Janelle Monae’s Grammy-Nominated ‘Dirty Computer’ Is The Album Black Women Need Right Now

02.08.19 1 week ago

Getty Image/Bad Boy Records

“I go forth alone and stand as 10,000.” — Maya Angelou

As the opener of Janelle Monae’s newest record bursts into its second track, the fluorescent pop-rap fusion of “Crazy Classic Life,” I can hear traces of the expansive synth-crazed ‘80s I was born into. Legwarmers and big hair; Phil Collins and Boy George; Flashdance and Pretty In Pink. And, of course, the way the song’s booming, frolicky production is complicated by lyrics of impending doom, “So if the world should end tonight / I had a crazy, classic life.” That last line of that otherwise upbeat hook feels holy, immortal — and timely.

When I listened to Dirty Computer for the first time, it was like hearing my Black, blue-collar, southern girlhood set to a soundtrack of big, bright ‘80s pop — only this time with the mic in my hands. For all my infatuation with the music and culture of the ‘80s, there had been a gulf between me and Sixteen Candles’ Molly Ringwald, between me and even the inevitably doomed Culture Club hook I still remember by heart: “Time won’t give me time…” Even as I watched the culture from somewhere outside it and sang along to its music, I wondered if there could ever be a time when the gulf between us would lessen — a moment in which the culture I idolized might fully be mine.

Beginning with the Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) EP, set in the year 2719, Janelle Monae introduced her alter-ego Cyndi Mayweather, a genre-hopping, Black female android who was being hunted for the crime of falling in love with a human. Cyndi’s epic cyborg saga developed further on 2010’s critically acclaimed The ArchAndroid — a supersonic admixture of R&B and funk threaded with rock, euro-folk, rap, and cabaret — and a project that cemented Janelle as the kind of artist my college professor would call a “cat on a hot tin roof.” Or, more directly, a transgressor of genre lines, lyrically, visually, and sonically.

Noted for bringing Afrofuturism and science fiction into R&B and pop in a big way, Monae’s music has been compared to George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, her beloved former mentor Prince, and Sun Ra. Over the course of a decade and three project releases, Monae built an Afrofuturist femme-ruled universe in which she reigned as “funkstress,” defying easy categorization and, according to scholars, re-framing a historically male-centered Afrofuturism like Clinton’s into a neo-Afrofuturism that centers black women — an extraordinary feat for an artist still as early in her career as Monae.

On Dirty Computer, which is considered by some to be a sort of prequel to Cyndi Mayweather’s universe, Monae’s decade-long Afrofuturist world-building collides into biomythography, a literary genre that merges history, fact, and myth. Coupled with the fact that the album’s massive Grammy nominations precede Cyndi Mayweather’s lush 2719 “cybersoul” funkscape by exactly 700 years, the project’s timing feels mythic and magical — as if Janelle can manipulate time and space themselves to reflect her reality.

Audre Lorde coined the term “biomythography” in 1982 to house her newest project Zami: A New Spelling of My Name. The self-described “Black, lesbian, mother, warrior, poet” created the category in response to the limitations of the genres she’d been tethered to her whole career. A convergence of history, memoir, and myth, biomythography was a space where Lorde could represent her queered, Black, working-class womanhood without the socio-political limitations of established genres that were already irrevocably male-centered and heteronormative minded. Within this new form, Lorde created a space where she could be feminine and masculine to a degree that was unacceptable to the “mainstream” literary canon or, put more simply, be her entire self.

In the case for Dirty Computer as biomythography, the “myth” is embedded in the album’s Android saga backstory. Because of it, we can see three women in Dirty Computer’s cover art: Cyndi Mayweather, Janelle Monae, and Jane 57821. Here, myth and magic create a space for the reclamation of female autonomy flying in the face of powerful, oppressive men and contextualizing female rebellion against misogyny as both an epic and a timely battle. Consider the pointed lyrical rebuttal of “I Got the Juice.” In this instance, pussy is mythical, “divine,” and has political power: It will “grab you back” and give you “pussy cataracts.” This phrasing is threaded with myth, but also functions as a real response to one of the most misogynist comments in America’s pop culture memory.

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