Friday, February 28, 2014

Is Janelle Monae Singing About Queer Identity?

Janelle Monáe uses the imagery of oppression and the transcendent power of love in a dystopian future to highlight the current realities of discrimination against disenfranchised groups and the queer community. But is the world ready to hear it?

The Metropolis series of musical “suites” from Janelle Monáe, currently comprised of her 2008 EP The Chase and her two albums, 2010’s The Archandroid and 2013’s The Electric Lady, are set in a futuristic world with an oppressive and tyrannical government, widespread poverty, and the exploitation of subjugated classes by the rich and powerful. Within this setting, Monáe takes on the persona of Cindi Mayweather, an android who falls in love with a human named Anthony Greendown. Cindi is subsequently hunted by officials and bounty hunters in order to be disassembled, as this form of love is illegal.

This is where we find Cindi at the start of The Chase, the first suite of the Metropolis series. The first single from this album, “Many Moons”, shows how this transgressive love begins to construct her as a revolutionary figure to the disenfranchised masses of Metropolis. She becomes an advocate on the run, speaking out against many different forms of oppression and misrepresentation, and begins to question the legitimacy of the social inequalities she witnesses. In this way she becomes a messianic figure, the titular archandroid of the second and third suites covered in her first full-length album, and fights to lead all of these people to freedom.

The video for “Many Moons” highlights the expectations of society for disenfranchised groups, and how these expectations quash freedom. At many points, Cindi uses dance as a form of expressing her freedom and individuality, but later this dance seems to make her short-circuit in the face of demonic figures which seek to oppress her. Cindi’s freedom, it seems, is limited by others in society. The glowing-eyed brides who encircle her at the end of the video might symbolise the expectations placed on her as a female to conform to the ideal of purity and marriage. It could also link to the heterosexist norm (and in this case, the norm of love also not transcending “race”) which Cindi, in many ways, fights against. Additionally, since Cindi is often seen wearing the traditionally masculine attire of a tuxedo, it could also represent the desire of society to control this unconventional gender expression.

