Janelle Monáe is the best, and not just because she hails from Kansas City. Even if you haven’t heard her music, chances are that you’ve come across her consistent minimalist black-and-white tuxedo look:
Her reasons for sticking with the suit are more than solely aesthetic.
“It’s a dedication to uniformity and I’m a minimalist by heart, but a lot of it had to do with me wanting to have a uniform like the working class, like my mom and my grandmother,” Monáe said in an interview with The Huffington Post. “My grandmother had 16 sisters and brothers and they all had to share one pair of shoes. And so that’s the family that I come from — I don’t ever want to be detached from that. I use it as motivation for my music and to just keep me centered, grounded and to stay on message.”
That message is indeed palpable in her music, which is (undoubtedly intentionally) impossible to categorize. Take the song “Q.U.E.E.N.,” for instance. Words such as “Is it peculiar that she twerk in the mirror?” might very well be some of my favorite lines in the history of dancing-alone-in-one’s-room genre (though Lizzie McGuire comes in a close second). But if you feel inclined to dismiss Monáe because of her love of solo twerking, I suggest you listen to the whole of the song first.
On one level, the song is about self-acceptance (“Even if it makes others uncomfortable/I will love who I am”), which is a serious issue that taunts many young women. But another level, her song is a manifesto of art against oppression, a political statement and refusal to accept the limitations set out for the existing exploitative power structure. Read:
“They call us dirty cause we break all your rules down/And we just came to act a fool, is that all right/They be like, ‘Ooh let them eat cake.’/But we eat wings and throw them bones on the ground.”
This rumored Marie Antoinette quote is not the only time that Monáe recalls images of queens and powerful women, legendary and long-gone alike. My favorite verse makes reference to Egyptian Queen Nefertiti.
“Are we a lost generation of our people?
Add us to equations but they’ll never make us equal.
She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel.
So why ain’t the stealing of my rights made illegal?
They keep us underground working hard for the greedy,
But when it’s time pay they turn around and call us needy.
My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti
Gimme back my pyramid, I’m trying to free Kansas City.”
Fight the power! A working class hero is something to be! Talk about some politically and even revolutionarily charged lyrics, huh? And bonus points for representin’ KC! But what, you might ask, does any of this have to do with twerking? The end of the song attempts to answer that question and reconcile the seemingly separate topics of dance, social awareness, and the call to political action.
“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 and 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 rising up now, you gotta deal you gotta cope
Will you be electric sheep?
Electric ladies, will you sleep?
Or will you preach?”
Yesterday, I wrote about Doctor Who, and I argued that “it’s impossible not to make a political statement on a program that is so widespread and influential.” The relationship between art and politics is one with which I became increasingly obsessed in college– Is art for art’s sake possible? Does art for the sake of aestheticism ever succeed, and is it somehow a higher form of art than a piece with a political intention? Does art have a moral responsibility to interact with the material world in an ideological or political manner? If art was created from such a utilitarian perspective, does it become propaganda? I studied all of these questions within the context of literature, but it certainly applies to visual art, music, television, film, and any other form of art.
In the world of creativity, there are few greater insults than the word “preachy,” but Monáe does not shy away from it. In fact, the word “preach” seems to echo in its finality as it closes the song. “Q.U.E.E.N.” proposes that art is a means of resistance. It should not simply pose questions (such as in Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”), nor suspend these conversations about social and political consciousness in theoretical conversation. For Monáe, music and dancing (I extend this to art) is, can be, and should have a material and revolutionary role in reforming societal and cultural norms that keep the oppressed “underground” and “working for the greedy.”
If you’ve ever shared a classroom or tutorial with me, you know that I’m incredibly compelled by Monáe’s arguments. Yet I also recognize that her contentions can be problematic (see the list of questions that I asked above, among many others that I don’t have the time to explore right now). Moreover, Monáe’s seeming connection between individual agency (that is, self-acceptance) and a common social movement of the exploited might even be an attempt to resolve the paradoxes we find in classic Marx… but that’s another post for another day.
For now, I leave you with these words of wisdom (from Monáe herself, of course): “You gotta testify, because the booty don’t lie!”