ATLANTA UNTRAPPED: Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer Tour
The Atlanta provocateur wielded her most defiant act yet by creating a world where everyone belongs
Back in May, when David Byrne listed off the names of black victims of police brutality and racial injustice at the Shaky Knees Festival, I stopped in my tracks. It was the end of his set and I was walking away from the stage, along with the rest of the crowd. Byrne’s cover of Janelle Monáe and Wondaland’s “Hell You Talmbout” made me emotional because I didn’t expect to hear it in that setting. It’s comforting to hear black artists speak out about racial issues, but when white artists do it, it feels like they’re taking away some of the burden and spreading the message to people who look like them in a way that black people sometimes cannot and, frankly, do not always feel an obligation to do so.
Although Monáe didn’t perform this protest song when I saw her at the Tabernacle on Aug. 4, a few months later, I still felt like I was at a political rally, surrounded by people fighting for equality, and celebrating their differences. Monáe’s music has always been rooted in social and political criticism, but The Dirty Computer Tour is her most defiant act yet.
Monáe brought an energetic presence to the stage for two sold-out shows at the Tabernacle Aug. 3-4. If lyrics such as, “We gone start a motherfucking pussy riot or we gone have to put them on a pussy diet” felt like an empty threat on her latest album, hearing the Tabernacle full of people screaming the words back certainly heightened the impact. Monáe’s political raps were the highlights of the show. During “Django Jane,” her dancers brought out the throne from the music video and a black panther was projected onto a giant screen. After a performance of Dirty Computer’s standout number “Screwed,” she led the crowd in a chant of “Say it out / I’m dirty, I’m proud” to the tune of James Brown’s 1968 black pride anthem “Say It Loud – I'm Black and I'm Proud.” During the outro of “American,” Monáe’s dancers knelt to statements from the song such as, “Until black people can come home from a police stop without being shot in the head, this is not my America.”
Even Monáe’s 2013 single “Primetime” was an ode to loving freely and openly, no matter your sexual orientation.
Monáe has always been a voice for the voiceless. Although her single “Cold War” was released in 2010, her performance of the emotionally-charged song was a highlight of the show. “I’m trying to find my peace/ I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me,” she sang, somehow creating an intimate feeling in a venue that can hold more than 2,500 people.
Towards the end of her set, during a performance of “I Got the Juice,” Monáe called a diverse group of fans up onto the stage to dance. Kids and adults of various backgrounds doing viral dances such as the Shoot dance or just twisting their hips back and forth were surrounded by Monáe’s band and dancers. At the end of the performance, Monae ushered a young man in a wheelchair to the middle of the stage, welcoming him to do whatever dance made him happiest. As the crowd cheered him on, he moved his arms from side to side before lifting the front of his wheelchair in the air.
In this moment, during this extended dance break, it felt like we just might live in a world where everyone is free.