The Future is Black and Queer: Dirty Computer, Queer Cyborgs, and Liberation Storytelling

An analysis of Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer as not just an Afrofuturist story, but as an inherently queer cyborg story.

The Future is Black and Queer: Dirty Computer, Queer Cyborgs, and Liberation Storytelling

This essay was originally written for Professor Deborah Levitt's undergraduate Science/Fiction: Technoculture, Embodiment, and Power course at The New School in New York City.

Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer contains multitudes. It is the third studio album from Monáe, her first album to not revolve around Monáe’s android persona Cindi Mayweather, and the release of the album coincided with the release of the Dirty Computer emotion picture in April 2018 (directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning; written by Chuck Lighting, Alan Ferguson, Nate ‘Rocket’ Wonder, and Monáe). Notably, its release was also when Monáe came out publicly as queer (Rolling Stone, 2018).

The album itself is a brilliant collection of sound and lyrics from across the spectrum of genres--obvious audiovisual influences include Monáe’s mentor Prince, Michael Jackson, and David Bowie, among others--but the visual emotion picture elevates the music further by winding the entire album through a science fiction narrative about identity, memory, oppression, love, survival, and liberation. Even though the story is set in the future, it speaks directly to the experience of being a Black queer woman in the United States of America today, with direct references throughout the album to various elements of Americana (this is seen most obviously in the lyrics for “Crazy, Classic, Life”, “Django Jane”, and “Americans”) and to Monáe’s own life. It is both deeply personal and human.

Janelle Monáe is wearing a gray suit with a white shirt and black tie. Her hair is in a braid draped over her shoulder and what looks like a gold Kente Kufi hat is on her head.
Janelle Monáe

In many ways, Dirty Computer is genre defying, and this in large part enables it to also act as a unifier of many different ideas and to speak to many different people. That theme of unification, specifically around ideas of Afrofuturism, queerness, and--perhaps counterintuitively--cyborgs in the context of liberation stories, is core to my analysis of the emotion picture in this paper. I interpret Dirty Computer itself as a cyborg story. More importantly, the Afrofuturist and cyborg past/present/future is inherently queer; ultimately, it is about imagining outside “normative” bounds and transformation of that past/present/future as a means of survival and way to thrive. This doesn’t mean all Afrofuturist or cyborg visions are queer--obviously we can and do see heteronormativity reproduced in works that are otherwise obviously Afrofuturist or cyborg in nature--but I think it’s important to look at the links between these ideas, how they can be interpreted as queer, why they ultimately relate to each other, and how Dirty Computer is uniquely positioned at their intersection.

The intersection of Monáe’s identities is critical to consider in analyzing Dirty Computer in this way, but especially in the historical Afrofuturist landscape. Afrofuturism has long been sonically influential and there is a significant history of Afrofuturist audiovisual works, from Sun Ra (Space is the Place, 1974) to Missy Elliot (Say It Loud, 2019), Wu-Tang Clan to Erykah Badu (OkayAfrica, 2017), Michael Jackson & Janet Jackson to Kanye West. Specifically, though, the time and place that Dirty Computer exists in and that Monáe is so explicit about her experience as a Black queer woman (both within Dirty Computer and outside of it) in an Afrofuturist audiovisual medium stands out and ultimately pushes forward key aspects of Afrofuturism.

Why does this intersection of identity matter? Kimberlé Crenshaw, who coined the term intersectionality, had this to say in an interview on what intersectionality means today:

[Intersectionality is] basically a lens, a prism, for seeing the way in which various forms of inequality often operate together and exacerbate each other. We tend to talk about race inequality as separate from inequality based on gender, class, sexuality or immigrant status. What’s often missing is how some people are subject to all of these, and the experience is not just the sum of its parts. (TIME, 2020)

Dirty Computer is not just about being Black or just being a woman or just being queer -- it is all of those things, and to the point Crenshaw makes, those experiences together are not just the sum of their parts, but they are their own specific combined experience. Which is to say, we cannot separate the intersections of identity in Dirty Computer from each other.

Afrofuturism plays an important role in Dirty Computer, but what is Afrofuturism? The term itself was first coined by white author Mark Derry (“Black to the Future”, 1994) to talk about the African diaspora in speculative fiction, but has since been taken up and reshaped by numerous Black scholars and artists. At its essence, Afrofuturism is about social justice for Black people and the ability to not only imagine and transform Black futures, but also to reimagine and transform Black pasts, as well as the present. Most importantly, Afrofuturism is not just about the future, nor is it just Black speculative fiction--transformation and imagination are critical components.

