Monday, May 26, 2008

Janelle Monae'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?

4 comments:

lex said...

I love your analysis of Monae's EP sis! (And I'm so humbled by and grateful for the shout outs!)

I think this reading is right on. Like Kara Keeling...along with Alondra Nelson... seems to be suggesting, there is something about a techno-diaspora that can make racialized oppression visible and stop it from being understood as inevitable.

I love the way your reading of Violet Stars Happy Hunting, rubs up against Hortense Spillers. What does it mean when a supposed machine, made to reproduce a system "made by the man" which instructively, poetically is something Meriweather's character only voices in the 3rd utterance of that line dares to love on her own terms. That's exactly it! Investigating how machine we are allows access to another understanding of the human.

This post makes me think about the pros and cons of rethinking the human through the digital as opposed to through the animal (which is what brilliant folks such as Sharon Holland and Dipika Nath) are doing means...especially when alongside race.

I can always count on you to make me think and dream. Thanks for this!
COME TO DETROIT!
love,
lex

bfp said...

this is absolutly *beautiful*--I loved reading every inch of it, and I'm very inspired now, to imagine your thoughts in my own work--thanks so much for this...

Kismet said...

Wow.

This is high praise, for me, because I admire the work that both of you do so much. Thank you for visiting and sharing!

I love this album. Mr. (my partner) is a music intellectual but I think he looks at it from a male (and a hip hop male at that) perspective. But she is doing so much more!

Thank you so much again sistren! Cyborg love all around!

Kismet said...

And...I'm still working on Detroit. Plane tickets are SO much!