Professor Sarah Stein
January 29, 2013
Textual Analysis Assignment: “Many Moons” and Intersectionality
Janelle Monáe does more than create catchy, soulful music. She tells stories. With the release of her debut EP Metropolis, Suite I: The Chase, it was clear Monáe had a message to send. This message was reinforced with the release of her full-length album, The ArchAndroid, a mysterious, dynamic, and stirring concept album telling the story of the city of Metropolis, Cindi Mayweather, and her quest to free the citizens from the Great Divide, “a secret society using time travel to suppress freedom and love throughout the ages” (Monáe). Many consider Monáe’s music as a part of the Afro-futurism aesthetic which combines science fiction , fantasy, and Afrocentricity (among other things) to critique the present-day and historical events and dilemmas of people of color. It is clear from both albums though that Monáe yearns for freedom of the oppressed , not just people of color, but all those who, because of society’s systematic limitations, cannot be truly free as an individual or as a people. Specifically, in Janelle Monáe’s song “Many Moons”, the use of imagery and symbolism combined with concrete references in her lyrics and music video display the theory of intersectionality, protesting society’s oppression of people of color and those who defy socially constructed gender norms.
Discussions of intersectionality are found primarily in fields of feminist study and critical race theory, including but not limited to subjects of sex, gender, race, socioeconomic status, ethnicity, religious belief, sexual orientation , age, and ability. It can be defined as the “multiple complex ways” in which “various forms of oppression interact with one another” (Gary 826). This interplay of oppressions, particularly of people of color and non-typical gendered bodies, are critiqued in “Many Moons”.
Monáe uses textual poetic images as well as visual images to represent her conception of the oppression of people of color in today’s society. In the music video, this song is set in the fictional city of Metropolis in which, what can be considered Monáe’s alter ego, Cindi Mayweather performs wildly on a stage as droid women are auctioned off in front of a crowd of screaming girls and various official men. Most of the girls in the audience are white. In the very first line of the song, Monáe sings, “We’re dancing free but we’re stuck here underground”, whilst moving her feet chaotically across the stage. By using the word “we” and engaging in the physical movement of dancing, Monáe implies that she identifies herself with the oppressed people she is singing of. She is one of them. The fact that she is a woman of color further implies that she is singing of people of color as a whole. Continually, the image of being “underground” in the context of race brings to mind the Underground Railroad, a covert system of travel used by runaway slaves in the late 1800’s to escape the horrors of slavery in the south. This connects the present-day oppression of Blacks to their historical oppression. The word “underground” also shows that this group of people is not accepted by society or they’ve been pushed away; even though their dancing is “free” they’re trapped where they can’t be seen by the rest of the world, beneath everyone else.
Defiance of Gender Norms
Monáe sings of freedom repeatedly throughout the song to symbolically speak of the “chains” people who defy society’s construction of gender norms are placed in. Before the chorus, Monáe sings, “You’re free but in your mind, your freedom’s in a bind.” Being free in one’s mind is to say, inside, one can identify however they choose, whether it be as gay or lesbian or transgender , or anything else that falls in between. However, that freedom to identify is limited to your mind. The “bind” is society’s construction that keeps you from freely expressing your identity. This point is emphasized in the video when, as she sings the line, Monáe strips of the jacket she is wearing and throws it into the crowd of screaming girls, representing the power of being released from restraint.
In the Chorus, we see further evidence of this message. Monáe sings, “Tell me are you bold enough to reach for love?” This question can be read as directed to people who identify as homosexual. She is asking them if they are brave enough to love whomever they want to love, because society doesn’t accept those who defy the constructions that have been formed through history of what a “real” relationship is. With this in mind, a connection can be made back to race, for, historically, it was illegal for people to marry someone outside of their own race until 1960, and so this line may be referring to them as well. Loving whom you want to love can be dangerous and radical when all of society is against you.
It is clear now with this latest example that many of Monáe’s lines are applicable to two spheres of oppressed peoples. Her rhetoric, like the line, “Square or round, rich or poor, at the end of day and night all we want is more”, brings a universality to her message, emphasizing this notion of intersectionality. The oppression of one group of people is not singular and exclusive to that group—there is heavy interplay between them all and the effect is broad.
How they Intersect
The climax of this intersectionality can be seen in the “Cybernatic Chantdown” in which concrete rhetoric is used to reference various forms of oppression in society. Monáe chants, “Civil rights, civil war […] outcast, weirdo […] black girl, bad hair, broad nose, cold stare […] tuxedo […] HIV, lost hope […] Tomboy, outrage […] White house, Jim Crow, dirty lies, my regards.” The first line is an obvious reference to the Civil Rights Movement of the late 1950’s and 1960’s, and is placed next to a reference to the Civil War, a war that culminated in the expulsion of the institution of slavery in the United States, two race related references. Contrastingly, with the words “outcast” and “weirdo”, we are not given a specific group—these are names any oppressed or bullied person might be called. Then, however, we are given the image of a black girl and the hurt that comes along with having what are considered “ugly” features. The word “tuxedo” may be a less obvious reference to Janelle Monáe herself. She is known to dress exclusively in suits and tuxedos and what are typically considered menswear items, both in her everyday life and in her music videos. By doing so, she herself is violating the gender norm of what is means to be feminine and what it means to be a woman. As the chant goes on, there are two more gender and sexuality references with “tomboy” and “HIV”, and the chant ends citing Jim Crow, the title that was given to the laws across the south in the time before the Civil Rights Movement that designated segregated facilities for Blacks and Whites. The intersectionality of oppressions is displayed here with this interchanging of concrete images and references, because they are chanted together and next to each other. There isn’t a “black” section of the chant or a “gay” section of the chant—Monáe weaves them together, showing us how related they are. Ending the chant with “my regards” makes it sound like she is signing the end of a letter. She is saying goodbye to all of the oppression and leaving for someplace better.
It’s been said that science fiction doesn’t seek to depict a fantastical vision with no relation to the real world, but rather, it uses fantasy to make a critique about something very real and very concrete. By setting “Many Moons” in the land of Metropolis and using the character Cindi Mayweather to sing her song, Janelle Monáe does not intend to say, “This message is not for you, people of the world.” Monáe’s critical message is not directed at the fictional inhabitants of Metropolis, but at us. We are the real people who live in, experience, are hurt by, and propagate these oppressions. Intersectionality does not serve to equate oppressions or say they all mean the same thing to the people experiencing them; it is impossible to rate the hurt of one group to another’s. Instead, intersectionality simply shows us that these many oppressions exist and interact with one another every day. To see one oppression, you must inevitably see another. In “Many Moons”, Janelle Monáe makes this clear with her intentional, artistic choices in her music video and lyrics to publicly critique the systems we live in which, by oppressing people of color, they in turn oppress those who defy the societal constructions of gender normativity.
"Janelle Monáe." Janelle Monáe Official Website. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Jan. 2013.