Culture Opinion

Janelle Monáe Invites Us In

A discussion on the performance of freedom.

This piece is written by Deria Matthews, one of Spicy’s Guest Contributors. Deria is a Brooklyn-based writer, pop-culture fanatic, and co-founder of xChange, a salon series for Black and Brown folks to talk toward liberation. You can find her fangirling on her blog, Black Girl Talks Back or via twitter @deriatalksback.

“A whole world is jammed into one short block crowded with black folks shut out from almost every opportunity the city affords but still intoxicated with freedom. The air is alive with the possibilities of assembling, gathering, congregating. At any moment, the promise of insurrection, the miracle of upheaval; small groups, people by theyselves, and strangers threaten to become an ensemble, to incite treason en masse.”
– Saidiya Hartman, The Terrible Beauty of the Slum

I finally make it to Friday. It’s been a long week and the news cycle alone is giving me a headache: a Waffle House shooting left four young people of color dead and mainstream media refuses to acknowledge the trend of white male shooters; Kanye West posts a photo wearing a MAGA hat and calls the 45th US President his brother; Bill Cosby is found guilty of sexual assault; Kelis opens up about the emotional and physical abuse she endured at the hands of Nas; and #MuteRKelly was gaining mainstream support, yet all four men are defended up and down my social media timelines. In my personal life, a group of male colleagues are antagonizing women and femmes of color while the silence of our school administrators protect them. The conversation of toxic masculinity and its marriage to white supremacy is weighing heavily on me when I sit down in a coffee shop that dim Friday afternoon eager to watch the premiere of Janelle Monáe’s emotion picture, Dirty Computer.

By the 10-minute mark, I am in tears. One of the most powerful tools in building a hegemonic nation is the rewriting and hiding of histories in order to authorize the oppressor and disempower the oppressed. This is a violence we have seen across colonial histories specifically through education systems, news outlets, and now on our social media feeds. The result might cause many to believe, for example, chattel slavery in the Americas was a choice for millions of Africans kidnapped from their homeland and separated from their families.

A similarly terrifying erasure unfolds through Black Mirror-esque technology in Dirty Computer, when Jane 57821 is ushered into a chilling laboratory and attached to a deprogramming device. Jane’s brain becomes a hard-drive that can be viewed and manipulated by her captors. Two white men have been tasked with deleting Jane’s memories, which come to be the individual music videos weaving together the film’s narrative.

In Jane’s first memory assigned for cleaning, “Crazy, Classic, Life,” Jane and friend appear hoovering down a Midwestern road in bantu knots and bleached braids, metal studs and chains adorning their hair and clothes. They look like they are headed to the next Afropunk festival when pulled over by a literal robocop and asked for documentation.Throughout the rest of the emotion picture, we see queer Black bodies moving in and out of contact with surveillance. At one moment they are running and hiding for their lives and the next striking a pose or flirting with a lover.  

After a tumultuous week of defending Black people’s right to live without attack on their body or their psyche, I was seeing the affirmation I so desperately needed: Black radical femmes whose palpable joy was viewed as threatening to a powerful regime, and yet and still they broke the rules. They kept dancing, they kept loving, they kept getting free. I close my laptop, dry my eyes, and walk two blocks over to NYU to see Saidiya Hartman’s presentation, “The Anarchy of Colored Girls Assembled in a Righteous Manner.” I try my best to follow and take notes but Hartman’s first line – “Where Black girls gather, the state meets them with violence” – keeps taking me back to the imagery of Dirty Computer. Hartman’s work often tells the story of Black women living defiantly in America’s ghettos during the early 20th century, Black women who “enjoyed too much freedom” and thus, were seen as “an offense to public order.”

Rewatching Dirty Computer with Hartman’s words in mind, I start to consider how Monáe is enacting freedom through a Black queer, polyamorous love story set in a distant future. Monáe and her team envision the future as one where state surveillance and ethnic cleansing are still a dangerous reality to its inhabitants. Instead of creating a utopian world where the Black diaspora wishes to seek refuge and freedom, Monáe creates a mirrored dystopia of today’s present where freedom is a multimedia performance communicating wayward possibilities to those already disinvited from the rest of the world. With this, Dirty Computer becomes an archival invitation into a rogue community opposed to a coming out party for a conventional mass audience.

