Photography: Priti Shikotra / pshikotra.com

Janelle Monáe

Manchester International Festival @ Castlefield Bowl 4/7/19

As the strains of Also Sprach Zarathustra melt into the sonorous recital of the famous “We hold these truths to be self-evident” passage from the Declaration of Independence (perhaps by Martin Luther King Jr – it certainly sounds like it), a ripple passes through the crowd. This opening to Crazy, Classic, Life, from Grammy-nominated JANELLE MONÁE’s third LP, is more than a neat opening to a show, promising extravagance and invective; it’s a signal of intent.

A few minutes later and we’re in the belly of the Dirty Computer experience; the full gaze of the strident funk queen on us. Lights flare and costumes come and go as Monáe stalks, gyrates and preaches her way around the stage, somehow still feeling in reach and accessible despite the imperious air she gives off. I feel like I’m at a ceremony, where the worship isn’t one way but mutual. I feel uplifted. We’ve only just begun.

"She is a thoroughly modern pop icon – diverse, provocative and proud"

Preacher, activist, rapper, dancer, guitarist, queen – Monáe inhabits each of these characters at various points throughout the night as she breezily spins through a set made up largely from 2018’s critically-acclaimed album Dirty Computer. It’s a set of songs that showcases Monáe’s pop nous impeccably, mixing a youthful neo-soul sound with nods to some classic chapters in American pop: the Jacksons, both Janet and Michael; Chic; Beyoncé; and especially her mentor, Prince, who she pays homage to by strapping on a Fender for a brief Purple Rain interlude.

As well versed as Monáe is in the musical lineage she’s continuing – and there are even flashes of Bowie in her shape-shifting nature – the most impressive thing about her is the strength of voice and narrative in her message. As a queer, black artist, Monáe represents one of the most marginalised groups in US – even global – history. She would be forgiven for carrying this experience with rage, but the issues that she addresses – celebrity, gender, race, sexuality, the state of the United States today – are parsed overwhelmingly through a prism of empowerment. (Case in point from Screwed: “Everything is sex/Except sex, which is power/You know power is just sex/Now ask yourself who’s screwing you”.) The black panther that stalks across the immense video wall behind her is a symbol of this controlled fury, and one of immense power. This is a sign to her rapt audience that you can take control of your destiny by owning your own narrative.

“I have a message from the future,” she declaims midway through, from the top of her podium. “One: you are the most amazing crowd here. Two: we must continue to fight for the immigrants, for the LGBTQI+ people. For the rights of black folks and black women. For the disabled people. For the working class people. With all your help, we can achieve our goal… to impeach this President.” The significance of this message, delivered on Independence Day, is further enhanced by the frequent pealing of bells in the audience, in reference to Yoko Ono’s Bells For Peace event, which opened Manchester International Festival earlier in the day.

Janelle Monáe Image 2

Preaching to the converted she may be, but there’s no doubt that Monáe has a knack for stoking the emotions of her crowd. The bells and whistles of the stage show – the throne, military-style costumes and infamous PYNK vagina trousers – don’t overpower the show, although it’s all part of the spectacle. There’s no doubt that Monáe commands the stage as her own, but she freely opens the platform up to those who share it with her; her accompanying dancers are not backing or set decoration, they are the performance as much as Monáe. Similarly, her skilled band bring a gospel-like communality to the show; they aren’t tucked away in the shadows.

And then there’s the crowd themselves. “Show these dirty computers some love!” Monáe exhorts, as a group of fans take their moment on stage to show they they’ve “got the juice”. The largest cheers of the night ring out here, when audience members young and old grab their moment in the limelight, funking out to the adulation of a crowd who are drunk on Monáe’s message of acceptance and love.

Criminally underrated as an artist, Monáe is at least recognised for her ability to wow in the live arena. Yet, for an artist who applies herself with such vigour and distinction across whatever medium she finds herself in, it still doesn’t feel enough. She is a thoroughly modern pop icon – diverse, provocative and proud. And that’s the overriding message that an equally diverse audience takes home with them tonight as they float home on a wave of euphoria: be proud.

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