Emotion picturing oppression and resistance

May 9, 2018

Fern Thurston and Kate Nadel celebrate the work of an artist whose mainstream success has broadened the audience for her message of justice and struggle.

ACTRESS AND recording artist Janelle Monáe released her third studio album, titled Dirty Computer. Along with the album, Monáe released an epic, 45-minute "emotion picture."

Both the album and the short film are beautiful celebrations of identity and resistance. Monáe explores what it is to be a queer Black woman living in America, while contrasting the serious message with a hyper-pop aesthetic.

But it's in the accompanying short film where the message really hits home: Every aspect of our lives is controlled by the society we live in, down to the way we experience our own bodies. Dirty Computer is an artistic example of how existence as a Black queer woman really can be resistance.

Dirty Computer has been a long-term project for Monáe. She has worked on it simultaneously with other projects involving similar themes, like the films Hidden Figures and Moonlight.

Monáe has also said that the current political moment is a direct influence on the project. In an interview with Vulture magazine, she says: "The [2016 presidential] election sped up the release of Dirty Computer."

Janelle Monáe
Janelle Monáe (NRK P3 | flickr)

Monáe expresses how her purpose as an artist is to celebrate marginalized groups who are constantly under attack by people in positions of power. This is a theme we see attempted by so many artists: how to fight back against the forces that oppress us.

Monae sharply addresses those forces as racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia. It's refreshing and inspiring to see those tools of oppression be called out in mainstream media.


MONÁE'S "emotion picture" is set in a not-so-distant future, borrowing dystopian elements from America's past and present.

Monáe shows us a world where anyone who is "different," anyone who is Black, queer, poor--anyone who is not successful or acceptable by capitalist standards--is labeled a "dirty computer" and regulated by the state to be "cleaned."

This cleaning process turns out to be erasure of the "dirty computer's" emotions and personality, carried out via a futuristic memory erasing medical procedure. This element of the film is reminiscent of the ways Black people, women and LGBT people have been forced into asylums and experimented on, with procedures such as lobotomies, forced isolation, drugs and re-education.

Review: Music

Janelle Monáe, Dirty Computer and "emotion picture," Bad Boy Records.

Monáe's character is targeted for "cleaning" because of her Blackness, her queerness and her sexual fluidity. Her mere existence is threatening to this fictional totalitarian state in a way that resonates with oppressed peoples of today.

The majority of the film follows this authoritarian state going through the memory of Monáe's character, where we see the hyper-militarized policing of this future society. There are drone traffic police, whole SWAT teams that come and shut down a party and police kidnappings.

At first, these images seem to be just another part of the science fiction world Monáe is creating, but they also bare eerie similarities to what happened in Ferguson, Missouri, after the murder of Michael Brown.

What we see in Dirty Computer is what the modern-day police would be like with more advanced technology--as when drones act as traffic cops and crowd control in the film.

But if the cops' technology is out of the future, their behavior is familiar to our present. The origins of today's police lie in strikebreaking and slave patrols, and Monáe's film imagines they won't be any different in the future.

Monáe also discusses the police in her lyrics, saying in the outro "Crazy, Classic, Life": "The same mistake, I'm in jail, you're on top of shit / You living life while I'm walking around mopping shit / Tech kid, backpack, no, you a college kid / I just wanted to break the rules like you / I just want someone to love me too."


ONE THEME that runs through Janelle Monáe's work and is also present in Dirty Computer is the contrast between an authentic human experience and the oppressive expectation to perform like a robot: a lack of authenticity, rigidity and emotionlessness that society expects of us.

The rise of automation has brought the expectation of reducing human error, and of increasing profits by cutting jobs that were once performed by humans. Janelle Monáe is expressing an urge to live authentically, emotionally, sensually and humanly while our political and economic system is antithetical to this.

Dirty Computer is a celebration of womanhood, with lyrics like "I live my life on birth control" and "How the men telling me to cover up my areolas, while they blocking equal pay, sipping on they coca colas" in the song "Screwed." "Remember when they used to say I looked too mannish? / Black girl magic, y'all can't stand it," she sings in "Django Jane."

In the video for the song "Pynk," Monáe and her backup dancers wear pants that clearly are meant to resemble giant vaginas, celebrating part of some women's bodies that are often degraded and made to feel ugly and dirty.

She also made sure to include and celebrate trans-women. In an interview with People magazine, Monáe said:

There are some women in the video who do not have on the pants, because I don't believe that all women need to possess a vagina to be a woman. I have one, I'm proud of it, but there's a lot of policing and controlling that people are trying to have over our vaginas, and when you think about female genital mutilation, when you think about all these women's issues, I wanted to make sure we were discussing these issues, but we were also celebrating each other.

The album ends with the song "Americans," where Monáe counterposes most of the song--hyper-patriotic to the point of satire--with a spoken part at the end:

Until women can get equal pay for equal work
This is not my America
Until same-gender loving people can be who they are
This is not my America
Until Black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head
This is not my America, huh!
Until poor whites can get a shot at being successful
This is not my America...
Until Latinos and Latinas don't have to run from walls
This is not my America
But I tell you today that the devil is a liar
Because it's gon' be my America before it's all over

Dirty Computer is a beautiful celebration of queer, Black womanhood, and its mainstream success is worth celebrating. Janelle Monáe's purpose as an artist is to celebrate marginalized groups who are constantly under attack by people in positions of power.

This is a theme we are seeing pursued by a growing number of artists: how to fight back against the forces that oppress us. Monáe addresses those forces in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.

It's refreshing and inspiring to see those tools of oppression be called out in the mainstream, and that message from such a popular platform will only further the opening for people who have something to say about the source of inequality and oppression.

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