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How Janelle Monae’s visual album ‘Dirty Computer’ explores what it means to be free

“If you were dirty, it was only a matter of time.”

These are the final words that fade out in the opening sequence of Janelle Monáe’s sci-fi and Afrofuturist time-space that is her newly released visual album, Dirty Computer.

It’s a weighted statement, at once suggesting a time to be a force inextricably tied to power, while also foreshadowing consequences for those who are categorized as ‘dirty.’

So, what does it mean to be ‘dirty,’ or more specifically, a Dirty Computer? The protagonists’ voice over (played by Monáe) in the opening sequence explains,

“You were dirty if you looked different. You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated. You were dirty if you showed any form of opposition at all.”

In this sense, ‘dirty’ becomes analogous to a marginalized body – one that looks different, transgresses, and is then positioned in subordination to the dominant group. To put simply, a ‘Dirty Computer’ in this future time-space is to be the ‘Other.’

From the videos’ onset, viewers are transported into a visually dazzling, high-tech, and digitized space. A build-up of eerie synthetic sounds dominates the soundscape.

A haze of smoke spreads across the screen and is then interrupted by a glitch that introduces two naked figures. Jane’s voice over re-enters, her tone remaining distant and cold as she discloses,

“They started calling us computers. People began vanishing — and the Cleaning began.”

With this revelation, our eyes narrow in on the screen, as images of the enslaved computers are cycled through a database. We see names replaced by numbers. Faces in deadpan – illegible to us. Figures are dressed in white uniforms and their shirts’ are branded with the letter ‘D’ to mark their new identities as ‘dirty computers.’

By crafting this futuristic ‘other’, Dirty Computer prompts us as viewers to identify who has power and who is disempowered, the construction of identity categories, and how systems of meaning are ascribed onto the body.

While we are transported into an unfamiliar futuristic site, the notion of individuals being systematically singled out and exploited for their differences is a phenomenon that is unsettlingly all too familiar.

The narrative of the album shows the severing of the captives’ ties to their past, the stripping away of their humanity, the imposition of new identities, and the subsequent enforcement of the captives to live out a dystopic destiny toiling away into the forward direction of the New Dawn. Ring any bells?

Dirty Computer

Like her previous music videos, Dirty Computer shows Monáe’s commitment to reworking ideas of time and space. She employs the genre of science fiction to craft a stunning sonic and cinematic piece that explores issues surrounding race, gender, and sexuality and the intersection of these social identities.

In an interview with Stephen Colbert, Monáe describes her childhood fixation with science-fiction. She credits the formative work of writer Octavia Butler in fueling her childhood imagination, that would later evolve into an interest with Afrofuturism.

And now, I’m guessing you may be wondering, what exactly is Afrofuturism? Well, in the same interview, Monáe describes Afrofuturism as “a term that allows us as black people to see ourselves in the future and know we make it, know that we’re not the first people gone when something goes down.”

To put another way, Afrofuturism uses and intervenes in the genre of science-fiction (a traditionally white male genre) to imagine a viable future for black folk and people of the African Diaspora. That is to say, in which their existence is a certainty, not a liability. Where the daily suffering of people of color is not normalized.

As these are the realities of the present, Afrofuturism elucidates the need to speculate a more hopeful future, since today we see the safety of people of color in itself a kind of falsehood.

Dirty Computer

Interestingly, Afrofuturism abandons the idea of organizing time into a linear course.

In other words, it does not separate time into a neat chronology between the past, present, and future. And we see this visually play out in Dirty Computer. We move back and forth in time. Viewers are transported into the past as we revisit Jane’s memories when the authorities attempt to cleanse her of her ‘dirtiness.’

The album ultimately offers an unconventional aesthetic and narrative structure that reveals how we do not easily leave our past behind us, whether individual or collective, but rather, it shows how the past remains embedded in our present and future.

Though the future world space of Dirty Computer is dystopic, the relaying of Jane’s memories, however, shows that there is a lot of hope, joy, and critical work being performed throughout the album.

Monáe provides a space where blackness is affirmed and celebrated. The visual album creates a time-space where we are all free to live a life of dignity, freedom, and to love whomever we love.

In a radio interview with Hot 97, Monáe expressed how the current political climate particularly galvanized her to write this album and shared how she wanted to send a strong critique of the policing of women’s bodies. I mean, the visuals of a group of women of color lined up wearing vagina pants in the song, “PYNK” (now a queer anthem), shows that Monáe is ready to start a pussy riot to defend women’s rights.

Dirty Computer

A queer love story also serves as the narrative arc to Dirty Computer. The albums’ first song “Crazy, Classic, Life” stages the erotics between the protagonist Jane and Zen (played by Tessa Thompson).

Their attraction to one another is visible through their repeated exchange of glances and lingering stares, but I guess Jane’s rainbow flag eyeshadow is also a pretty clear indicator that she is a “sexual bender” as her lyrics describe.

Anyways, the point is, the musical memory segments of the album are a kind of rebellious, decadent, colorful and fantastical party. Monáe plays with musical genre and the album contains an array of catchy songs that pull from the vast and rich repertoire of music by black artists. Make Me Feel has a guitar riff that echoes the funk sounds of Monáe’s musical mentor Prince and her red leather jacket and dance moves in the song Screwed, pay homage to the King of Pop, Michael Jackson.

Importantly, Monáe presents black women and women of color as agents of their own self-definition. For Monáe, Django Jane was a track she created to celebrate black women, since “[black women] don’t get celebrated often,” and described in a radio interview with Hot 97 that she hoped that through the song, black women “feel seen, heard and have power.” Her conscious lyrics elevate and herald the idea of being who you are and how you chose to identify.

Pynk GIF by Janelle Monáe - Find & Share on GIPHY

The costuming and the fluidity of Monáe’s gender presentation throughout the album show the artists’ refusal to present gender identity and sexuality as fixed or static. By doing so, Monáe performs a radical critique of derogatory and historical stereotypes of black women and women of color that continue to be perpetuated in the media.

That being said, as the narrative of Dirty Computer continues between Jane’s memory segments, we observe as her agency and freedom continue to be hindered by the regime. But just as Monáe herself asserts in the radio interview with Hot 97, “Freedom is not free. You got to actively fight for it. We have the power to shape the culture and undo the culture that does not serve us.”

Always leaning in the direction of the technological, Monáe has used this visual album — an artform that mediates between the visual with the sonic — to tell a powerful story that ruptures time to explore and speculate just what it means to be free.