Janelle Monae’s “Many Moons”: A History of Oppression
Much like a classic novel, music can be analyzed and interpreted in many different ways through the text itself, the visuals presented in the music video, and even the instrumental composition. Although some music may not be as complex as a novel –or complex at all –other music provides commentary on real life issues, either of the past or today. Janelle Monae is one artist that is well known for both her catchy pop song beats and the lyrics that they contain. Her songs often contain deep messages that aren’t always clear with a first listen but when analyzed, can bring insight and understanding not only to the song but to the world around us. Through the allusions and historical references in the lyrics of her song, “Many Moons”, Janelle Monae critiques the oppression of people witnessed in Western civilization’s past and present and suggests ways to overcome that oppression.
The context of the song “Many Moons” is important before I begin analyzing the lyrics. "Many Moons" was included on the Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) EP that Monae, along with Bad Boy Records, re-released in 2008. The EP was the first album of a concept album series that later included the ArchAndroid Suites II and III. The video, which Monae promoted as a short film, takes place at the Annual Android Auction in the fictional, futuristic city of Metropolis. During the auction, Monae's alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather, is introduced as the prototype of the new line of Androids and performs for the shrieking crowd. Not only does Monae appear as Cindi Mayweather in the video but she also plays other characters such as Lady Maestra (the Master of the Show Droids) and the model androids that walk the catwalk. While these androids walk down the catwalk, they are being purchased by the wealthiest of Metropolis, such as technology moguls, city officials, religious authorities, and crime lords. Cindi Mayweather eventually performs so intensely that she short circuits, floats in the air, and drifts to the ground as she is slowly electrocuted to what appears to be her end. The video blackens and concludes with a single quote by Cindi Mayweather, “I imagined many moons in the sky lighting the way to freedom.” Although the concept of the EP in its entirety revolves around a story of its own in which Cindi is on the run because she is sentenced to be disassembled for falling in love with a human, the song “Many Moons” contains real world issues and context that Monae uses to present society’s oppression of people and the complications that can ensue from those oppressions.
From the beginning of “Many Moons”, Monae alludes to the oppression of African Americans in the United States. In the very first verse when Cindi sings, “We dancing free but we’re stuck here underground/And everybody trying to figure they way out…”, it is unclear who the “we” in this context is but when analyzing the lyrics, “we” is a reference to African Americans and the Underground Railroad. When slaves began establishing and using the Underground Railroad in the 19th century, it seemed as though their people could finally have an opportunity for freedom but even though they were free from their masters, slaves were not truly free –as Monae suggests – because they were still “stuck underground”, they were still in hiding, they were still unable to live “normal” lives, and in short, they were still oppressed. Cindi goes on in the verse to sing, “All we ever wanted to say/Was chased, erased, and then thrown away…” which also references the inability of African American slaves to voice their own opinions freely. Janelle Monae starts the song with a narrative of the oppression of African Americans because African American slaves were one of the first groups of oppressed people in United States history, suggesting that from its formation, the United States has been oppressing people for no true reason.
In the bridge that follows, Cindi sings, “We march all around til’ the sun goes down, night children, night children/ Broken dreams, no sunshine, endless crime, we long for freedom, for freedom/ You’re free but in your mind, your freedom’s in a bind.” The first line is again a historical reference to the Underground Railroad when slaves would work (“march”) all day but roam free through the underground railroad system at night. Additionally, Monae may be alluding to the 1989 movie, Night Children, in which there is an anarchist street gang that moves by night and causes chaos. (“Night Children”) Both of these references, along with the rest of the bridge, convey an importance for not only physical freedom but mental freedom as well, the freedom to express one’s thoughts and opinions, whether it takes secrecy or anarchy to do so. Although Monae is still commenting on past oppressions, she is now beginning to present future ways to overcome the oppressions.
