Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer does showcase queer Afrofuturism; but, for the long answer, keep reading!

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All those in favor of putting Janelle Monáe in charge, say “I like that!” Monáe’s recent album and accompanying “emotion picture,” Dirty Computer, is a radical call to action for a queer, black, female future. If you haven’t already been listening to the album on repeat, start now. Going into Pride, let Monáe’s music set the tone for re-envisioning what queer pride can be. Historically, Monáe’s work challenges the boundaries between genres.

Her music evokes the aesthetics of artists like Grace Jones, Prince, and David Bowie. As a result, Monáe crafts a politically-charged queer black feminist art. Indeed, her art announces the rejection of white patriarchal creative and political control. The combinations give voice to her queer Afrofuturist “womanifesto” (more on this later). Although the Dirty Computer “emotion picture” directly points out how society oppresses queer black women. The music speaks truth to power and joyfully celebrates revolutionary queer women of color.

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Monáe’s latest masterpiece draws from her past work in the Metropolis narrative which included her first studio albums: The ArchAndroid (2010) and The Electric Lady (2013). The Metropolis epic developed Monáe’s alter ego Cindy Mayweather, an android who falls in love with a human. Monáe’s android fills a role akin to that described in Donna Haraway’s A Cyborg Manifesto, with its post-gender, boundary-breaking cyborg.

Importantly, Dirty Computer breaks away from the Metropolis character, inching Monáe further into her own identity. In Dirty Computer, Monáe stars as a human character, Jane, who — like the android — confronts social hierarchies. Not only that, Jane challenges binarist logic that separates men/women, white/black, culture/nature, etc.

Dirty Computer
Title image from Dirty Computer emotion picture.

Although Jane occupies a slightly different position, the results are similarly queer and challenging to the status quo. As Monáe brings more of her identity into her music, she draws on her own experiences with gender and sexuality. Specifically, Monáe came out as pansexual alongside Dirty Computer‘s release.

Like queerness, technology is a major theme. As the title describes, free-thinking humans are “dirty computers.” But Monáe uses the character, Jane, to play with the concepts laid out by her previous works. Doing this, all while developing her own thesis on queer Afrofuturism. 

Afrofuturism and the Phenomenon of the Black Panther

What Is Afrofuturism?

Afrofuturism has been aptly applied to Monáe’s work, describing not only her use of technology as a major theme but also her emphasis on reclaiming black history in order to redefine black futures. According to Jared Richardson, the genre

“offers a racialized science fiction that reimagines black temporality vis-à-vis technology, galactic elsewheres, disjunctive time, and speculative narratives stemming from either utopic or antithetical visions.”

In other words, the genre uses themes and techniques from science-fiction while focusing on black experiences. Particularly those related to the African diaspora. Indeed, reading Dirty Computer as a cultural text, Monáe’s piece reasserts the presence of queer black identities. Still despite white supremacist narratives suggesting otherwise.

Several key themes in Dirty Computer include memory, identity, technology, the female body, and queer pleasure. Monáe also embraces instability and calls upon viewers to embrace change. Even the title screen hints at this: Dirty Computer appears in a font called Futuracha Pro that changes while you type (and we thought Monáe couldn’t get any cooler!).

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In addition, while the songs themselves are utopic, the “emotion picture” is disconcertingly dystopian. This juxtaposition embodies a queerness all its own, letting viewers know there is no stability. Monáe’s character actively fights against the oppressive, technologically powerful entity that seeks to obliterate her memory and force her into a homogeneous society.

Jane is figured as the voice of the past as well as a liberating force for the future. Indeed, songs like “I Like That” affirm Monáe’s uniqueness, as she states: “I don’t really give a fuck if I was just the only one who likes that.” Jane/Monáe’s unique creative voice challenges listeners to embrace what makes them different, too. As a result, Dirty Computer solidifies the themes of Afrofuturism. But, with the added element of Monáe actively queering the spaces.

A Matter of Time: Afrofuturism & Memory

In Dirty Computer‘s opening lines, Monáe states that it was “only a matter of time” before she would be caught and “cleaned.” Time plays a significant role in all of Monáe’s work, particularly her hit from The Electric Lady, “Q.U.E.E.N.” In the single, Monáe is the captive of the Time Council. Ina Karanxha’s article notes the significance of Monáe and Erykah Badu coming together through time and space in the “Q.U.E.E.N.” emotion picture.

Likewise in Dirty Computer, Monáe explores the body’s relationship to temporal experience. Instead of “Q.U.E.E.N.”‘s Time Council, Dirty Computer works in memories or the removal of memories. Jane is a captive of The New Dawn, an organization that systematically erases her memories. Like in “Q.U.E.E.N.” the control over black women’s bodies ties into the ability to narrate the truth of their experiences. The act of erasing Jane’s memory evokes white supremacy’s revisionist narratives about black history.

Dirty Computer
Image from Django Jane.

Even the framework of Dirty Computer plays with time and space, chipping away at chronological order. Indeed, the narrative is told out of order, jumping from the present to Jane’s memories. As a result, Monáe toys with Western narrative structure even as the New Dawn robs Jane of her own sense of time. The dedication to claiming black history and turning it into a force within her music is part of what places Monáe in the afrofuturist genre.

