Afrofuturism and Janelle Monae

Recently, in two different classes I am enrolled in, the topic of Afrofuturism has come up. It has sparked an interest for me, and I have even started discussing Afrofuturism in everyday conversation.

I tried explaining it to my boyfriend, in an everyday, non-academic way. I said something like this, “Basically, African Americans were, like, kidnapped from Africa. They were stripped completely of their background and identity- no country, no language, no family, no traditions to uphold, no legacy, no last name. When you have no past, you have to look to the future for hope. But the thing is, Africa is never associated with the future, it’s backwards and stuck in the past. It’s always in the media as the disease-ridden, human rights-lacking, backwards continent. And so black people are associated with this “Africanism” because it’s part of their identity, even though they don’t know nor do we know their exact true identity. So black people embody this Africanness which is exactly the opposite of futuristic. Black people are not seen as technologically savvy or cutting edge so the response is to make blackness futuristic and cutting edge. Black media makers try to put out media that reflects blackness as futuristic- like science fiction narratives with blacks and cool futuristic sounds and aesthetic in black music. Science fiction narratives are always about people being abducted by aliens and brought to this new planet where they are made slaves, which is exactly what happened to Africans during the slave trade.”

My boyfriend’s response was, “You said you could describe it in 2 sentences. That was a lot more than 2 sentences, babe.”

And much to his chagrin, I did not stop there. I told him about the film Brother From Another Planet and discussed Janelle Monae and Kanye West, their futuristic aesthetics and even the lyrics.

As PopMatters phrased much better than the way I put it, “Afrofuturism wrestles with and reshapes the ways that power is produced and maintained. The exclusion of black people from the vast majority of science-fiction literature, television, and film in the twentieth-century may not have been intentional, but it was never purely accidental, and the resulting message was that unless you were white, you had no significant place or role in these visions of the future.”

brotherfromanotherplanet

Janelle Monae’s Archandroid album has a lot of Afrofuturist sentiments. From the album cover to Monae’s cyborg alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, to even the lyrics of her song Q.U.E.E.N., Afrofuturism is prominent in her work.

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Janelle_Monáe_-_The_ArchAndroid_album_cover

The final lyrics read, “I’mma keep leading like a young Harriet Tubman/ You can take my wings but I’m still goin’ fly/ And even when you edit me the booty don’t lie/ Yeah keep singing, I’mma keep writing songs/ I’m tired of Marvin asking me, “What’s Going On?”/ March to the streets ’cause I’m willing and I’m able/ Categorize me, I defy every label/ And while you’re selling dope, we’re gonna keep selling hope/ We risin’ up now, you gotta deal you gotta cope/ Will you be electric sheep? Electric ladies, will you sleep?/ Or will you preach?”

Not only is Janelle Monae directly linking herself back to black freedom fighters but she is asking the listener to join her and to stop categorizing and labeling her.

As was stated in The Guardian’s article on Afrofuturism, ”

Ytasha Womack sees Monáe’s art as being able to transcend racial boundaries, taking Afrofuturism away from being a purely black concept. “I think that’s why a lot of people enjoy Janelle Monáe, because she talks about this android, this ‘other’. The symbolism is understood,” she says. “A lot of people can associate with this concept of otherness for a whole host of reasons, many of which are not racial, so there’s a connection there.””

In Monae’s song “Tightrope” she features black artist, legendary Afrofuturist, Sun Ra’s “Space Is The Place” (1973). (Afrofuturism the term was invented in 1993, but the sentiments were alive long before).

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My hope is that with artists like Janelle Monae and many, many before and alongside her, blackness can be come distanced from the Africa that is constantly displayed by the media. My hope is that all of the attention on Ebola does not further perpetuate the “otherness” of black people, but that instead the work of black media makers can redefine blackness and begin creating the idea of the future of black people, their role in the future, and their importance.

In light of the recent events in Ferguson, the presence of Ebola ridden countries in Western Africa, and all other negative light that could be shed on black people and perpetuate racist sentiment, I hope that with these black creative minds the media can have more blacks in a positive spotlight.

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