In a week when five Georgia police assaulted a sixty-five-year-old black woman motorist; a Texas officer choked a young unarmed black man; and a white Yale graduate student called the police to remove a black female student napping in her own campus dorm, I faced the gloom of Donald Glover’s newly released video for “This Is America.” Don’t get me wrong. Glover’s video is brilliant: a stunning depiction of a society whose police and gun violence are out of control, and in which black men “getting that money” might well be complicit in the white supremacy that results in so much black death. As a horde of white people (shambling as zombies) chases Glover’s alter ego Childish Gambino in the final scene, the video renders the terrible beautiful and for that is beautifully terrifying. I have watched it more than twenty times, and each time I have been brought nearly to tears. Through Glover I see so clearly the present as a result of the past. I admire the video deeply, but at the same time it paralyzes me: what are we supposed to do? Luckily this spring Janelle Monáe released Dirty Computer, the latest chapter in the Afrofuturist saga she has been telling since her first studio album, released ten years ago.
These days it sometimes feels as if the battle for the future of the United States’ soul is between Donald Trump and Janelle Monáe.
Monáe has always explored the cost of our failure to imagine a compassionate world that embraces rather than punishes racial, sexual, and gender difference. Dirty Computer offers a vision of something like an emancipated future, but Monáe is clear that freedom isn’t free. Dirty Computer and its accompanying “emotion picture” show blacks, and especially queer women of color, seeking and finding love in fugitive spaces; struggling to hold on to memories in order to maintain a sense of identity; and placing their bodies in the sight lines of an oppressive state if that’s the cost of spiritual liberation. For Monáe, however, cost is always an investment rather than an outright loss, which makes Dirty Computer a gift in dark times.
One of the greatest obstacles to ending abusive arrangements that thrive in oppression, fear, and resentment is convincing either perpetrator or victim that it is possible for the world to be other than it is. To do so requires an imaginative leap of thinking beyond the present, and, of all narrative genres, none is better at aiding this than science fiction. Yet despite the fact that themes of class domination have featured prominently in the genre, allegories of racial domination remain rare, and the overwhelming whiteness of mainstream science fiction is fortunately now a subject of sustained critique.
Afrofuturism, a kind of subgenre or aesthetic mode, arose out of black artists’ interest in science fiction’s political imagination, wed with their desire to talk about racial oppression. It was not much of a stretch: the essential stuff of so much science fiction—for example, the abduction of bodies for the purpose of social and economic experimentation—readily speaks to the horror of racial slavery, which refuses to stay in the past and perpetually menaces the future for black Americans. But Afrofuturism is expressly invested in imagining paths to redemption: think Sun Ra’s mothership, come to rapture Jim Crow America’s black captives up into space.
Monáe’s four albums—Metropolis: The Chase Suite (2007), The ArchAndroid (2010), Electric Lady (2013), and now Dirty Computer (2018)—narrate the Afrofuturist tale of Cyndi Mayweather, also known by her serial number, Jane 57821. Jane 57821, who has renamed herself Cyndi, is an android in a society that ranks her kind as society’s lowest caste, and which pursues a policy of force-reprogramming androids who have achieved Cyndi’s level of independence. Echoing the long U.S. history of hunting runaway slaves, we follow Cyndi as she seeks to evade the bounty that has been placed on her head. Cyndi’s particular crime is that she has fallen in love with a human, Anthony Greendown; this and other kinds of transgressive love that Cyndi engages in—pansexuality, non-monogamy—make her, in the eyes of the state, a “dirty computer.”
Dirty Computer offers a vision of something like an emancipated future, but Monáe is clear that freedom isn’t free.
Although Monáe’s four albums have more or less told a cohesive narrative, her musical style has shown a remarkable evolution from one to the next. An admirable feature of her first three albums is their daring in sampling from a wide palette of American musical traditions, from rhythm and blues to punk to Top Forty pop. Yet it also sometimes seemed that the variety of sounds were really there to show Monáe would not be defined by a style, only by a story. Not so with Dirty Computer. While she remains stylistically fearless, Dirty Computer is a musically leaner experience, and gone is the orchestra that ornamented previous albums and defined tracks such as “BaBopByeYa.” This is not to say that the adventurousness is gone. “Crazy, Classic, Life” presents as the smarter beach radio pop song to Sheryl Crow’s “Soak Up the Sun,” while “Don’t Judge Me” opens with a Bill Withers–like vocal seduction. Meanwhile “Django Jane” owes its vocal delivery to the recent variant of trap music the rapper Future has popularized, and the Pharrell-produced “I Got the Juice” has Monáe giving the sound of Gwen Stefani’s “Hollaback Girl” a soulful, calypso-infused funk. Yet despite this variety, the sonic fundamentals are more consistent than ever, with many tracks built around drum machines and synthesizers. The result is an electronic soundscape that gives Dirty Computer the most insistently futuristic sound in Monáe’s catalog. When paired with the tight harmonies she lays down, often with slight processing effects on the vocal tracks, it feels as if one is meant to wonder whether a computer is doing a miraculous job of impersonating a human. Or maybe, as if an android is performing fourteen variations on revolution.
