I always watch with somewhat mixed emotions when an artist I’ve loved suddenly breaks onto the national stage. And that’s been particularly true the past few days as the country suddenly seemed to become aware of Janelle Monáe, one of my favorite musicians currently working, thanks first to an appearance on the Today show during which her remarks about police brutality seemed to be cut off by Savannah Guthrie (NBC hasn’t responded to a request for comment,* and full video of the episode wasn’t available as I wrote this post). Her comments came after she and her colleagues on Wondaland Records performed an anthem for of the Black Lives Matter movement.
I’m delighted by the idea that Monáe is reaching the audience she’s always deserved. But it would be a shame if Monáe’s new fans miss the intensely political elements of her earlier work. If Monáe is being embraced as an ideological artist this week, it’s only because politics seem to have evolved enough to incorporate the ideas she’s advanced for so long.
Take the reaction to “Hell You Talmabout,” an agonized litany of the names of black men and women killed by the police and a demand that the listener say those names out loud. Plenty of stories have hailed “Hell You Talmabout” as a “new” song. But for everyone, the track is a powerful demand that we keep the dead alive in our memories, and it was updated to include deaths as recent as that of Sandra Bland, it’s not entirely new.
The first, and equally political, iteration of “Hell You Talmabout” actually appears on the deluxe edition of Monáe’s 2013 album, “The Electric Lady.” The original track is more sinuous than the anguished second iteration, conjuring the pursuit of pleasure in a violent, unequal world, but the song touches on gun violence, the economic incentives for the war on drugs, and the conflation of patriotism and policing: “Red, white and blue / Here come the sirens.”
And on the Today show, even before her remarks about Black Lives Matter, Monáe told Matt Lauer and Savannah Guthrie why she’s founded Wondaland, whose roster members star on the album “The Eephus,” her new album. “As a movement, that’s what it started out first,” she explained. “A movement to want to help uplift the community with our music and show a different perspective of young black artists.” Lauer got caught up in the album’s title, which is named for an unusually slow, frequently confounding pitch in baseball. “It’s a game-changing pitch,” Monáe told him. “We’ve come to change the game.”
And for years, Monáe’s done precisely that. Her politics never fit neatly into any sort of partisan split, nor did they track directly with emerging progressive thought, and that was sort of the point: “Categorize me, I defy every label,” she sings on “Q.U.E.E.N.” a song with Erykah Badu that includes an allegory about a “musical weapons program.”
Monáe wears a strict color palette and often wears a tuxedo, describing her preference for black and white as a uniform that honors her own work as a maid, and her parents’ jobs as janitors, Postal Service employees, and garbage men.
In her striking, often science-fictional videos, Monáe advances ideas and concepts that can stand in for many contemporary political concepts. The robot auction in the short film for “Many Moons” subtly comments on everything from the crushing pressures of perfectionism; the commodification of black culture by white consumers; and the price artists pay for using their music as activism and the way audiences respond when they do.
The video for “Tightrope” begins with a bit of world-building: the clip is set at a moment when “Dancing has long been forbidden for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to illegal magical practices.” It’s a line I always think of whenever I consider what art can do that politics can’t, providing new ideas of what the world can look like that aren’t circumscribed by party pieties.
In “PrimeTime,” Monáe plays her frequently alter-ego, the android Cindi Mayweather. Monáe frequently depicts Mayweather as a revolutionary, but in this video, she’s working as a bar employee, serving drinks and programming other androids to dance for the male customers. When she’s harassed by a customer, and her boss doesn’t back her up, Mayweather quits and programs the other robots to shut down, shattering the illusion of the cafe. (The theme of male sexual entitlement reappears in cheeky terms in “Yoga,” her latest single.) It’s a love song, applied to much more political ends. And while Mayweather has a romance with a male character, played by the singer Miguel, in the video for “Primetime,” the lyrics for “Q.U.E.E.N.” discuss desire between women.
I’m delighted that the political and cultural moments have caught up to a point where more people can recognize Monáe’s fully-recognized characters, her distinct aesthetic, and her insistence on being her glorious self as the radical acts that they’ve always been. Monáe and Wondaland may have given Black Lives Matter an indelible anthem. But she’s no newcomer to the fight for the idea that black lives matter, in all their gorgeous, varied forms.
*Update: After this story was published, a source at Today emailed me to say that the commercial break that cut off Monáe’s remarks was baked into the structure of the show: “The show went to a hard commercial break at the end of the song ‘Tightrope,’ which ran a couple of minutes over time. The performance was not intentionally cut off – the show is programmed for that hard commercial break at the same time every day.”
Live performance and commercial commitments can make for a tricky mix, but it’s notable that the video of “Tightrope” on Today’s website cuts off before Monáe even begins speaking at all. Monáe is touring with her Wondaland labelmates in support of “The Eephus,” but someone would be smart to book her for a follow-up where she gets to talk, as well as to sing.