Janelle, Erykah, and Santogold Are the Afro-Techno Revolution
'I'm an alien from outer space/I'm a cybergirl without a face, a heart, or a mind/A product of the man, I'm a product of the man," declares Janelle Monáe poignantly on Metropolis: The Chase Suite, her brief but striking concept album about love on the run in 2719. Her music—alongside that of fellow slaves to the rhythm Santogold, J*DaVeY, Curumin, the Noisettes' Shingai Shoniwa, Lightspeed Champion, Erykah Badu, Beyoncé, and the unholy AutoTune trinity of Lil Wayne, T-Pain, and Kanye West—might appear to have merely updated the palliative soundtrack of modernity, offering robo-rhythms that can only distract us from the horrors of a Bush America we barely survived, yet Monáe's citing of Fritz Lang's Metropolis as a key inspiration shows she intends to implicitly critique an excessive, decadent American empire run on the labor and suffering of its poor, disenfranchised, and mostly colored subjects. In 2008's Year of the Afro-Techno Voice, her "Violet Stars Happy Hunting!" emerged as a definitive anthem of our time as we witnessed the very implosion of the economic system that funded America's ascendancy in the 20th century. She intends to build a new empire from the impending wreckage of the old.
Meanwhile, Beyoncé strived to upgrade her image from mere commercial pitchwoman to critically acclaimed cyber-diva by appropriating postwar electric mysteries of the blues (as producer/star of the dismal Cadillac Records) and releasing the allegedly deep and probing I Am . . . Sasha Fierce. It seems that just as Gretchen Wilson's "Redneck Woman" sent another aloof superstar, Faith Hill, scrambling back to her roots for "Mississippi Girl," the reigning Sisterhood of the Techno-Bush spurred Beyoncé to reach beyond Mary J.'s early-'90s soul template. But she could never adopt the world-weary boho disdain of Santogold's "L.E.S. Artistes," nor the crazy Dada Negress vainglory of Badu's New Amerykah, Pt. 1: 4th World War. The unwieldy double-disc result, like Sean Young's beautiful Blade Runner android, was ice cold. Kanye West's 808s and Heartbreak—a similar departure, its digital blues aesthetic drenched in misogyny and mama love—managed to served as a eulogy for Blackness bygone in the months between James Brown's death and Obama's election. But Beyoncé is left trapped at the Crossroads, with enough spangly finery to join the Inaugural par-tay's celebration of the post-Black, but insufficient innervisions to triumph over this new wave of Immaterial Girls. Despite the loss of major, defiant voices in 2008—chiefly, Odetta, Miriam Makeba, Ike Turner, and Bo Diddley—Monáe's fierce intellect and pompadoured power moves bode well as we usher in the New Ameru of President-elect Obama.
In fact, Inauguration Day having finally arrived, one hopes that Obama's ascendancy translates into another golden era of assertive, intelligent, and transgressive black art; that these aforementioned astronettes and their multiracial rock 'n' soul cohorts from Brooklyn (Earl Greyhound, London Souls) to Brazil (Curumin, Otto) will flower, finding this plane as hospitable as Outa Space. Another auspicious portent: TV on the Radio dominated most polls (including this one) with Dear Science. If it took a kick in the booty from Vampire Weekend's lame channeling of the Congo for Tunde and 'nem to fully embrace their pan-African aural provenance and reach feverishly back into the techno-bush for such delights as "Dancing Choose," then VW have served their purpose. And, above all, the hallowed returns of those sexagenarians trio (Labelle's Back to Now) and solo (Grace Jones's Hurricane) suggest that postmillennial Africana—what's left of it—will justly be dominated by these enduring space-rock queens and their sharper digital daughters. At the Apollo in late December, we Afrofuturist acolytes bowed down and kissed Labelle's skyscraping stilettos, and were rewarded with a glimpse into the Eternal. There's plenty of new blood to make sure the Eternal stays eternal.
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