Musical Heroes: Janelle Monae

Afro styled into a 50’s quiff, always dressed in monochrome 60s graphic print dresses or sharp, androgynous suits, Janelle Monae knows exactly what ‘iconic’ means. Her music blends rap, funk, soul and Afrofuturism, her style is dramatic, fun high fashion and her politics are always geared towards the empowerment of black women.

Monae knows exactly how to be a popstar, seamlessly blending her roles as musical innovator and style icon with her platform from which to take a political stance and influence social change. She is imaginative, talented, clever and carefree: she is an exemplary popstar.

Monae’s music can be described not so much in terms of ‘concept albums’, but as a kind of concept career. She performs as her alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, an android resistance leader in the dystopian ‘Metropolis’, a science-fiction city in which robots are an oppressed class, ruled over by humans. For those who miss the imaginative world-building of David Bowie’s ‘Ziggy Stardust’ and ‘Diamond Dogs’, Monae is a revelation, but her work serves not only as inventive, adventurous storytelling: it is also a sharply intelligent metaphor for the civil rights movement and the oppression of black people in America.

If this sounds overly conceptual and high-minded, worry not: Monae is also an exceptionally catchy songwriter: “Tightrope” is a joyful, upbeat motown shuffle almost guaranteed to lift your mood and have you dancing in your seat; “Q.U.E.E.N.” is a shuddering funk anthem to self-love and revolution. Monae’s list of collaborators is a selection of some of the most imaginative black and female artists working right now: Solange, Grimes, Miguel, Big Boi, Erykah Badu, Prince.

Her albums are like none I’ve ever heard before. They feel almost like soundtracks for films that don’t yet exist, intercut with soaring orchestral interludes, jazz suites, and spoken word sketches. She constantly skips between genres –R’n’B slow jams, emotive soul, 80s power ballads, dancefloor pop. All three of her albums link together in the cohesive story of Cindi Mayweather, part sci-fi adventure, part love story, part allegory. She wears her influences on her sleeve, and combines them to make something completely new.

What always strikes me about Janelle Monae is the sense of joy, positivity and hope that runs throughout her work. The hashtags #carefreeblackgirl and #blackgirlmagic have been gathering momentum on various social media sites, showcasing positive, empowering representations of young black women that mainstream media may have neglected. Janelle Monae is basically the patron saint of this movement: she knows full well the pressures of misogyny and racism, how black women are marginalised, misrepresented, silenced, oppressed: in response she writes gorgeous, catchy anthems of self-love (sample lyric: ‘even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am’), surrounds herself in her music videos and concerts with joyful, talented women of colour, and collaborates with and supports her female contemporaries.

She even founded a record label, Wondaland records: almost all artists she has signed are imaginative black artists like herself. A common phrase in discourse on representation is ‘you can’t be what you can’t see’ – it’s hard for women and people of colour to aspire to successes and powerful roles if they have never seen anyone who looks like them fulfilling them. To anyone who has ever felt like they just can’t see themselves in popular culture, Monae is like a beacon, an example that black girls who love robots, sci-fi and Afrofuturism can grow up to be popstars.

All young girls, children of colour, any kids who’ve ever felt like they couldn’t do what they want because of who they are should be given a copy of Monae’s album The ArchAndroid and be reminded that ‘if she can do this, so can you.’

Monae is also unafraid of confronting oppression head-on by being fiercely political. Last year Wondaland Records released “Hell You Talmbout”, a six minute song over which Monae and her collaborators chant the names of Black people killed by police over a single, stark drum beat, punctuated by a gospel chorus. It makes for powerful, emotional listening that feels depressingly necessary. There is a live performance on YouTube by Monae and her Wondaland collaborators that feels sombre and melancholy as a wake, but also energising, empowering, a genuine force for positive change.

Monae has pop stardom down to a fine art: a perfectly crafted alter-ego, an iconic look, an innovative, addictive, fascinating discography. But what I find so inspiring about her is what she does with her fame – working to empower and lift up her contemporaries, to speak out about injustice. Monae knows exactly what power and influence her success affords her, and knows exactly how to use that influence as a positive force. She is not only an incredibly talented, innovative musician: her positivity is a force to be reckoned with.

[Clare Patterson – @clurrpatterson]

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