A wide shot of a dark room lit from above. On one side, Jane is wearing a bikini and on a floating table. On the other side Zen is wearing a white ceremonial leotard outfit and gold mask.
Image from Dirty Computer

For the purposes of this analysis, I will use Afrofuturist professor and artist D. Denenge Duyst-Apkem’s succinct description of what Afrofuturism is from the video essay “Afrofuturism Explained: Not Just Black Sci-Fi”, as I think it captures the heart of the concept:

Afrofuturism is a pathway to Black liberation. It provides an avenue to be able to transform ourselves and our communities. (Inverse, 2018)

As stated earlier, though, Dirty Computer isn’t just about being Black or a Black woman--queerness is an integral aspect. But what do we mean when we say queer?

A scene at a neon 80s inspired nightclub. Jane dances in the middle, facing Zen. Ché dances up against, but behind Jane.
Image from "Make Me Feel" music video

Of course there are obvious references to queer identity and relationships throughout the music and the emotion picture, the relationship between Jane (Monáe) and Zen (Tessa Thompson) throughout being the most prominent. “Make Me Feel”, in particular, is described as a bisexual anthem (The Daily Beast, 2018), while “Pynk” is an unabashed celebration of Black women and queer pleasure (Vox, 2018). There is more to being queer than this surface level interpretation, however.

In a conversation with other leading voices in Black feminism and the LGBTQ+ community, the esteemed bell hooks had this to say about queerness:

Queer not as being about who you're having sex with (that can be a dimension of it); but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live. (The New School, 2014)

As hooks stated, queerness is much more than just who you sleep with--in fact, similar to Afrofuturism, it is specifically about thriving and living even when at odds with one's surroundings. Queerness is an experience of life itself and a way of existing in the world.

What about cyborgs, though--how do they fit into a deeply human and personal audiovisual experience like Dirty Computer?

View from above Jane while she is lying on a floating table, with Zen (in a gold and black mask) places a white helmet on Jane's head.
Image from Dirty Computer

Aside from the obvious framing of people who are perceived as different in any way as “dirty computers” that must be “cleaned”, it comes back to hooks’ idea of queerness and of imagining and constructing one's life in opposition to normative expectations, ideas, and constraints. In society we have this idea that computer chips and circuitry is integral to cyborgs, perhaps we even think of cyborgs as necessarily more machine than human, but I interpret the heart of Donna Haraway’s argument in “A Cyborg Manifesto” as a cyborg way of thinking and living, which is ultimately a queer way of thinking and living:

A cyborg is a cybernetic organism, a hybrid of machine and organism, a creature of social reality as well as a creature of fiction. Social reality is lived social relations, our most important political construction, a world-changing fiction. [...] Liberation rests on the construction of the consciousness, the imaginative apprehension, of oppression, and so of possibility. (“A Cyborg Manifesto”, 1985)

Ultimately, the stories we tell--the constructions of consciousness, imagination, possibility--matter, and they shape our experiences, our lives, and the lives of others. They allow us to imagine the past/present/future even when others deny that very past/present/future. This is especially true for Afrofuturists, cyborgs, and queerness.

This central idea of storytelling is something Haraway also touches on:

Cyborg writing must not be about the Fall, the imagination of a once-upon-a-time wholeness before language, before writing, before Man. Cyborg writing is about the power to survive, not on the basis of original innocence, but on the basis of seizing the tools to mark the world that marked them as other.
The tools are often stories, retold stories, versions that reverse and displace the hierarchical dualisms of naturalized identities. In retelling origin stories, cyborg authors subvert the central myths of origin of Western culture. We have all been colonized by those origin myths, with their longing for fulfillment in apocalypse. (“A Cyborg Manifesto”, 1985)

I think this point--the point of subversion of Western culture, of heteronormative and white supremacist stories--is, as Haraway puts it, a critical tool to the survival of Afrofuturists, cyborgs, and queerness. It is a pathway to freedom and the future.

That is the beauty of Dirty Computer. It largely subverts normative ideas and experiences, and even in the face of oppression, constructs a life that includes joy. In fact, that idea is repeated throughout both the science fiction story that is woven throughout, and within the individual videos and songs themselves. It also, perhaps even more critically, demonstrates the power of memory and imagination.

