BY AHLIA DUNN ’20
Singer Janelle Monae released the music video for her new single “Make Me Feel” last week to much fanfare. The first single off of her upcoming album, “Dirty Computer,” is a bonafide crop-growing, skin-clearing hit that appeals to fans, old and new.
The music video is a disco fever dream. A hesitant Monae arrives to an other-worldly party straight out of “Black Mirror’s” San Junipero, full of beautiful, androgynous dancers and actress Tessa Thompson (“Creed”) as Monae’s lover/sidekick. Monae then ushers us onto a wild ride as the song’s grinding bassline begins. The rest of the video is pure, uninhibited fun. Full of colors and synchronized dance moves, you’ll smile the whole time.
“Make Me Feel” is a cultural interruption similar to Monae’s other hits like “Q.U.E.E.N” (from album “The Electric Lady”) and “Tightrope” (from her debut “The ArchAndroid”). True Monae fans can see that this single is a natural progression for her career, but still stays true to her roots.
Released in tandem with “Django Jane,” another single from her new album, the theme of black female empowerment is obvious in Monae’s work. What audiences have seen of “Dirty Computer” so far shows Monae in her latest form. She is no longer strictly uniformed in sharp black and white suits, but rather in tones of red and purples and glitter — a glittered Gucci bikini, to be exact. In 2018, she’s not just a singer but also an established actor (“Moonlight”) and cultural figure. Monae has found her own light.
She has also been able to pave her own path in a music landscape where black female artists have to fit into the binary of Rihanna versus Beyonce. “Make Me Feel” allows Monae’s talent and vision to speak for itself without being reduced to a video about sex.
“Make Me Feel” is unapologetically black and female with Monae’s personal brand of black girl joy. It is fascinating to see her surrounded by female dancers and love interests, when in so much of black female representation, the subjects are objectified. These bodies do not feel exploited for the white, male gaze but celebrated for the black female gaze. In a culture of diverse efforts in media, Time’s Up and #MeToo, it is refreshing to see a black woman in charge of her image and sexuality.
Sexy and strong, the track is reminiscent of your mom’s favorite Prince song. “(Party like It’s) 1999” and “Kiss” are immediately called upon when the song begins. This is not without intention. According to his tour DJ, Lenka Paris, “The Purple One” created the synth line himself and had been working with Monae on “Dirty Computer” before his death in 2016. In an interview with BBC Radio 1, Monae said, “I really miss him, you know, it’s hard for me to talk about him. But I do miss him, and his spirit will never leave me.” This is evident in the singles released. In a time after Prince’s death where artists like Justin Timberlake and Miguel have tried and failed to emanate the icon’s aura, Monae succeeds. “Make Me Feel” does not feel copied or unoriginal, but is instead a tribute to an icon and a friend.
Monae does not just utilize Prince’s synth beats and soulful lyrics but also his tendency to exhibit his sexual fluidity. The top YouTube comment hails the track as the “BI ANTHEM” as the song and video both play with the duality of sexuality. Monae soulfully sings “It’s like I’m powerful with a little bit of tender/An emotional, sexual bender.” To ignore the bisexuality of the song, the video and Monae is to not have truly seen it. Even the lighting in the video has been described as the “bisexual light,” a term which, according to Broadly, “gained momentum in the queer community last year” because of films like “Moonlight” and “Atomic Blonde” that depicted queer characters bathed in purple, blue and pink hues reminiscent of the bisexual pride flag. Monae, who has never explicitly labeled her sexuality, lets audiences interpret the video how they want. Nonetheless, the song was released at a time when mainstream queerness still erases bisexual people. To see a black woman being so openly sexual — and bisexual — is groundbreaking. Whereas Prince’s black male queerness was scandalous in the 70s and 80s, Monae is able to make music for the most “out” generation ever.
This video is indicative of a media movement where blackness can show its excellency in a way that white art has always been able to, even when it wasn’t so excellent. “Moonlight” won best picture, “Black Panther” is nearing the 900 million dollar mark and Oprah could be the president. Janelle Monae’s evolution shows how black women, and especially queer black women, are creating spaces where others can thrive in the racial, gender, sexual and in between.