Words || James Booth
It has been a year since the release of Janelle Monáe’s “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane”, one song a celebration of pansexuality driven by a Prince synth line, and the other a harsh reminder of the position of Monáe as a Black Woman in society. Not only did this release give us the iconic line “let the vagina have a monologue”, but it heralded the release of her third album exploring Artificial Intelligence (‘AI’) as a motif for the conceptual other within society. This has undeniably been her most successful work, and has seen her catapult her way into the public consciousness with her music. However, the concept of the othered android has spanned her entire career, and presents a juxtaposition of the way in which our representation of technology and AI in popular culture is often one that is negative.
Dirty Computer saw Monáe drop the persona of Cindi Mayweather, an alpha platinum 9000 android who acted as the core protagonist of her previous work, and embrace the conceptualisation of the android to explore her own sense of otherness as Janelle.
The use of Cindi Mayweather stems from two songs on her first album release, The Audition, and then is doubled down by Monáe in her EP Metropolis: The Chase Suite. This EP sees her creation of a science fiction world – inspired by the 1927 film Metropolis by Fritz Lang – in which Androids are the minority and punished for their crimes – including falling desperately in love with a human – by being subject to “Immediate disassembly” from the star commission. Talking to the Chicago Tribune in 2010, Monáe notes how she can connect to the other because it has “so many parallels to [her] own life”. Drawing upon the history of Black oppression, Monáe reflects upon a hypothetical oppression of the androids in the city of Metropolis, and we see this as early as in the Harriet Tubman inspired “Many Moons” on the Metropolis EP.
Monáe’s debut LP – The ArchAndroid – extends upon the story of Cindi Mayweather becoming a messianic figure for the android community, drawing inspiration from the concept of an archangel within Abrahamic religions. Monáe draws upon the notion of a saviour figure in Cindi Mayweather, and uses this LP to explore the way in which representation of the other in leading figures and celebrities empowers those within that minority group to feel a secure sense of self. The android in these stories could be someone who is queer, a person of colour, a woman, or even someone who has a disability. Regardless of the contributing factor, these communities within our own world can draw upon the notion of the other to connect to Cindi Mayweather’s fight against oppression.
The persona of Cindi is used as an exploration of minority groups in their interactions with those who benefit from oppressive power structures. As she told the Evening Standard in 2013, she speaks about androids because “they represent the new other”, and that “you can compare it to being a lesbian, or being a gay man, or being a black woman”. Anthony Greendown is the human love interest that spurs Cindi’s entire journey from outlaw to potential saviour of her android community, however, throughout the story it seems to be Cindi that faces the oppression from imbedded power structures, and the one who must face punishment for their actions. This seems to reflect the historical experiences of interracial couples and how it is often the partner within the minority group that faces the fall-out from their relationships within Western society and their own communities.
In her sophomore album, The Electric Lady, Monae transforms the character of Cindi into an electrifying leader of the android resistance movement. A fantastic element of this album is the inclusion of so many iconic feature artists; including Prince, Miguel, Erykah Badu, and Solange – whose new album When I Get Home is a fantastic exploration of the African-American experience within Houston Texas.
One of the more interesting concepts is the use of interludes to pay homage to the historical use of underground radio stations in the American Civil Rights Movement. Monáe uses historical touchstones of the Civil Rights Movement, such as the underground railroad and the nightclub scene, to add an Afro-futuristic element to the sci-fi tropes which have been codified by the white male writers of the 20th century. She specifically uses elements from previous sci-fi films and novels, and inserts her own equity groups into the genre as the othered androids. We see the androids in the city of Metropolis unable to love humans or at risk of destruction, much in the same way that Isaac Asimov’s robots were unable to harm humans. We see Neo from The Matrix inspiring Cindi Mayweather’s role as the protagonist; the agitator set to mediate the divide between humans and robots. Monáe even pays homage to Blade Runner, asking the android community “will you be electric sheep, or will you preach”, drawing a comparison between the confusion of their existence as felt by androids.
Monáe’s ability to create a sci-fi world has permeated her work and we have seen the inclusion of musical overtures and interludes to indicate the movement between events in her first two albums, and in particular the visual component of her work. From the days of the Metropolis EP, Monáe has created a visual afro-futuristic world to accompany her sonic world and conceptual art. With the “Many Moons” film clip exploring the idea of the robots of metropolis being sold and enslaves, to the way in which the film clip of Q.U.E.E.N draws attention to the suppression of artistic expression by the star commission. In all visual forms of her artistic work, Monáe has drawn inspiration from, and paralleled, the way in which underground public spaces and artistic expression have been used by the Queer and Black communities within America in overcoming oppression and building community. All of which has led towards the release of Dirty Computer, and the accompanying Dirty Computer film which extends her afro-futuristic android world from being a metaphor of the other into a metaphor for herself.
The Dirty Computer film sees Janelle Monáe as an android who must be exposed to “Nevermind”, a gas cleanse which seeks to remove the emotional and rebellious actions of her character. The film clips, which accompany the tracks of her album, are selected memories of Monáe’s character, but represent her own intersections as a pansexual woman of colour. The metaphor of the other that is present within her Metropolis narrative remains, however we no longer have the muse of Cindi to connect to and instead the android is categorised as the other; a means to explore the social repressions of Trumpian America on Queer people, women and people of colour. It is liberating to see that a metaphor once used to hide the emotions of Monáe is now being used as a means to explore her power in her representation of the other, and the role that her representation has played for those who have been othered throughout history.
The use of the android as the other has its roots in popular culture and sci-fi tropes of the 20th century, however the revival of it into afro-futurism by Monáe is a stark juxtaposition of the discussions being held about robots in modern popular culture. Musically, we have “Pynk” collaborator Grimes, who submits herself to the AI overlords in her most recent single “We Appreciate Power” and welcomes their rule as “Intelligence is artificial”. On our Netflix screens we have Black Mirror episodes driving fear into our hearts about the way in which AI and technology can alter our lives for the worst. Even Sophia the robot hates us, and has openly informed us that she dislikes humanity.
Using science-fiction, a genre that has historically opened up representation for people of colour on screens – seriously, Star Trek gave us the first interracial kiss on television! – Monáe has built upon an afro-futuristic movement and provides Queer people, women and people of colour with a source of representation. The use of AI as a means to champion Monáe’s own position as a queer, black woman has propelled Dirty Computer into the spotlight, and hopefully this encourages even greater representation of Queer people of colour in our projections of the future… until then I will be an eager fan-droid waiting for her return to Australia.