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Janelle Monae: Science fiction in African-American pop

About the author

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune and co-host of the nationally syndicated public radio show Sound Opinions. He is the author of several books, including the forthcoming I'll Take You There: Mavis Staples, the Staple Singers and the March Up Freedom's Highway.

(Marc Baptiste)

(Marc Baptiste)

The singer’s android alter ego is back in her North American tour. And she is part of a rich tradition of sci-fi in African-American pop, says Greg Kot.

Androids have a so-so reputation when it comes to partying, as movies like The Terminator and Blade Runner have taught us. They seem a little too uptight, these half-human, half-robot creations. But Janelle Monae would argue otherwise. In her albums, she plays an android on a serious mission – to liberate the planet, no less – but with a playful streak. Monae’s android wants to shake and shimmy out of her psychic shackles.

The singer is in the midst of one of the year’s most-acclaimed North American tours, a high-energy string of sold-out theatre dates that dances a century of music into the future. Prince, who made a rare cameo appearance on Monae’s latest album, Electric Lady, has been one of her most vocal fans (even attending a recent show in Minneapolis). Tastemakers such as Erykah Badu, Big Boi and Questlove have been championing her artistry. 

Monae shares her success with Cindi Mayweather, her android alter-ego. Though it’s convenient to link Monae to certain earthbound traditions because she happens to be a female African-American singer – neo-soul, R&B, urban – it doesn’t really do her music justice.

In the first three releases of her career − Metropolis (2007), The ArchAndroid (2010) and Electric Lady – Monae can’t be contained by genre or generation. She blends rock, soul, funk, cabaret, hip-hop, jazz and traces of classical music like a child of the iPod-on-shuffle era. The recent single Dance Apocalyptic packs girl-group harmonies, new-wave rock and ukulele twang into an ebullient anthem.

As if that weren’t enough, Monae spreads a science-fiction narrative across her music about the ultimate outsider − Cindi, the ‘droid from the year 2719. Of course, there’s a real-life subtext. Cindi is marginalised in the same way Monae and her family were when she was growing up in Kansas City, Kansas. If you were a person of colour, a woman, gay, lower middle-class, you were made to feel you didn’t count.

We are the robots

“I chose an android because the android to me represents the ‘other', the new ‘other’,” Monelle told me in an interview before The ArchAndroid was released. “There are so many parallels to my own life; just being a female African-American artist in today’s music industry. I have gone to predominately white or black schools, and tried to represent individuality, whereas some of the people around me were not. Whether you’re called weird or different, all those things we do to make people uncomfortable with themselves, I’ve always tried to break out of those boundaries. The android represents the new other to me.”

Monae is working in a long, if not always well-understood tradition in African-American music. To get what Janelle/Cindi is all about, it’s best to start with the late jazz innovator Sun Ra. In his 1974 movie Space is the Place, Ra plays an inter-galactic oracle with gold headdress and cape. It’s “after the end of the world,” with the visionary composer preaching the gospel of space-age emancipation.

“The music is different here, the vibrations are different, not like planet earth, with the sound of guns, anger, frustration,” he says. He presides over a colony of black people, who “don’t exist” back on Earth. “We work on the other side of time. … We teleport their whole planet here through music.”

Ra’s music often sounded like the soundtrack to a teleportation, with its pioneering use of synthesizers and electronic keyboards amid the big-band swing of the boundary-defying Solar Myth Arkestra. Its heady aura suggests escapism and fantasy, but as with the best science-fiction, it is anchored in reality.

Sun Ra operated proudly within a tradition that the scholar Mark Dery later dubbed ‘Afrofuturism’, a blend of science fiction and non-Western history that placed African culture in a new context. "African-Americans are, in a very real sense, the descendants of alien abductees,” Dery wrote in Black to the Future, an essay included in the 1994 anthology Flame Wars: The Discourse of Cyberculture. Because many slaves had their history erased by their owners when they were brought to America from Africa centuries ago, Afrofuturism emerged in 20th-Century music, film, art and literature and pointed this exiled culture in a new direction: the future. In this view, Africans are the alien ‘other’ in Western society, stigmatized as outcasts, who must build bridges in their imaginations to a new utopia, possibly far removed geographically and spiritually from the world that is marginalizing them.

Space craft

Sun Ra explored that theme in music, dress and attitude, and he did it with a sense of humour, a flair for the theatrical. It was an ‘otherness’ that spoke loudly to George Clinton in his greatest creation, the soul collective Parliament-Funkadelic. Like Sun Ra’s Arkestra, ‘P-Funk’ wore otherworldly costumes on stage and critiqued racism and political and economic injustice through satire and fantasy. At their ‘70s peak, the big band of merry pranksters would emerge on stage from a spacecraft – ‘the Mothership’.

That legacy was extended by the Atlanta hip-hop duo OutKast in the ‘90s, particularly on the album ATLiens – an homage of sorts to the P-Funk/Sun Ra prescription for outcast African-Americans. The future takes a turn for the dystopian in more recent Afrofuturist classics such as Cannibal Ox’s eerie The Cold Vein (2001) and Deltron 3030’s self-titled debut (2000) and the recent follow-up, Event II. These depict a planet spiraling toward self-destruction. Presumably, Sun Ra had it right all along — space really is the place, and it’s time to get the hell out now.

Or, as Monae sings on the title track from Electric Lady: "Come on, get in,my spaceship leaves at 10."

Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.

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