From politics to pop culture, the present feels more like a grim sci-fi version of reality than ever before. Welcome to Dystopia Now!, a collection of stories about our darkest timelines.
On January 21, Janelle Monáe wore chains and shrugged them off. At the Women’s March in Washington, D.C., the performer approached the microphone in a black peacoat with broad, embellished shoulders, her epaulets dripping with pearls and chrome links. When she spoke, her arms rested on the lucite podium.
“HELLO, FUTURE!” she crowed, and cheers of greeting volleyed back from the pink-speckled sea of pussy-hat–wearing, sign-hoisting women. “I am so proud to stand here as a woman, an African-American woman. My grandmother was a sharecropper. She picked cotton in Aberdeen, Mississippi. My mother was a janitor. I am a descendant of them. I am here in their honor to help us move forward and fem the future.”
She unzipped her coat and invoked the names of Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Jesus, saying that these men were “given” to humanity by women. The crowd voiced its approval as she reached the end of each thought centered on female strength. She said that she was there to “march against the abuse of power,” and she extended a word of welcome to those in its crosshairs.
“To the LGBTQ community, my fellow brothers and sisters; to immigrants, my fellow brothers and sisters; to women: continue to embrace the things that make you unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable.” Cheers. “You are enough.” More cheers. “And whenever you feel in doubt, whenever you want to give up, you must always remember— ” in a blink, she dropped the coat, “to choose freedom over fear.” The white text on her black sweatshirt read “FEM THE FUTURE”; before continuing, she turned so that the roaring audience could see the words “FREEDOM OVER FEAR” on the other side. She didn’t pick the coat back up.
Monáe's appearance at the Women's March built on a decade-long career of music that engages thoughtfully with themes of liberation and justice. When she first appeared on the national scene with 2007's Metropolis: Suite I EP, her distinctive approach to style was impossible to miss — a meticulously engineered pop-superhero look, down to the curve of her pompadour and the sheen of the satin lapels on her tuxedos. “I like to look at my fashion as walking art with a message, and the message is to pay homage to the working class,” she told Interview a few years later. “This is ... my uniform, something I take pride in, and it reminds me that my work is never done.”
When Sean Combs signed her to Bad Boy Records and rereleased Metropolis in 2008, Monáe kept full creative and branding control as a non-negotiable condition. “I didn't trust labels. I thought they’d immediately try to change my image, change my style, make me relax my hair,” she recalled in a 2013 interview. “[But] Diddy is very afraid to mess it up. And he should be.”
One reason that Monáe was so particular about her look in those days was that it tied into an overarching story line she'd devised for her music. On all her major releases, from 2003's self-released The Audition onward, she's played the role of Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android hoping to free her people from the suffocating grip of a love-hating dystopian regime. While it's not always immediately obvious, most of her songs can be best understood as sci-fi anthems against prejudice, racism, greed, and other hateful forces of discord. And while Cindi the fictional android and Janelle Monáe the living, breathing artist have some obvious differences, the character is ultimately a vehicle for her to explore her own story on earth.
Cindi Mayweather is a bot on the run. She's running because she broke a major rule in the year 2719 by falling in love with a human being. A society called the Great Divide has weaponized time travel to keep their preferred order, and deems Mayweather an enemy once she makes this error. This forbidden romance merits her destruction, or “disassembly.” In the first lines we hear from Monáe/Mayweather on 2007's “Violet Stars Happy Hunting!,” she lays out her plight plainly for us:
I'm an alien from outer space
I'm a cybergirl without a face, a heart, or a mind
See, I'm a slave girl without a race
On the run ‘cause they're here to erase and chase out my kind
They've come to destroy me
And I think to myself:
Impossible! It's impossible!
They're gunning for me
And now the army's after you
For loving too...
A science fiction–loving Midwestern kid who devoured The Twilight Zone and Star Wars, Monáe went on to connect so strongly with Fritz Lang’s landmark 1927 German Expressionist film Metropolis that it became one of the biggest conceptual influences on her work to date — which she's presented as an ambitious seven-part series of recordings named after the film. The 2007 EP was part one; 2010’s The ArchAndroid served as parts two and three, with cover art showing Monáe-as-Mayweather wearing a headpiece fashioned after the skyline from Lang’s film; and 2013's The Electric Lady delivered parts four and five. (As for chapters six and seven, they’re coming — but not for a while. “I will never stop making music," Monáe said in a recent interview with Billboard. “There will be a new album, [but] I don’t know when.”)
Monáe has spoken of being moved by Lang's portrayal of the class division between the wealthy elites and the underground-dwelling “have-nots,” and the abuse inflicted by the former on the latter. In the film, Freder, the sheltered son of Metropolis’s ruler, spurs a chain of events that nearly destroys the city when he stands up for the have-nots — and, ultimately, brings peace to Metropolis when he serves as a mediator, establishing common ground between those in power and the disenfranchised.
The moral of Lang's story hit Monáe on a philosophical level, and the parallels she drew between the film’s moral compass and her own life experience led her to work out the concept in writing. “I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, and grew up in the language of the oppressed and the oppressor,” she told Elle in 2013. “[Metropolis] made me want to continue to unite people with music and bring awareness to the working class, the have-nots, and those who are discriminated against.” As critic Kandia Crazy Horse noted in the Village Voice in 2009, these themes in Monáe's work had particular resonance as they coincided with the end of the Bush administration's eight stifling years: “Monáe's citing of Fritz Lang's Metropolis as a key inspiration shows she intends to implicitly critique an excessive, decadent American empire run on the labor and suffering of its poor, disenfranchised, and mostly colored subjects.”
