On “Sally Ride” Janelle Monae coos: “Wake up, Mary, have you heard the news? Wake up, Mary, you have the right to choose.” Monae is speaking to the Madonna, The Virgin Mary, willing the feminine symbol of Christianity from her sleep, shaking the floor of Christian dogmatism with two sentences. Monae invites us to reassess our feelings about the narrative of a woman being told by a patriarchal God she is to birth the savior of humanity — without consent. These two sentences bring a feminist context to the Christ story, returning autonomy back to the woman, but they also act as double entendre, which is the source of their power.
Janelle’s honey-soaked voice crooning that Mary “has the right to choose” is an obvious commentary on her pro-life stance and a subversive political move, bringing the icon Virgin Mary, who is closely associated with The Catholic Church, a historically anti-abortion force, into a pro-choice conversation. The passion of Janelle Monae is to use double entendre to expose and express singular truths about love, justice, equality, and freedom. To understand the double meanings of Janelle Monae, it’s necessary to understand the artists who came before her, living dual lives in order to express their truest selves.
Missy Elliot lived as an afro-futurist plaything, using hip-hop as her stomping ground while simultaneously existing as a fat, black woman hell-bent on transcending patriarchal, white supremacist standards about beauty and power. Jazz composer and bandleader Sun-Ra lived dually — and rather infamously — as a black man fighting against racism in America and a self-professed alien from a far-off planet. Earth, Wind, & Fire were black friends creating music that expressed feelings of love, joy, celebration, and heartbreak even as they also saw themselves as elements that literally sustained the world.
Duality in black art and life is not new, but necessary. As far back as W.E.B. DuBois, Black intellectuals have been writing about the double-consciousness that black people must embody in order to sustain themselves. In art, often black people must also see themselves as what we are in this socio-political reality but also see ourselves as something bigger and more abstract than what society and our flesh offers us. No other artist of our era has done this with as much mastery or invoked so much fascination as Janelle Monae.
To attempt to be subversive is one thing, but to successfully subvert is another. Janelle Monae is the kind of rare artist that shakes the foundation of what makes us feel comfortable as a people. In both her music and visuals, Janelle Monae disrupts the status quo with ease. Monae’s particular genius draws on the knowledge of what our collective sanity relies on, and what will break that foundation. And when Monae breaks it, she finds her own peace in this disturbance — which is why the music is just so damn good. She skates effortlessly and confidently between soundscapes and ideas because society’s chaos is the rebel’s playground. She is the android. She is the dirty computer. Janelle Monae does not make art to disturb the comfortable, she makes it to comfort herself and the disturbed.