Janelle Monáe's Futurism Collided With the Present at the Fillmore

The 48-minute companion video for Janelle Monáe’s 2018 album, Dirty Computer, begins with projections of a naked man and woman, then cuts to projections of them clothed in white tracksuits emblazoned with the letter “D.” “You were dirty if you looked different," she says. "You were dirty if you refused to live the way they dictated; you were dirty if you showed any form of opposition at all. And if you were dirty, it was only a matter of time.”

It's gloomy, but when an unidentifiable figure was rolled out prone on a geometric table in the opening minutes of her July 27 concert at the Fillmore Miami Beach, mirroring the music video, the small but devoted crowd began to roar with delight. They were rewarded with the opening chords of "Dirty Computer," the first song on the album.

Clad in a pseudo-marching band uniform, Monáe materialized center-stage at the top of a tiered platform, like the cherry on top of a glowing golden cake. Her four backup dancers, all black women, appeared beside her. And so the show began, the dancers swaying as Monáe sang a utopian vision of the future: "I want a crazy, classic life."

Though she's on the final leg of her tour, neither Monáe nor her backup dancers (called the "Django Janes" after the song on her new album that rhapsodies black-girl magic) nor the musicians (the "Dirty Computers") seemed as if they were working. But the concert wasn't just a fun time to dance around and forget the world: It was concertedly political. Monáe and her dancers jived in front of images of black panthers and Black Panthers and pubic hair tufting out of underwear. The infamous "pussy pants" made an appearance, and at one point, Monáe stood in the spotlight onstage with her first raised in power.
The politics of the show weren't surprising: Monáe is known as an innovator of Afrofuturism, an aesthetic that comments on society and its inequalities from a futuristic lens. But as the audience was reminded throughout the show, despite the horrors we read in the news every day, that imagined future has never been closer. It's not a coincidence Monáe came out in 2018. One concertgoer, a white woman, said she was excited to worship Monáe, to dance for her in what could be thought of as a form of reparations. It was really a reminder that late capitalism's impending self-destruction is an opportunity for reclamation. "You fucked the world up now," Monáe snarled in "Screwed" while her back-up dancers squirted water guns at the crowd. "We'll fuck it all back down."

What happens when the future collides with the present? In Monáe’s tableau, the world ends with a bang of lasers and smoke during a rendition of “Tightrope," the singer collapsing with her glittering mike stand at the top of the stage. The applause was riotous, and it could not have been any other way.

It was preordained that Moáae returned with an encore of “Americans,” a funky, frolicsome song that sees women, the LGBT community, people of color, and poor white people reject America as it is. As Monáe rocked against the sequined mike stand, images of Ferguson turned into a rainbow American flag. The flag began to melt, the stars and stripes morphing into a kaleidoscope — an optimistic deconstruction of the end times.
More than once throughout the night, Monáe reminded the small but devoted audience to love themselves and one another. “This entire experience is deeply rooted in love,” she said. Reminders about mental health, self-love, or the pressing need to register to vote usually fall flat during concerts. But when Monáe asked audience members to hug themselves and choose “freedom over fear,” it was a much-needed reminder that even though it seems like end times are here, there's a future beyond late capitalism and Donald Trump. “It's gonna be my America before it's all over,” Monáe declared. “Please sign your name on the dotted line.”

Set list:
- "Crazy, Classic, Life"
- "Take a Byte"
- "Screwed"
- "Django Jane"
- "Q.U.E.E.N."
- "Electric Lady"
- "PrimeTime"
- "Pynk"
- "Yoga"
- "I Like That"
- "Don't Judge Me"
- "Make Me Feel"
- "I Got the Juice"
- "Cold War"
- "Tightrope"

- "So Afraid"
- "Americans"
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Molly Minta is an intern at the New Times.
Contact: Molly Minta