Along with Metropolis, Monáe's work draws on classic Afrofuturist texts, including Octavia Butler’s novel Kindred and the music of Sun Ra and Parliament-Funkadelic; the mid-century science fiction writing of Isaac Asimov; and psychological studies such as The Century of the Self, a four-part documentary centered on Sigmund Freud’s thoughts on crowd manipulation. Half the fun of listening to her music is decoding all the references and allusions. (The liner notes for The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady are a blast to read for this reason, as they cite “the atomic bombs in Muhammad Ali's fists” and “Stevie Wonder listening to Os Mutantes on vinyl (circa 1973)” as muses.) The other half comes courtesy of the music itself, which works in so many lush, vibrant arrangements and genres at once — R&B! Funk! Electronic! Pop! Broadway standards! — that listeners are locked into a state of groove-powered hypnosis. Monáe doesn’t just build a world with her lyrics. She lays the foundation for it with rock-solid choruses, impervious bass lines, and Prince-endorsed riffs for bricks.
But as heady as the science-fiction concept behind Monáe's Metropolis can be, what makes her music resonate deepest is the way it mirrors our reality. On Metropolis's “Many Moons,” she directly references the plot of Lang’s movie to highlight the social suffocation of the have-nots: “We're dancing free, but we're stuck here underground / And everybody trying to figure their way out.” She does the same on The ArchAndroid (from “Cold War”: “If you want to be free / Below the ground is the only place to be / ’Cause in this life / You spend time running from depravity”) and The Electric Lady (from “Q.U.E.E.N.”: “They keep us underground working hard for the greedy / But when it's time to pay, they turn around and call us needy”).
While the language is Metropolitan, its metaphors are universal, and Monáe consistently uses her fictional universe to comment on the one we live in. On 2007's “Mr. President,” she makes the case for spending money on fighting hunger at home instead of fueling the war machine abroad (“We can’t go starting wars with hearts of hatred / Our nation’s greed won’t make it better / Or quiet the fears in our hearts”). The ArchAndroid is full of arguments for peace and understanding, with Suite II in particular offering intense images by way of “Locked Inside” (“And when I look into the future, I see danger in its eyes / Hearts of hatred rule the land / While love is left aside / Killing plagues the citizens / While music slowly dies / I get frightened”) and “Dance or Die” (“March into the war and with the kick of the drum / The wiser simians have got the bombs and the guns”).
Monáe's vocal performances on these songs are exceptional; it's hard not to be swayed at once by a voice so powerful, soothing, challenging, and invigorating. And the themes she's singing about — justified questioning of authority, resistance to militarization and police brutality, condemnation of prejudice — have clear echoes in the unforgiving, real world. “When you think about the android, you think about the other, and sometimes the other is discriminated against,” Monáe told Elle. “The android is just another way of speaking about the new other, and I consider myself to be part of the other just by being a woman and being black. There's still certain stereotypes that I have to fight off, and there's still a certain struggle that we all individually have to go through.”
Throughout her work, Monáe uses conversations with her own friends and family to further anchor the parallels between Mayweather’s reality and her own. “Q.U.E.E.N.,” her 2013 collaboration with Erykah Badu, is a sum of parts built from many conversations with the singer on inequality and self-determination. Together, Badu and Monáe take matters into their own hands: They refuse to live by other's rulebooks (“Even if it makes others uncomfortable / I will love who I am”), and Monáe, in particular, won’t stand by and keep silent as the world careers down a violent path. “I'ma keep singin', I'ma keep writin' songs,” she raps. “I'm tired of Marvin asking me ‘What's going on?’ / March to the streets 'cause I'm willing and I'm able / Categorize me, I defy every label.” (It doesn’t hurt that “Q.U.E.E.N.” boasts exceptional orchestral flourishes and a perfect formula for the vocal chemistry of two otherwise peerless electric ladies at work.)
“[‘Q.U.E.E.N.’] was really inspired by private conversations that [Badu] and I continue to have about our community, and how we can uplift [it], and how we can deal with those who feel marginalized, and who don’t often have people standing up for their rights, whether it be the gays, the lesbians, the immigrants,” Monáe told NPR in 2013. “Women are oftentimes marginalized, and we wanted to show that two strong women can work together and create something great.”
Through the character of Mayweather, Monáe puts hope into practice. Mayweather is a poster-droid for strength, perseverance, and optimism in a desolate environment. Monáe's extraordinary onscreen performances in Moonlight and Hidden Figures — two very different films that share the theme of fighting for recognition in an unjust world — have continued to drive that point home. “The themes that we tackle in Moonlight and Hidden Figures are in my music,” she told Billboard last fall. “To me, feeling like the other as a woman or as a member of the LGBTQ community is parallel to what it will be like for androids in the future.” On a musical level, her voice serves as a comforting, dependable constant in both fantastic and nonfiction contexts. She’s the heart connecting the hands and the head, even when — especially when — it hurts to do so.
Two years ago, Monáe's Wondaland Records put out an anti-police-brutality anthem called “Hell You Talmbout.” She described it as a “vessel” to channel “the pain, fear, and trauma caused by the ongoing slaughter of our brothers and sisters. We recorded it to challenge the indifference, disregard, and negligence of all who remain quiet about this issue. Silence is our enemy. Sound is our weapon.”
These words echoed in Washington, when Monáe led the Women’s March in a few verses of “Hell You Talmbout,” with the Mothers of the Movement by her side. No jazzy chord progressions or impressive beat shifts were needed for this track — the power of the voices involved are its driving force.
“This is a tool for you to take out as you march,” she told the crowd. “We’re talking about this right now, because we must continue to exercise our voices. Some of us protest in silence — and some of us believe that silence is not an option, and our music, our sound, is a weapon. No wrong way to do it." Somewhere, surely, Cindi Mayweather was nodding in agreement.