Decoding the queer appeal of Janelle Monáe
The Kansas-born Atlanta-based polymath that is Janelle Monae first hit our radars in 2010, as a pompadour-sporting, tap-dancing, androgynous belter.
Janelle Monae could sing, she could dance and she could rap. She rocked an aesthetic that merged vintage Broadway heart with afro-futurist rebel vision, she wore a tuxedo-like ‘uniform’ to honour her working class lineage – her mother was a janitor, her father a refuse collector – and she showed Prince-levels of ambition with her sound, a sound that is a cinematic, genre-defying opera of funk, soul, R&B, art-rock, do-wop, and classical.
Two brilliantly inventive and deeply queer concept albums followed – The ArchAndroid in 2010, and Electric Lady in 2013. Both albums were reeased via Monáe’s own label, Wondaland, and centred on an alter-ego protagonist, Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling cyborg loved by women and men alike, sent from the future to liberate the oppressed. Through Cindi, Monae revealed an artist of vision and intent, an artist committed to centring the Other in her work.
That commitment transferred to the silver screen when Janelle Monae moved into film, earning critical acclaim for her debut roles in Moonlight (2016) and Hidden Figures (2016) – films that re-framed hidden black experiences. Music, it seemed, was on the back burner.
Then, in February 2018, we were treated to not one but two new songs and videos, the first offerings from her upcoming album Dirty Computer.
Django Jane, with its fierce, staccato “black girl magic”, was instantly quote-worthy. The influence of her late mentor, Prince, is immediately apparent on Make Me Feel, with its wild funk and bisexual lighting. How have these new songs gone down with her fans?
“I am a little intense about how much I love them. It is intimidating my friends and particularly my partner,” says Toby, 25, from London.
“I have about thirty stills from both videos saved to my phone for whenever I feel tired. I barely listen to anything else.”
Toby has been a fan since first sight, when he saw the televised performance of her 2010 Glastonbury set. It included this “totally unhinged” performance of Come Alive.
“The first videos I saw of hers were Tightrope and Many Moons, on the same day. I was completely hooked, instantly,” he says.
“I spent ages pausing them and analysing them. The combination of this magical realism, Philip K Dick type sci-fi, afro-futurism – which I only read about because of her.
“Then the themes of slavery, sex trade, liberation and sexism, it just totally blew my mind. I went from a heterosexual woman who was toying with voting for a kawaii-era Nick Clegg to a bisexual transgender socialist. Janelle Monae presided over that.”
Rachel, 36, from London, had a similarly immediate reaction.
“All I remember is seeing the video for Tightrope. I watched it pretty much on repeat for a week,” she says.
“That was it for me. I was fairly freshly out of a long-term relationship, and in a pretty intense and challenging phase of my career when I first saw the video. I couldn’t get the song out of my head.
“The idea of walking that line, keeping your balance and holding onto yourself and who you are in the midst of all the shit all really spoke to me. Plus, how incredibly hot and strong she looked in a suit!”
As Toby points out, that now-iconic uniform was frequently misread by the straight mainstream.
“You know the line in ‘Django Jane’ where she says ‘runnin out of space in my damn bandwagon, remember when they used to say I looked too mannish?’? It made me, like, dry sob – because I do!” Toby says.
“I felt like they wanted to call her a man because they didn’t want to admit that beautiful women of colour could dress that way: for themselves”
“I remember being so angry in those early years that people kept denying her womanhood. People acted confused because she had short hair – even when I was experimenting with my own gender by presenting in a similar style.
“These white reviewers kept going on and on about how ‘ambiguous’ she looked. I felt she was very clearly asserting herself as a woman. It obviously wouldn’t make her any less beautiful to be non-binary. I felt like they wanted to call her a man because they didn’t want to admit that beautiful women of colour could dress that way: for themselves.”
While Janelle Monae’s aesthetic is undoubtedly part of her appeal, her lyrics are equally noteworthy, says Toby.
“Q.U.E.E.N [featuring Erykah Badu, from Electric Lady] still makes me cry sometimes. That line she says twice: ‘Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.’ God, I needed to hear that so badly,” Toby says.
“I kept saying it and saying it and touching my lips like I’d just been kissed very softly when I first heard it.”
Is part of Janelle Monae’s appeal her openly politicised stance around gender, race and feminism? She has been a powerful and vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years.
“She makes me a better feminist, more sensitive about kinds of racism I don’t experience”
“Yes. I think her face should be on money and stamps.” Rachel says.
“I love that she is out there, creating and fighting for change, and being part of it. She’s really come into her power. I can’t wait to see what she does with it on Dirty Computer.”
Janelle Monae’s body of work continues to inspire, says Toby.
“Her music gives me a lot of strength and a lot of sensitivity. I’m very proud and inspired by myself when I listen to her music. She makes me a better feminist, more sensitive about kinds of racism I don’t experience (Toby is mixed white, Indian and Syrian).
“I learn a lot. I get emotional because of some of the things she’s saying and that’s good. Men should cry about this stuff, in my opinion.”
Might we consider Monáe an LGBTQ icon? What kind of mark has she’s made on music and LGBTQ culture?
“I think she’s been under appreciated, but I predict this will be her big album,” says Toby.
“‘Django Jane’ definitely felt like she’d hit a level of maturity we hadn’t heard before. And while ‘Make Me Feel’ seemed a little more about being catchy, it was such an anthem to self-love and not being embarrassed or ashamed by anyone you’re into.
“I also believe those lacy trousers will make many people who didn’t like women before… reconsider.
“That video turned a million prepubescent girls gay.”