Listening to Janelle MonáeLean Close to Observe the Myriad of Lives, Desires, and Complexities of Black Women

At first, Janelle came as an archandroid from the future to show us how to groove. Now, she’s here from the past to help us understand the everyday resilience of Black women typically hidden from view. In all cases, she brings her toolbox of wit, style, intelligence, and charisma to command our attention.

For this shining and possibly brief moment, Janelle Monáe is everywhere: rocking the red carpet at the Oscars, an Afrofuturistic Audrey Hepburn in a demure black satin and fishnet ball gown, onsite for Moonlight’s precarious but still phenomenal big win for Best Picture. In Moonlight, directed by Barry Jenkins and based on a play by Tarell Alvin McCraney, Monáe plays Teresa, the warm and nurturing girlfriend of Mahershala Ali’s Juan. Together, they create a quiet domestic sanctuary for the film’s Black queer protagonist, Chiron. In the film Hidden Figures, Monáe plays Mary Jackson, the real-life mathematical and activist shero who fights her way through the courts to get a seat in a segregated graduate class and then become one of NASA’s first Black woman engineers. This January, following Trump’s inauguration, Monáe performed a powerful rendition of her song “Hell You Talmbout, ” protesting Black lives lost to police brutality, at the Women’s March on Washington, and she was joined by the mothers of Trayvon Martin, Mohamed Bah, Eric Garner, Dontre Hamilton, and Jordan Davis.

In each of Monáe’s performances, Monáe demonstrates her understanding—no, overstanding—of the complexity of Black women’s lives, desires, and perspectives. As she accepted a 2017 Breakthrough Award at Essence’s Black Women in Hollywood event, she told the audience, “We’ve birthed this nation, we helped contribute to some of the greatest, American, extraordinary things that have happened here in this nation. We have been the backbones in communities from the ghetto to Silicon Valley. We are not monolithic. We’re multidimensional and we have a right to have our stories told.” 

Her strong moral voice is evident in her musical performances as Cindi Mayweather, too, the android persona she created and whose narrative of escape from exploitation and persecution runs through her first three albums, Metropolis, The ArchAndroid, and The Electric Lady.  In her short film for her song “Many Moons,” Cindi and her many replicants (also played by Monáe) perform and are sold at an android slave auction. Cindi’s performance, a musical and sartorial homage to often-underappreciated Black artists who have shaped popular music, from Chuck Berry to Little Richard to Prince, is so powerful that her body literally explodes onstage—speaking both to the transformative powers of Black music and to the vulnerability of Black women’s bodies.

Monáe’s insistence on Black women’s multidimensionality and strength is relevant to her roles in Moonlight and Hidden Figures. While her role is relatively small in Moonlight, her performance as Teresa provides an alternative vision of Black care networks in struggling communities and challenges flat notions of Black criminality. As Teresa offers Chiron a glass of orange juice, or provides a bed whenever he needs it, or just listens, we get a window into the importance of chosen family for Black queer survival. In one powerful scene where Chiron asks Teresa and Juan if he is “a faggot,” Juan struggles to give an answer that both allows Chiron’s potential gayness to be visible and identifies the power of words to hurt. Teresa stands behind him, listening, nodding, shaking her head, silently shaping and then confirming his response.

Janelle Monae as Teresa in 'Moonlight'

Monáe as Teresa in Moonlight.

Monáe’s role as Mary in Hidden Figures is in some ways more straightforward. Together with coworkers Dorothy Vaughan (played by Octavia Spencer) and Katherine Johnson (played by Taraji P. Henson), she must navigate the labyrinth of NASA’s segregated structures that fully depend upon Black women’s creativity while undervaluing their bodies and subjectivity. Mary makes it clear to her coworkers that she is aware of the hypocrisy of the system that they’re in. When asked if she would wish to be an engineer if she were a white male, she tells them point blank, “I wouldn’t have to. I’d already be one.” Mary’s fight to gain the right to education and advancement demonstrates the powerful tactics holding U.S. laws accountable. She uses her research skills in savvy ways to understand the law and the politics that have helped the judge who hears her case, a white male, be the “first” in his own family. Monáe brings femme fierceness to this role: Her style and body confidence in the face of racism are matched by her willingness to speak truth to power.

Whether speaking truth to power or bearing witness, Janelle Monáe’s performances exemplify Black feminist notions of care, activism, and embodied ways of knowing. 

by Francesca Royster
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Francesca T. Royster is a Professor of English and Chair of the English Department at DePaul University, where she teaches courses African American Literature and Popular Culture, Black Feminisms, Queer Theory, Shakespeare and Early Modern Literature. She is currently working on a memoir on queer adoption and chosen family, and a scholarly book project on African American country music performers and fans.

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