Photographs by Randall Vasquez.
At quarter to ten in the middle of Nathan Phillips Square, the electric lady herself Janelle Monáe was rolled onto the stage with her stiff body suddenly erupting into dance as soon as it could. From that moment on, she wanted everyone else to just dance and not remain emotionless. There aren’t many artists who care about letting loose nearly as much as this psychedelic Outkast protégé, and her Metropolis influenced music has been an indication of this for years. We are all robots because we take part in a mechanical society. Scratch that: We are androids with individiality who are made to think we are robots. With a retro wormhole-like design on the bass drum and black and white swirls just about everywhere (instruments, microphone stands, pants even), this was our blast to the past with our soul filled captain.
Monáe covered two songs (staples by James Brown and The Jackson Five) as tributes to the dearly departed, but she herself is becoming an r&b legend gradually. The free show had people crammed into a tiny area as you’d expect for such a presence. She did not disappoint. She danced like an absolute demon and still had enough energy to jump and dart everywhere on stage. She did this while remaining one of the best vocalists of our generation (psht, easily). She matched the eclecticism she has on album and more: She howled, screamed, damn well whistled as she belted and even left time to soothe and croon. There is no way someone can dish so much, groove so much and not be a hot gasping mess. Janelle Monáe is inhuman; It isn’t an act.
Yes, this android can help us time travel and can perform unbelievable feats, but her understanding of humanity since the early days (evident on a song like Many Moons) has remained unchanged. After her song dedicated to lovers and those willing to just feel the love (Primetime), Monáe asked for universal love towards one another. A year after the Ferguson controversy, and with many cop monster reports since, Monáe begged to fight against police brutality. She called forth the fight against female oppression quickly after. With some more requests for humans to just be nice to one another, she lept into the two part fiasco of Cold War and Tightrope that had the whole square going nuts. It was a positive riot that probably got the attention of City Hall. It was a group of humans tired of anguish and hoping to just live happily. This was, in itself, a dance apocalyptic.
Starting off the set with that very song that’s been placed in her Cover Girl commercials, Monáe ended things off with an encore that started with her newest single Yoga. She concluded everything with a rendition of Come Alive that spanned over ten minutes. Monáe stunned with her exceptionally strong vocal work but then took the time to calm things down by laying down and playing dead. Her band came to “revive” her, and, what do you know, they did. It was a nice touch to the song. Or so we all thought, until her band started to collapse to the ground themselves. The music got more and more quiet. Monáe turned to the crowd and started instructing us to get low. At a free show in a public setting, many people were skeptical of getting filthy on the ground, but most people eventually began to crouch even a little bit. We maybe didn’t get as low as Monáe wanted, but she decided our job was good enough. Everyone in the square, her band included, exploded at the same time at her command.
This is just like her impact in mainstream music, and it always has been. She took the time to bow with her band and then dart off (not until she flashed peace signs and proclaimed love, though). She left after waking us all up. The scheduled Panamania fireworks went off, but there won’t be a showstopper quite like Janelle Monáe, who has reserved a spot nicely in my list of concerts of the year. It was a free concert, but it felt priceless (ironic for a set led by someone as free as Monáe). If there was a figure important enough in music, pop culture and humanity that could have commanded the kind of unity and compassion the Pan Am games desire by art, Janelle Monáe was a game winning three pointer with ease.