Sister Outsider, Sister Citizen: Unpacking the Afrofuturism of Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer

I had toyed with the idea of titling this review “Pynk Lemonade,” but that sounds terribly derivative and unfair to the unique and forward-thinking artist that Janelle Monae represents.

After all, before pop star Beyoncé brought HBCU culture and aesthetics into the mainstream when she became the first black woman to headline the Coachella music festival last month, Monae had already engaged these representations for her music video for the 2013 track “Electric Lady.” Before Beyoncé unleashed her “feminist manifesto,” her self-titled visual album linking politics with sex-positivity, Monae already told us: “Even when you edit me, the booty don’t lie.” And, while we will be forever grateful that Beyoncé used her larger platform and heightened visibility to raise awareness of Black Lives Matter with her “Formation” video and visual album Lemonade, Monae was already on the ground doing that protest-music work with her 2015 song “Hell You Talmbout,” a stripped-down call-and-response around the chant “Say Her Name/Say His Name” with a roll call of the numerous victims of police brutality.

This is not to reduce these two black women pop artists into a contest, as if we must choose one over the other. I already have ambitious plans to teach Beyoncé’s Lemonade in dialogue with Monae’s recent “emotion picture” Dirty Computer that premiered ahead of its album of the same name. Indeed, Monae extends the black feminist vision of Lemonade in Dirty Computer with her own offering of queer desire, identity and what José Esteban Muñoz has called “queer world-making.”

While Beyoncé’s visual album establishes a rootedness in history, ancestry and Southern Culture, Monae’s emotion picture is futuristic, eclectic in its cultural influences and far more nomadic. Monae’s character Jane 57821, already introduced to us from her classic 2010 sci-fi concept album The Arch Android, is constantly on the run, carefree and joyous in living her life, before she is finally captured by a high-tech surveillance state hell bent on erasing her memories. Both works of art center the “black girl magic” power of community, with each artist surrounded by her posse of black girlfriends, but Monae extends this collective to a wider multiracial queer community. They are nonetheless both committed to “smashing the patriarchy”—from Lemonade’s personal to Dirty’s political.

Monae is not a chart-topper, and has often existed comfortably (or not) in the margins—or, as her infectious single “I Like That” expresses, being “left of center, the minor note you hear in major songs.” Perhaps this is why there isn’t the same feverish output of think-pieces that had followed the release of Lemonade two years ago.

I had co-authored with Jessica Marie Johnson a Lemonade Resource list that assembled over 70 reviews, teaching aids, conversations, podcasts and even a #LemonadeSyllabus—so the difference in audience response is telling. Will we get a Dirty Computer syllabus? The jury is still out, as Monae, being off-center, is sometimes viewed as too quirky, too weird, too queer. 

With this latest artistic offering, Monae has eschewed being coy about her sexuality. She came out as “pansexual” just days before releasing her album, thus sparking an increase in searches for definitions of the word; she also unhesitatingly identified as a “queer young black woman of America” when interviewed on CBS Sunday Morning.

The same segment featured a clip of her extended version of her single “Pynk,” in which she declares in spoken word to her beloved—played by rumored girlfriend and actress Tessa Thompson—”I don’t want to hide my love.” The video, released ahead of the album, already invited commentary around its depiction of vulva-pants in an ode to the pleasures and desires of women-loving women, even as Monae reiterated that she was not engaging in gender essentialism and acknowledged that not all women have vaginas.

Placed in the context of her emotion picture, the video is one of several “memories” that a totalitarian government tries to “erase” in attempts at “cleansing.” As Monae explains in the voice-over exposition in Dirty, humans in this futuristic environment are referred to as “computers,” and those who are too different—due to their race, sexual orientation and even political views—are referred to as “dirty computers” who must be “cleaned.” It’s a powerful metaphor for gay conversion therapy, or even in the ways that a racist state works to “whitewash” history. Monae presents a dystopian narrative, but then flips the script at the end, suggesting that our memories serve as acts of resistance.

Tellingly, Dirty Computer follows two critically acclaimed films featuring Monae which explore similar themes. Academy Award for Best Picture winner Moonlight is a black queer coming-of-age story, while in Hidden Figures, Monae portrays real-life “computer” Mary Jackson, who became the first African American woman engineer at NASA. While Monae has suggested the concept for Dirty Computer existed long before her first LP The Arch Android, we recognize how she blurs the lines between human labor and technology and the machine-like objectification of the black female body—visually dramatized in the video “Take a Byte,” in which Monae’s character is surveilled both for the state and the medical industrial complex and shown hanging upside down, as if she were enslaved all over again.