For the purposes of this analysis, I’ve chosen to focus on the video and lyrics of one song specifically as I think it is especially representative of these ideas: “Crazy, Classic, Life”

A side shot of a red convertible hovercar with 5 Black women in it, all with an arm raised and the peace symbol made with their fingers on their raised arms.
Image from "Crazy, Classic, Life" music video

Why “Crazy, Classic, Life”? First, it very explicitly weaves the science fiction elements and the larger emotion picture story throughout the video, including in the scenes immediately before and after the song (for example: the interaction with the drone cop, the hovercar, the cops busting up the party at the beginning and end). Second, the lyrics themself speak to alienation and opposition, but also to joy and the urgency of a “crazy, classic, life” even in the face of (or perhaps, specifically because of) apocalypse. Finally, the joyful celebratory visuals contrast the lyrics that focus on alienation and opposition, and demonstrate the construction that is possible in a queer cyborg Afrofuturist experience. This deliberate visual construction is critical and deeply connected to these ideas of imagination and liberation, queerness, and the ideas expressed in Haraway’s text as well. Survival is a very specific component of this alienation--an alienation Afrofuturists, cyborgs, and queerness all most certainly contend with.

A quick note on timestamps: for simplicity, the timestamps referenced are from the stand-alone video for “Crazy, Classic, Life”, rather than Dirty Computer. The only exceptions to this are clearly noted as timestamps from Dirty Computer and are for the purposes of placing “Crazy, Classic, Life” in the larger Dirty Computer narrative.

A computer screen seen over the holder of a white person. "Recent Memory Data" is seen on screen, along with still images and dates indicating memories. Jane, who is on the floating table in the room in front of them, can be partially seen behind the semi transparent screen.
4:01 timestamp (Dirty Computer)

The video for “Crazy, Classic, Life” in the greater Dirty Computer narrative is the first memory file that is accessed by The Cleaners when Jane is brought to The House of the New Dawn. We get a series of quick clips, glimpses of the memory out of sequence, before cutting to Jane and one of her friends in a convertible hovercar listening to the track “I Got the Juice” before being pulled over by a drone-cop. They go through the motions of the ID check with the drone-cop. When it leaves, they hop out and open the trunk of the car, letting their friends who they were protecting out, so they can all sit in the car together with the danger having passed. They are all dressed in elements of what might be classified as a punk aesthetic--black leather, metal, fishnet stockings.

A close-up of a person's face at night. They are Black, have short hair, a mustache, and are wearing jewlery and make-up.
0:55 timecode

We cut to a series of close-ups of individuals in the dark of night. These people are Black, brown, and white. They sport a wide variety of hair styles, tattoos, make up, clothing, and jewelry. Their genders can be interpreted as ambiguous. They are clearly coded as queer, as other, as fellow dirty computers. The last person is clearly Jane’s same friend from the car and the drone-cop interaction. This sequence is paired with a voiceover and gentle melody. The voiceover is Pastor Sean McMillian, quoting Revered Martin Luther King, Jr., who was quoting the United States Declaration of Independence (Politics, Passion, and Pop: Janelle Monáe’s “Dirty Computer”, 2018):

You told us we hold these truths to be self-evident:
that all men and women are created equal;
and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights;
among these are life, liberty, and the—and the pursuit of happiness

We won’t find out till the end of the video that these people have been caught by the cops and are lined-up, waiting to be led off, but it’s an important juxtaposition to the voiceover as it plays on the alienation and disconnection that these people experience, despite these “self-evident truths” and “unalienable rights.”

This opening sequence (and in fact, the end of the voiceover: “and the pursuit of happiness”) leads us back to Jane and her friends--all Black women--in the hovercar earlier that day, driving ahead.

Five Black women in a red convertible hovercar.

At this point, we are given a close-up of Jane in the back seat of the car, positioned between two of her friends. We are introduced to the core beat and melody of the song as well, as she busts into the first verse. The initial part of the song, lyrically and visually, focuses on joy:

A close-up of Jane sitting between two other Black women in the back seat of a convertible car. She is dressed in a black leather and metal studded jacket, collar, and sparkling fingerless gloves.
1:16 timecode
Young, Black, wild and free
Naked in a limousine (oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh)
Black and brown bodies dancing together at night, shown from their shoulders down to their thighs.
A Black woman leans back out of the side of a red convertible car, relaxing, enjoying the air rushing by, as her friend continues to drive while smiling.
Riding through the hood real slow
I love it when I smell the trees (oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh)
Jane centered in the back seat of the convertible again, this time wee see one of her friends next to her clearly, a smile on her face.
A white person with red hair and blue lipstick dances with another white person, who has blonde hair. Ché can be seen in the background between them. They look like David Bowie.
I just wanna party hard
Sex in the swimming pool (oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh)
Black women dancing in their seats, standing up in their seats of the red convertible, as it drives. They look happy.
Black and brown bodies dancing at night. One person (Jane) wears a white feather dress.
I don't need a lot of cash
I just wanna break the rules (oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh)
Jane and her friends in the back of the convertible, singing and looking joyful. Jane has her index and middle finger on both hands thrown up.
Two people's faces are close together in twighlight. They both are wearing white sunglasses and one blows smoke into the others mouth.

