Janelle Monáe’s Cyborg Love

Mr. said Metropolis isn’t a good album. He said it was “weird.” He said its all about cyber love.

Metropolis is straight up Afrofuturism.

Metropolis is woman-centered. Perhaps even womanist.

Metropolis is also genius. And so is Janelle Monáe is–or, in Lex‘s words, a “post-human black girl genius.”*

At UMCP Digital Diasporas 2008, Kara Keeling discussed how the meeting of digital media with the humanities could trouble the humanistic ideal. Digital diasporas can help us get to what she called the/a post-human. The multi-layered, anonymous, and constructive potential of digital African diaspora, or Afrofuturism, might possibly overturn the “human,” the male, heterosexual, economically elite, classically educated subject of Enlightened modernity.

I mean, can you imagine it? A human that you didn’t automatically assume was white and male and heterosexual? A human that you didn’t have to spend time and energy converting into a black/Latino/indigenous/Asian female in love with women? What would she look like? Would she be black-skinned with kinky hair? Or would she be pale grey with dark grey tentacles and make love to you by massaging the nerve centers of your brain? Would “she” even be an appropriate moniker?

Would she–it–be a cyborg?

What else would disrupt the human so nicely but its extreme Enlightenment opposite? Mechanical. Emotionless. Clinical. Asexual. Literally “a product of the Man.” (“Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”)

And what would happen when that “product” decides its going to do its own thing? When it, *gasp,* falls in love with a human????

Cyborg love. Weird, huh?

Yeah, it is. Except that the idea that we (poc) are mechanical beings in “the Man”‘s world isn’t new for us. It’s as old as genocide, as old as slavery. It isn’t even a new idea in hip hop. Gnarls Barkley and Lupe Fiasco have both hyped their Go Go Gadget Flow.

Cindi Mayweather, the cygirl of Metropolis, is a similar take on the cyborg/mechanica theme. Cindi Mayweather is what would happen when that theme just happens to start coming out of a woman of color’s mouth….

“Good morning cyboys and cyber girls! I’m happy to announce that we have a star-crossed winner in today’s heartbreak sweepstakes! Android # 57821, otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather, has fallen desperately in love with a human named Anthony Greendow. And you know the rules! She is now scheduled for immediate disassembly. Bounty hunters, you can find her in the Neon Valley Street District, on the 4th floor in the Leopard Plaza Apartment Complex. The droid control marshals are full of fun rules today! No phasers; only chainsaws and electrodaggers. Remember: Only card carrying hunters can join our chase today. And as usual, there will be no reward until her cybersoul is turned into the Star Commission. Happy hunting!”

Gnarls Barkley commits suicide on his human with every track. Lupe Fiasco randomly kills his human and then brings him back to life…to get killed again. Their subjects are men of color (although GB’s may be questionable and questioning his race and sexuality and I refuse to count Fiasco’s “The Streets”–her stereotyping is foolishness).

Their subjects are generally preoccupied with the Game and issues of Coolness–of conforming to stereotype and surviving an inherently destructive system. A system that makes you kill yourself, or gets you killed, over and over again.

They don’t know their language/They don’t know their God/They take what they’re given/Even when it feels odd….

Monáe’s unhuman is about conformity and Coolness too. But this cygirl is caught in the Game from a different angle.

It/She falls in love–but how when it/she’s not allowed to? And then the questions roll in: Who are you to fall in love? Who are you to feel, to cry, to believe, to fight, to be bold, to be crazed, to grieve and to laugh? You’re a cygirl, you’re type-cast, your entire existence is regulated. Your soul isn’t even yours–it belongs to the Star Commission. You were built to clock in, to work, to reproduce, to satisfy the Man sexually, and then to go home. Beyond that you don’t exist.

(Are we speaking of mules and men?)

So Cindi dips. Why? Not just because she doesn’t agree. If only. She dips because her particular brand of insurgency has been discovered. This cygirl is defective. She can experience emotion. And it’s the most exalted of all human emotions–love. She must be taken care of: “They’ve come to destroy me…You know the rules.” (“Violet Stars Happy Hunting!”)