Monáe’s political vision has come into clearer focus throughout her creative output. Metropolis’s “Sincerely, Jane” lays out the manifold challenges to black well-being and our degree of self-consciousness about the predicament of social marginalization, so is a good place to start. In the track, Jane’s mother, the voice of an older conservative generation, worries about the behavior of poor blacks: they are selling drugs and having babies while still children themselves. The song’s hook pivots toward the theme of zombies, asking, “Are we really living or just walking dead now?” While Jane considers her mother’s words and all that she sees, she locates the problem in community and love rather than the trope of respectability politics. Given the plight of most blacks, Jane observes, “Love don’t make no sense, ask your neighbor.” The problem for Monáe is not lack of love, but the reality that love is dangerous: “The truth hurts and so does yesterday / What good is love if it burns bright and explodes in flames.”
This theme is carried through powerfully in two tracks on The ArchAndroid. Returning to the future, 57821 asks in “Oh, Maker” why she was created with the capacity to love if her choice to love a human would draw persecution: “Oh, Maker did you know / this love would burn so yellow. . . / Oh, Maker, have you ever loved / Or known just what it was? / I can’t imagine the bitter end / Of all the beauty that we’re living in.” Monáe’s questions not only address androids to their creators. Recalling both anti-miscegenation laws and the persecution queer communities endure today, the song also asks why we persecute alternative visions of love when we clearly were meant to love each other, and the bare fact that we do should be all the justification we need.
In The ArchAndroid’s “Neon Valley Street,” Monáe reincorporates the theme of the fugitive into the problem of loving differently: “We met alone forbidden in the city / Running fast through time like Tubman and John Henry / But the time was wrong / Illegal aliens moaned / It’s such a pity that the city’s just a danger zone.” Harriet Tubman and John Henry are especially powerful symbols here. The African American folk hero John Henry died after expending his superhuman strength on building the nation’s railroad systems; while Tubman managed a different “railroad” that funneled fugitive slaves to freedom. Together they suggest that 57821 and Greendown might never be able to love safely.
With the 2013 release of Electric Lady, Monáe began more openly exploring the implications of queer love in an intolerant society. The name of the album’s lead single, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” is, according to Monáe, an acronym for a list of the oppressed: queers, untouchables, emigrants, the excommunicated, and those characterized as “negroid.” The track at once expresses self-doubt about identity and involves listeners in a series of rhetorical questions that suggest the hypocrisy of religion and social domination: “Am I a freak because I love watching Mary? / Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven? / Say will your God accept me in my black and white? / Will he approve the way I’m made? / Or should I reprogram the programming and get down?”
What has Monáe’s Afrofuturism given us to remake the future?
Electric Lady seems to trade Greendown for unspecified other loves, both women and men. While “Primetime” features a soul-bending duet between Monáe and neo-crooner Miguel, “Sally Ride” can be interpreted as both Monáe’s and Jane’s farewell to heterosexuality. Named after the first woman astronaut to go to space, the song portrays a woman decisively moving on: “I’m packing my space suit / And I’m taking my shit and moving to the moon / Where there are no rules // Wake up, Mary / Have you heard the news? / You got to wake up, Mary / You’ve got the right to choose.”
The self-determination Monáe embraced in Electric Lady, and now puts to more assertive use in Dirty Computer, in different ways anticipated the spirit of both the Movement for Black Lives and #MeToo. Its insistence on the necessity of resisting white heteronormative patriarchy would also prove salutary, coming not long before a xenophobic, transphobic serial sexual predator became president.
• • •
These days it sometimes feels as if the battle for the future of the United States’ soul is between Donald Trump and Janelle Monáe. If Trump’s greatest wish is to drag the country kicking and screaming into his racist, patriarchal past, Monáe’s epic reaches a hand from the future to lead us toward progress. Monáe’s celebrations of blackness, queerness, and women plants an Afrofuturist flag square in the middle of our popular culture, beaming a progressive vision of respect and emancipation. It is in the context of her sci-fi credentials that Monáe’s speech at the 2018 Grammy Awards takes on special urgency. “We come in peace, but we mean business,” Monáe declared, echoing the iconic line from the 1951 film The Day the Earth Stood Still, in which humanity must decide what price it is willing to pay for choosing to live in a state of constant strife. Monáe’s newest studio release seems at times to be speaking directly to Trump, as in her anthem-like “Crazy, Classic, Life,” in which she riffs, “We don’t need another ruler / We don’t need another fool / I am not America’s nightmare / I am the American cool.”
