A post for Omnified by Charlotte Billing
The artistry of Janelle Monáe has always been a sight to behold, stretching back to the signature suit donned in the video of her first smash hit single “Many Moons” a decade ago to this year’s concept album, “Dirty Computer.” The artist’s recent appearance at the Red Bull Music Festival in Berlin was no exception.
Monáe walked onstage wearing a black and white striped silk jumpsuit, a black engineer’s cap, and stilt-like white platform wedges covered in black polka dots, with the signature red soles of Louboutin shoes.
When Monáe was asked by the evening’s moderator, Christine Kakaire, about her distinctive style, Monáe spoke about her mother, a janitor; her father, a garbage man; her stepfather, a postal worker; and her grandmother, who served food in the local jail for 25 years. Growing up watching them wear uniforms to work is the reason Monáe has her own duochrome suit, a homage to all service workers that says, “I see you.”
Since her launch into the music world, Monáe has developed narratives and characters, which perhaps have allowed her to retain privacy as the woman behind the curtain. But Monáe said it was important to her in her latest album that she “embrace all of me,” and she wanted, for the first time, to publicly explore more of her many dimensions.
One striking visual on the album are what some call the “vagina pants,” featured in the track, “Pynk.” The pants, which she told us are currently “locked away in a safe” after accompanying her on tour, represented something deeply personal for the artist.
“It’s important to not pigeonhole myself, to not get comfortable, you know, to rest in my laurels, but to make sure that I’m constantly creating art and experimenting, and that I’m unafraid to make art that folks may not understand at that time,” said Monáe.
Growing up in Kansas City, all Janelle Monáe ever talked about was “New York, New York! It’s only New York!” She studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City initially, but ultimately decided to leave. A surprise change of heart, but it turned out to be the right path for an artist who was looking for something different.
Monáe moved to Georgia, living in Atlanta University Center, home to four Historically Black Colleges (HBCs). Though she wasn’t a student there, she discovered “these were the types of people I wanted to make music for,” and began playing in dorm lounges and on library steps.
“How I would find out if my music was any good is I would measure it by, ok, are they stopping,” Monáe said. “And most people didn’t stop.”
Atlanta was a new kind of grind for Monáe. When she wasn’t selling computer printers at her Office Depot job, she was selling CDs out of the back of a green Mitsubishi Galant. To think a decade on she would be collaborating with Prince is a surprising payoff she still has few words to describe.
In the early 2000s, Monáe found herself in a community of hip-hop and R&B legends, among them hip-hop duo OutKast who she says helped pull up the next generation of artists. It was in this city where she founded Wondaland Arts Society, a cross-discipline artists’ collective, which lead her into collaborations with Big Boi, who remains a champion of her work today.
The release of “Dirty Computer” comes at a time when mainstream audiences have grown more accustomed to this kind of art, in part because of the impact of visual albums like Beyoncé’s “Lemonade” and Solange Knowles’s “A Seat at the Table.” Works like this that emphasize storytelling, choreography, and costumery, have been part of Monáe’s career from the very beginning.
Monáe’s conceptual world is often described as part of “Afro-Futurism,” in which she inhabits alter-egos such as the android “Cindi Mayweather,” seen in the 2007 EP, “Metropolis” as well as in the full-length albums that followed, including “The ArchAndroid” (2010) and “The Electric Lady” (2013).
Now she performs as “Jane 57821” in “Dirty Computer.” Some of the language developed to explain the concept of the album was that if all humans are computers, we all have our “bugs and viruses” that make us unique. Perhaps these are our sexual identities, the color of our skin, our sense of gender, but developing these characters is a useful way for Monáe to convey that we have these “bugs” in her own systems.
Delphi, the former silent film theater, was a fitting venue for a “A Conversation with Janelle Monáe,” considering a seed of inspiration for Monáe’s work came after her first viewing of the classic German expressionist science-fiction film, “Metropolis.” She said she was originally inspired by the idea that “the mediator between head and hands must be the heart.”
“And I said I want to represent the heart,” she said. “I want to bring people together with music.”
Janelle Monáe brought the “Dirty Computer” tour to the UK in September and will appear at a number of festivals in the coming months.
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