Kanye West’s recent return to Twitter and the revelation of a rightward turn in his thinking has produced a raft of great writing that almost makes the spectacle worthwhile. Few of the responses have made me think longer and harder about the cultural conversations we choose to have and what they say about us than Damon Young’s take on the latest curve in this weird ride: the impulse to treat Donald Glover — who has a new season of his TV show “Atlanta” out, as well as a provocative new music video, “This is America” — as “some sort of anti-Kanye West. Or, perhaps, the gift for making it through the Yeezy muck.”
“Between Atlanta and his music, Glover’s work could have an antiseptic quality, cleansing us of Kanye’s descent into anti-blackness and celebratory idiocy. But at the very least, this comparison fails because it reduces Glover’s work to that of a palate cleanser,” Young wrote. “And also implied is that only one of these types of men can exist concurrently.”
He’s right. But when it comes to choosing icons or different visions of what it means to be free, we’re also constraining ourselves unnecessarily if we pick merely between different men. And if you widen the aperture even slightly, the latest developments around West and Glover are also happening at the same time that Janelle Monáe released her third full-length album, “Dirty Computer,” gave a series of revelatory interviews and came out of the closet.
This isn’t just about gender or Monáe’s slightly lower profile (relative to West, at least). If we choose to frame a discussion of art, race and politics as a choice between West and Glover, we risk ignoring the potential that artists have to shake up our political pieties in a way that goes far beyond the specter of a black rapper revealing himself to be more than a little Trump-curious.
Monáe’s music and music videos have had their hooks in my brain for a decade now, whether she’s taking on a rebellious robot alter ego, leading a louche yoga class or writing indelible, stripped-down protest anthems. Along the way, she’s assembled a portfolio of positions and a political résumé that read like an intersectional ideal. Her early tuxedo uniform was an homage to her family’s history of service work, and class consciousness has been an ongoing theme in her work; she has made music about police violence and social conformity and equal pay; she spoke at the Women’s March in 2017; she talks about her sexual orientation in fluid terms and deftly refuses any attempt to make her choose between her multiple identities.
But in an age when applauding or condemning the politics of art too easily becomes a substitute for engaging with its aesthetics and quality, Monáe’s work has always felt informed by her opinions rather than rigidly defined by them. The result is art that demonstrates a different way to be politically engaged, one that feels particularly vital at this enervating, enraging crossroads. Monáe’s art is oriented toward the long haul, not least because it’s concerned with how to live, to love and to play as well as how to protest and how to rebel; she recognizes living, loving and playing as forms of rebellion.
That’s never felt truer than it does on “Dirty Computer,” a record Monáe has described as inspired by the dual questions “Who do I not care if I piss off? And who do I want to celebrate?”
On the early track “Crazy, Classic, Life,” Monáe begins by sampling from a sermon by pastor Sean McMillan in which he quotes the Declaration of Independence’s promise of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness,” which Monáe imagines as a lusty limousine ride and pool party. But even as the shimmery track functions as a kind of seduction, Monáe reminds the listener just how fragile that fantasy can be for people who are “young, black, wild and free.” It’s a realistic critique of over-policing in America, an idealistic vision of a possible future and a perfect summer jam, all in a four minute and 46 second track.
Or take the video for “Pynk,” a double-entendre-filled fantasy-land that is equal parts early-1960s slumber party and lesbian-separatist commune, all blush satin bras and tighty-whities with slogans like “I grab back” embroidered just above the gusset. Toe-painting sessions and glasses of rosé may not be the sum of a revolution, but they sure are a fun rebuke to stereotypes of feminists as sex- or humor-averse. And the sort of love Monáe describes in the song, which gives the person who feels it a newfound courage, can have a political force all its own.
It’s a lot more fun to spend time in this environment than it is to scroll through West’s Twitter feed, trying to make sense of his praise of President Trump’s “dragon energy” and the excerpts of texts conversations with famous friends worried about West’s mental state. And Monáe has created a richer political ecosystem, too: One of the most devastating things about West’s current turn has been how it has revealed the shallowness of his thinking.
As for Glover, it’s vastly less interesting to posit him as the woke alternative to West’s sunken angel than it might be to put him in conversation with Monáe. Glover has been praised as an auteur, but “rather than simply accepting the designation and becoming a spokesman, Glover the musician has found ways to point to the absurdity of the celebrity worship that attends his fame,” Doreen St. Felix wrote in a recent New Yorker piece about the video for “This Is America.” She continued, “Glover forces us to relive public traumas and barely gives us a second to breathe before he forces us to dance. There is an inescapable disdain sewn into the fabric of ‘This Is America.’ The very fact that the dance scenes are already being chopped into fun little GIFS online, divorcing them from the video’s brutality, only serves to prove his point.”
We don’t have to choose between Glover’s seeming pessimism and the sense that Monáe is having an awful lot of fun. He’s not wrong to reject the boxes that anyone wants to put him into, and neither is Monáe blinkered for getting more deeply engaged in conventional political arenas even as she continues to make art that prioritizes domestic spaces and intimate relationships. And the artistic power both possess comes in part from the refusal of both to fit into a neat, marketable schema.
Our discussions about culture can be oriented toward choosing between one artist and another, or sorting between the woke and the benighted. But those frameworks have a way of making the world smaller. I’d rather visit both Glover’s horrorscapes and Monáe’s utopias, and let myself be changed in ways I can’t predict by the journey.