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Janelle Monáe’s body of work is a masterpiece of modern science fiction

Monáe spent years crafting a dystopian universe. Then in Dirty Computer, she unleashed rebellion.

Janelle Monáe/YouTube
Aja Romano writes about pop culture, media, and ethics. Before joining Vox in 2016, they were a staff reporter at the Daily Dot. A 2019 fellow of the National Critics Institute, they’re considered an authority on fandom, the internet, and the culture wars.

In 2010, Janelle Monáe told Rolling Stone, “I only date androids,” firmly tying herself to her cyborg alter ego, Cindi Mayweather. Monáe spent years hiding herself within the tuxedo-wearing cyborg, introduced over her five albums, only to reveal the truth in her latest, the just-released Dirty Computer. Cindi, the hero and idée-fixe of each of Monáe’s previous albums, was Jane, the protagonist of Dirty Computer, all along.

At the beginning of the narrative cycle, the 2003 EP Audition and its 2007 follow-up Metropolis: The Chase Suite, Jane hid within Cindi’s glammed-up but constricting tuxedoed aesthetic. But over time, by tapping into her cultural heritage, Jane is able to free the android via Afrofuturism and queer exploration. It’s no coincidence that by the time Monáe announced her pansexuality to the world in February, with the infectious, insouciant “That’s Just the Way You Make Me Feel,” she had tapped directly into the sound of her hero, Prince.

From her first reference to Metropolis, the cold, dystopian, slave droid-powered city that looms over each of her albums, Monáe has built her discography through sci-fi tropes codified by 20th-century white male writers. In the process, as great women of sci-fi have done before her, she’s mapped those narratives onto her own identity, claiming them for “androids” like herself. “I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new ‘other’,” she told the Evening Standard in 2013. “You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman.”

It took a while for that sentiment to reach its apotheosis. In each of Monáe’s five albums, she has deepened her look at Metropolis and the android struggle to escape their enslavement. This comes to a head in the “emotion” video for Dirty Computer, released April 27. In it, Monáe moves her android metaphor into an explicitly posthumanist narrative that allows her, for the first time, to fully express her identity as a pansexual black woman within her art. Off comes the famous tuxedo; out come the vagina pants.

The power of that transformation turns Dirty Computer into a jubilant, queer, Afrofuturist vision of what Metropolis could be. It’s one of the more gripping moments in modern science fiction, made stronger because Monáe has been building to it for 15 years.

In Metropolis, creativity and self-expression are relegated to the underground — which makes them more powerful

In Monáe’s Star Core Metropolis, which is based on Fritz Lang’s 1927 expressionist masterpiece Metropolis, there’s a workforce composed of a modern class of androids that serve humans. As in the film’s towering modernist world, Monáe’s city is black, white, and chrome and has a rigid social hierarchy — one that Cindi Mayweather has been born to disrupt. Monáe draws her take on the social dynamics of Metropolis from Aldous Huxley’s famous dystopia Brave New World.

In that book, lower-caste citizens are given a drug to keep them docile and satisfied with their lot in life; in Metropolis, androids are dosed with a gas called “Nevermind” that wipes them of ties to their humanity. Monáe also repeatedly refers to “electric sheep” throughout her Metropolis suites, which directly references Philip K. Dick’s famous Blade Runner androids, who, like Monáe’s, don’t always know what they are.

Monáe’s conceptualization of the droid rebellion, on the other hand — the one that Mayweather leads throughout Monáe’s android suites — is fundamentally tied to Isaac Asimov’s conception of android races programmed to serve humans in his foundational Robot series. Asimov’s bots were unable to harm humans; in contrast, robots in Monáe’s Metropolis are forbidden from loving them. For a robot to break the rules means destruction.

In Star Core Metropolis, liberation movements — android power, black power, queer pride, and freedom of artistic expression — have been suppressed but remain preserved through musical artifacts that surface as objects of quaint curiosity to the modern citizens of Metropolis. On the street (known as the “Wonderground”), however, they’ve survived through surreptitious community celebrations.

