Cultural scholar Mark Dery coined the term “Afrofuturism” in 1994 to encompass “speculative fiction that treats African-American concerns in the context of twentieth-century technoculture — and more generally, African-American signification that appropriates images of technology and a prosthetically enhanced future.”
As its own genre of texts that explores racism from a science fiction lens, Afrofuturism is in itself an act of protest: that there is a future where black people not only live, but thrive. The most popular recent example of Afrofuturism would be Ryan Coogler’s Black Panther film, whose mythos is built around a technologically advanced continental African utopia.
Musical wunderkind Janelle Monáe has used Afrofuturism in all her work. Her debut EP “Metropolis” and her first two albums “The ArchAndroid” and “The Electric Lady” loosely followed her alter ego the rebel droid Cindi Mayweather, using the sci-fi world to discuss themes of prejudice, state surveillance and forbidden love.
Ahead of the release of her third album “Dirty Computer,” Monáe came out as pansexual. Monáe’s LGBTQ listeners in particular had mined her previous work for their nods to queer love. It’s here on “Dirty Computer,” Monáe’s third album and its accompanying 46-minute “emotion picture,” where she lifts the veil, singing openly about Blackness, queerness and womanhood. It’s downright emancipating.
On the anthemic Crazy, Classic, Life, she sings, “We don’t need another ruler; all of my friends are kings. I am not America’s nightmare; I am the American dream.” On Django Jane, she makes the stunning declaration: “And hit the mute button. Let the vagina have a monologue.” These are songs that feel euphoric in their celebration of self.
Musically, it’s an incredibly rich piece of work, slinking effortlessly from funk to R&B to hip-hop to straight-up pop. She pays homage as well to her musical forbears, giving space for her to craft stunning new aural landscapes directly with her influences on the record. A synth line by Prince (on the wondrous Make Me Feel) coexists on a record alongside vocal harmonies by Grimes. The likes of Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder and Steven Tyler share credits on the album that also has Pharrell Williams, Zoë Kravitz and Deep Cotton.
In an increasingly hostile world where the othering wrought by racism, xenophobia, and homophobia continues to thrive, “Dirty Computer” felt like the record we needed to hear from Monáe.
On the record’s more tender moments, you hear Monáe’s lyricism truly soars. You have moments like the luminous chorus of Pynk, the Grimes-assisted vagina anthem (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase in a review), where Monáe sings, “So here we are in the car, leaving traces of us down the boulevard / I wanna fall through the stars; getting lost in the dark is my favorite part.” You have the sultry Don’t Judge Me where she ruminates on the pains of love and fame, singing, “You know I got issues / but they drown when I kiss you.”
In an increasingly hostile world where the othering wrought by racism, xenophobia, and homophobia continues to thrive, “Dirty Computer” felt like the record we needed to hear from Monáe. It’s an album that captures the anxiety and the triumph of a queer black woman in America in 2018.
Without the obfuscation of Cindi Mayweather, “Dirty Computer” feels like the most naked Monáe has allowed her psyche to be on record. And you feel her liberation. These are songs that are jubilant yet recognize the suffering wrought by injustice and otherness. It is a reclamation of the world for the othered. Droids or none, what’s more Afrofuturistic than that?