We cut back and forth between the journey in the hovercar, with Jane and her friends dancing in the hovercar and embracing joy along their journey, and future scenes from the party they are going to, giving us glimpses of the other “dirty computers.”

In the next sequence, we have the pre-chorus, which visually continues what we have already established but starts to shift lyrically.

Jane and her friends in the back seat of a convertible. One looks joyful, the other looks serious. All three people have their right arm raised out of frame.
1:52 timecode
We don't need another ruler
All of my friends are kings (oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh)
Five Black women in a red convertible, all with their right arm raised and the peace symbol formed with their fingers.
I'm not America's nightmare
I'm the American dream (oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh)
Just let me live my life

This sequence is imbued with multiple meanings. The reference to “not needing another ruler” could be argued as a comment on the US President at the time (2017-2018) who was the embodiment of patriarchal and white supremacist ideas, while the specificity of “all of my friends are kings” could be interpreted as a specific reference to Martin Luther King, Jr. This lyric set could also be commentary on the importance of self determination and the rejection of rule without representation.

The juxtaposition of the “America’s nightmare” and “American dream” lyrics could also be a reference to speeches given by Malcolm X (“The Ballot or the Bullet”, 1964) and Martin Luther King, Jr. (“I Have a Dream”, 1963). Another possible interpretation is in the framing of the Black queer woman as “the American nightmare.” That idea is one that has played out across each of those identities: women are a threat to patriarchial forces, queer people are a threat to heteronormative forces, and Black people are a threat to white supremacist forces. A Black queer woman would be seen as a triple threat--an “American nightmare”--to the normative ideas foundational to the United States. The contrast then is that Jane is in fact “the American dream”: liberated from those normative forces, resistance and opposition, an example of what we can be, an example of joy and life.

Finally, there is the plea of “just let me live my life,” and that is exactly what the Afrofuturist, cyborg, and queerness demand: the ability to imagine and to live, to push back against oppression and apocalypse, to tell stories that enable their life.

At this point, we jump into the chorus.

2:12 timestamp
I want a crazy, classic, life
I want a crazy, classic, life
So if the world should end tonight
I had a crazy, classic, life

The shots largely cut between the arrival at the party and later that night, at the party itself, with Jane and her friends at the center, singing and posing. The last “crazy, classic, life” shifts the emphasis, however, and we get a different shot of fellow dirty computers on each specific word sung. In this line, Jane isn’t saying she wants a “crazy, classic, life” but why it matters, especially in the face of apocalypse (“So if the world should end tonight”). These shots could be seen as an ode to the many ways of living a “crazy, classic, life” and that it isn’t proscriptive, but something we each must determine for ourselves. More importantly, that each of us is capable of this “crazy, classic, life” when we embrace the life of a dirty computer: the cyborg and queer way of thinking and living.

The second verse begins with a framed shot of Jane and her friends at the party now, the other dirty computers posed around them. Jane and her friends are centered, but not alone--they have community with their fellow dirty computers.

2:32 timestamp
I don't need a diamond ring
I don't wanna waste my youth (oh-oh, oh-oh)
I don't wanna live on my knees
I just have to tell the truth (baby) (oh-oh, oh-oh)
I don't wanna be let down
I don't wanna cheat on you (oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh)
I just wanna find a God
And I hope she loves me too (oh-oh, oh-oh)

In this sequence, we get introduced to both Ché and Zen and start to see their relationships (existing and budding) with Jane. Lyrically, we are largely told of the things Jane doesn’t want in life--largely, it is a rejection of binary heteronormative ideas (marriage, monogamy, heterosexuality). Everything is still taking place at the party, weaving between time periods, but consistently Black queer women are centered visually, and we are introduced to a queer ceremony overseen by Zen.

3:10 timestamp
We don't need another ruler
We don't need another fool (oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh)
I'm not America's nightmare
I'm the American cool (oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh, oh-oh)
Just let me live my life

This pre-chorus shifts language slightly, implying those who try to rule over dirty computers are fools that are not needed. Additionally, this time instead of “I’m the American dream”, the phrase is changed to “I’m the American cool.” This is an important acknowledgement of the cultural appropriation of Black queer women (Queer KY, 2020).

During the nightmare/cool lyrics, we also see an ominous drone in the sky behind Jane very briefly, indicating surveillance and foreshadowing what is to come. This is also a reminder of “if the world should end tonight”, the dirty computers have already actualized their “crazy, classic, life” and that is what matters.