Because of this, it’s always a big deal whenever music and dance interrupt the regimented life of Metropolis, and no one is more of an agitator than Cindi Mayweather, a character Monáe based on Neo from The Matrix. In the “emotion picture” accompanying “PrimeTime” we see her working at the Electric Sheep nightclub. There, she falls in love with a human and escapes with him into a vibrant underground subculture full of music and life.

These nightly parties are crucial to Cindi’s story. They’re both the catalyst for her transformation and the fuel for the larger android rebellion. Monáe uses Metropolis’s underground as a space for escape, à la Harriet Tubman. As Paul Gilroy notes in his essay “Sounds Authentic,” it is “within the underground, alternative, public spaces constituted around an expressive culture” that black culture and music have historically flourished in the US. In Metropolis, music and dance are not only disruptive elements that can free the soul and speak truth to power; they’re a summons to Cindi’s fellow androids to rise up and claim their identities. “Will you be electric sheep?” she asks.

This access to culture and history seems to imbue Mayweather with special powers. She can command the attention of the upper echelons of Metropolis society, she can remember the past, she can time-travel, and in some moments, she can literally fly. She gains those powers by drawing on great black and queer artists of the past, from Bessie Smith and Stevie Wonder to Whitney Houston and George Clinton; from Afrofuturist Sun Ra to queer icons like Freddie Mercury, Marlene Dietrich, and David Bowie. Cindi’s moments of transcendence, however, are short-lived.

This is a crucial part of Monáe’s dystopia: It seems to perpetually feed off its mini rebellions, which are necessarily brief. The androids are trapped in a Black Mirror-esque cycle — they struggle to break out of their superimposed system of conformity, briefly grasp their true identities, and then they’re inevitably stuffed back into their blank-faced roles as machines of Metropolis.

In “Tightrope,” for example, we see one of Mayweather’s clones, locked in an asylum, break out and rebel against the institution’s strict rules against dancing. At the end of this brassy jubilee, however, she escapes only briefly to the grounds outside, before returning in a daze to her cell-like room, escorted by eerie black-robed ministrants with mirrors for faces.

The android of Metropolis can no more completely escape the society that enslaved her than she can find a route back to her past. Essential to the black sci-fi creator’s work is her relationship to her own fractured cultural history, and here Monáe is no exception. Mark Sinker’s seminal essay on Afrofuturism, “Loving the Alien,” describes this as a constant awareness that to black Americans, “Apocalypse already happened.”

“Black SF writers — Samuel Delany, Octavia Butler — write about worlds after catastrophic disaster,” Sinker writes, “about the modalities of identity without hope of resolution, where race and nation and neighbourhood and family are none of them enough to obviate betrayal.” For Monáe, Octavia Butler’s themes are particularly resonant, especially the idea of empowerment through a reactive sexuality.

“You fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down,” she sings in “Screwed,” on Dirty Computer. In Butler’s novel Wild Seed, which Monáe has cited repeatedly as one of her biggest influences, the main character has to survive alongside her oppressor through a combination of sexual sagacity, empathy, and shape-shifting. Donna Haraway’s famous essay “A Cyborg Manifesto” explicitly draws comparisons between the hero of Wild Seed and the function of an android figure in “pitting her powers of transformation against genetic manipulations.”

Monáe borrows from Butler a focus on reclamation and restoration of the past as a path to both claiming individual identity and living with and within an oppressive society. In Monáe’s work, finding a connection to a history that’s been taken from you is a crucial part of resistance and self-empowerment. Monáe uses her access to black culture and history to unite herself out of diaspora, drawing strength from her alter ego, Cindi. In Dirty Computer, Jane and Cindi finally coalesce into a whole person: a queer black woman finally convinced of her power.

Monáe’s Archandroid cover; the famed poster for Lang’s Metropolis (1927).

