Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, released earlier this year, was a long time coming.
It’s a complex, intersectional album that exults in pleasure, features unsparing criticism, and maps out different visions of the future. As Monáe has described in various interviews, the album is a culmination of a life spent grappling with politics both internally and externally, and it marks a bold breakthrough for the celebrity activist at an especially urgent time.
“This is the first time I’ve felt threatened and unsafe as a young black woman, growing up in America,” Monáe told Jenna Wortham of the New York Times. “This is the first time that I released something with a lot of emotion. The people I love feel threatened. I’ve always understood the responsibility of an artist — but I feel it even greater now. And I don’t want to stay angry, but write and feel triumphant.”
Monáe is bringing Dirty Computer and her activism to the 2018 Global Citizen Festival in Central Park on Sept. 29, alongside artists such as Janet Jackson, The Weeknd, Shawn Mendes, Cardi B, and John Legend, who will be calling on world leaders to commit to ending extreme poverty.
Monáe grew up in a large family in Kansas City, Kansas, where she experienced the hardships of poverty and how strong communal ties can help people overcome challenges, she told the Guardian.
The importance of community has been a core part of her artistic life. After being featured on Outkast’s Idlewild, her fanbase exploded and she began to cultivate a network of peers in Atlanta’s vibrant music scene. She eventually started the Wondaland Arts Society to foster the talent of and collaborate with other artists. Wondaland has since grown into a full-fledged record label and also acts as a vibrant community center in Atlanta for artists working on Monáe’s many projects. It was where she first showed the album Dirty Computer off to the Black Panther cast, long before its debut, according to the Times.
Prior to Dirty Computer’s arrival as a protest album, Monáe adopted the alter ego Cindi Mayweather, which allowed her to explore parallel realities. Mayweather carried her through her debut EP, Metropolis, in 2007 and subsequent albums, including The Arch Android in 2010 and The Electric Lady in 2013.
This identity switch allowed her to be more candid about issues, albeit from an indirect angle.
“You can parallel the other in the android to being a black woman right now, to being a part of the LGBTQ community,” she told the Times. “What it feels like to be called a nigger by your oppressor.”
Cindi Mayweather involves a degree of acting and Monáe soon got the chance to test her ability to suspend disbelief after being cast in major motion pictures, including Moonlight and Hidden Figures, two movies that delve into discrimination, identity, poverty, and resilience.
She was also spending more time advocating for issues she cared about during this time, including performing at a charity concert in Flint, Michigan, to call for an end to the city’s water crisis.
In 2015, Monáe began using her platform to actively support Black Lives Matter by leading marches and giving speeches. She even got her mic cut off during a Good Morning America performance when she went off script to demand justice.
“God bless America. God bless all, all the lost lives to police brutality. We want white America to know that we stand tall today. We want black America to know that we stand tall today. We will not be silenced,” she said at the time.
She released a song around this time called “Hell You Talmbout” that features the names of black men and women who have been killed by police officers.
“This song is a vessel,” Monáe said on Instagram at the time. “It carries the unbearable anguish of millions. We recorded it 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. They say a question lives forever until it gets the answer it deserves … Won’t you say their names?”
The next year, she led a march in Chicago with the mother of Sandra Bland, a woman who died in a Texas jail cell after being wrongfully arrested and detained, and has since been a part of other Black Lives Matter marches.
Monáe has also campaigned extensively for greater gun control and donates to AIDS research and Autism charities.
While many artists recede from politics as they become famous, Monae’s activism grew in parallel with her career, and these two spheres of her life converged when she decided to shed her android alter ego for Dirty Computer. The album unapologetically voices Monae’s political views on issues such as LGBTQ rights, women’s rights, racial equality, and much more.
“Millennials will not be silenced — we’re the powerhouse now,” she told the Guardian. “We’re not going to let those who want to ‘make America great again’ truly take over. ”
“Music is my weapon. I won’t remain silent,” she added. “Michelle Obama — having been our first lady for eight years — set an example of how we need to be. We need to be visible and we need to be loud. We’re not objects.”