Janelle Monáe, DJ Paulette & The House of Ghetto: Castlefield Bowl, Manchester

Following the Electric Lady for nearly a decade, Shaun Ponsonby almost sheds a tear as Janelle Monáe performs to a sold out crowd at Manchester’s huge Castlefield Bowl.

By Shaun Ponsonby
Sat 06 July, 2019

It is hard to be objective on a night like this.

Nearly a decade ago, I happened upon Janelle Monáe on an episode of Later…with Jools Holland. I became a devoted fandroid on that day.

In that time I’ve seen her play to half empty crowds. I’ve seen her having to fill out her set with Stevie Wonder, Jackson 5, Prince and Charlie Chaplin covers. I’ve seen her star in Oscar winning films. I’ve seen her have a pillow fight in the audience. I was there the06 week she was nominated for her first Grammy. I’ve seen her release songs that I was sure would break her into the mainstream that went nowhere commercially. I pretended to like that awful Yoga song for her. I watched her start her own label and jammed to Jidenna’s Bambi. I’ve seen what were obviously young, queer, black girls CRYING at her gigs.

The latter point is most significant. Most of the reviews of MissMonáe in the mainstream press seem to be written by the usual straight, white male journalists. Of course, we’re not saying that this demographic has no valid opinion on the art, but given what Janelle does – in effect, queer afrofuturism – it is disappointing that there is such a dearth of the people to whom she is speaking selected to cover her. Conversely, I’m not seeing many people of colour or members of the LGBTQ+ community reviewing Liam Gallagher.

Happily, a friend of ours – a queer woman of colour – volunteered to review her Manchester Academy show for Planet Slop last year. We were so thankful to get her perspective. The enthusiasm she came back with was beyond “This was a great gig,” it was more along the lines of “I finally feel represented – this was made for me.”

Obviously, I’m a white dude. But I at least have the good sense to be a raging homosexual. This time I had to be indulgent, so I snapped up a ticket to Janelle’s Castlefield Bowl show as soon as they went on sale. I didn’t hang around for guest list review tickets. This meant something to me. I feel like I am a small participant in her journey, and in the wake of her Glastonbury performance – for which I received a cavalcade of messages from people proclaiming her an absolute superstar – the show sold out. Thinking back to the early, half empty Academy shows and half arsed audiences who had only heard Tightrope at the start of the decade, to see a 9,000 capacity venue sold out nearly brought a tear to my eye.

It’s especially exciting as there is no rising star supporting her. We instead get DJ Paulette with the House of Ghetto. The former is a veteran DJ from Manchester’s queer scene, spreading the “black girl magic” that Janelle has put at the centre of the entire Dirty Computer project. We enter the bowl to the sound of Donna Summer’s State of Independence – a record that still sounds massive today. She continues with the likes of Diana Ross, Chaka Kahn and Lizzo.

Then comes Prince’s Kiss, and she is joined by the House of Ghetto – an African LGBTQ+ vogue house.

There is a whole piece we could write in the significance of voguing in queer culture, specifically among the black and Latino kids who created it. This was how young people who had been kicked out of their families for their sexuality or how they identified lived their best life. Those who felt unwelcome in every other aspect of society acted like the stars they knew they were.

Together, Paulette and the House of Ghetto create the perfect introduction to the show. She radiates warmth achieving a personal connection with the crowd. The House of Ghetto are fierce. This history clearly isn’t lost on Janelle, and it added another dimension to the show as a whole. It felt like we were fully immersed in Wondaland.

When Also Sprach Zarathustra, the 2001: A Space Odyssey theme, signalled Janelle’s arrival, there was a ripple of excitement running through the crowd. She stood on top of the triangular staircase that stood in the centre of the stage, as a quote from the American Declaration of Independence gave the show its mission statement; “We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights; that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The first words out of her mouth were “Young, black, wild and free”, and the tone is set. Janelle has always celebrated the “other” through her work, usually through metaphors. Being more explicit about it on the Dirty Computer album has resulted in her most satisfying work to date. It may be less adventurous musically than some of what she has done in the past – there are no classical passages like on The ArchAndroid’s Say You’ll Go, for example. She has matched a direct message with direct music.

Of course, that doesn’t mean that this music isn’t some of the most incredible of her career, and she presents it expertly. Django Jane has become an immediate fan favourite, and she knows it. The long build-up to the track starts, as on the album, with the last moments of Screwed. She then makes her way to the side of the stage, where she does an on stage costume change, checks herself in the mirror, before making her way to a throne that has been placed on top of the staircase. She then spits out bars as good as any rapper out there. Like Lauryn Hill before her, the ability she has to switch from singing to rapping so seamlessly can easily make you feel like the most untalented person on earth.

But the show isn’t about focussing on our perceived inadequacies. It’s about focussing on all of the things that make us unique and celebrating ourselves. With Janelle as our guide, we are lifted, and she makes us all feel included, no matter our ethnicity, sexuality, gender or abilities.

This is highlighted in I Got The Juice, where four wildly different audience members were invited on stage to prove the “got the juice”. The first was in a wheelchair. Given the news earlier in the week that a disabled fan may not have had access to the show, despite being promised it when she booked the tickets, this felt like a statement. The discussions around civil rights always seems to exclude people with disabilities. Janelle is one of the few making social-political music that has incorporated this.

This message reached its apex during a short speech towards the end of the show that invoked women’s reproductive rights, and continued on to “our trans women. We must continue to fight for the LGBTQIA+ communities. I’m proud to be a queer black woman on this stage tonight. We must continue to fight for our people with disabilities, for our people in lower class working areas. We must continue to fight for the rights of black folks. Black lives DO matter. We must continue to fight for the rights of immigrants. And lastly we need all the help we can get to impeach Donald Trump.”

All of this is truly inspiring. But it wouldn’t hit home if Janelle wasn’t such a powerhouse performer with an ever growing, fantastic catalogue. Singer, rapper, dancer, guitarist, style icon and a bona fide weirdo just like we are. She is serious about the message, but isn’t afraid to be playful with it.

She keeps us waiting for the now infamous vagina pants with an extended opening to the utterly brilliant Pynk. She pays tribute to her mentor, Prince, with an extended guitar solo in the sublime slow jam Prime Time that interpolates into Purple Rain. She moved like James Brown in Tightrope, and sent us into a delirious frenzy in an extended Come Alive (War of the Roses), where she had us crouch on the floor as she made her way through the crowd.

She was perfect enough to inspire awe, but not so polished that she felt hollow. You can tell she means every word, which pretty much makes her all of the things Beyonce pretends to be. It’s hard to tell if she will break through to megastar status – perhaps she is too eccentric and alien to be fully embraced by the masses. Sometimes you wonder what it’s going to take. Superstar endorsements? Stevie Wonder, Prince, Brian Wilson, Janet Jackson, Pharrell, Outkast, Bruno Mars – CHECK. Unbelievably creative albums? CHECK. Interesting collaborations? Grimes, Miguel, Erykah Badu, Of Montreal, Esperanza Spalding, Solange – CHECK. Instantly recogniseable iconography? CHECK. Electric live performer? CHECK. Entrepreneur with own label and arts society? CHECK. Star of film that wins Best Picture at the Oscars? CHECK. Number one single? Her verse on fun.‘s We Are Young counts for that.

But it certainly feels like, after ten years, she is finally on the cusp of it. And nobody working today deserves that recognition more.

Long live the Q.U.E.E.N.

Pictures by Sakura