In Monáe’s universe, oppression can be defeated by reclaiming your power

Over the course of Monáe’s albums, Cindi is called an “archandroid,” the android messiah, with her many clones on the ground “dancing until she comes.” When she finally arrives, it’s as the figure of 2013’s Electric Lady. The Electric Lady is of a class of android women who seem to be able to move within the higher spheres of Metropolis society, even as they’re able to subvert its rules. In the video for “Yoga,” for example, Monáe seems to be an Electric Lady who turns a yoga class into a pulsating, gyrating, hot pink expression of female empowerment.

But Cindi and her allies are also perpetually on the run. In 2007’s Metropolis: Chase Suite, she’s offered up to a Hunger Games-like chase with her “immediate disassembly” as the goal. But in 2013, even as the Electric Lady, she’s still running — although by now she’s been appointed “our favorite fugitive.” Everyone in Metropolis seems to be in on it, including Cindi herself. At the conclusion of Electric Lady, she observes that “we party every night / then we all just walk off in the rain.”

This cycle is crucial to Monáe’s next evolutionary phase because it’s Monáe, not Cindi, who’s capable of breaking it. As io9 points out in its look at Monáe’s discography, Electric Lady represents the point at which “she began to carefully decouple parts of her public identity from Cindi’s.” It’s only when Cindi gives way to the character of Jane, the protagonist of Dirty Computer, that the full scope of Monáe’s vision comes into view.

Monáe looks to her cultural legacy to find herself

One of the hallmarks of Afrofuturism is that it uses the grandiose spectacle of a deliberately othered state of blackness — often through metaphors of aliens, androids, and other nonhuman species — to call attention to its own difference. Sinker describes this as a “brazen and courageous celebration of doomed difference,” the “flipside of assimilation, of being all that you weren’t expected to be”:

Monsters from a nation’s Id suddenly and justly demanding equal time as thinking and dreaming and sexual citizens. Hot, weird, different and better: the thrill and the threat of these Beings from Another Place wasn’t that they’d be utterly unlike and intolerably horrible, but they’d be like us, only more so.

For Monáe, conformity is nearly always expressed in minimalist black and white. If fear of her queer identity holds back Monáe’s hero Jane as she hides within Cindi’s persona, what she finds when she breaks out of those confines is life and color and richness straight out of the vibrant palette of Afrofuturist artists like Lina Viktor or Afua Richardson, although there’s nothing straight about it.

Throughout Monáe’s work, the yearning for freedom and individually is perpetually portrayed as a glitch in the cyborg programming (and is frequently coded as queer). In her first reference to Metropolis, the 2003 song by the same name, Monáe yearns for a paradise “where there’s no call from Droid Control / warning me against this disease in my heart.” On Electric Lady, she goes even further, with a radio caller gleefully announcing, “Robot love is queer.”

By Dirty Computer, the bug has become a feature. “Your code is programmed not to love me, but you can’t pretend,” she sings in “Take a Byte.” Over the course of Monáe’s career, her music videos have become increasingly colorful and musically effusive. As her assurance as a black, queer artist grows, the black-and-white palettes of “Tightrope” and “Queen” give way to the rich fuchsias of “Yoga” and “Pink,” the vibrance of “Electric Lady” and “Django Jane.”

In Dirty Computer, Jane and her two lovers, on the run from the authorities, have been captured one after another and brought back to a version of Droid Control, where their memories, dreams, and consciousness are being systematically wiped. Jane and Cindi, we learn, share the same droid ID number; they are one being. Because Cindi has the ability to remember her cultural history, Jane is able to fight the effects of the Nevermind gas and retain her identity. That’s how Jane finally seems to be able to do what Cindi could not, and break Metropolis’s cycle of oppression to free herself and her community.

To listen to Dirty Computer in isolation is to enjoy a fantastic album from an artist at the height of her powers. To see it as the culmination of Monáe’s entire narrative journey, however, is to understand it as a remarkable achievement in modern science fiction. Monàe simultaneously evolves her conception of an “android” and uses the story to transform herself. By opening up about her real-life identity, she finds her own posthumanist moral: Only by realizing that the android and the human are one and the same can we begin to celebrate the faulty programming inside us all.

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