Similar to Clio in her blog post “Janelle Monae’s ‘Make Me Feel’ and Commemorating the Dead”, I was so inspired to write a post of my own after watching Monae’s recently released emotion picture*, “Dirty Computer” (which if you haven’t taken the 48 minutes and 37 seconds out of your day to watch it, I highly suggest you do as soon as possible). Monae’s visual album is steeped in political sentiment with notions of queerness, blackness, and femininity float to the surface.
The song at 18:39, “Django Jane” is balanced with a scene that evokes memories of the Black Panther Party, like the image at 19:54 which depicts Monae’s backup dancers wearing outfits that could be seen as a nod towards the black leather jackets and hats worn by the BBP. Of course there is an ironic twist, as Monae visually calls upon and remembers the Black Panther Party, a traditionally hyper-masculine reclamation of “Black Manhood”, Monae’s lyrics assert their own reclamation and twist with the line “Black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it / Y’all can’t ban it, made out like a bandit / They been trying hard just to make us all vanish” (you can find all the lyrics here).
However, the lines that inspired me the most to blog about in “Django Jane” are “We gave you life, we gave you birth / We gave you God, we gave you Earth / We fem the future, don’t make it worse / You want the world? Well, what’s it worth?” There’s so much to unpack here, so I’ll start with my interpretation of Monae’s use of the words “life,” “birth,” and “Earth” all in conjunction with each other. I think this could be seen as a reference to the Enlightenment philosophy that Shakespeare engages with in The Tempest that renders land as feminine; by equating land and the feminine body, the natural logic is that both are material things meant to be dominated and controlled. I think Monae’s engagement with this discourse is more ironic than anything else, especially with the order given to her listener, “don’t make it worse.” It’s as if she’s saying, “We know Enlightenment thinking has permeated the fabric of U.S. society and this is how we’ve traditionally viewed women’s bodies, and that’s fine, but it’s our time to shine now, so let us.”
Monae’s lyric “We gave you God” seems to echo Dr. Brownell’s assertion that so many popular hymnals sung in church presently have origins in spirituals and work songs sung by enslaved black people. The lyrics to follow, “we gave you Earth” is a sardonic example of another both/and. Not only does it intentionally churn up damaging “constructions of black people as less than human, closer to nature, and primitive” as Rachel Carrico points out in her essay “Un/Natural Disaster and Dancing: Hurricane Katrina and Second Lining in New Orleans,” but it also draws attention to the notion that the foundation of the United States was built on the backs of enslaved peoples and the intentional disenfranchisement of black people and Native Americans.
That said, Monae’s final question “You want the world? Well, what’s it worth?” seems to be a biting response from these disenfranchised groups who, due to their longstanding experience with oppression, seem to know more about the worlds apparent “worth” than anyone else.