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Dancing with Androids

Arts & Culture | October 28, 2013

In many ways, she’s a walking contradiction—an R&B artist who takes in equal amounts of neo-soul and indie rock influence; a black woman who has achieved commercial success by singing about robots; a musician with radical politics; a performance artist working on a multi-part concept album over six years and counting. But Janelle Monáe has done all of those things, and she has done so with a powerful political message. That last achievement is perhaps her most defiant: that of breathing revolutionary life into music that is about liberation, race, gender, class, sexuality, queerness, robots, and the future all at once.

Monáe released her first EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), in 2007 as the beginning of her multi-part concept album inspired by the classic 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis. She followed up in 2010 and 2013 with The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, which make up suites II through V of the seven-part story. The story itself follows Cindi Mayweather, an android who violates protocol by falling in love with a human, Anthony Greendown. She becomes a fugitive, ostracized by mainstream human society and becoming revered by android rebels and sympathizers. As her story and escape turn into legend, she comes to be seen as the Archandroid, a messianic figure thought to be able to bridge the gulf between humans and androids and end the oppression of the latter.

At the core of Monáe’s music is her alter ego, Cindi Mayweather. Like David Bowie’s Ziggy Stardust or Eminem’s Slim Shady, the alter ego provides an artist a partial liberation from the expectations and constraints placed on their own identities. But that is not all the alter ego does for Monáe. Cindi, and androids in general, are blank slates for her to talk about marginalized people. The historical and cultural references are everywhere—in her music videos, androids experience relationships forbidden by social norms, are bought and sold at auctions, and have their bodies objectified.

“I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new ‘other.’ You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman,” Monáe told the London Evening Standard in a 2011 interview. “What I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the ‘other’ to connect with the music and to feel like, ‘She represents who I am.’”

Monáe isn’t just using androids as metaphor, though—she is a futurist, with serious concerns with how we will treat artificial intelligences in the future. Will we be able to accept their experiences? Will we expect them to be new slaves? If they rebel against their programming, will we see them as freaks? She and her collaborators have been known to participate in discussions about The Singularity is Near, a futurist manifesto, and those influences underlie all her music.

In a 2010 interview with the science and entertainment blog io9, she expressed hopes that her music will raise a consciousness that prepares us to one day interact with artificial intelligence. Both in that respect and continuing the metaphor of android-as-the-oppressed, she describes the character of Cindi as “the mediator, between the mind and the hand. She’s the mediator between the haves and the have-nots, the oppressed and the oppressor. She’s like the Archangel in the Bible, and what Neo represents to the Matrix.”

While anticipating the future, Monáe does not forget her past. She situates herself distinctly within the artistic tradition of Afrofuturism, and her songs frequently refer to historical moments of social justice movements and milestones. “Sally Ride” is a ballad named after the first female astronaut; “Ghetto Woman” is an ode to her mother and the other powerful black women that fought for civil rights; “Q.U.E.E.N.” features her and legendary neo-soul musician Erykah Badu challenging the patriarchy and heteronormativity.

Through Cindi, Monáe is building revolutionary music that can speak to the political struggles of different, intersecting marginalized identities. In “Sally Ride,” she sings: “Just wake up Mary, there’s some amazing news / Wake up Mary, you got the right to choose / Real love.” Those and many other lyrics could easily be interpreted as referring to anything from queer rights to abortion, but that very vagueness gives the metaphor its power. In talking about android liberation, she can talk broadly about about radical inclusivity—the task accepting everyone’s humanity, even if they defy society’s dominant definition of “human.” The revolution is for everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re female, black, queer, or android; there is space for you in this world.

That same pluralism infects her music, leading her to draw from a wide range of influences. While her musical style is largely unified around R&B techniques, she draws freely and equally from rap and rock, and adopts many of the innovations of neo soul, funk, and psychedelic pop. Her guests are similarly varied, drawing from the pantheon of groundbreaking African-American artists (Erykah Badu, Prince, OutKast), modern visionaries (Solange, Miguel, Esperanza Spalding), and even indie rock (Of Montreal).

Despite espousing a politics of liberation, Monáe doesn’t reach for any kind of utopia as so many political philosophies do. In setting her story in the future and mirroring the very oppression we see in society, she readily admits that we might not be on some long moral arc that inevitably bends towards justice. But she also explicitly recognizes and references the many historical figures and movements that allow her to flourish. In doing so, she advocates for a revolution that is constant and permanent, always ready to fight on a new frontier, always active. And that itch for action breathes life into all of her music.

At some of her concerts, Monáe’s team distributes “The Ten Droid Commandments” to her audience. The Commandments, steeped in the mythology of her story, at once subvert religious orthodoxy and display an unashamed reverence for live music. “If you see your neighbor jamming harder than you, covet his or her jam,” reads the Second Commandment. Monáe wants us to get up and dance, to love doing it, and to love everyone else that’s doing it.

Dance is a radical form of expression for Cindi Mayweather—in this world, androids are not programmed to dance and they come under legal threat for doing so. The very act of moving to a beat becomes the ultimate form of self-expression and rebellion against social and legal norms. Monáe and her Wondaland Arts Society (her collaborators) pay acute attention to the physical potential of their music – a 2013 Pitchfork interview revealed that as they worked on The Electric Lady, they brought early versions of songs to Atlanta strip clubs to test if they were conducive to dancing. She wants her audience to live the music, and similarly to live out radical inclusivity. If we better understand oppression, maybe when we do one day encounter androids, we can avoid recreating the same systems of injustice we have seen so often in history.

In both her musical inspiration and her storytelling, Monáe brings a new dimension to gender, race, and sexuality politics in popular music. She honors and respects historical and current suffering and those who have fought to alleviate it, but she does not get trapped in solemnity. Even in those rare tracks that aren’t made for dancing, she finds a way to get people moving, swaying, and living out the music, rather than turning it into a stale text.

As the sixth Droid Commandment reads, Monáe is asking you, daring you, to “abandon your expectations about art, race, gender, culture, and gravity.” Social revolution is like music—it must be made and re-made over and over again, shared constantly, carved out anew for each person and each era. Janelle Monáe and Cindi Mayweather both dare us to move, to rebel, to challenge the oppression that we find all around us, to love radically and universally. They dare us, in their own words, to dance apocalyptic.