*WARNING SPOILERS AHEAD!*
THE RACIAL POLITICS OF TIME
Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that ‘the defining feature of being drafted into the Black race [is] the inescapable robbery of time.’ We experience time discrimination he tells us, not just as structural, but as personal: in lost moments of joy, lost moments of connection, lost quality of time with loved ones, and lost years of healthy quality of life. In the future, do you see Black people? Do Black people have a future? What if you belong to the very race of people who have always been pitted against time? What if your group is the group for whom a future was never imagined? These time-space clashes between protestors and police, between gentrifiers and residents — don’t paint a very pretty picture of what America hopes for Black people’s future. If the present is any indicator, our children will be undereducated, health maladies will take their toll, and housing will continue to be unaffordable. So if we’re really ready to talk about the future, perhaps we should begin by admitting that we’re out of time.
Brittney Cooper — The Racial Politics of Time, Ted Talk (2017)
WHAT IS A DIRTY COMPUTER?
Within Janelle Monae’s Dirty Computer [Emotion Picture], humans of the future are reduced to a limited functionary purpose to serve the elites as computers. Who the authoritarian elites are is never revealed explicitly, but the enforcers of policy are key figures throughout the narrative. A rudimentary (human) computer can be instructed to carry out a sequence, such as arithmetic or assembly. Computers also have the capability to follow a generalized set of commands or programs.
This programming enables a computer to perform a wide range of tasks, with utmost compliance and obedience. ‘Dirty Computers’, however, must have their bugs removed from the inside-out through a process known as ‘the cleaning’. To determine who is applicable for this process, computers must be removed from society who display visual or intellectual differences that are viewed as disruptive.
There is no individuality in this hive society of the future–only the collective. Whether stated explicitly or implied throughout Dirty Computer, Race is a crucial signifier of difference. Also, if one is disabled, disfigured, fat, trans, intersex, Queer, or exhibits any displays of difference you will be a target for The House of the New Dawn. This place is a nunnery of sorts that’s primary purpose is conversion therapy.
The purpose of ‘cleansing’ throughout history has attempted to create racial, ethnic, sexual, or religious purity. The cleansing space of Dirty Computer is immaculately sterile and white, wherein its attendants wear masks reminiscent of plague doctors or those in the presence of infectious disease. The intersection of humanity and technology has become terrifying in this future timeline, as its subjects are viewed through a ‘black mirror‘.
The daily grind of cleaning and deleting is shown through two White male keyboard console operators who are situated behind a screen–showing one who questions things but complies–and the other who is shown continuously sipping coffee sighs. Their console is uploaded with memories, dreams, and a plethora of things that make an individual unique or in this case ‘dirty’. Cleaning is a repetitious process meant to excise all past experiences to the ‘Nevermind’.
COMMIT TO MEMORY
The main character of Dirty Computer is Jane 57821 who knows that desiring freedom comes with a price, which means that loves can be taken, and sexual liberation can be fettered. Their memories are displayed within The House of the New Dawn’s digital screens, they are shown to be a punk and a rebel who smuggles various trans, non-binary, and cis Black Women through drone-unit border patrols or gives them shelter. Various identities of Blackness are uplifted throughout Dirty Computer as integral figures of friendship, family, lover(s), and refuge spaces in the wake of this dystopian future.
Jane 57821 sings about a ‘Crazy, Classic Life’ that is overflowing with the wants, needs, and desires of the outliers and the otherized. The crew that Jane primarily hovers with pays homage to the Black musicians that created the Punk music sound and culture; conversely, there are other racial/ethnic glittery ‘Ziggy Stardust’ types that intermingle with them from time to time with their own brilliant kaleidoscope of color palettes.
All persons present blur the lines of sex and gender in their own individual way. Meanwhile, others evoke a visual affinity for ancestral goddesses and salute the power of the feminine. In the midst of the revelry between groups, baptisms are taking place, overseen by the priestess Zen–who anoints them with oils and perfumes–and in turn blesses their lived existence to be free and loved.
There is also flipped imagery seen in this space where the visuals of Jesus and the Apostles usually reside. In this time, otherized people are paid homage with Black Women at the center of the table which is beautifully radical, with golden women instead of men with golden halos. Sadly, the jovial proceedings are violently interrupted by a police raid with imagery and antagonism similar to historical events of targeted terror, such as Black Wall Street and the Stonewall Inn. As the events spiral out of control, the memories of Jane 57821 fade and blink out of existence. The ‘Crazy, Classic, Life’ of the past has been deposited into the (memory) waste bin.
