BY MIN CHEN
Since emerging more than a decade ago, Janelle Monáe has built us a world and an elaborate science fiction narrative/creation myth. Her saga, as it’s unfolded over three releases thus far, is set way in the future in the dystopian city of Metropolis and spotlights one Cindi Mayweather, Monáe’s alter-ego and a messianic android who liberates her fellow cyborgs from servitude with the intention of unifying droids and humans. It may be conceit, but also metaphor, with androids representing marginalized and misunderstood Others, long shunned and disregarded. Hence, the Atlanta-based artiste’s efforts, as a creative black woman—if not as Cindi Mayweather—to humanize, empathize, and empower the minority. “Will you be electric sheep? Electric ladies, will you sleep?” she asks on “Q.U.E.E.N.” “Or will you preach?”
Monáe, indeed, has chosen to preach, wielding music, videos, and an omnivorous aesthetic that tackle themes from self-realization to femininity to discrimination. Her choice weapon, however, remains science fiction. And in particular, her debt to Fritz Lang and his 1927 masterwork Metropolis is evident—from her overarching concept to the cover of The ArchAndroid right down to her appreciation for the quote that ends the film. “The mediator between the hand and the mind,” it read, “is always the heart.”
Her 2018 record Dirty Computer, however, hits pause on that narrative. Instead, the spotlight falls on the machine in the title, a once-shiny piece of hardware that’s been polluted and corrupted, making it less android, more human—and broader still, less Mayweather, more Monáe. Its release coincided with her coming out as pansexual to Rolling Stone, and what she saw as an increased responsibility to the black and LGBTQIA community. “I think that there’s an erasure of us and if we don’t tell our stories, they won’t get told,” she said. “If we don’t show us, we won’t get shown.” Certainly, the album’s a personal report, but critically, it’s a statement of liberation, made with heart.
Early 2018 also saw the release of Monáe’s Emotion Picture, a 48-minute film tied together by music videos for the tracks off Dirty Computer. The narrative centers on android Jane 57821, a “dirty computer” scheduled to be cleansed of her memories by order of a repressive, totalitarian regime. The videos for “Django Jane,” “Make Me Feel,” “Screwed,” among others, represent those memories and in turn, her spirit and personhood. It’s apt, then, that in contrast to the scenes of Jane being processed in a stark clinical facility, these shorts should explode with color, dance, light, and song.
Between “Crazy, Classic, Life” (directed by Alan Ferguson), a kinetic celebration of tribes and friendship, and “I Like That” (Lacey Duke), a picture of sleek, graphic elegance, there’s not an image here that doesn’t bespeak power to individuality. “Pynk” (Emma Westenberg), in particular, has been lauded for its unabashed ode to beauty and sexuality, from the fantastic vagina pants (designed by Duran Lantink) to the shot of a crotch-cladding pair of underwear that proclaims, “I grab back.” Run together, the videos further recount the kindling of a romance between Monáe’s character and that of Tessa Thompson’s and Jayson Aaron’s—exemplified by the nightclub-situated, Prince-indebted “Make Me Feel” (Alan Ferguson) that proudly wears its feelings (“powerful with a little bit of tender”) on its multihued, glitter-speckled sleeve. On the flip, there’s also a brief beachside vignette that shines a warm, tender light on the trio.
Monáe’s message and manifesto, though, fills “Django Jane” (Andrew Donoho). A assertive and confident display of “black girl magic,” the video rightly puts her at the head of the table, in the spotlight, on the throne—an absolute presence as she demands, “Let the vagina have a monologue.” That self-possession reverberates throughout the rest of Emotion Picture, all the way to its final few minutes. As Jane makes her break for freedom, she stands at the facility’s open doorway, turns back, and offers the camera one last unflinching, unwavering gaze. In that look, a queer black woman sees, but she is also seen.
Stripped of her alter-ego and her previous black-and-white palette (her “camo,” according to “Django Jane”), the Monáe revealed in Emotion Picture is gutsy, candid, and vivid. As she told The Quietus in 2010, “I’ve always just wanted to represent individuality. I think we should celebrate our differences more. We’re not all monolithic, us young black women, and we have our own ideas and concepts.” For all its conceptual science fiction framing, the film is an deeply human artifact that further underscores her motifs of inclusivity and identity. In fact, stretching the socially conscious potential of the medium, it places black bodies, stories, and experiences—so often absent from the genre—at the center of science fiction. So that underneath the hood of Emotion Picture, a heart beats.