Cindi the cygirl isn’t just resisting to resist. Cindi is outta there to save her own life:

“I can only speak for myself. But what I write and how I write is done in order to save my own life.” (Barbara Christian, 1987)

She is outta there to reclaim/take back/create her own soul:

“The act of writing is the act of making soul, alchemy. It is the quest for the self, for the center of self, which we women of color have come to think as “other”—the dark, the feminine.” (Gloria Anzaldúa, 1981)

And on the run, what does she discover? An entire community, a network of firewalkers, a purple wondaland….

“We want to breathe, but we’re stuck here underground/And everybody tryin to figure their way out. Hey, hey, hey!” (“Many Moons”)

…debating, critiquing, and arguing together. Fighting to breathe, to create soul, to live. Contradictions abound–“You’re free but in your mind. Your freedom’s in a bind….”

…and life is a struggle….but still, the rejects, the Goonies, are building together. And their combined challenge is clear–“Tell me are you bold enough to reach for love?!?”

Cindi is bombarded, or bombards it/herself, with a parade of American grammar that are the enemy: “Silhouette, silver wall, hood rat, crack whore, carefree nightclub, closet drunk, bathtub…”

And finds that it’s no longer just about experiencing human love with a human being. It’s about being in love with herself. Tell me are you bold enough to reach for love.

In the chorus is the chorus, the community of non-humans, rule-breakers, nonconformists, insurgents, artists, activists, fools. The support network.

When the world just treats you wrong/Just come with me and I’ll take you home/Change, change, change, change your life….

What a predicament. The paradigm shift is painful. After all, at first, it was only about a carefree romantic ideal–I want you and I won’t take no for an answer!–But now, it’s about so much more. You’re entire history and identity is on the line. You go into cybertronic overload, you’re caught in a “Cybertronic Purgatory.” Not really in and not really out. You’re waking up. But you’ve got decisions to make. Every day…..

Do you stay? Do you go? Do you fight? Do you stop for awhile in order to survive the maelstrom?

Q: What do you do, Cindi?

A: You sing a black girl’s song.

(“Sincerely Jane.”)

Metropolis is next generation, my generation. The hybrids. The artivist underground, banging against the glass door and screaming. It’s what happens when we shed the skin we’re in and use it slap the Man in the face. Its the possibility of reaching across boundaries, creating coalitions, building a movement. Weird? Definitely. But if weird is code for not-normal (just like normal is code for knowing & following the Rules), then weird works just fine.

Weird is an afrofuturist harvest.

Tell me–Are you bold enough to reach for love?

And what does radical love look like?

Kismet is a writer, teacher, dreamer, scholar, insurgent, artist & in love with history. This is where I live.  She co-authors the blog Waiting 2 Speak.

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The Other Butler and the TechnoAfrocats

“Good morning cyboys and cyber girls! I’m happy to announce that we have a star-crossed winner in today’s heartbreak sweepstakes! Android # 57821, otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather, has fallen desperately in love with a human named Anthony Greendow. And you know the rules! She is now scheduled for immediate disassembly. Bounty hunters, you can find her in the Neon Valley Street District, on the 4th floor in the Leopard Plaza Apartment Complex. The droid control marshals are full of fun rules today! No phasers; only chainsaws and electrodaggers. Remember: Only card carrying hunters can join our chase today. And as usual, there will be no reward until her cybersoul is turned into the Star Commission. Happy hunting!.”~~Janelle Monae, “March of the Wolfmasters,” (2008)

“I think Janelle Monae is a little bit of amazing. Yay! for the post-human black girl genius.” ~~Lex, Facebook status

Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble is a feminist and women studies standard. The theory of performativity continues to trouble the way feminist activists approach movement building and the way historians approach “women” in the archive. However, it is not without its own problems, and I don’t feel that the merits of the theory outweigh the possibility of its use retrenching privilege, whiteness and the same issues in mainstream feminism Butler claims to write against. Instead, I argue that black feminists and radical women of color offer more complicated and comprehensive ways of understanding the performance of gender. Their analysis makes experience, subjectivity, community, material realities and the dialogic all crucial to working and unworking the meaning of gender in the context of race, class and patriarchy.