SCREWED TO TAKE A BYTE
During the memory of “Take A Byte”, the Dirty Computers are placed in suspension harnesses to clear the head and create disorientation, which creates sublime conditions to re-program. As the cleaning progresses, more white clothing and ritualistic ornamentation are added to Jane’s person. Contrasting Jane’s trauma are the white male cleaners, one of whom laughs as Jane’s friends, family, and loved ones are rounded up while the other chuckles uncomfortably.
This critique of Whiteness parallels Martin Luther King’s condemnation of the moderate (liberal) and the blatant (extremist), both of whom are dangerous and not to be coddled. The next memory is that of “Screwed” which revels in the declaration of Jane’s pansexuality and polyamorous romance with Zen and Ché while also celebrating the history of Black Rock & Roll. This anthem is eviscerating, especially towards the patriarchy and misogyny. Meanwhile, the looming specter of surveillance approaches is watching them via drones and alerts the police about their activities; Zen is a casualty of this particular police raid and is thusly renamed Mary Apple 53.
Jane 57821’s love has been taken and now the war has become even more personal: enter ‘Django Jane’. Jane has transitioned from an invisible quiet protestor to a loud visible presence that will become a thorn in the side of the establishment. One wonders if this is how Jane was captured once and for all. It’s clear in clothing choice that Jane has blended her previous punk aesthetic with a militant ceremonial garb of a well-pressed tailored suit. The brilliance of this meeting of Jane and her Kufi accessorized war chiefs is the acknowledgment that war and combat come in many forms, not just rote violence.
The multi-layered imagery of hair being used as a beauty-armor-crown is one that evokes another mystique and fascination with the past and present of African-ness in regards to Black Women’s hair and its utilitarian and/or political function. With the deletion of the ‘Django Jane’ memory, Jane and Zen’s place of refuge at the ‘PYNK’-Inn is revealed where girls eat free and never (have to) leave.
Especially, during this fraught time of ‘computers’ vanishing, this place in the beautiful section of the desert is an oasis and paradise where Black Women have been able to escape with no shame about their bodies or sexualities. The color pink has never looked so inviting, pure, or intimate. The pink evokes the womb’s beauty as the central point of creation and its awe-inspiring power. Jane and the women present applaud the pink, the blood, and its flow from within that deserves to be reclaimed.
ECHOES OF THE PAST AND FUTURE
Transitioning to the ‘Make Me Feel’ memory shows the full array of colors within the pansexual rainbow that Jane 57821 inhabits, which explore the shades of desire that can exist within a person and that polyamory is nothing to be ashamed of and can be a deeply enriching experience of identity-discovery. By design, as you groove to the hooks and melodies of each memory-song, there is mounting anxiety that more of Jane’s individuality will be deleted to the Nevermind; as this occurs, Jane’s fleeting memories and dreams influence Mary Apple 53 Zen to remember her past self and the love that she and Jane shared.
Self-actualization and self-worth are the hymn that Jane preaches in the ‘I Like That’ memory–to a choir of she, herself and they. The power in this message is that oftentimes you have to be your own champion and your own cheerleader and celebrate how beautiful, perfect, and imperfect you are. During Jane’s cleansing process, the sanctimonious white-gowned Mother ‘Virgin’ Victoria patrols the hallways making sure her torchbearers are executing pathways from darkness into the light for all Dirty Computers.
The KKK started a branch just for women in the 1920s, and half a million joined
The platform mingled racism, nativism, and…feminism?
The cold indifference that emanates from her coupled with the holier than thou attitude is very reminiscent with the Mothers of the Ku Klux Klan that coupled Christian Values, ‘feminism’ and racial/ethnic violence. She’s the chilling, almost robotic voice that is heard during reprogramming who tracks the progress of all cleansing. In her view, self-expression cannot be tolerated, films are repugnant, art is to be destroyed, instruments are to be smashed, and music is the root of all toxicity.
One woman’s effort to mix Klan-style hatred with wholesome Christian values
The KKK’s Daisy Douglas Barr left a legacy of normalizing hate that remains today
The “Don’t Judge Me” memory interlude experienced by Jane 57821, Zen, and their lover Ché are an emotionally gripping experience that’s seared itself onto Zen’s past memories, especially the more she sees Jane and her tattoo. The tattoo that she etched onto Jane’s wrist shows a crucified individual with a television for a head. The focus on their joy and contentment with each other is truly a thing of beauty, and the camera’s lingering gaze on their Black facial features and hair is simply breathtaking.
