Politics, Passion, and Pop: Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer”

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Image Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Carmiya Baskin

Janelle Monáe released her third studio album, Dirty Computer, a musical celebration of queerness, women, and Black girl magic. The album, released on April 27, 2018, creates a space for Monáe to openly and proudly expresses her identity as a queer Black woman through her empowering lyrics and Afrofuturistic beats.

From the catchy rap verses in “Django Jane” to the neo-soul spirit of “So Afraid,” the album reaches different musical audiences, generating connectivity among both listeners and artists from various genres. According to an interview with the New York Times, Monáe said the 14 songs on Dirty Computer can be grouped into three loose categories based on theme: Reckoning, Celebration, and Reclamation. Reckoning presents the way society views Monáe, as a “dirty computer” who must be pushed to the margins. “Django Jane” is one of the songs included in this section with soul melodies and powerful lyrics that pay homage to women empowerment and Black pride.

Monáe raps, “And we gon’ start a motherfuckin’ pussy riot/Or we gon’ have to put ’em on a pussy diet,” meaning that it is time for men to step down and allow women to create, work, and have opportunities. She adds, “Black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it/Y’all can’t ban it, made out like a bandit,” in response to the hateful acts that white supremacists have committed over the past year across America. This further illustrates the strength, fierceness, and visibility of Black women.

The second category, Celebration, explores Monáe’s acceptance of and appreciation for her marginalized identities. This theme is reflected in “Make Me Feel,” a Prince-inspired, R&B pop song about Monáe’s fluid sexual orientation. Monáe sings, “It’s like I’m powerful with a little bit of tender/An emotional sexual bender.” She reveals her open sexual preferences and creates an acceptable space for the existence of the queer community as a whole.

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Monae said that she wants young queer folks who are feeling ostracized or having a difficult time with their sexualities to know that she recognizes and supports them. She said, “This album is for you. Be proud.”

Lastly, Reclamation depicts Monáe’s reformation and reinvention of the American identity. Her final anthem, “Americans,” addresses marginalized people in contemporary America through an animated pop rhythm interspersed with excerpts from Pastor Sean McMillan. In the bridge, McMillan says, “Until women can get equal pay for equal work/This is not my America,” among other statements referencing oppressed communities.

Monáe sings, “I pledge allegiance to the flag/Learned the words from my mom and dad,” to critique American culture. To her, learning the Pledge of Allegiance is a form of conditioning that preserves the existence of discriminatory institutions and practices.

Many of the songs include voice-overs from famous political activists, which adds to the album’s avant-garde style. In the beginning of “Crazy, Classic Life,” for instance, there is a sound clip of Pastor Sean McMillan, a reverend at a church in Chicago, reiterating Martin Luther King Jr.’s speech on the “Declaration of Independence.”

McMillan preaches, “We hold these truths to be self evident/That all men and women are created equal,” as evidence that racism and sexism during the 1960s are still present today. In a world where Trump’s presidency is slowly eliminating the achievements of marginalized groups, Monáe’s reference to MLK Jr. offers a clever and melodious commentary on current political and social disputes. Her reference reinforces the album’s inclusivity and makes the struggles of these movements visible and worthy.

While Dirty Computer retains the theme of technology that is present in Monae’s earlier albums, it still moves away from her previous Android alter ego, Cindi Mayweather. Cindi Mayweather is an enslaved Android living in a post-apocalyptic world who is fated to unite the oppressed robots and the ruling humans.

This character initially emerged in Monáe’s first EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) and continued to appear in the following albums, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady. Aside from her success as a singer and songwriter, Monáe has also starred in films such as “Hidden Figures and “Moonlight.”

In an interview with the New York Times, Monáe said she felt safer projecting herself as Cindi Mayweather. She said that the sanitized Android version of herself was more accepted yet it was not a representation of her true self.

Monáe has also released an “emotion” picture for the album, which tells the story of a young woman named Jane57821 who lives in a futuristic, dystopian society where citizens are referred to as “computers.” The 48-minute video, which features several of the album’s songs, is dazzling with vivid imagery and and mesmerizing choreography that inspires themes of intersectionality.

In the movie, people deemed too dirty for society are cleaned to create a homogeneous culture in which difference is rejected and punished. These so-called “dirty computers” parallel the ostracized individuals of modern-day America. Monáe reminds the listener that she, too, is a dirty computer who experiences both pain and joy in the face of adversity and affection.

Essentially, Dirty Computer proves that artful resistance and pop music are not mutually exclusive. It is a sensational celebration of those who have been marginalized and a powerful proclamation of resistance. The album, overall, allows Monáe to step into a more authentic rendition of herself and pay homage to black people, queer folks, and women.