Monáe also often represents the ghettos of Metropolis, where Cindy Mayweather seemingly comes from, in order to show not only the severe social problems which they breed but also to offer a spirit of hope and overcoming. In “Sincerely, Jane” from The Chase, the ghetto is represented as the ultimate form of social dead-end, where “we live and then we die, but we never touch the sky”. She represents this ghetto of her childhood in vivid detail, and begins to give a call to action in this first suite:
Left the city, my momma she said don't come back home
These kids ‘round killin’ each other, they lost they minds, they gone
They quittin' school, making babies and can barely read
Some gone off to their fall, lord have mercy on them
One, two, three, four, your cousins is ‘round here sellin' dope
While their daddy, your uncle is walking ‘round strung out
Babies with babies, and their tears keeps burning, while their dreams go down the drain now
Are we really living or just walking dead now?
Or dreaming of a hope riding the wings of angels
The way we live
The way we die
What a tragedy, I'm so terrified
Day dreamers please wake up, we can't sleep no more
Cindi finds her voice despite her oppression in society, as she is meant to be a subservient android which only serves the bidding of her masters, but becomes someone who hopes, dreams, and sees the potential for freedom and transcendent love. In the song “Mr President”, Cindi directly speaks out against corruption and mismanagement on the part of government, and asks for a president who listens to his populace and who will “quit slowing [her] down”.
In her first full-length album, the critically acclaimed The Archandroid, Cindi has become even more vocal with her message of freedom and ending oppression, but it seems that the resistance which she faces has intensified as well. In the video for “Tightrope”, the first single from the album, Cindi finds herself in The Palace of the Dogs, an asylum for those who practice the illegal act of dancing and thereby subvert the oppressive control of the government.
The song speaks of standing up to those who seek to stifle freedom, and again Cindi uses dance as a way to demonstrate her resistance. But in this album Monáe begins to more overtly refer to another form of oppression other than the economic and expressive form in the first suite: homophobia. While there were always parallels between the concept of the android as outsider and the gay community, and while the idea of illegal love brings to mind the struggles for marriage equality across the world, Monáe now makes queer identity a more overt theme of her music.
Album opener “Dance or Die” presents the ghetto setting again and lists the many forms of oppression which she faces, but interestingly she now also calls for “freaks” to dance or die. These freaks are the outsiders within the society, and not simply the economically or culturally oppressed peoples she referred to before. Their dancing implies that they need to demonstrate their resistance to oppression as outsiders as well. “Faster” points to a lover who creates confusion and self-hatred for Cindi, as she asks: “Am I a freak, or just another weirdo?” In “Locked Inside” Cindi exclaims how she does not want to “live a lie”. While the song again brings forth imagery of a dystopic future and of the ghetto setting,the chorus echoes the desire for a loved one amidst all the chaos. Additionally, in “Make the Bus”, Monáe sings: “I’ve got a terrible fixation/ Can’t get it off my mind/ Don’t really want to know it better/ Want to keep it in the realm of fantasy”. Love seems to occupy the dual space of being something unsettling and confusing for Cindi as well as something liberating and empowering. Even though she narratively links this love to the character of Anthony Greendown, it still echoes the language and complexities of someone discovering homosexual desires and being told that these are wrong by society.
These themes are highlighted in her song and video for “Cold War”, the second single from the album. While Cindi seemingly uses the song as a call to arms for her many newfound followers, it still plays as a queer manifesto. She exclaims: “If you want to be free/ Below the ground’s the only place to be”, and “I’m trying to find my peace/ I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me”.
Later, in “Mushrooms and Roses”, a character called Blueberry Mary is introduced. Monáe sings: “Blueberry Mary and she’s crazy about me/ (She’s so crazy about me)/ She’s wild man, she’s wild!/ She gives the boys all of her kisses and electricity/ (Till I come in her dreams)”. The idea of queer love is made explicit in this song, and Mary becomes another expression of the denied forms of love which Cindi is not allowed to express. While Anthony Greendown forms the major love interest in the Metropolissaga and signifies one form of illegal or socially oppressed love, the idea of queer expressions of love is introduced to highlight how the themes are relevant to the world today.
Monáe develops her message of liberation, from the initial afrofuturist message of subjugated members of society fighting oppression, into a multi-layered love story, and these dual messages serve to complement and strengthen one another. She suggests that celebrating the many forms of love is vital in reaching true freedom from oppression, and highlights that gay rights are a part of basic human rights.
In her most recent album, The Electric Lady, the queer identity of Cindi Mayweather is even more pronounced. The album acts as a prequel to her previous two efforts, and introduces us to the amorous, energetic, socially conscious Cindi before she becomes the archandroid. In the Prince-assisted “GivinEm What They Love”, she recounts:
Two dimes walked up in the building [...]
One looked at me and I looked back
She said, “Can you tell me where the party’s at?”
She followed me back to the lobby
Yeah, she was looking at me for some undercover love
In the album’s first single, “Q.U.E.E.N.”, Monáe/ Mayweather continues her discourse of embracing her own identity as a “freak” and as a sexual being who also is queer, even referring to the character of Mary again when she sings: “Am I a sinner with my skirt on the ground [...]Say is it weird to like the way she wear her tights? [...] Am I a freak because I love watching Mary?”
Importantly, she contrasts this with religious persecution because of her desires. She sings: “Hey brother can you save my soul from the devil? [...] Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven? And will your God accept me in my black and white? Will he approve the way I’m made? Or should I reprogram, reprogram and get down?” The reference to being “made” with her homosexual desires reinforces the idea that queer identity is something inherent, and that Monáe/ Mayweather cannot choose who she loves. Her queerness becomes a part of who she is, and she proclaims: “even if it makes you uncomfortable, I will love who I am”. Even Janelle’s anthem to the titular “Electric Lady” seems to be a song of romantic admiration for this otherworldly feminine figure who can “fly you straight to the moon or to the ghetto”.
The Metropolis society’s hatred of androids echoes our world’s subjugation of the disenfranchised, poor populations and people of colour, but also the queer community. The groups referred to all become the metaphorical androids, second-class citizens, and are used to highlight oppression within our world. As one voice proclaims during the interlude “Our Favourite Fugitive”, “Robot love is queer!” The importance of including the struggle of the queer community is to highlight how all disenfranchised groups should begin to have a unified identity in standing up to oppression. Cindy Mayweather suggests that the way to do this is through love, advocacy and taking leadership. And to keep dancing through the chaos.