Soundfly

Home for the Curious Musician

The Cleansing: “Dirty Computer” Ushers in a New Era of Janelle Monáe

In the era of Cardi B, Beyoncé, Lena Waithe, Laverne Cox, Tiffany Haddish, and many others, we bask in the glory of Black womxn. No longer are we afraid to show our thick thighs, curvy curls, and infectious attitudes.

And why should we be? Black womxn have been told to sit down and shut up, stand up but stay quiet, and be subservient for far too long. But it never works for long.

In the world, and even more specifically, in the music industry, we are continuously making space for others to grow and press forward. We are at the beginning and end of every movement (musical and political), whether that’s noted or not in the media or the historical record. So it’s most definitely time for someone like Janelle Monáe to help push our culture forward. Not just for the sake of Black womxn, but for the sake of all.

Let’s be honest, I love Janelle Monáe. I have been going to her shows since 2007 and she has always amazed me. Her professionalism and stage presence is as legendary as it is expansive and grandiose. However, this may be the most intimate and vulnerable album I have ever heard of hers. Her progression as an evolving artist is inspiring to watch, whether you’re a creative yourself, or an observer.

In case you haven’t experienced it yet, here’s her “emotion picture” companion to the new album, Dirty Computer. 

Her term, “Dirty Computer,” refers to people who’ve had their humanity stripped away from them. In the dystopian future of the film, which of course reflects echoes of our culture today, these are the people who don’t fit into the boxes designed by an oppressive system to preserve a specific order. They are not allowed free thought, nor free will, and are required to forget themselves and their memories.

Monáe’s critique of today, it seems, is that we are constantly being told by these systems of oppression, what is and what is not acceptable. And more often than not, being who you are, flaws and all, is not seen as acceptable. Those who risk being their true full selves are regarded as both heroic and foolish. Monáe’s character in the film exists in this crux.

After listening to her album, I felt free and focused. After watching the film, I felt invincible. Aren’t those the feelings we seek in entertainment? And isn’t that what humanity truly needs in this time, to feel hopeful and free? Our political climate has been toxic since its imbalanced beginnings. Monáe is not only providing an escape, she is providing solutions and growth strategies. The notion of a Black pansexual woman from Kansas with a mainstream platform is inspiring in and of itself, and with it, she is helping to create space for other outsiders to roam.

Just as Monáe has morphed her visual style to a more colorful strata, from her iconic black and white look, so too have her lyrics morphed. Her studio output is a progression, citing the story of a trapped spirit yearning to be free, and using her voice as a key to unlock those doors set in front of her. We now hear her sharing more stories of her emotions and her pride in those emotions. With songs like “Make Me Feel” and “I Like That,” she is removing shame from pleasure, creating space for sexual and sensual freedom of all kinds.

Songs like “Crazy, Classic Life” and “Americans” provide many people with the permission to be themselves — they also allow American pride to flow even with all the injustices and policies that tend to shut Black, LGBTQIA, female identifying individuals down. Although, these songs are playful in format and execution, they are packed with heavy lyrical punches. Here are a few lines plucked from “Americans:”

I pledge allegiance to the flag
Learned the words from my mom and dad
Cross my heart and I hope to die
With a big old piece of American pie.

Let me help you in here
Until women can get equal pay for equal work / This is not my America
Until same gender loving people can be who they are / This is not my America
Until black people can come home from a police stop
Without being shot in the head / This is not my America
Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful / This is not my America
I can’t hear nobody talkin’ to me.

Until Latinos and Latinas don’t have to run from walls
This is not my America
But I tell you today that the devil is a liar
Because it’s gon’ be my America before it’s all over.

There are serious musical odes to Prince, Madonna, David Bowie, George Michael, Michael Jackson, and Boy George, present throughout the entirety of the album as well as the film. These are all individuals that could (and can) make any gender melt with a single look — and each artist played with gender norms throughout their music and its presentation. That is part of how they hooked us in, they were relatable and fragile, but strong and resilient in providing a voice for the voiceless.

“Screwed” feels like a clear reference to the classic Nile Rodgers sound with funky guitar riffs and intense quick strums. It’s a nod to his work with Madonna on “Material Girl” and “Like A Virgin.” “Make Me Feel” is no doubt a response to Prince’s “Kiss”, and perhaps a nod to their kinship in the years prior to his death; it’s vibrant, sexy and funky, and features a similar song structure. Even right down to the massive guitar bridge where the toms, kicks, and guitar all sound in unison building up to a popping, echoing, sharp snare that gives the energy of a sensual chase.

In my mind, this album is a tribute to Prince and his creative integrity. You can hear his heavy influence on this record especially with songs like “Make Me Feel” and “I Got The Juice.” His energy is present throughout, even though Monáe’s sonic and sociocultural aspirations are much higher than that.

On the flip side, this album is 100% Black Queer girl magic with chants echoing the messages of self-love, struggle, rejection, and acceptance. It’s exactly what many Black womxn need to hear right now — someone in the mainstream taking multiple risks and not being afraid to be themselves. It’s one of the most empowering albums I’ve heard in a long time and deals with many issues that Black womxn face in their daily lives.

In a similar way, Monáe’s afro-futuristic, apocalyptic emotion picture is a Black sci-fi fan’s dream. The casting makes sure to represent many different communities of people, showing us that the future holds a place for all of us. The film also makes clear that we’re amidst a larger movement in the music industry right now.

The once-stable industry is being tested, pushed and pulled in order to keep up with our ever forward-moving culture. Whatever regressions happen in society, or politics, musicians will not give up the fight for progress. This album was composed with both freedom and vulnerability in mind, the traits of true artist. Yes, the record promotes difficult conversations in a groovy, poppy format — and yes, it is okay to enjoy the music you’re listening to even if it stares you directly in the face with a serious look. Luckily for us, Monáe does the staring with impeccable style and grace.

She is a prime example of why representation matters so much, and how striving for it can guide a generation. It has been a long time coming for a mainstream Black artist to hold this ground and call for this type of change and I think Janelle Monáe is the perfect artist to take lead.

Explore music theory and how to use it in pop, electronic, and hip-hop applications to give your productions a bigger emotional impact. With Mainstage courses like our harmonic theory focused double-header — Unlocking the Emotional Power of Chords and The Creative Power of Advanced Harmony — you’ll work with a Soundfly Mentor for 6 weeks on your craft and refining your sound like a pro! 

Or check out our newest initiative, Headliners Club, a four-week 1-on-1 mentorship program aimed at helping you achieve your personal musical goals quicker and smarter, no course necessary. Read more about it and sign up here.

Feed your musical curiosity with Soundfly Weekly.

Catherine Harris-White
Catherine Harris-White

Catherine Harris-White (a.k.a., SassyBlack) is a space-age singer, songwriter and producer. With roots in classical music, hip-hop, and jazz, her music has been called “electronic psychedelic soul” and “hologram funk,” among other things.