Black lesbian actress, producer, and screenwriter and fierce LGBTQIA advocate, Lena Waithe, has consistently commented  on the lack of “out” Black queer actors during her press tour for her show, The Chi and Steven Spielberg’s film, Ready Player One. In her  acceptance speech for the Vanguard Award at Essence’s “Black Women in Hollywoodluncheon, she urges “closeted” stars to come out, offering to hold their hands in the process. For Waithe, it is not being gay, but being openly gay that is an honorable act, an act that can be a guiding light for queer youth who feel they won’t be accepted.

In his article, “Coming Out or Inviting In?”, Darnelle Moore explains the external oppositional emphasis that underlines the push for queer people to come out. Coming out prioritizes a heteronormative audience over the queer person and the community to which they belong. If queer people come out then the closet is seen as a space of shame and darkness. It assumes the closeted person lacks pride in their identity but once “out,” they are unashamed, fearless, and free – hence the title of the Rolling Stone expose, “Janelle Monáe Frees Herself.

In this widely-shared interview, Monáe confirms rumors about her queer identity sharing that she has had pansexual relationships in the past. But Janelle did not need to come out to be free. Her discography pre-Dirty Computer was already an invitation into a world that is queer as fuck. And with or without her coming out, Dirty Computer unveils a dark tunnel where a contrarian livelihood is illuminated. It is colored with pride and a deep understanding of history. It is invested in the protection of that history from those who are interested in manipulating stories and narratives for their gain. As with the “Inviting In” framework, Monáe transforms what is commonly seen as dirty and vile into a sacred and treasured world that values emotional understanding, difference and interconnectedness across identities. One has to prove they are worthy to gain access to such a safe space.

Whenever I return to Maryland to visit my family, my mother makes it a point to comment on my tattoos and septum piercing. “You look like a bull,” she goes. “Why don’t you take that thing out?!” When I tell her the ring would have to be removed with pliers she berates me for my lack of common sense and then asks me “Why do you need it?!”  

I don’t need the septum piercing. But when I saw the gold hoop sitting between the nose and lips of another Black woman I felt a shared regality. I myself wanted to exude such a feeling. I am committed to listening and following my deepest desires which has led me to a community that embraces my queerness. Like Jane, I live in and amongst a vibrant underground network of Black and Brown queer/trans folks who are actively in opposition to the American ideology that views us as disposable. We subvert spaces with our gender defying, queer bodies in both public and private space. We are dancing in night clubs, warehouses and rooftops. We are shouting in your classrooms and courtrooms, we are stopping traffic with our protests. We are knocking down confederate monuments, we are building collectives, we are bailing folks out of the mass incarceration system, and we are afraid.

At the start of 2018, four Black Lesbians were murdered and to date 10 trans people, mostly Black women, were murdered in the U.S. Just as we party and bravely take up space in public and private space we are met with brute violence in those very domains. The very real threat of harm lives with us but it does not stop us. And so we do our best to protect what little safe spaces we can claim, because we know visibility does not translate into safety.

In a 1968 interview, Nina Simone declares that freedom is a feeling completely void of fear. Monáe echos this in her Allure interview, when she proclaims “I’m choosing freedom over fear.” Still, Monáe admits that she continues to grapple with fear, saying:  “When I walk off a stage, I still have to deal with these confrontations. I have to deal with being afraid for my family.”

The question of fear and visibility is pervasive throughout Monáe’s work, however it is through Dirty Computer that she breaks from her android world by using the aesthetics of modern queer communities to communicate the presence of a future pulsing beneath the world view today. The elaborate hairstyles, the funky clothing, the outlandish facial piercings and mythical tattoos worn by the characters in this film are rooted in Black and Brown ancestral histories and traditions, shared from one member to another. It is Zen’s recognition of Jane’s tattoo that awakens her from the spell of her captors and helps the three lovers break free.

The use of visual symbols signal to us who might be our allies and accomplices, while still offering a cloak of protection from outsiders. It allows fear and pride to coexist. Black queer folks have varied experiences of sharing their sexual identities with others, and the “Inviting In” lens acknowledges that we possess the foresight to determine who is worthy of holding that information. Whether out or closeted, Black people of the LGBTQIA community are all around us. Rather than putting the burden on those who have yet to invite outsiders in, it is up to us, fellow “free-ass-motherfuckers,” to communicate that we are a safe space. In the final seconds of Dirty Computer, Monáe turns and breaks the fourth wall to do just that – her gaze beckoning us into a hidden world, intoxicated with freedom.