The next part of the song is the hook and it starts by telling the listener, “Oh make it rain, ain’t a thang in the sky to fall/ The silver bullet’s in your hand and the war’s heating up.” Here, Monae suggests that it is time to revolutionize and end the oppression of people but that it is up to those being oppressed to stand up and do so. The oppressed in our society need to “make it rain”, they need to make something change for the better and right now, although nothing has happened yet, the second line insinuates that an uprising is soon to occur. Later in the hook, when Cindi sings, “And when you’re growing down instead of growing up…” she warns of negative development and how sometimes something that seems like progress can actually bring you down. She even uses the Black Panther Party as a historical reference in the next line when she sings, “You gotta ooo, ah, ah like a panther…” implying again the need for a protest or revolution by oppressed groups in today’s society. (“Black Panther Legacy”) Monae could also be alluding to a real panther and the powerful fierceness and strength that they possess and how that same boldness is necessary when standing up for one’s rights.
Monae continues to suggest ways to combat oppression in the next verse which begins, “So strong, for so long…” indicating that different people have been fighting against different oppressions at different times for way too long. She continues with, “Square or round, rich or poor/ At the end of day and night all we want is more…” alluding to the fact that no matter who you are or where you come from, we all want the same things which are equality, freedom, and acceptance. Monae wants the people of our society today to stand up in unity against oppressions that limit, objectify, and exploit people.
The song concludes with a cybernetic chant followed with a somewhat calming yet eerie lullaby. The chant lists off seventy-seven different words and phrases that reference various oppressions witnessed throughout United States’ history and today such as “civil rights, civil war”, “welfare”, “overweight, self-esteem”, and “Jim Crow”. Because the chant becomes so intense, Cindi goes into some sort of electric shock and, as she floats back down, a lullaby begins.
And when the world just treats you wrong/ Just come with me and I’ll take
you home/ No need to pack a bag/ Who put your life in the danger zone?/
You running, dropping like a rolling stone/ No time to pack a bag/ You just
can’t stop your heart from hanging on/ The old man dies and then a baby’s
born/ Chan-chan-chan-change your life/ And when the world just treats you
wrong/ Just come with us and we’ll take you home/ Shan-shan-shan-shangri la/
Na na na na na na na na na na na na
In this entire lullaby, Cindi tells the audience how they can be rid of the oppressions imposed on them by society. She tells them that all they have to do is come with her and they’ll be free. Through this lullaby, Monae is creating a utopia in which everyone is free and happy but when she mentions that she will take you home and that there is no need to pack a bag, she seems to be referencing some sort of heaven. If God is our father, Heaven would be our true home in which everything is provided. Just shortly after mentioning that there is “no need to pack a bag”, Cindi changes her words to say there is “no time to pack a bag” which adds a sense of urgency and a certainty to the fact that they will now be leaving. Cindi then goes on to sing about the old man and the baby, a reference to the circle of life. Finally, Cindi ends her song –and her life –by singing “Shangri la”, a fictional utopia described in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton. (“Lost Horizon”) In this somber ending lullaby, Monae is telling us that although we may take her advice and stand up for our rights, no one is truly free until death when they are free from the oppressions, bondages, and restrictions of this world and society. Like I said above, the entire music video concludes with a quote from Cindi Mayweather that reads, “I imagined many moons in the sky lighting my way to freedom.” That final quote solidifies the idea that Cindi is calling her audience to death and heaven, a utopia past many moons, somewhere in the sky.
Although “Many Moons” by Janelle Monae could just be written off by listeners as another catchy pop song, it is used in much of the same way as other texts, such as novels. When analyzing the lyrics, the reader is able to formulate ideas of what the author is trying to say and the author is able to express those ideas in a different way as well. Through Monae’s lyrics in this song we are able to see her critique of society’s oppressions on people and hopefully through her words, her audience is able to create a better end than she envisions.
"Black Panther Legacy." N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2013. <http://www.blackpanther.org/legacynew.htm>.
Janelle Monae. Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). Bad Boy Records, 2008. Web.
"Lost Horizon." Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. Web.
"Night Children." IMDb. IMDb.com, n.d. Web. 29 Jan. 2013.rite the first paragraph of your page here.