Janelle Monáe Wants to Tell You About the Future

Janelle Monáe has been challenging the status quo ever since they (Monáe recently shared that they identify as nonbinary and use both she/her and they/them pronouns) had us “tippin’ on the scene” in 2012’s “Tightrope.” Though the term Afrofuturism is most often associated with the Saturn of Sun Ra and the waterfalls of Wakanda, Monáe has been using elements of science fiction to offer not just an escape but also an exploration into the darker edges of our other-phobic world. In their new book of short stories, The Memory Librarian and Other Stories of Dirty Computer, Monáe presents a techno, progressive future filled with obelisks and oppression, a desert safe haven where all is not what it seems, an apartment that features all the time in the world, and a promise of a better life at the price of being wiped clean.

Extending from their 2018 “emotion picture” Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe teamed up in collaboration with five authors—Yohanca Delgado, Eve L. Ewing, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Danny Lore, and Sheree Renée Thomas—to produce a collection of interconnected stories centering those on the margins of the dystopian New Dawn. “It’s kind of like when doing an album,” says Monáe. “You have musicians in the room, you have writers in the room, and you guys are bonding over a concept.” The book acts as a piece of technology, connecting readers not only across genres but to a network of ideas.

Ahead, we talk with Monáe about the influences of The Memory Librarian and what they hope the book will inspire.

It’s a fallacy that writing is done alone. The truth is, the more you engage with community, the more you bring that community back to your writing desk and the less alone you are. What’s it like to share the space of Dirty Computer with collaborators?

I think you’ve hit the nail on the head: community. Everything I’ve tried to do, I’ve tried to keep it rooted in community—like starting my arts collective, the Wondaland Arts Society, at the beginning of my career. It’s full of writers, it’s full of filmmakers, it’s full of actors, it’s full of musicians. And coming from a big family as well—I have like 49 first cousins—I don’t know how to not be communing. So it just felt right as I entered into the literary space to find other like-minded spirits, other dirty computers, whose work I admired and I knew admired my work. How can we make this innovative? What we’re doing is not common; what we’re doing is super special and I love it: being able to have the back and forth, to give character, to give plot point and say, OK, run wild! You read that first draft and you’re like, “OK, this is it! OK, let’s tweak this, let’s do that.” The writers feeling seen in the way they’re writing and me feeling seen in the vision I have, it’s amazing!

I had the writers watch the Dirty Computer emotion picture, the short film. I had them listen to the album first, because The Memory Librarian grew from the soil of those projects. That came from a dream that I had that I was abducted and my memories were erased and wiped clean and I had to start all over. And I was like, this story is super important to tell. [The album] came out in 2018, [so] I needed to make sure that they were up to speed on what origin this whole project stemmed from.

The first story of the book doesn’t focus on a dirty computer. It focuses on Seshet, a queer Black woman in a position of power in a place called New Dawn. It is through her that we see the racism and the homophobia and the transphobia of this dystopian state. Why did you find it important to open the book on this story and show this world through the eyes of someone working for the oppressor?

Well, Seshet has her own past. I don’t want to give too much away, but she’s not there by choice. I think that New Dawn manipulated her. I think all the stories start at a place where you think you know the person, but there’s more to them. And ultimately these folks become protagonists.

Seshet–she literally knows everybody’s memories. Her story asks, what happens when you fall in love with somebody and you know their secrets? What happens when your own secrets start to be uncovered, when you start to uncover those? What decisions do you make? There’s conflict there. When you have this information that can free folks, how do you sit on that?

Speaking of secrets, you’re an accomplished singer, accomplished actor, now accomplished author, but one of your major accomplishments, in our humble opinion, was going on Desus & Mero and getting two brothers from the Bronx to speak about going to therapy.

Oh, wow [laughter], I remember that!

Now that you said that, I was happy we had that conversation. I’m around a lot of Black men, and I’ve been very blessed to be around some of the smartest and most evolved feminist Black men who are fighting for the same things that I have been fighting for and for the same people I have been fighting for. And I think that therapy is a big part of undoing the traumas, undoing the toxic masculinity, and just becoming a portal for healing. So whenever I can talk to anybody—especially at that time in my life, I think I had just really been into therapy myself, I was like, Hey, let’s all get healthy, let’s all get free, you know. The same conversation I was having with them, I was having with people I love.

How do you see mental health in the realm of Afrofuturism?

In order for Black and Brown folks to speak about the future, you got to know where we are in the world. You got to know where we were in the past. And the past can piss you off, can make you mad. You can get stuck there. You can become angry; you can become like a stone. When I think about Afrofuturism, it’s more like water, it’s more about us dreaming up who we are in the future, how we see ourselves, defined by ourselves. If we want to write about us in totalitarian societies, how do we prevail? How are we thriving? It’s us defining us on our own terms.

In How LongTil Black Future Month, N.K. Jemisin coins the term “Monáeism.” Quote:

“Too many years of the Jetsons, maybe. Too many white supremacist medieval Europes. I’ve spent years swallowing these bizarro-world versions of humanity, and they have become a toxin poisoning my imagination. But Janelle Monáe is a tiny, fast-footed, pompadour’d antidote to all of that.”

So, we just have to ask, what’s it like being an antidote to white supremacy?

I love that. Wow. First of all, I’m a huge fan of N.K. Jemisin. So to be able to have her mention my name, yeah, let’s do Monáeism! I will say that when I have something to say, I say it. I’m not afraid to piss off white supremacists, I don’t give fuck about that, but I also love living life. I love joy. I love being in love. I love partying. I love being able to have the freedom to play games with my friends: I have game night, murder-mystery parties. I love talking about sci-fi. I love going to strip clubs. I love just living my life. And I think that’s ultimately what white supremacy does: It stops you from living your life because you put your attention on fighting and fighting against them. It becomes about them.

I encourage people now to stand up and speak up when you have something to say or when you feel like something is wrong. But just as much as you are putting your energy in all that, please put your energy into being present. Please put your energy into celebrating life and making memories—making the best memories that you possibly can, because we know that our memories determine the qualities of our lives.

Source: Read Full Article