Music

‘Say His Name’: Janelle Monae and Jidenna Get Political at the Highline Ballroom

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Janelle Monáe and the entire roster of her Epic imprint Wondaland took the Eephus Tour to Chelsea’s Highline Ballroom last night. The brief national jaunt is ostensibly a mission to promote their upcoming EP, also called The Eephus, but the outing has what you might call ulterior intent. Before the show, Monáe and her crew protested in Times Square against police brutality. This wasn’t novel to New York, as videos of “Classic Man” singer Jidenna chanting, “Michael Brown, say his name!” in a crowd in Philadelphia popped up on social media the day before. While the Times Square demonstration was unfolding, “Hell You Talmbout,” a percussive, gospel-tinged loosie, was unveiled, which features all of Wondaland naming victims of violence and abuse at the hands of police officers à la Jidenna’s Philly protest. The Eephus Tour may be how Monáe is getting the word out about her artists, but it is also brilliantly orchestrated traveling political action.

But this is certainly not a ruse. Monáe has always worked with precision, from her signature pompadour and general image-curation down to how she discloses personal information to the media. This is also probably why last night’s concert primarily highlighted everyone else’s work. Kicking off with a cover of Prince’s “Let’s Go Crazy,” a well-known Monáe move, with signee (and “Classic Man” featured guest) Roman GianArthur, she then retreated backstage for a significant chunk of the show. Rotating sets from GianArthur; pop-funk duo Deep Cotton, whose performance was equally informed by Motown and the Violent Femmes; soul-folk singer-songwriter pair St. Beauty; Jidenna; and Monáe, the evening bolstered the notion that Wondaland is a collective bent on equality. Really, the main connective thread within the grouping is that nearly everyone is invested in costume and totally committed to unself-conscious movement. Otherwise, there is a vast sonic diversity at play here, but with the setup — using a shared band whose energy and enthusiasm never flagged — the night’s music was inclusive, and the potential for jarring genre changes was dismantled.

Monáe could have easily outshone the rest of the lineup; instead, she made a space for everyone to have their moment. While some parts of the evening occasioned less fervor than most of the show, a real standout came with St. Beauty and GianArthur’s cover of Sheryl Crow’s crushing paean “Strong Enough.” And if there was anyone who needed to make a mark on the crowd, it was Jidenna. When your first major-label single is in the running for song of the summer, the rest of the moving parts need to be on point, lest you get relegated to one-hit-wonder territory. But as he danced and smirked through old tracks like “Some Type of Way” (no relation to the Rich Homie Quan song) and his latest, “Long Live the Chief,” it was clear his charm extends beyond his perfectly cut three-piece suits and pocket watch. Even when he joined Monáe’s second set to rap a Wondaland-tailored rendition of Dr. Dre and Snoop Dogg’s “Nuthin’ but a G Thang” for “Electric Lady” — timely, as today marks the release of N.W.A biopic Straight Outta Compton, which also highlights police brutality — and his verse from the strip-club-primed “Yoga,” he added an extra sparkle. He was also the final performer to do his own songs, unleashing “Classic Man” as the penultimate cut of the evening. Monáe went on to tell the audience that Wondaland is the only team she wants to be on, but it was clear from how the night was constructed that, even though she is the ringleader, there is no ego to be held over her artists. She respects their work as much as her own, despite her star power.

It is important that pop culture is reflective of what is going on and that musicians feel empowered to support this cause when its root is utter powerlessness.

To close out the show, all of Wondaland came out together to perform “Hell You Talmbout.” The studio version is potent on its own, but watching them sing hand in hand while taking turns stepping to the front of the stage to shout the victims’ names was even more powerful. The energy in the room shifted as Jidenna yelled, “Michael Brown, say his name!” — it’s been just over a year since the unarmed Ferguson, Missouri, teen’s death at the hands of a now-former police officer, and that name seemed to sting the most. The turmoil in St. Louis has not yet subsided, particularly after peaceful protests on the day of the anniversary earlier this week were disrupted by gunfire. The images on the news and social media were nearly identical to what we had seen in Ferguson just a year ago, what we see when we look back at footage from the Sixties civil rights movement, the Nineties L.A. riots, and the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations. It is important that pop culture is reflective of what is going on and that musicians feel empowered to support this cause when its root is utter powerlessness. Very few have taken creative measures, like J. Cole did last year with “Be Free.” And while Beyoncé counting activist DeRay Mckesson as one of the ten people she follows on Twitter is remarkable for BLM’s visibility, it’s important that there is art as documentation of this time, too.

Monáe and Co. are doing this not only by bringing to light this harrowing reality with two weeks of performing “Talmbout,” but by hitting the streets during the day and providing a platform for voices that might not be heard without their help. There may be an EP to shill for, but the Eephus Tour (which, it is important to note, is free to attend) is just as much about organizing as people as it is about the music.

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