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Now We Want Our Funk Cut: Janelle Monáe’s Neo-Afrofuturism

From: American Studies
Volume 52, Number 4, 2013
pp. 217-230 | 10.1353/ams.2013.0116

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Multimedia conceptual artist Paul D. Miller (a.k.a. DJ Spooky/That Subliminal Kid) has recently argued that Afrofuturism is a thing of the past, a movement that, in his words, “wasn’t digital enough . . . [and] didn’t have a core group of people with any kind of coherent message. It was conceptually open ended without any kind of narrative.”1 Miller’s assessment of past forms of Afrofuturism is certainly arguable, but contemporary singer, songwriter, dancer, performance artist, and self-proclaimed “funkstress” Janelle Monáe explodes any notion that Afrofuturism is no more.2 If we define Afrofuturism as African American cultural production and political theory that imagine less constrained black subjectivity in the future and that produce a profound critique of current social, racial, and economic orders, then there can be no doubt that Monáe stands at the center of a new form of Afrofuturism that she performs through what the liner notes from her EP Metropolis (inspired by Fritz Lang’s classic 1927 film of the same name) term “cybersoul,” a complex blend of multiple, often technologically mediated musical genres.3

Among those genres, funk stands out as Monáe’s perhaps most sustained influence. As the website for Wondaland Arts Society, the Atlanta-based artists’ collective of which Monáe is a founding member, states: “We believe there are only three forms of music: good music, bad music and funk.”4 Monáe thereby honors, yet also expands upon, earlier forms of Afrofuturistic funk, most obviously that of George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic, who, starting in the mid-1970s, famously imagined and performed for African American people a “Mothership Connection”—or, as they sang, “Time to move on light years in time ahead of our time / Free your mind to come fly with me on the mother-ship.”5 With their elaborate stage spectacles, including a landing by an immense spaceship and Clinton’s emerging from it, P-Funk offered their audiences a powerful and playful narrative of transcendence and reclamation. Monáe offers a recorded and performed narrative of possible transcendence as well, yet that narrative is more “coherent,” to use DJ Spooky’s term, as well as even more explicitly political and inclusive than was Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic’s. Over the course of the last five years, with three albums, a number of videos, and many stage performances, Monáe has undertaken a musical, lyrical, visual, performative, and theoretical investigation into, and destabilization of, not only race and gender, but also sexuality, color, and class. She shows us new liberatory possibilities created by African American cultural production in concert with contemporary technological transformation: that is, neo-Afrofuturism. In the words of the Wondaland collective: “We believe songs are spaceships. We believe music is the weapon of the future. We believe books are stars.”6

On the other hand, Monáe also challenges DJ Spooky’s confidence regarding the power of the digital and the technological. Her lyrics, in particular, suggest that pure optimism regarding technoculture understates its vulnerability to being shaped by commodity culture and by regressive notions of human subjectivity and categories of identity. Monáe is ever alert to the marketplace and her place within it, particularly as an African American woman with working-class roots, even as she exploits that marketplace in the name of future justice. Monáe thus avoids the pitfalls of what Madhu Dubey, following Fredric Jameson, terms postmodernism’s “romance of the residual,” in which African Americans and African American culture alone become somehow “exempt . . . from the contingencies of the postmodern condition,” standing always for “bodily presence, palpable reality, political intentionality” to such a degree that “the black body alone continues to shimmer with the aura of presence.”7 Monáe is well aware that, as she sings in her biggest hit to date, she must “tip on the tightrope” of a cultural logic of late capitalism that dictates the impossibility of “the positioning of the cultural act outside the massive Being of capital.”8 She must achieve a “balance” that permits her not to embody anything essential or stable, yet at the same time to address what Dubey terms the “realities of material suffering...

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