However, I don’t feel that the work of black feminists and radical women of color aren’t without their own problems. While women of color recognize the importance of language and “I” to a resistive subjectivity, Butler’s attempt to labor with masculinist language is appropriate, if less effective. Moreover, it is important to remind ourselves of Christian’s emphasis on the “hieroglyph” as the symbol of power and the structural forces that made this less of a choice. As Alexander Weheliye notes, “black subjects did not have the same access to alphabetic script as white subjects” and could not claim “reason, disembodiment and full humanity” as ruled by the Enlightenment and modernity. This does not apply to all black subjects, or all people of color, but it does ask us to question the role of language, and in particular writing, in the experience and history of women of color. Does Kitchen Table Press also create a kind of privilege whereby only literate can engage the radical writings or women of color? How to deal with access, subversion, subjectivity and identity within a language that already structures so much? Particularly when these issues bolster academic hierarchy

In 2006, Octavia Butler, perhaps the preeminent African American female science fiction and fantasy writer passed away. While Judith Butler theorized away language, this Butler sent African American female characters in jumps backwards through time to save their white rapist forebears, having imagined apocalyptic worlds eerily reminiscent of the one we live in today, and having created entirely new solar systems where humans are genetically engineered by transsexual aliens and gender is turned so completely upside down that the word has almost no meaning. Her main characters were almost always women of color, at least visibly African American, placed in impossible and non-utopian situations. Her challenge was to create women that the reader understood but beyond the American grammar

I find Judith Butler’s theory of performativity troubling but I find Octavia Butler’s ability to explode the importance of those repetitive little acts into tiny bits integral to how we must begin to now grapple with race, class, sexuality, and gender. But how does she do it

I can offer no solutions at this time, but I wonder if the answer lies in the 21st century transition from the written page to the digital screen. A decade ago, Alexander Weheliye, Paul Miller, Samuel Delaney, Nalo Hopkinson and others were suggesting that use of technology in art, music, literature, and theory could begin to trouble our understanding of the subject, the plot, and the human as imagined by the West. Called Afrofuturism by some and Afro-modernity by others, at its heart lies the trouble with the (white) (male) subject and the use of technology to continue to trouble it. As Weheliye writes:

“Locating the subject in the sonic grants a quite a different notion of this concept—which does not mean that the subject as a linguistic category is null and void; it just relocates it to a new analytical neighborhood without losing its ties to old friends—one that does not posit meaning and/or intelligibility as its teleological end point but enable “[o]pacities [to] coexist and converge, weaving fabrics.”

This means much more than analyzing African American music genres. This means exploring how digital diasporas of all kinds are created and the possibility of digital spaces to facilitate multilayered identities. Is there a post-human and can it be found in the use of digital media? If so, what does this mean for people of color, who, despite—or perhaps because of–economic inequality, obstacles to political institutions, and a stereohyped media, are some of the most active users of technology around the world? And how do we write that way? August 30 to May 3, 2008, a conference entitled “Digital Diasporas: Digital Humanities and African American/African Diaspora Studies” was held at the University of Maryland in College Park to address these issues. More questions were asked than answers found but it seems an example of how academia, movement building, politics and identity can intersect very fruitfully while still addressing the very important questions Butler asks about how to subvert the subject.

 

Janelle Monae, “March of the Wolfmasters,” Metropolis – Suite 1: The Chase (Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy Records, 2008).

Alexander G. Weheliye, ““I Am I Be”: The Subject of Sonic Afro-modernity,” boundary 30 (2003), 102.

For these perspectives and more see the Afrofuturism website: http://www.afrofuturism.net

Alexander G. Weheliye, ““I Am I Be”: The Subject of Sonic Afro-modernity,” boundary 30 (2003), 104.