Afro-futurism is back in a big way.
With the release of Black Panther, the sci-fi fantasy ideology is back in the mainstream. And there's no better person to lead us into a brave new future other than Janelle Monáe.
With the teaser for her newest effort in two new songs "Django Jane" and "Make Me Feel", Dirty Computer goes deeper into the sci-fi future narrative that has been the focal point of her career. She's been on a mission to bring us into a utopia that we've maybe been too jaded to see. Through her alter-ego, an android named Cindi Mayweather, Monáe seeks to be "the mediator between the haves and have not," a quote inspired by Fritz Lang's film Metropolis.
Much of her identity bounces around in a hall of smoke and mirrors.
She interpolates biographical facts about Cindi Mayweather, with her own autobiography, often deflecting from the life she's lived in favor of the future reality she's created with Mayweather. A girl from Kansas City? No, she's from the year 2719. Her dating life? She only dates androids. A black girl who grew up poor? No. She an archandroid messiah sent to earth to end division and discrimination.
Monáe's futuristic reality seems like a far-out idea. Androids? Ok sis. But for her this isn't a gimmick or farce; it's a system of belief. She follows in the footsteps of afro-futurist giants who've created version of their own future utopias. Octavia Butler's Earthseed series, George Clinton and the P-Funk spaceship, Star Trek's Uhuru and countless other are all united by this central idea; redeeming the lives of the disenfranchised by taking them to majestic futures.
But Monáe's manner of expression probably most closely follows the godfather of afro-futuristic music: Sun Ra.
He was a man, a myth; he was nothing and everything. He was a patron saint of those who gravitated towards the unknown, the weird and the progressive. In his day, his futurist philosophy resonated with the hippies and those who had an affinity for the surreal. Even after his death, his influence is strong. From Erykah Badu to Flying Lotus, any of your favorite music acts point to Sun Ra as an inspiration. While afro-futurism does not begin with him, Ra is like an intergalactic saviour, bringing this new philosophy of belief to Earth.
Just like Monáe, Ra was enigmatic with a biography that was scant and unknown to most. His birthdate, name at birth, and his personal history was traded for a narrative that is centered on creating a new reality for the most disenfranchised, specifically African-Americans.
Drawing from different belief and religious systems, Ra didn't consider his beliefs to be a fantastical notion or a form of escapism. He believed he was speaking an obvious truth. He believed he was from Saturn and didn't belong on Earth.
Just as Monáe uses the android as a metaphor for "the other," Sun Ra uses the alien as metaphor for "the other."
"I do not come to you as a reality; I come to you as the myth, because that's what black people are. Myths. I came from a dream that the black man dreamed a long time ago. I'm actually a presence sent to you by your ancestors," Ra says in his 1971 lecture at UC Berkeley.
Working under the belief that black people didn't belong on earth, he created his film Space is the Place. After coming from an extended trip around the galaxy, Sun Ra and his "arkestra" come back to Earth to take black people to settle on another planet.
Monáe dreamt of worlds, too, and for her they aren't pipe dreams. "And then I dreamt of a world where there were more aliens and androids that humans, I controlled them and I could tell stories that changed people's lives," she says in a 2013 interview with Les Inrockuptibles.
This is a reality she believes in and lives in.
For Monáe and Ra, their vehicle to this new world is music. And their music stretched the limits and challenged our perceptions of music. As defined by Mark Dery in "Black to the Future," afro-futurism is black struggle and ideas expressed in different worlds and realities. As forward thinking as afro-futurists are, they often call back to the past, taking symbols and relics and reimagining them. With music, they reference the past and redefine those sound for their new worlds.
Monáe's influences are far reaching. As a black woman, she's automatically pigeon-holed as an R&B artist, but she pushes against that notion. She bounces from romantic classical music to funk to folk and everything in between. Some may call her weird for her tastes in music, but it only further fuels her mission to end discrimination.
"Or just another little weirdo/ Call me weak or better yet you can call me/ You can call me your hero, baby," she sings in "Faster".
Having albums that goes from the funky to 60's pop to the Marvin Gaye and Simon & Garfunkel tinged songs, it would seem that Monáe is directionless in her pursuits, but she knows exactly where she's going.
Much in the way that Ra's arkestra members resonated with his philosophy, it's easy to fall into Monáe's android gospel through the way she makes seemingly disparate music genres connect flawlessly.
Atonal and cacophonous, some of Ra's compositions truly demanded for his audiences to change the way they process music. His music traveled from conventional to surreal works that seemed to only makes sense if you are willing to venture past convention into a chaotic void.
Ra's been gone for nearly 15 years, but Monáe has taken the mantle. In her own way, she's spread the gospel of a future reality that considers "the others." She favors a tailored tux over robes and Egyptian regalia, but it's all relative.
With the upcoming release of her "emotion picture" Dirty Computer, it's easy to see her as the new leader of the new guard of afro-futurists.
The head of Wondaland Society, a leader in the movement for women's rights; she really is the archandroid.