Long fascinated with science fiction—she recently appeared in Amazon’s Electric Dreams as an android—Monae engages an Afrofuturism that disrupts the linear narrative of time. Both in the emotion picture and on the album, 1980s pop confection merges with a 21st-century bass line. The influences of her late mentor Prince are detectable—from the “Kiss” guitar riffs in her pansexual-themed video “Make Me Feel” to the double doors opening her video for “Django Jane,” much like Prince’s music video for “When Doves Cry.” Even her bathtub in “I Like That” is a homage to that same video—except pink flamingos replace doves, and a peacock represents her self-love and self-actualization. There are other ’80s influences in Dirty—hints of David Bowie, Madonna, even Cyndi Lauper’s “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun,” leather punk and the Black Nationhood caps from hip-hop groups like Public Enemy and Salt-n-Pepa. Because of her close resemblance to Whitney Houston in her video for “Screwed,” which features a colorful artistic backdrop much like Houston’s music video for “How Will I Know,” and given the rumored bisexuality of Whitney Houston, seeing Monae invoke a queer version of the late pop star suggests that her project provides both futuristic and historic healing.

Her songs “Crazy, Classic, Life,” “Take a Byte” and “Screwed” invoke the 1980s era in ways that allude to the Black Mirror episode of “San Junipero,” about an interracial same-sex romance—one that Monae has joyously tweeted as a major influence—but she also spits rap verses throughout in a constant upgrading and updating of the deliberately “dated” sound. While both Beyoncé and rapper Cardi B have engaged the more masculine sounds of trap music, Monae instead engages the more “bubblegum” femininity of these pop sounds. The effect is an airiness and sweetness, even while the more sultry sound of “Don’t Judge Me” and the contemplative “So Afraid” grounds the project in sobriety. In the emotion picture, “Don’t Judge Me” echoes in a dreamy beach scene where Monae frolics with both her female and male lover in a polyamorous triad defying heteronormativity and respectability politics. As she declares in “Screwed”—”I’m tired of hoteps telling me how to feel.” It’s a “memory” that feels both timeless and fleeting.

However, the most obvious homage to the 1980s is her sci-fi narrative for the emotion picture. While riffing on Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, a heart-breaking love story about the consequences of erasing memories, the narrative evokes Bladerunner in reverse, in which replicants are implanted with “memories” to be more human. Even the score echoes the Vangelis theme. Touches of the future intersperse with images of the past, such as floating vintage cars and police-like drones that still target those who “drive while black.” In the midst of this high-tech surveillance state, Monae and her friends are determined to live and love freely—and yet, when their party is interrupted by masked police with red lasers, one cannot help but also recall The Terminator, another 1980s sci-fi thriller, replete with its infamous Tech Noir club scene disrupted by violence.

Of course, when one considers that Monae was born in 1985, it’s easy to imagine her as a time-traveler, much like the fictional John Connor sending his father Kyle Reese back to 1984 to impregnate his mother. If the presentation of her memories is a throwback to the earlier art form of the music video in the era of its inception, then we may be able to also recognizehow, in her extended “emotion picture,” Monae is indeed a “black girl from the future.”

Mostly, Monae asserts her status as both outsider and citizen in Dirty Computer. She embodies what Audre Lorde, black lesbian feminist author of Sister Outsider, once stated: “If I didn’t define myself for myself, I would be crunched into other people’s fantasies for me and eaten alive.”

Monae insists on self-definition and exists in the margins but asserts her American-ness—from her line “I’m not America’s nightmare, I’m the American dream,” in “Crazy, Classic, Life,” to her finale song, “Americans,” where she demands her citizenship in a nation that grants rights and equality across race, class, gender, sexuality and immigration status. In this regard, she suggests, as Melissa Harris-Perry argues in Sister Citizen, that “black women’s experiences act as a litmus test for the nation.” (Or, to quote the Combahee River Collective’s Black Feminist Statement: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.”)

It is no wonder that Monae, with both her lovers in tow, leads the revolution in the end. Her freedom precipitates the freedom of everyone else. It’s a triumphant message for an eclectic album and emotion picture determined to champion desire, love,  joy, freedom—and, of course, liberation.

Janell Hobson is associate professor of women’s, gender and sexuality studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York. She is the author of Body as Evidence: Mediating Race, Globalizing Gender.

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