Home' Trinidad and Tobago Guardian : November 7th 2013 Contents B25
Thursday, November 7, 2013 www.guardian.co.tt Guardian
Singer Janelle Monae
has captivated fans
with her android alter
ego and androgynous
look. AP PHOTO
Androids have a so-so reputation
when it comes to partying, as
movies like The Terminator and
Blade Runner have taught us. They
seem a little too uptight, these half-
human, half-robot creations. But
Janelle Monae would argue other-
In her albums, she plays an android
on a serious mission---to liberate the
planet, no less---but with a playful
streak. Monae's android wants to
shake and shimmy out of her psychic
The singer is in the midst of one
of the year's most-acclaimed North
American tours, a high-energy string
of sold-out theatre dates that dances
a century of music into the future.
Prince, who made a rare cameo
appearance on Monae's latest album,
Electric Lady, has been one of her
most vocal fans (even attending a
recent show in Minneapolis).
Tastemakers such as Erykah Badu,
Big Boi and Questlove have been
championing her artistry.
Monae shares her success with
Cindi Mayweather, her android alter-
ego. Though it's convenient to link
Monae to certain earthbound tradi-
tions because she happens to be a
female African-American singer---
neo-soul, R&B, urban---it doesn't
really do her music justice.
In the first three releases of her
career---Metropolis (2007), The
ArchAndroid (2010) and Electric
Lady---Monae can't be contained by
genre or generation. She blends rock,
soul, funk, cabaret, hip-hop, jazz
and traces of classical music like a
child of the iPod-on-shuffle era. The
recent single Dance Apocalyptic
packs girl-group harmonies, new-
wave rock and ukulele twang into
an ebullient anthem.
As if that weren't enough, Monae
spreads a science-fiction narrative
across her music about the ultimate
outsider---Cindi, the droid from the
year 2719. Of course, there's a real-
life subtext. Cindi is marginalised in
the same way Monae and her family
were when she was growing up in
Kansas City, Kansas. If you were a
person of colour, a woman, gay, lower
middle-class, you were made to feel
you didn't count.
"I chose an android because the
android to me represents the other',
the new other'," Monelle told me in
an interview before The ArchAndroid
"There are so many parallels to
my own life; just being a female
African-American artist in today's
"I have gone to predominately
white or black schools, and tried to
represent individuality, whereas some
of the people around me were not.
Whether you're called weird or dif-
ferent, all those things we do to make
people uncomfortable with them-
selves, I've always tried to break out
of those boundaries.
The android represents the new
other to me."
Monae is working in a long, if not
always well-understood tradition in
To get what Janelle/Cindi is all
about, it's best to start with the late
jazz innovator Sun Ra.
In his 1974 movie Space is the
Place, Ra plays an inter-galactic ora-
cle with gold headdress and cape.
It's "after the end of the world,"
with the visionary composer preach-
ing the gospel of space-age eman-
"The music is different here, the
vibrations are different, not like plan-
et earth, with the sound of guns,
anger, frustration," he says. He pre-
sides over a colony of black people,
who "don't exist" back on Earth.
"We work on the other side of time.
... We teleport their whole planet
here through music."
Ra's music often sounded like the
soundtrack to a teleportation, with
its pioneering use of synthesizers
and electronic keyboards amid the
big-band swing of the boundary-
defying Solar Myth Arkestra. Its
heady aura suggests escapism and
fantasy, but as with the best sci-
ence-fiction, it is anchored in real-
ity.Sun Ra operated proudly within a
tradition that the scholar Mark Dery
later dubbed "Afrofuturism", a blend
of science fiction and non-Western
history that placed African culture
in a new context.
"African-Americans are, in a very
real sense, the descendants of alien
abductees," Dery wrote in Black to
the Future, an essay included in the
1994 anthology Flame Wars: The
Discourse of Cyberculture. Because
many slaves had their history erased
by their owners when they were
brought to America from Africa cen-
turies ago, Afrofuturism emerged in
20th-Century music, film, art and
literature and pointed this exiled cul-
ture in a new direction: the future.
In this view, Africans are the alien
other' in Western society, stigma-
tised as outcasts, who must build
bridges in their imaginations to a
new utopia, possibly far removed
geographically and spiritually from
the world that is marginalising them.
Sun Ra explored that theme in
music, dress and attitude, and he
did it with a sense of humour, a flair
for the theatrical. It was an other-
ness' that spoke loudly to George
Clinton in his greatest creation, the
soul collective Parliament-Funkadel-
ic.Like Sun Ra's Arkestra, P-Funk'
wore otherworldly costumes on stage
and critiqued racism and political
and economic injustice through satire
and fantasy. At their 70s peak, the
big band of merry pranksters would
emerge on stage from a spacecraft---
That legacy was extended by the
Atlanta hip-hop duo OutKast in the
90s, particularly on the album
ATLiens---an homage of sorts to the
P-Funk/Sun Ra prescription for out-
The future takes a turn for the
dystopian in more recent Afrofuturist
classics such as Cannibal Ox's eerie
The Cold Vein (2001) and Deltron
3030's self-titled debut (2000) and
the recent follow-up, Event II.
These depict a planet spiraling
toward self-destruction. Presumably,
Sun Ra had it right all along---space
really is the place, and it's time to
get the hell out now.
Or, as Monae sings on the title
track from Electric Lady: "Come on,
get in,my spaceship leaves at 10."
•Written by music critic Greg Kot
Monae's android to shake
her psychic shackles
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