In trying to come up with some case studies for my book about the politics of world-building that are neither too obvious nor depressingly conservative, it occurred to me that my recent obsession with Janelle Monáe‘s ongoing series of concept albums might be worth thinking about. Across her first EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) and two full-length albums The Archandroid and The Electric Lady, the soulful young diva moves elegantly across a wide range of musical styles, all the while (more or less) narrating the story of her alter ego Cindy Mayweather, the android from the future who has fallen in love with a human.
This article from Difference Engines on Monáe’s “Liberationist Posthuman Pop” sums up her Afrofuturist sci-fi perspective most admirably:
Cyberfeminism and Afrofuturism have more than a few things in common. At the core of both is the idea that there is no garden to get back to, but rather that humans are deeply shaped by their technologies. Always have been, always will be. So if we want our politics to help us shape a brighter future, we had better consider what technologies might offer. For cyberfeminism, the erasure of the biology of reproduction (as in the writings of Shulamith Firestone) and the possibility of living beyond gender in online spaces (Sadie Plant) has been key. For Afrofuturists (from novelist Octavia Butler to jazz musician Sun Ra), the desired futures have been ones that do not erase race, but allow difference to not only peacefully coexist, but thrive in so doing.
In 2010, when the ArchAndroid album was released, Monáe had overwhelmingly ambitious ideas about transforming this already impressive project into an even bigger transmedia project, enthusing in interviews about just how far her vision would go:
“I’m shooting a video for every song on the ArchAndroid so we’ll be creating a movie with a very beautiful narrative. We also have a graphic novel coming out. We’ll also try and take this show on Broadway.”
As far as I can tell, little of this has actually come to fruition, with the artist instead focusing her attention on magnificent follow-up album The Electric Lady, but perhaps this is beside the point. Even without all those music videos, comics books and Broadway shows, Monáe’s Wondaland premise functions as a world-building exercise that attempts to establish fictional coordinates that re-map daily reality for its participants. It is no wonder that her work is attracting an increasing amount of scholarly attention, like this excellent introductory essay published last fall on The Feminist Wire, and more recently the essay “Now We Want Our Funk Cut: Janelle Monáe’s Neo-Afrofuturism” was published in American Studies, discussing her engagement with the Afrofuturist movement.
The playful media landscapes that make up part of the architecture of her albums are complemented by the music videos and graphic art added to them as downloadable extras, all of which emphasize creative intertextuality and a highly eclectic and virtuoso form of media literacy. I’m not sure how to make all of this fit in, but I feel more determined than ever to make her work an essential component in one my later chapters.