[Recap] TiM Seminar 2022-23 “Janelle Monáe’s Black Utopias and the Afrofuturist Imagination” – Dan Hassler-Forest (UU)
by Chris van der Vegt
On January 16, 2023, dr. Dan Hassler-Forest presented a guest lecture for the Transmission in Motion seminars on the work of musician, actress and activist Janelle Monáe. The structure of the seminar was based on the structure of Hassler-Forest’s book Janelle Monáe’s Queer Afrofuturism: Defying Every Label. The book is split into five chapters, each dedicated to a different ‘vector’ through which Hassler-Forest discusses Monáe’s work: afrofuturism, black feminism, intersectionality, posthumanism and postcapitalism. Hassler-Forest considers these vectors rather than themes as they should not be seen as separate lenses but as cumulative perspectives on Monáe’s art. They can be studied in isolation but are fundamentally interconnected and build on each other. After every vector, Hassler-Forest planned to show some of Monáe’s work that would be discussed with the seminar’s participants. Due to time constraints, the clip for the vector posthumanism and the discussion for posthumanism and postcapitalism were skipped.
Hassler-Forest opened the seminar with a brief introduction to Monáe’s work as a musician, actress and public figure. Monáe started her career in the music industry. Between 2007 and 2013, Monáe released three concept albums, Metropolis, The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, which are all set in the same universe. The narrative follows Cindi Mayweather, an android who falls in love with a human and eventually becomes the face of an android revolution. In 2018, Monáe released Dirty Computer, a departure from her previous work. The main character of this album is Jane 57821, an android whose memories are being wiped by the authorities. These memories are visualised in music videos or ‘emotion pictures’ as Monáe prefers to call them. In 2014, Monáe made her cinematic debut as a voice actor in the animated film Rio 2. She has since played in a number of cinema and television productions, including the Oscar Award winning Moonlight (2016) and the recently released Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022). Hassler-Forest noted that in her work as an actress, she naturally has less creative control than when she is coming up with her own characters in her sonic universes but that these works are nonetheless a valuable part of her oeuvre without which an analysis of her art would be incomplete.
The first vector that was explored was afrofuturism. Hassler-Forest explained that afrofuturism is more than ‘black science fiction’. Rather, it is a story about fantastical technology that places the agency of people of colour at the forefront. Hassler-Forest discussed how much of (white) science fiction engaged with colonialist themes but notably excluded people of colour from these narratives, instead imagining what might happen if aliens exerted their colonialist practices and ideologies onto white people. Another popular track that (white) science fiction follows is an extension of the colonialist mindset, where space becomes the new frontier, only this time there is no racism. For this vector, the emotion picture for Q.U.E.E.N. from the album The Electric Lady (2013) was shown. The group discussed how, in the video, the sterile (white supremisist) environment of the museum was disrupted by music upon which the displays of historical rebel leaders came alive. A couple of references where picked up on, such as Lauren Hill, Marvin Gay and Twiggy.
Next, the vector ‘black feminism’ was addressed. Hassler-Forest noted that just as science fiction was implicitly for white people, so too has ‘feminism’ implicitly been for white women. This created the need for a black feminism that addressed the oppression of women of colour, specifically black women and fems. For this vector, Hassler-Forest discussed Monáe’s role in the 2016 film Hidden Figures, where she portrayed one of the black women who worked for NASA during the 1960s. He discussed how, on the one hand, this film shed a necessary light on the invaluable work of black women that has largely gone ignored by the history books. On the other hand, it is a very safe film for white audiences. Although the film is supposed to highlight the work of black women, the most herioc moment in the story is reserved for their white employer who takes an axe to the ‘whites only’ sign above a women’s bathroom. The group then looked at the emotion picture for Django Jane from Dirty Computer (2018). The video began with a double door opening whereafter it showed alternating shots of Monáe on a throne and at the head of a table, surrounded by other black women in synchronised dance. It was noted how the video felt like entering a different world where black femininity ruled. It was also noted how that there were no windows in the space, no relationship between this power and that of the outside world.
The next vector was ‘intersectionality’. Hassler-Forest explained that through intersectionality, power did not look like a pyramid where the top hold power and the further you move down, the less power one has. Rather, he framed power as a network with many axes that everyone is situated on in a different way. For this section, he build on José Esteban Muñoz’s Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity ( 2019). Hassler-Forest focussed in particular on the concept of straight time and its alternative ‘ecstatic time’. Muñoz describes ecstatic time as “the moment one feels ecstasy, (…), and more importantly during moments of contemplation when one looks back at a scene from one’s past, present, or future” (32). As such, ecstatic time offers a different way to relate to time all together. The group watched the emotion picture for Crazy, Classic Life from Dirty Computer. The discussion consisted of a question about ecstatic time and how it is used to denote a non-universal experience.
The vector ‘posthumanism’ was up next. Hassler-Forest discussed how the humanist movement of the enlightenment excluded some people from its concept of the ‘human’. He explained that we tend to think humanity in terms of a sliding scale from non-human to less-human to fully human. Have historically been thought of as less or non-human and are still treated that way in many regards. Due to time constraints, the emotion picture and discussion for this vector were skipped.
The final vector was postcapitalism. Hassler-Forest explained this in terms of racial capitalism, a term used to denote that there has not been a form of capitalism that has not been entangled with (if not fundamentally build upon) racial structures. He framed capitalism as the ‘hyper object’, the big untouchable thing that cannot be easily be deconstructed on its own but to which all the previous vectors inevitably point. A clip was shown from the movie Sorry To Bother You (2018), made by a friend of Monáe. In the clip, the main character who works in a call center is advised by an older colleague to put on his ‘white voice’ in order to book more success with the people he is calling. The session was ended here. Any additional questions or discussion took place after the presentation during the drinks.