Janelle Monae: Academy, Manchester
Heading to Manchester for Janelle Monae’s first full UK show in four years, Shona Carmen feels alive, emotional and included as the Electric Lady wows in a venue almost too small to contain her.
“Young, black, wild and free” were the first words out of Janelle Monae’s mouth, singing Crazy, Classic Life from recent album Dirty Computer. It seems fitting, almost a mission statement for the next 90 minutes or so.
She captivated us from the moment the spotlight hit her, and I was hungry for what was coming, frozen by the sheer excellence that graced the stage; black girl magic in abundance. I finally felt something I connected with, and it has been a long time coming. She started at ten and never let up. The stage a monochromatic dream, using red and pink stripes. It was futuristic, yet nostalgic. Like Barberella by way of San Junipero.
Up until now, Monae has obscured her identity behind her Cyndi Mayweather alter ego, much in the way that David Bowie would in the 70s, using the kind of afrofutrisim pioneered by the likes of George Clinton and Sun Ra.
With Dirty Computer, however, she has dropped the façade and told us what she really wants to say – that she is a proud queer black woman, and a “free ass motherfucker”.
This was prevalent throughout the performance; the message was one of inclusivity and belonging. Monae made sure that every last person in the room was made to feel not just welcome and accepted, but loved and needed. One telling moment during I Like That saw her walking around the front row, pointing out people’s foibles and celebrating them; “You, with the bald head, I like that shit! You, with the glasses, I like that shit!”
Her connection with her audience is beyond anything we have seen in the longest time. Every movement, every costume change, choice lyrics were greeted with cheers and screams, and I felt alive, emotional and included. She has a natural ability to make you feel like she is singing directly to you.
In the context of the show, her on stage players were central to achieving this. The interplay between band members was a joy to behold, and this was especially true of the four dancers. They all looked like me, and the other sisters around me.
In the aforementioned I Like That, they all sat around the large triangular platform in the centre of the stage. The choreography was chilled out, relaxed. Like a group of girls just jamming to the tune and having a good time. It reflected us, the audience, and made us feel like we were a part of Janelle’s gang.
It was empowering, and had a profound effect on me; she has encouraged me to be my true authentic self, and never tone down for those around me that may be uncomfortable.
She was also sure to speak to the black queens in the audience. In truth, I’m not too sure that some of the people around us understood that, but she made it clear that she was there to celebrate us. Even in the way she picked out people from the front to dance in I Got The Juice. She prowled the front, and joked that it was difficult as “There’s so much choice”.
In reality, we knew that wasn’t the case. But she was sure to pick the minorities, a concerted effort to show true diversity. One was picked because she was waving a Pride flag, and I found myself whooping the she was able to choose beautiful black and plus sized goddesses. I rose and gave the balcony my own dance, and managed to connect with those around me.
But, crucially, I believed it.
I believed every word she said, every action she made. I felt like I had lived it too. I could see years of the suppressed, black girl kooky energy exploding onto one stage, basking in the moment she has worked so hard for. This is a real, self-made Q.U.E.E.N. She isn’t just spouting the catchphrases, looking at her band, dancers, even the crew stationed at the sound desk – so many appeared to be queer black women. And there were overt references to black culture, some of which seemed lost on some of the audience.
Miss Monae herself was on rare form. She has always been an incredible performer, but there is something extra special happening with her at the moment. She may well be the best all-rounder we have, whether she’s singing note perfect, giving full time rappers a run for their money when she spits out her own bars, dancing with the precision of James Brown or strumming a guitar on Screwed.
Before Dirty Computer was released, she said she was “terrified” as she didn’t know how the public would react to such a powerfully queer, black and feminine album. But on stage tonight, those shackles have disappeared. She has been freed, and so have I. She seemed to smirk when she knew she was pushing the limit with her sexual energy aimed at women for other women, revelling in every moment.
Dirty Computer made up the vast majority of the setlist, and she was careful to select appropriate material from her back catalogue. Lyrically, Q.U.E.E.N. and the title track from 2013’s The Electric Lady fit so perfectly with the empowerment of the new record that novices would be forgiven for thinking they were new songs.
The only real let down was the muddy sound, which occasionally meant Janelle was a little inaudible on the rare occasions she spoke to the crowd. The gorgeous Miguel-featuring ballad PrimeTime suffered particularly from the mix – though this didn’t stop the crowd going nuts when this was interpolated into the guitar solo from Prince’s Purple Rain, and singing the iconic “woo-hoo-hoos” at the top of their lungs.
But, of course, nobody really cared about the mix. In a strange way, you didn’t have to hear her clearly to know what she was saying, and the highlights came thick and fast; donning her now-iconic vagina pants for PYNK (two dancers were without, in order to represent transgender women), the rave up of Tightrope, an astonishing performance of Django Jane, an impassioned introduction to Cold War, where Monae thanked everybody “fighting for LGBTQIA rights, for women’s rights, for the rights of black people – because black lives do matter. Immigrant rights, minority rights, disabled rights, lower class rights”. Cheers erupted from a crowd who seemed to genuinely believe it.
Americans was a surprising omission. The closing track from Dirty Computer feels like the song where the celebration of self-love and identification throughout the album finds its real purpose. It’s an ironic anthem, sung from the point of view of the patriotic presumed Trump voter, and tries to find the humanity within them; “Love me baby, love me for who I am”.
Indeed, this has been the closing song on the tour so far. But Manchester was treated to a frantic fan favourite in the heavy Come Alive (The War of the Roses) from 2010’s The ArchAndroid that ended with Monae making us all crouch on the floor, before crowd surfing and stripping down to a leotard.
This was an arena show in an Academy, and that made us think; that Monae isn’t one of the world’s biggest stars is one of the great travesties of the modern music industry. She is famous, but it is a more cult-like following. In some ways, this is preferable as every single person in the room was interlocked and was a part of the experience. This could be difficult to achieve with a genuinely mass audience.
But, she is one of the best in the world. She is spreading a message that needs to be heard, and she is doing it with incredible songs, humour and rare talent. Dirty Computer has set her on course to becoming a defining icon. She just needs that one hit that takes her from being one of the world’s biggest cult artists to a superstar.
You can’t pin on her in any genre, or even any era. A true powerhouse.
But more than anything, she is transcendent. Thank you Janelle for giving me the ability to see who I am, and who I can be, if I just stopped giving shit about what others think of me.
Lead image courtesy of Sakura