Janelle Monáe: ‘Erasing happens right under our noses’

Written by Jacqui PalumboChristiane Amanpour, CNN

contributors Henry Hullah, CNN

Interview by Christiane Amanpour, CNN’s Chief International Anchor. See more here.

Four years after releasing the studio album “Dirty Computer” — a pop opus about love and rebellion in a dystopian future — Janelle Monáe has released a new science fiction book set in the same world. The singer and actor spoke to CNN’s Christiane Amanpour on Thursday about the disturbing parallels between the bestselling anthology and the current state of politics in the US.

In five short stories, the protagonists of Monáe’s “The Memory Librarian” revolt against a eugenic society in the not-too-distant future that uses surveillance to exterminate citizens who are “dirty computers” and erase their minds. Monáe’s book and album, as well as an accompanying short film, all advocate using love as an act of rebellion in the face of oppression and celebrating the beauty of diversity.

Janelle Monae at the Met Gala. Credit: Angela Weiss/AFP/Getty Images

“(‘The Memory Librarian’) deals with this totalitarian society that literally takes people’s memories away from them and gives them a new identity so they can manipulate and control them,” Monáe explained to Amanpour. “But these protagonists, who are mostly queer, women (and) non-binary people, are fighting back.”

Co-authored by Sheree Renée Thomas, Alaya Dawn Johnson, Eve L. Ewing, Yohanca Delgado, and Danny Lore, the book has quickly become a New York Times bestseller. Its success adds another hyphen to Monáe’s long list: a singer and songwriter nominated for eight Grammy Awards, an actor in the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight,” and a filmmaker nominated for one of the best sci-fi awards, a Hugo Award, for the 45-minute narrative music video she co-released with ‘Dirty Computer’. Next, Monáe will play Josephine Baker in an upcoming television biopic, telling the lesser-known story of how the iconic entertainer became a spy during World War II.

Protective instincts

Unabashed living is a recurring theme in the various media of ‘Dirty Computer’, and Monáe told Amanpour that she instinctively wants to ‘protect those who try to live in love and in peace and be their authentic selves’. In April, Monáe opened up about their gender identity in an interview with the Los Angeles Times, saying they are “beyond the binary” and use both she/she and her/her pronouns.

“I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, born and raised, and I grew up working-class parents. So my mother’s last occupation, she was a janitor, and my father was a garbage collector, and my grandmother served food for the province prison of 25 years. So in my heart and in my mind I always want to protect the marginalized working class,” Monáe said. “And as a queer, non-binary myself, imagine if I didn’t have my platform. Imagine if I didn’t earn my own money to support myself, and I lived in a family that rejected me or a community that did.” didn’t accept me as I was.”

Monáe on the "dirty computer" tour in 2018.

Monáe on the “Dirty Computer” tour in 2018. Credit: mpi140/MediaPunch /IPX/AP

As Monáe wrote on Instagram in December, they have always used sci-fi and afro-futurism as “vehicles” to translate ideas into music, art and now literature. But the singer told Amanpour that they believe memory and history are under threat in America today.
“I think there’s definitely an agenda for removal,” Monáe said, pointing to Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is signing the so-called “Don’t Say Gay” law, which would ban LGBTQ+ subjects in elementary school classrooms. and Texas Governor Greg Abbott signed legislation restricting how race and American history is taught in state schools.

“These are real experiences for our ancestors, real experiences for us,” Monáe said. “And the erasure is happening right under our noses. And it’s being done through legislation.”

Monáe pointed to themes in “The Memory Librarian” that make the book so topical in this perilous political climate. “Our memories determine the quality of our lives,” they said. “I think if you take away someone’s memory, you strip their identity, you strip them as people.”

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