Re-Membering the Cosmos

Monáe’s memories, of course, are the individual songs that make up the album. Historical memory thematically features in several songs, most obviously “Django Jane” in which Monáe rejects racist caricatures like “Sambo” and pays homage to the Black Panthers. Monáe’s work is traditionally self-referential. Aspects of Dirty Computer tie directly to the Metropolis suits.

For example, Jane’s number is the same as Cindy Mayweather’s model number. Additionally, “PYNK” comes up in several of her songs within Dirty Computer, as do points about her life such as “remember when they told you I was too black for ya” (“Crazy, Classic, Life“) and “remember when they used to say I looked too manish” (“Django Jane”).

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Monáe also famously starred in the film Hidden Figures as one of NASA’s most important “computers” — mathematician and aerospace engineer, Mary Jackson. By likening a human to a computer in Dirty Computer, Monáe comments ironically on the history of Jackson’s role as a scientist during a critical point in NASA’s history. Monáe’s position as a recreation/narrator of that history.

In A Cyborg Manifesto, Haraway writes that “cyborgs are not reverent; they do not re-member the cosmos.” The cyborg is not faithful to older narratives, particularly those compelling oppressive patriarchal organizations. Instead, Haraway’s cyborg wants to disrupt the history. Dirty Computer lives up to the cyborgain expectation, but in many ways, Monáe is re/membering the cosmos. In fact, Dirty Computer examines the inception of bodies in space, specifically reasserting the autonomy and creative power of black female bodies. Monáe remembers black history and re-members (asserts bodily presence) into the cultural narrative. 

 We Gave You Life: Reshaping Black Female Ontologies

As Haraway states, “The cyborg is a creature in a post-gender world… [and] has no origin story…” Again, Dirty Computer‘s protagonist is not the cyborgian figure that Cindy Mayweather was. Nevertheless, in Monáe’s universe, technology and identity are connected. And like Haraway’s cyborg, Monáe breaks away from traditional narratives about gender. In particular, she reshapes the origin story, rejecting male-centrism.

In “Django Jane,” Monáe states “we gave you life, we gave you birth, we gave you god, we gave you earth.” Moreover, she further asserts that “we femmed the future,” rejecting a male-centric future as well. As a result, the control of origins are put back into women’s bodies. In “Django Jane,” Monáe asks listeners to “let the vagina have a monologue.” Language is thereby given to women’s bodies. We are no longer in a Freudian (too much?)/phallic system. Monáe has asserted a new, yonic voice. 

Dirty Computer
Image from Pynk.

Monáe takes her thesis even further in “PYNK.” For example, she adds popular phrases like “pussy grabs back,” locating empowerment in cis women’s bodies. Jared Richardson’s article “Attack of the Boogeywoman: Visualizing Black Women’s Grotesquerie in Afrofuturism” looks at the black female body in art. Pynk fits his description of the “grotesque,” specifically how physical exaggeration captivates audiences. As Richardson says, the exaggeration “proliferates multiple ontologies for the black female body.”

Richardson’s “grotesquerie” is a point of empowerment, giving a queer type of agency to women’s bodies. Over the course of the song, Monáe connects “PYNK” to brains, hearts, and by way of her amazing pants and other visuals, vulvae. But rather than emphasizing female reproductive anatomy as a tool for reproduction, she chooses to emphasize queer pleasure. 

We Got the Pynk: Queer Pleasure 

“PYNK” is a joy of innuendo celebrating queer women’s sexuality and pleasure. The song is in the middle of Dirty Computer, between “Django Jane” and “Make Me Feel.” The song carefully hints at various sex acts, all while Monáe and Tessa Thompson bask in the pink-washed desert.

Dirty Computer‘s other tracks confirm Monáe’s dedication to queer pleasure. For example, in “I Like That,” Monáe lingers on her chorus of “oh me oh me oh me oh my.” The delightful emphasis is on the repeating “oh.” Monáe enjoys her own body and identity, adding “I always knew I was the shit.”

Dirty Computer
Image from I Like That. from I Like That.

Additionally, the chorus of Screwed states “See, if everything is sex except sex, which is power…” Thus, Monáe confirms that her use of queer eroticism is a powerful tool to deliver her message. Indeed, contemporary American culture does not make room for queer women of color’s pleasure. The very idea challenges white hetero-patriarchal organization. In Dirty Computer, Monáe asserts sex, and queer pleasure, as power against oppressive social norms.

Dirty Computer: The American Dream vs. The American Nightmare

In “Crazy, Classic, Life” Monáe states “I am not America’s nightmare. I am the American dream.” Monáe’s song pleas, “Let me live my life.” But the upbeat song juxtaposes to the final track of Dirty Computer, Americans in which Monáe expresses the reasons “this is not my America.”

She details equal pay for women, LGBTQ+ rights, police violence against people of color, and class disparities as reasons why the America we live in is not America. As Monae points out, she is the real American dream: she lives up to the America that was promised.

But she is the rare exception, which is why Dirty Computer must not end happily. The “emotion picture” cannot fall into a utopia, as much as the music suggests a happy outcome. Rather, Monáe’s Afrofuturism landscape acknowledges that there is too much real inequality and injustice to ignore.

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