by Shane Thomas
I first heard of Monae when she guested on the Outkast song, “Call the Law”, from their most recent (and probably final) album, Idlewild. It was a track that I enjoyed, and put Monae in that radar of pop-culture trivia knowledge that might one day come in useful at a pub quiz.
However, the 2011 Glastonbury Festival took her out of that somewhat disrespectful place in my consciousness. For those not in the know, Glastonbury is Britain’s highest profile music festival, and one of the BBC’s main televisual events of the year. Their scope is fairly comprehensive, with a substantive amount of coverage from the three primary stages of the event.
At this time, Janelle had not long released her debut album, The ArchAndroid. And at the aforementioned Glastonbury Festival, she showcased the album. The timeslot and stage she was given was not high-profile by any stretch, but it turned out she didn’t need it. From the comfort of my home, I watched some of her performance on television.
I was thunderstruck by what I saw. Personally, I felt her display was (insert superlative here). I had never heard any of her previous material at this point – bar the aforementioned Outkast song – but I decided to see what she was made of, regardless. Normally, if I watch a music act on TV, it’s because I am already a fan, familiar with the material, luxuriating in the work that I enjoy. However, I went into this completely cold, taking a chance on someone who I had heard good things about.
Janelle closed her set with “Come Alive (War of the Roses)”.
It’s seldom that the energy a musician gives on stage can come through the TV screen. But sitting down, I felt that I was actually in the audience. The energy and electricity from Monae had a potency that transferred further than the Glastonbury crowd.
While I have an ample amount of R’n’B on my i-Pod, most of the black women in that section are either not part of the mainstream, not part of the mainstream any more, or are called either Beyonce or Rihanna. So one can become blase, feeling that they’ve seen it all before.
But it’s clear that Janelle was unlike anything that I’ve seen before. I noted that while her dancing (in-between singing) was magnetic, if one tried to copy those dance moves, they’d look like they were either severely under the influence, or suffering from some kind of illness. Also, while Monae is the centrepiece, her band also bounced around the stage with frenzied enthusiasm.
But this wasn’t style over substance. This was style and substance (she can put it down when it comes to basic vocals, as well). The artist that Monae seems most redolent to is my favourite musician of all time, Prince. Like “His Royal Badness”, Monae has an offbeat approach to her music, she clearly doesn’t do R’n’B by numbers. She is a whirling dervish of energy that demands one’s attention when she performs, and also like Prince, she is softly spoken, enigmatic and slightly guarded when speaking in interviews
Of course, her wardrobe choices also catch the eye. Her and her band always go for a formal, stripped-down, black and white look, which she was doing long before Justin Timberlake got his suit and tie on(and I’m not the first one to notice that, I guess cultural appropriationn never gets tired).
She often uses symbolism and metaphor when elucidating on her work, and describes The ArchAndroid as a concept record, often playing fictional characters to tell the stories in the songs. Which is something that’s not only been used by Prince, but also by David Bowie – another enigmatic solo star, who broke new ground in his field by using imagery as well as sound.
However, all this happened back in 2011, so why am I only writing about Janelle now?
Her sophomore album, The Electric Lady, which she’s already released two singles off this album; “Q.U.E.E.N”, a collaboration with Erykah Badu – who must surely have been an inspiration to Monae – and “Dance Apocalyptic”
As mentioned, Monae’s public attire and demeanour isn’t from the ostensible playbook of what a popular female singer should be. While she had never been especially outspoken on issues such as gender and sexuality stereotypes, many have framed her as something of a queer icon. Maybe aware of her growing profile in this sphere, on Q.U.E.E.N, she confronted some of the issues she faces as a woman of colour – who doesn’t pander to certain race & gender stereotypes – head on.
Personally, I think Q.U.E.E.N is one of the best feminist anthems I’ve ever heard. The lyrics include AAVE slang such as, “throwing shade” and “twerking”. In the closing section of the song, she looks straight the camera, and raps a verse that’s as good or better than anything I’ve heard in hop-hop this year.
Excerpts from Q.U.E.E.N:
Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations/But they’ll never make us equal
She who writes the movie/Owns the script and the sequel
So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal?
They keep us underground/Working hard for the greedy
But when it’s time to pay/They turn around and call us needy
As well as lines like:
You can take my wings/But I’m still gon’ fly
And even when you edit me/The booty don’t lie
March to the streets/’Cos I’m willing and I’m able
Categorise me?/I defy every label
That final line sums up Janelle, best. While some find chart music wearying, and give it a wide berth, the fact remains that popular music (like all forms of pop culture) has an impact on the world we live in. So it matters when we have someone who dares to be different than what record labels, A&R executives, and commercial radio like to determine as popular.
There’s no doubt that Janelle is partly the sum total of the numerous influences on her music. She’s hardly the first solo star to walk her own path in the music industry. As well as Prince and David Bowie, I also see a little of Ella Fitzgerald and Otis Redding in Monae.
This isn’t intended to be free advertising for Monae (although I guess that’s how this post has looked), I’m not part of her PR team. But as soon as I saw that Glastonbury performance, I became an avowed fan of hers. This piece is a result of what happens to all of us when we experience a great new artist. We want to tell everyone about them, as a form of altruistic fandom; “This artist made me feel wonderful, and I want you to feel that way, too.”
And while I accept that’s not possible, I consider this a success if I’ve convinced at least one of you to spend (or is that waste?) 15 minutes on YouTube, looking up Janelle’s work. She may not be the best pop musician in everyone’s opinion around at the moment, but she’s far and away my favourite.
A mixed-race film graduate, Shane Thomas comes from Jamaican and Mauritian parentage. He has been blogging about sport since 2010 at the website for The Greatest Events in Sporting History. He is also a contributor to ‘Simply Read’, the blogging offshoot of the podcasting network, Simply Syndicated. A lover of sport, genre-fiction, and privilege checking, Shane can be found on Twitter, both at @TGEISH and @tokenbg (and yes, the handle does mean what you think it means).
- Janelle Monae: The Electric Lady (mediadiversified.org)
- What is Afrofuturism? (mediadiversified.org)
- Articles by Gradient Lair tagged Janelle Monae
- Bitch Tapes: An Afrofuture Mixtape (bitchmagazine.org)
- Four Reasons To Listen To Janelle Monáe’s New Album, ‘The Electric Lady,’ Immediately (thinkprogress.org)
- Stream Janelle Monáe’s New Album ‘The Electric Lady’ (highsnobiety.com)
- Janelle Monae’s ‘The Electric Lady’: ‘The ArchAndroid’ Gets A High-Voltage Makeover (buzzworthy.mtv.com)
- Fall Music Preview 2013: The 26 Albums You Need to Hear
- Janelle Monae’s New Album Is Scorching Hot and Streaming Online