The My-Stery: Janelle Monae and the Struggle for Black Complexity in Mainstream Media

“Narrow views of Blackness lead to a sometimes stalled consumption of challenging art and media.” – Dara M. Wilson
While reading the Pitchfork feature on Janelle Monae, some of the issues concerning her art process and the reception of her art reminded me of the balancing act between black intellectuality and black physicality and the mainstream media tendency to lean towards more of the latter or other forms of stereotypical blackness.
Mainstream audiences have been trained to go and appropriate to the most accessible forms of black cultures that tend to fulfill stereotypes of black cultures (ex. Miley Cyrus and twerking, Madonna and vogue). Mainstream audiences do that in general, not giving as much attention to the more inaccessible/harder to decipher parts of cultures or to more than one part of them at a time.
I see Monae as part of the lineage of black artists who want to challenge the preconceived notions of blackness, like Sun Ra in the above clip from Space Is the Place. Or, as Nelson George said about funk bands, like Parliament Funkadelic, who were large, musically experimental bands that wore outrageous costumes with their chests all out in the open. They were not many people’s definition of a “safe negro.” They are not easily digestible, they do the unexpected, and I like that, but I understand that the majority does not because it’s scary. It is a possible reason why Monae does not receive as much attention as she should on the charts, according to Pitchfork.
Also, to top it all off, Monae includes what the other artists I mentioned before did not as much, black womanhood and black queerness. For example, her creation of the cyborg metaphor of Cindi Mayweather to comment on otherness and intersectionality. Or her latest album, The Electric Lady, as she tries to balance the two sides of the futuristic and earthliness more this time, we still have Monae paying tribute to womanhood and black womanhood in songs like “Q.U.E.E.N.,” “Electric Lady,” “Ghetto Woman,” “Sally Ride” (think of the girl games that are often referenced in male musical artists’ songs), and “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes” (an obvious play on “Bette Davis Eyes” song, a nod to an ignored black sex symbol, and someone Monae looks a lot like). Monae pushes the mainstream to recognize black girl genius, black queer genius, black histories on the peripheral and black otherworldliness, and I love it!
The Electric Lady is out today!

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