Photos by Randall Vasquez
The second coming of our lord and saviour Janelle Monáe is upon us! And she shone her glorious light on a packed, eclectic crowd at Rebel.
Let’s get the disclosures out of the way: I am a massive Janelle Monáe fan. I saw her at a muddy festival in Poland in 2012 and within two songs, I was a gonner. She was well into touring her first album The ArchAndroid with half an orchestra and a command of the crowd that had them crouched in the mud until she said otherwise. I saw her tour of second album The Electric Lady; where we had a giant pillow fight and she climbed into the crowd right next to me. I said that I’d be championing Janelle Monáe forever after my first concert – and six years later I’m even more obsessed. She’s an expert performer, a role model…and my hero.
Many have lamented the five year wait between Janelle’s stellar, funk-filled second album The Electric Lady and newly released pop breakthrough Dirty Computer. However, even five years between albums felt like too little following a huge tour, two Oscar nominated films, expanding the roster of artists on her Wondaland label and, most importantly, condemning the epidemic of police brutality and racism and fighting for the rights of black Americans. Janelle has always spoken out for the marginalized and oppressed, and maybe due to the political climate in her country, it’s prompted her to be even more steadfast in her beliefs, sharing more of herself – coming out as a pansexual “free-ass motherfucker” – a bold and brave move that has certainly paid off.
It’s 4:30pm on a Monday and there’s already a row of people outside of the venue; some have been here since noon. The crowd swells and stretches down the street as we wait for doors and a good vantage point to see the stage – the best way to see Monáe is up close. Wondaland’s St. Beauty played an effortlessly cool opening set full of gentle swaying and minimalist R&B. However most of their show was blown clean out of my head from the first strains of the dreamy introduction to Dirty Computer.
Smoke begins to swirl as Monáe’s band populates the stage and it’s dark and ephemeral when Janelle steps on stage at the pinnacle of a pyramid of white steps. Thus begins a rapid baptism into the new album. Screwed and Django Jane offer a strong start with a bright, powerful display of how Janelle has evolved from her established afrofuturist android Cindi Mayweather into the more relatable, earthly performer we see before us. This is not just a shift in musical subject and tone, but a change in Janelle Monáe the performer. It’s been a huge journey during the release and promotion of this album as Monáe dives more deeply into what it is to be a young black LGBTQIA woman in America.
The Toronto show sold out within days, perhaps partly thanks to her standout performance as part of the Toronto PanAm games back in 2015, but mainly due to the mark her new album is leaving on music and pop culture. Without the mask of Cindy Mayweather, despite how much I love that android, there’s a deeper emotion and meaning to this tour. This pre-Mayweather incarnation of Monáe is speaking not only of universal stories of oppression and love, but of current struggles; “I don’t wanna live on my knees, I just wanna tell the truth”. It’s a fight back against what that woeful election result back in 2016 and its challenge to the rights of anyone who isn’t a rich white man.
Django Jane is a tour de force – it was the first video I saw from this album, still in shock that she was surprising us with a whole new album, and it made me so emotional to see the strength and pride on display. I hadn’t realised Janelle had even more potential to be lived up to – seeing the black girl magic of that song live is a glorious sight. Especially with the reworking of the line “Yeah we highly melanated. Black girl never overrated!”
The set includes every track from the new album, with pockets of The Electric Lady and The Arch Android fitting in between. Hearing Q.U.E.E.N. and Electric Lady makes me long for more from her past albums one minute, and mesmerised by her new offerings the next. Pynk brings those spectacular vagina pants from the video into living colour, and watching Janelle take Jidenna’s part in Yoga, stage flirting with her female dancers feels like the queer representation we deserve. It’s thrilling to see Janelle being more of who she is on stage – shouting “Happy Pride Forever!” to huge cheers as she launches into Primetime. Janelle opening up and celebrating her queerness seems to have helped bring in a legion of new fans; for much of the audience, this is their first time seeing her.
I heard a mediocre white dude give his unsolicited opinion on Dirty Computer – whining that it was “just an album about her being queer”. Which completely misses the significance of what Janelle is doing. Yes, there is more tolerance of gay people and Toronto in particular is an LGBT haven, but for places and communities in which homophobia is rife, it’s still revolutionary to see a public figure stand up against bigotry and say “I am one of you”. Not just to strive for tolerance, but to celebrate who she is and who we all are. Janelle is saving lives and offering hope. She continues to be the change she wants to see in the world. It’s a lot of pressure, but she lives up to it again and again.
Janelle is a consummate professional, a perfect performer and showwoman. Performing with four backing dancers, she strides and slides around the stage performing her unique moves tinged with Jackson-eque footwork as well as choreography from her videos and some cheeky suggestive moves. She’s looser, more liberated and the crowd loves it. The band has been trimmed down – with Kellindo and Téja still on guitar and bass, doing a fantastic job as ever, and a standout performances by Tracyan on keys. The band are so tight, but it’s easy to forget them when Janelle’s right there in front of you. Her energy and jubilance bounces off the stage – as she grins and reaches out to her adoring fans. Her outfits still pay homage to her original black and white style, but we also see splashes of red, long tailored coats down to her ankles, cropped versions of her own merchandise, and the shiniest trousers, which I can only describe as mirrorball. She looks particularly spectacular in a moment of pause, with sweat running down to drip from her chin. She’s giving everything up on stage, and looking flawless while she does it.
This show is a celebration of everyone’s identities; during I Like That when Janelle offers compliments to the crowd, during Screwed when we say it loud: “I’m Dirty, I’m Proud!”, when she invites fans up on stage for I Got The Juice. The crowd is united as a loving, supportive group who are here for each other – we are all dirty computers. With Americans closing out the set, this show felt life affirming, and a thrill ride from start to finish.
I am championing Janelle Monáe forever. It’s the way she makes you feel. We love her – and she loves us too.