She's deep into futurist Ray Kurzweil and loves Octavia Butler's writing. But her science fiction stories play out over itchy beats, under a James Brown cape. io9 interviews the unclassifiable musician about her influences and dreams for the future.
Janelle Monae has gotten attention for being the rare mainstream artist who is clearly doing her own thing, drawing from influences as diverse as James Brown, psychedelia, punk, and Disney's Fantasia. Her albums tell the epic story of Cindy Mayweather, the Alpha Platinum 9000, a droid optimized for rock performance, often cloned but never equaled. Cindy is on the run, having fallen in love with the human millionaire Anthony Greendown – a pairing which, in Metropolis, is against the law.
There is a history of musicians working with futuristic themes — think David Bowie, P.Funk, Kool Keith/Dr. Octagon, or Nona Hendryx of LaBelle. But Monae has tighter bonds to science fiction. She did a concert in an episode of Stargate Universe, and has alluded to various science fiction authors who inspired her. In an interview with io9, she talked about some of her influences.
Her Metropolis draws on Fritz Lang's, and on his and Asimov's concerns with the welfare of robots. "The quote [from Lang] that I was really inspired by was ‘the mediator between the mind and the hand is the heart,'" says Monae. "When I read that, I said, That's me! I like uniting people with the music we're creating."
Monae also identifies with Octavia Butler's novels. She explains:
Her work was first of all brilliantly written, and Wild Seed was the book that inspired me. I loved the characters, and the morphing. [Anyanwu] was just such a transformative character, and I look at myself as a transformative artist. Just the fact that [Butler] defied race and gender…. You appreciated her work for being a human being.
Talking about Ray Kurzweil's futurist manifesto The Singlularity is Near, it's clear that Monae is not just a creator of speculative fiction as allegory, she's a futurist. Her music isn't dealing out what-ifs. She's actively trying to prepare us all for what's to come.
Monae explains her vision of the future:
It'll happen - there'll be a point where the android's brain will have mapped out that of a human's, and their knowledge will have surpassed that of ours. And we won't be able to differentiate the speaking voice of an android from an actual human's. I do believe that that will be true, because of the rapid speed of technology and nanotechnology advancing…. I know that we will live in this world. How will we all act? Will we teach our kids to fear the android? Will we treat the android inhumanely? Act superior? I want people to wrap their minds around that. I think that we need a mediator, if we're all gonna rewrite history, and not oppress the Other. The Archandroid, Cindy, is the mediator, between the mind and the hand. She's the mediator between the haves and the have-nots, the oppressed and the oppressor. She's like the Archangel in the Bible, and what Neo represents to the Matrix.
In the lush song "Metropolis" (from a hard-to-find demo album called "Audition"), Monae's voiceover runs:
And it's a common thought that wired folk can be sold and bought, that we have no feelings, no memories or minds; that we're bionic strumpets, only worth a dime. To some it's a surprise… when I hold your hand, they say, ‘How can a wired thing understand? Love is too deep, too wide to feel.'
Here she's romanced Asimov and Butler in just a few lines; it's simultaneously a love story, legal commentary, and echoes of African-American history.
Likewise the video for the electrifying song "Many Moons." The "short film," as Monae bills it, is perhaps the most vivid picture we have yet of her Metropolis. The scene: a droid sale, part fashion show, part slave auction, in which dozens of riding-gear-clad Cindy Mayweather clones strut for an audience including fanged "tech dandy" Chung Knox, Neon Valley crimelord Mousey, jealous Metropolis police commander 6ix Savage, and "punk prophets" (Deep Cotton, musicians from the present and Monae's collaborators). Against this backdrop, Cindy does what she's destined to do: rock out with a superhuman energy that ultimately short-circuits her. The video ends with a quote from Cindy that evokes the Underground Railroad: "I imagined many moons in the sky, lighting the way to freedom."
What about the equestrian outfits in Many Moons – is it a class statement? Echoes of the lawn-jockey aesthetic in Outkast's video for "Hey Ya"? In other interviews, Monae has called the tuxedos she wears a "uniform," likening it to those worn by her working-class parents. "It's really to pay homage to them," she says. "This is my job; when you see me in this uniform, I'm working. This isn't a play thing for me. "
And the uniform isn't just about class; it's a gender thing, too:
I feel like I have a responsibility to my community and other young girls to help redefine what it looks like to be a woman. I don't believe in men's wear or women's wear, I just like what I like. And I think we should just be respected for being an individual…. I've been in Vogue, now, and different publications, which is cool, because I think that it just shows a different perspective of how women can dress.
This is what it boils down to – the eclectic musical influences, the focus on the android as Other, the "Ten Droid Commandments" pamphlet handed out at her concerts which encourages the audience to "abandon your expectations about art, race, gender, culture, and gravity." Monae is working with her collective, the Wondaland Arts Society, to carve out a space for us all to be brave enough to be ourselves. The word "weirdo" shows up in many of her songs. In "Faster:"
Am I a freak? Or just another little weirdo? Call me weak, or better yet – you can call me your hero, baby.
It also comes up in her history; when she was 12, she was in a band called The Weirdoz.
Monae is clear that she makes her artistic decisions to give others courage to break out of the norm. She says:
That's what I've always been fighting for - making sure that people love themselves for who they are, and we don't pick on people because we're uncomfortable with ourselves, or who they are. That's been my message, from when I was young to now. There are lots of young girls out there who are struggling with their identities… afraid of being discriminated against or teased. I take risks and use my imagination so that other people will feel free and take risks. That's my hope.
Monae is coy on the subject of where Cindy will go in the next album, but she definitely has plans to tell more stories. She says there are plans to make visuals for each of the songs on the Metropolis album; she's tweeted about plans to make a movie. Also, negotiations are afoot to find a distributor for the graphic novel she has written with collaborator Chuck Lightning, illustrated by Chad Weatherford.
Meanwhile, she appears to be touring as hard as she can, taking her "emotion picture show" around the country with the following Droid Commandments warning to the audience:
Please be aware that children conceived during the show or within 48 hours thereafter may be born with wings. The Wondaland Arts Society will not be held liable for this phenomenon or be held responsible for parenting or providing for your flying children.