We ought to ask, then, what has Monáe’s Afrofuturism given us to remake the future? Glover’s “This Is America” echoes the brilliance of his television series, Atlanta, which is uncompromising in representing the many indignities of black life in the United States. But Glover’s artistic project does not engage with the critical space between knowing more and doing better. This is the space Monáe has worked to define and which Dirty Computer makes a bid to fill with the notions of resistance, self-possession, and hope.
Monáe’s celebrations of blackness, queerness, and women plants an Afrofuturist flag square in the middle of our popular culture, beaming a progressive vision of respect and emancipation.
In “Django Jane,” Monáe makes a frontal assault on our culture wars. In the accompanying video, Monáe surrounds herself with women clad in gear reminiscent of the Black Panthers. Meanwhile her lyrics assert her fraying patience with patriarchy: “And hit the mute button / Let the vagina have a monologue / Mansplaining, I fold ’em like origami / What’s a wave, baby? This a tsunami / For the culture, I kamikaze.” And where the earlier “Q.U.E.E.N.” framed desires in the form of questions, “I Like That” plainly asserts: “And I like that / I don’t really give a fuck if I was the only one / Who likes that.”
The standout track on Dirty Computer is unquestionably “Pynk,” this era’s “I Am a Woman” but for black queer women wishing to banish racist misogyny from their lives. As ebullient as it is militant, the video for the song opens with a floating pink convertible moving down a dusty highway. The car is packed with Cyndi and a cohort of friends who rendezvous with a femme party. Verse by verse, Monáe provides sexual metaphors of pinkness in relation to that which we find pleasurable and mysterious:
Pink like your fingers in my, maybe
Pink is the truth you can’t hide
Pink like your tongue going ’round, baby
Pink like the sun going down, maybe
Pink like the holes in your heart, baby
Pink is my favorite part
In doing so, Monáe detaches the power of wonder and discovery from masculinity and phallic symbols (fast cars, motorcycles, contact sports) and indexes those to the power of feminine happiness and value. And the video itself is a joyful depiction of black women loving each other away from the gaze of both patriarchy and white feminism. It is also a warning to those who do not realize Time’s Up: in a close-up, we see “I GRAB BACK” embroidered on a woman’s underwear.
We ought to value Monáe’s embrace of hope and agency. Yet we should not ignore her warnings; Monáe is neither naïve nor ignorant of the dangers of racism, misogyny, and homo/transphobia. Just as Toni Morrison’s Beloved (1987) portrays a mother who is haunted by the ghost of a daughter she could only save from slavery by murdering her, Monáe is aware that sometimes the past’s torpor overpowers our desire to be free from it. In the forty-five-minute “emotion picture” that was released with Dirty Computer, Monáe assembles the album’s music videos into a narrative and overlays it with a backstory of Cyndi/Jane 57821 finally being captured by Metropolis’s state police, The New Dawn Ministry. Their mission is to erase the memories of “dirty computers” through the use of Nevermind, a poignant twist on the idea that ignorance is bliss. Through the short movie, we relive 57821’s greatest moments of happiness and love, such as those captured in “Pynk,” while also witnessing the systematic destruction of those memories by state agents. While two white men work the technical controls of the process, one of Cyndi’s past lovers (played by Tessa Thompson), herself already wiped “clean” of memory, counsels Cyndi through her reconditioning. In the end, 57821 is renamed and put to work reconditioning another of her lovers.
We are a democratic nation until we are not, and we are collectively responsible for our well-being.
While the defeatism of this ending might seem out of character, given the assertive hopefulness of Dirty Computer, I think there is another way to read it. Where there is hope there is the possibility of failure. Sometimes that failure comes from straightforward defeat or domination. Other times it comes from the ways in which we take the freedoms we have for granted. Metropolis is a totalitarian state with disconcerting parallels to our present regime. Yet we are a democratic nation until we are not, and we are collectively responsible for our well-being. Monáe has sent us 57821 as a prophet sends a messenger. We have been given the gift of a vision for a bright future that comes with a warning of what we stand to lose if we don’t act. The nature of freedom demands that it be fought for, protected, and reaffirmed. Tubman freed slaves by inserting her own body between white supremacy and progress. Now we must turn to the great black women of the future. The only real question is whether Monáe, as an emissary of hope in a moment of #BlackLivesMatter, #MeToo, and Trump, has arrived from the future too early, too late, or just in time.