By Thomas Conner
© Chicago Sun-Times
Much can be made of Janelle Monae's fantastic soul music — its Afrofuturist revival, its wacky narratives, the timing of its critical success during the administration of America's first black president — and something will be made of it right here in this column. But the most important thing to understand about this exciting rising star is this: Don't deconstruct it, just dance.
Any enlightenment to be had will come eventually. Monae works both sides of the truism offered by fellow space cadet George Clinton: "Free your mind and your ass will follow." She's got big ideas behind her words and music, but she doesn't preach. She dances, usually spontaneously.
"I don't choreograph pretty much anything I do," she said last spring in a BET interview. Watch the video for her hit "Tightrope"; she clearly has a relative idea of how she wants to move, but she's also clearly making much of it up as she pivots down that asylum hallway. "So I'm merely creating art right in front of my eyes and the audience's eyes. It's like a spiritual, out-of-body experience. I feel very possessed." She added, in an AP interview: "I want them to allow the music to transform them as much as it's transformed me."
Get them moving, and their minds will follow.
"The ArchAndroid" (pronounced "the ARK android"), Monae's universally acclaimed debut CD, is a highly theatrical statement. When I refer above to her soul music as fantastic, this is not merely a superlative. Drawing from the same wells of other musicians who've used sci-fi and fantasy as African-American allegory, Monae claims a wild backstory to her songs: She is an inmate of the Palace of the Dogs Art Asylum. She has time-traveled here from the year 2719, and her DNA has been used to create an android freedom fighter named Cindi Mayweather, sent to free the citizens of Metropolis from an oppressive group called the Great Divide.
"I believe we're going to be living in a world of androids by 2029," she told the Guardian newspaper, apparently with a straight face. "How will we all get along? Will we treat the android humanely? What type of society will it be when we're integrated? I've felt like the Other at certain points in my life. I felt like it was a universal language that we could all understand."
That capitalized Other — the stranger in a strange land — is a common sci-fi theme and has shown up throughout the legacy of Afrofuturist music, from DJ Spooky's trip-hop back through Dr. Octagon's "Earth People," Digable Planets' "Reachin' (A New Refutation of Time and Space)," Afrika Bambaataa's scratch-cut classic "Planet Rock," even Herbie Hancock's own android assembly in "Rockit." Before that, Clinton's Paliament/Funkadelic launched the "mothership," and the first contact with black aliens occurred right here in Chicago, where Sun Ra landed with his Arkestra in the mid-'50s and eventually claimed "Space Is the Place."
Gerald Majer, in his Beat-like recollection of Chicago's avant-jazz scene, The Velvet Lounge: On Late Chicago Jazz, attempts to describe the tug-of-war between black American history and sci-fi futurism exploding from Sun Ra's early '60s concerts here, enigmatically concluding: "Space is the place: you move in, you move aside, you dance where it divides."
The divide between sanity and madness is central to Monae's cosmology. Her vision of the future is not optimistic, singing in "Locked Inside": "When I look into the future, I see danger in its eyes / Hearts of hatred rule the land while others left outside / Killing, bleeding Citizen, while music slowly dies / and I get frightened, see, I get frightened." The love of her man, however, will keep her from "going crazy."
"So many people deal with so many obstacles every day that they need to relieve some of that stress," Monae said in a recent Vibe interview. "So 'Tightrope' deals with balance and not getting too high or too low. So I just really focused on creating art, songs that I felt would connect to people."
Her musical journey started when Janelle Robinson left her native Kansas City for New York City to study theater. She wanted to be a Broadway star. When that dream faded a bit, she relocated to Atlanta, where she met like-minded artists, like Chuck Lightning, and formed the Wondaland Arts Society (which releases her music, now distributed through Sean "Diddy" Combs' Bad Boy label). Outkast's Big Boi discovered her and began pushing her on his compilations, even slipping her into the Outkast movie "Idlewild." (He guests on "Tightrope"; she appeared on his solo debut this year, too.) The theatrical flair continues — videos are planned for each song on "The ArchAndroid," as well as a graphic novel and, yes, a musical.
So, free your mind — it will come back to you — and trust yourself to just enjoy the groove. Monae's voice is clear and strong. Her music is Motown sharp and James Brown funky. She dances like someone who knows how but doesn't spend a month rehearsing. Last time she was in town, she opened for Erykah Badu and completely upstaged her. (Word so far on this tour is the same is true of her Georgia friends in Of Montreal.) Let the very human beats and belts carry you away, then chat about the big ideas on the way home.
with Janelle Monae
• 7 p.m. Saturday
• Riviera Theatre, 4746 N. Racine
• Tickets, $23, etix.com
These online "clips" reproduce a self-selection of my journalism (music etc) during the last 20+ years. It's a lotta stuff, but it only scratches the surface. I do not currently possess the time or resources to digitize the whole body of work. These posts are simply a bunch of pretty great days at the office.