Jane’s final cleansing awaits and (Mary Apple 53) Zen appears to walk her there but flees before the final dose of Nevermind gas envelopes Jane. Jane appears to be a newly deemed Mary Apple — sweet and docile — who has come out of the cleansing process to demonstrate their first act as a torchbearer, against her love Ché who has finally been captured.
Alas, this science-fiction tale has a happily ever after ending that reveals the diminutive smile and performative gestures have all been a ruse by Jane and Zen who activate a sleeping gas against those within The House of the New Dawn. The upbeat triumphant ‘Americans’ permanent memory-song that plays towards Dirty Computer’s close lambasts the hypocrisy of America itself and the power structures that allow such hypocrisies to exist.
THE ARTIST JANELLE MONÁE
Janelle Monáe is an artist who is creating a series of musical science-fiction albums that references the 1927 science fiction film Metropolis (which was the title of their first EP) and the work of Black Female science fiction author Octavia Butler.
The weak can overcome the strong if the weak persist. Persisting isn’t always safe, but it’s often necessary.
Octavia Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993)
Through music, Janelle Monáe is attempting that very thing — persistence, in the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles. The path for Black Women (cis, trans, or non-binary) in music has always been a tightrope regardless of their talent, with constant criticisms about hair, facial features, skin color, body proportions, and desirability.
Their voices have been wrung out for money and profit and in turn, left hollow and dry for all-consuming masses. This is not to say that all Black Female musicians’ stories are the same but there is always a thread of sadness or hardship that permeates throughout.
Janelle Monáe for the past few years has been attempting to parcel out that fraught relationship with various oppressive structures that exist in our reality and by way of science fiction in our imagination. In their debut album The ArchAndroid, the themes, and imagery are open to interpretation in Janelle Monáe’s work, but the ever-present specter of an oppressor and the oppressed is always undeniable.
By utilizing the bodies and voices of Black people in her work, Janelle Monáe is actively making a political statement that in any and all universes of time and space Black people exist and that their very lives are being placed at risk by doing just that — existing. By crafting a series of [Emotion Pictures’] as Janelle aptly calls them, they examine the life of a Black android that dares to exist in various times and spaces. By also utilizing the powers of music, dance, and self-love they elude and combat the powers that be and rally others to various modes of self-expression within their second album The Electric Lady.
Janelle Monáe blurs the lines at times between imagination and reality by directly addressing the audience about the existence of oppressive forces that can be faceless or actively remove the mask and unflinchingly bear their visage to the masses that they oppress. By juxtaposing The ArchAndroid period of their life versus Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe makes the statement that it is beautiful to be Black — to be loved — and to be free. Even though oppressive forces try to pacify the masses, a glimmer of resistance will always remain, and deleting their original joy will only cause more glimmers of it to sprout and flourish.
Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer is a masterpiece in storytelling that is prescient and poignant in every way. The coinciding album of the same name requires essential listening to pick up on all of the specific and abstract nuances that they have crafted. As Janelle has matured, so have the volume of their messages; they have long protested the injustices that have been occurring to the (entire) Black community and spoken against a Presidential administration that has normalized hate and division.
Janelle Monáe’s personal and professional life intersected with Dirty Computer a long time ago (in my opinion) before The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady albums. This particular musical project had been in the making for years and it clearly shows, with the attention to detail, and the team they assembled to bring this specific vision of a Black future to life. I have listened to their album multiple times now since its release in 2018 and at various intervals thereafter and I am still in awe of the resonance of the album. Janelle Monae didn’t build a time capsule with Dirty Computer but eerily plotted a roadmap of our present.
IT’S OUR TIME.
We Black people have always been out of time. Time does not belong to us. Our lives are lives of perpetual urgency. Time is used to displace us, or conversely, we are urged into complacency through endless calls to just be patient. But if past is prologue, let us seize upon the ways in which we’re always out of time anyway to demand with urgency — freedom now! I believe the future is what we make it. But first, we have to decide that time belongs to all of us. No, we don’t all get equal time, but we can decide that the time we do get is just and free. We can stop making your zip code the primary determinant of your lifespan. We can stop stealing learning time from Black children through excessive use of suspensions and expulsions. We can stop stealing time from Black people through long periods of incarceration for nonviolent crimes. The police can stop stealing time and Black lives through use of excessive force. I believe the future is what we make it. But we can’t get there on colored people’s time or white time or your time or even my time, it’s our time. Ours.
Black Girl Past Meets Black Woman Future in ‘If I’m Being Honest’
Race, time, and science fiction.