Feminism Film Music Queer


She comes in peace, but she means business: Last week, Janelle Monáe dropped two new music videos, and an album release date, and all queers have ascended to a heretofore unexplored level of heaven. The glorious era of Janelle’s next album is almost upon us: Dirty Computer drops on April, 27.  Thrillingly soon, and yet it feels so far away.

Monáe has been very busy of late – filming movies, attending awards ceremonies, releasing Yoga and The Eephus EP, and working with new artists signed to her Wondaland label. Let’s not forget she’s also a vocal political activist–reworking her song Hell You Talmbout into a Black Lives Matter anthem, Femme the Future, supporting the communities she sings about–practicing what she preaches.

With all this going on, I was completely blindsided by last week’s Monáe media blitz, with Janelle joining the opening weekend celebrations of Black Panther by tweeting a teaser for her fourth album Dirty Computer on February 16. This was followed by a release stating that select screenings of Black Panther would show the “emotion picture” to herald and promote the new album. Emotion pictures are Monáe’s extended and glorious music videos (see Many Moons for a sterling early career example) – in this case, they function as an album trailer.

We’ve also been treated to a W magazine cover shoot by Jordan Peele, highlighting her androgynous perfection. In an interview with W, Peele said “I didn’t want the Hitchcock heroine. I wanted the Hitchcock hero. That way, we can reclaim this movie that we never got to see. The fear of gender and race robs us of beautiful pieces of film.”

Directed by Jordan Peele/Photographed by Collier Schorr

As if this weren’t overwhelming enough, we now have not one, but TWO new music videos.

The powerful and audacious Django Jane is a feminist shoutout to Pussy Riot, Black Girl Magic, the “highly melanated,” and a mic drop to misogynists and detractors (looking at you, POTUS). The whole feel of the track and the video is strength, resilience, confidence and power. It’s an anthem of limitless swagger and it brought me to tears within 15 seconds. To see Janelle excel above and beyond her last album was something I couldn’t imagine was possible until I saw this. Just…wow.

The video was directed by Atlantan Andrew Donoho, who also worked on the Dirty Computer Emotion Picture and is co-directed by Monáe’s long time collaborator Chuck Lighting of Wondaland and Deep Cotton (who pops up in the video). You can see and hear the inspiration she draws from the creatives that surround her at Wondaland – she’s picked up inspiration from Jidenna (signed to Monáe’s Wondaland Records back in 2015) and the flow of her raps gets better and better with every track. She really puts out Chief Don’t Run vibes in this one.

The other new single Make Me Feel is a Prince-inspired, 80’s-tinged irresistible funk floor filler. The video offers nods to Bowie, Prince, Black Mirror’s San Junipero episode (a fave of Janelle’s) and some joyful queer representation featuring Tessa Thompson. We’ve previously been treated to lines like “her name was blueberry Mary and she’s crazy ‘bout me” (Mushrooms and Roses), and “Am I freak because I love watching Mary?” (Q.U.E.E.N.) but nothing so loud and proud as this video.

Janelle plays two characters, both of whom seem gloriously sexually open, bestowing attention on men and women alike (including each other!). To see Janelle pulled towards the romantic affections of a man and a woman at the same time is spellbinding. It celebrates both couples and invites the viewer to do the same. The Purple One would be proud, and it came as no surprise to learn that the late icon was involved with the album and the track.

Janelle has always been about inclusiveness: all races, all religions, all genders, all orientations. It’s been her concept from the get-go–using androids as an allegory for all of those outside of society; queers, people of colour, all the disenfranchised and marginalized. This video is a technicolour testament to that ideal – it celebrates the spectrum and grey areas of sexuality and humanity. This is a loosened up Janelle – free, exuberant and very colourful.

On a personal note; I’ve loved Janelle since I first saw her live, in a muddy field in Northern Poland in 2012. I practically got trenchfoot and almost fell on my arse from dancing to her show while waving a zapiekanka around my head in a fit of joy.

When I first heard The ArchAndroid, “Tightrope” was labelled the standout song, but “Cold War” spoke to me. The lyrics “I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me” struck a chord. More than that: it felt like a rallying call. Then I saw her live and the song took on even more meaning – because Janelle gave it such a beautiful introduction:

There was a time when I was not quite confident with myself. So I wrote this song for you. No matter what you look like, No matter who you love. No matter the texture of your hair. No matter where you’re from. Life can be a cold cold war – mentally. Sometimes. And we better know what we’re fighting for.”
It makes the song even more special to me. Then I saw her video for it which…just watch.

I saw her live for the second time in May 2014 in Manchester; in a tiny venue that wasn’t even sold out (Janelle is criminally under-recognised in the UK. When I moved to Canada, people actually knew the name Janelle Monáe and I was so happy). I was front and centre in Manchester; my idol was two feet in front of me. I could reach out and hold her Chanel-gloved hand. She got us to pillow fight. I inhaled about 20 feathers. I was picking them out of the rolled up cuffs of my jeans for a week – I still have that deflated pillow.

That’s one thing you can’t quite grasp about Janelle Monae until you’ve seen her perform live: her command of the crowd. On one very memorable occasion, she actually commanded me. During one show, Janelle climbed into the audience right beside me. I unconsciously rose to my feet with irrepressible adoration. She looked into my eyes and dramatically gestured for me to crouch back down. I immediately dropped, and when it was time for her to leave, I proffered my knee as a stepping stone for her – and not to be over dramatic but the sole of her shoe was like an angel’s touch…a blessing. She ascended to the stage and was gone. I feel like I died that night.

When Janelle scored her first major film role in Moonlight, my friend took me to see it and we clasped hands when she appeared on screen. When Hidden Figures came out, I went on my first movie date with my girlfriend, craning my neck from the very front row and feeling so proud and excited to see her in her turned-up collar leaning against that broken down car, bigger than life. I was thrilled, but also cautious with this new and wonderful trajectory – it meant Jane was going to be very busy, with little time for her creativity to flow into a new album. But flow she did, and this complete surprise album teaser – and an album release date mere months away!? The embarrassment of riches is almost too much for my Fandroid heart.

Not only has Janelle surprised us all with new work – it feels like she’s showing a much richer, deeper and more personal side of herself with Dirty Computer. Janelle’s sexually liberated “undefinable sexuality” – as The Guardian puts it has always been a draw for a tiny, earnest, enthusiastic queer like me: “Categorize me? I defy every label” she raps in Q.U.E.E.N. However, my fastidious need to put people in boxes can push me into a bit of a tailspin. Make Me Feel comes a step further towards the ‘one of us’ validation that I crave from my idols. As a queer woman who spent over a decade of my teens and early 20s being terrified of who I might be and internalising all the small town Catholic pressures to be ‘normal’; stories and art were my escape and my salvation. My idol telling the public that she is LGBTQUIA+ would give me a warm thrill of certainty…but it would also go against everything Janelle Monáe has said and stood for throughout her career.

As much as I’d love Janelle to come out and say she’s queer, her inclusiveness and perfected aura of mystery are a part of who she is as a performer. The desire I have to categorize her is not something she adheres to, and that feels much more fitting with the current generation. Not only do we have loud, proud queers, we have our label-less champions who fit perfectly into the open and loving generation growing up right now. I admire her so much for sticking to her principles. Janelle is a powerful young black woman – who makes all who love her feel strong and powerful too. She’s my hero.

Ruth is a Northern English gig monkey, feminist and dramatic gay. She’s mostly enthusiasm and elbows and she’ll tell you all about Janelle Monáe, Christine and the Queens and Robyn before you’ve even finished saying the word “music”. 

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