Visually, there is an interesting video element introduced at the transition of this sequence into the next of a video glitch, which is perhaps a reminder of how we are seeing and experiencing this memory: as a memory being ripped from Jane in The House of the New Dawn in an attempt to erase her queer cyborg self.

Leading back into the chorus, we continue to see Jane, joy (including dancing), and queerness centered. The music and lyrics complement the exuberance, and even though the idea of the world ending that night exists, it isn’t the focus.

3:29 timestamp
I want a crazy, classic, life
I want a crazy, classic, life
So if the world should end tonight
I had a crazy, classic, life
I want a crazy, classic, life
I want a crazy, classic, life
So if the world should end tonight
I had a crazy, classic, life
Crazy, classic, life

An interesting point of this sequence is that we start to see more religious iconography, which is an extension of the queer ceremony we first see Zen performing. In the case of this extended chorus, there is a specific image of Jane pouring two cups of liquid over the head of two femme coded people covered in gold body paint--a queer baptism, if you will.

The overall emphasis on this extended chorus is life and joy in the moment.

Moving into a musical interlude that acts as a bridge to the outro rap, things slow down--both musically and in terms of video speed.

4:26 timestamp

Interestingly, the interlude and outro both take place entirely at night. At this point forward in the video, we no longer cut back to daytime scenes.

4:45 timestamp
Yeah, uh, yea, yea, yea, uh
Handcuffed in a 'bando
White boy in his sandals
Police like a Rambo
Blow it out, blow it out like a candle, Sambo
Me and you was friends, but to them, we the opposite
The same mistake, I'm in jail, you on top of shit
You living life while I'm walking around moppin' shit
Tech kid, backpack, now you a college kid
All I wanted was to break the rules like you
All I wanted was someone to love me too
But no matter where it was I always stood out
Black Waldo dancing with the thick brows
We was both running naked at the luau
We was both on shrooms praying face down, waist down
Remember when they told you I was too Black for ya?
And now my Black poppin' like a bra-strap on ya
I was kicked out, said I'm too loud
Kicked out, said I'm too proud
But all I really ever felt was stressed out
Kinda like my afro when it's pressed out

There is a tremendous amount that could be analyzed about this outro rap and its visuals as it is filled with references, but the key take away from it in this Afrofuturist-cyborg-queer analysis is a description of the alienation and double standards experienced by dirty computers--and very specifically in this case, by Black queer women in America. Even in moments of joy, even in revelatory experiences (which we still see happening around Jane visually in this sequence), those intersecting identities are integral to the construction of reality and cannot be forgotten or ignored. Nor would they want to be, as hooks and Haraway both expressed, because it is in opposition to normative experiences that queer cyborgs create existance for themselves.

We also see additional religious iconography in this outro, starting with the table Jane is seated at, the recipients of the earlier baptism on either side of her. This could be interpreted as a reimagining of “The Last Supper”, foreshadowing the police raid. If it is a reimagining, it is one that places dirty computers--Afrofuturists, cyborgs, queerness--at its center.

5:43 timestamp

The music ends as Jane walks away, and is replaced by the sound of helicopters, drones, and sirens as police begin their raid on the party. We hear the crack of what might be tear gas being fired while a voice from a loudspeaker states: “Any attempt to escape will be met with severe and overwhelming force. Surrender immediately.”

The police are grabbing and hitting people. They are dressed in all black, their faces covered, and they have strips of red lights on their jackets. Unlike the dirty computers, they are uniform in their existence and their violence. The dirty computers do their best to fight back and to flee. When a cop grabs Jane from behind, Ché hits the cop to free Jane.

We see Jane and Zen running away, before fading to the close-ups of dirty computers that we began with. But now we have the context of this visual and the audio is one of helicopters, drones, and police radios. We end with a wide shot of the dirty computers lined-up on their knees, hands cuffed behind their backs. We have come full circle within this memory.

10:29 timestamp (Dirty Computer)

So what can the aspiring Afroturist-queer-cyborg learn from “Crazy, Classic, Life”? Perhaps that irregardless of the hardships that they may face, it is vital to create and experience and embrace joy where possible, while simultaneously never submitting to the violence and erasure forced by normative ideas, to push back against those that would clean dirty computers for their own comfort. Existence--for the Afrofuturist, the cyborg, and queerness--is resistance and reimagining. And we shouldn’t trade our queer/cyborg way of thinking and living for anything in the world. I hope if the world should end tonight, you had a crazy, classic, life.