaks into a mirror in her lap to “let the vagina have a monologue.”  The dancers in the video wear leather jackets with flared lapels that evoke the uniforms of the Black Panther Party. Through visual representation, the Othered aspects of Monáe’s identity– her gender, race, sexuality, and socioeconomic background– become the very source of her power in the video.

Yesterday, Monáe released the third single and video for Dirty Computer’s rollout, “Pynk” featuring Grimes. The song further explores the theme of sexual liberation introduced in the “Make Me Feel” video. The video is filled with vagina-inspired imagery that views the female anatomy as both an object of sexual attraction and a source of feminine empowerment. Wearing underwear with the phrase “I grab back” across the front, Monáe uses her femininity to position herself in opposition to the misogynist remarks of the President. In so doing, the unfiltered expression of pride in her womanhood and sexuality becomes a pacifistic weapon against the patriarchal powers that be. As Monáe describes it “‘Pynk’ is a brash celebration of creation. self love. sexuality. and pussy power! PYNK is the color that unites us all, for pink is the color found in the deepest and darkest nooks and crannies of humans everywhere…” Again, Monáe sees the empowerment of the Other (in this case, women) as something universally resonant. The song celebrates strength of women, but it also invites everyone else to join the celebration.

Given the use of “Make Me Feel,” “Django Jane,” and “Pynk” as the lead singles for Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe has taken a few steps out from under the umbrella of her dystopian Metropolis concept in order to ground the impact of her music in the here and now. Monáe has known from an early age that music has power as a tool to escape the pain of the world. As a child she dreamed of a world “where everyday was like anime and Broadway, where music fell from the sky and anything could happen.” She has successfully created such a world in her Metropolis concept, but music is no longer merely an escape for Monáe. In her debut EP, she questions the usefulness of hoping for a better world if it only amounts to daydreaming in “Sincerely Jane.” Certainly, the Metropolis concept is more than an exercise in imagination at this point. Moane’s music and concept has truly been the weapon with which she has gone to war with hegemonic oppression since the advent of her musical career, and with the singles to Dirty Computer, Monáe has demonstrated an earnest belief in the paradigm of musical resistance as it has been used in her imagined world. She recognizes the respect and influence that she has attained, and that has empowered her to let her own experience speak for itself. As the line between concept and reality blurs, the joy and power that Monáe’s music brings could truly light a spark that could grow into a world-changing flame.

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