The first matter of business, if you haven’t already, is to treat yourself to Janelle Monáe’s latest video offerings, which the singer released today.
The visuals for “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane,” the two lead songs off Monáe’s upcoming album, Dirty Computer, are rich and stimulating—an entire 2018 mood board is captured in those two videos. But better still is Monáe’s thought process behind the videos and the album, which she shared with The Guardian in an article published Thursday.
In the article, Monáe discusses the death of her longtime mentor, Prince, whose influence can be felt both sonically and visually in “Make Me Feel”:
“It’s difficult for me to even speak about this because Prince was helping me with the album, before he passed on to another frequency,” she says. His sudden death was “a stab in the stomach. The last time I saw him was New Year’s Day. I performed a private party in St Bart’s with him, and after we sat and just talked for five hours. He was one of the people I would talk to about things, him and Stevie Wonder.”
“I wouldn’t be as comfortable with who I am if it had not been for Prince. I mean, my label Wondaland would not exist without Paisley Park coming before us,” Monáe says. She laughs a little. “He would probably get me for cussin’, but Prince is in that ‘free motherfucker’ category. That’s the category when we can recognise in each other that you’re also a free motherfucker. Whether we curse or not, we see other free motherfuckers. David Bowie! A free motherfucker. I feel their spirit, I feel their energy. They were able to evolve. You felt that freedom in them.”
Freedom is in the foreground of Monáe’s newest project. It’s about being bold and unapologetic in her identity as a black woman. She told The Guardian:
Django Jane is “a response to me feeling the sting of the threats being made to my rights as a woman, as a black woman, as a sexually liberated woman, even just as a daughter with parents who have been oppressed for many decades. Black women and those who have been the ‘other’, and the marginalised in society – that’s who I wanted to support, and that was more important than my discomfort about speaking out.”
As the article notes, “Make Me Feel” captures some of this sexual liberation. Tessa Thompson makes an appearance in the video as a potential love interest, along with a man. The two share heated glances, and a few scenes seem to refer back to Black Mirror’s “San Junipero” episode, a utopian fever dream that features a queer interracial couple.
Here’s how Monáe described it:
“It’s a celebratory song,” she says. “I hope that comes across. That people feel more free, no matter where they are in their lives, that they feel celebrated. Because I’m about women’s empowerment. I’m about agency. I’m about being in control of your narrative and your body. That was personal for me to even talk about: to let people know you don’t own or control me and you will not use my image to defame or denounce other women.”
That final point—about how people use her image to “defame or denounce” other women—is one that particularly bothers Monáe.
“I see how people try to pit women against each other,” she says. “There are people who have used my image to slut-shame other women: ‘Janelle, we really appreciate that you don’t show your body.’ That’s something I’m not cool with. I have worn a tuxedo, but I have never covered up for respectability politics or to shame other women.
The running theme in Monáe’s interview is of seizing control and being herself on her own terms—something she’s always done but is realizing in greater depth, detail and clarity with Dirty Computer.
“This project was about painting in different colours, not just black and white; going in and allowing myself to use all the shades of the crayon box,” Monáe told The Guardian. “It was time to focus on being a complete, complex human being. I don’t know who’s gonna come with me and who’s gonna criticize me, but I’m not gonna renege, and I’m not gonna hide.”