June is not only Black Music Month, it’s also Pride Month. And although the music industry still has a ways to go with acknowledging LGBTQ issues in a non-sensational manner, one sector that has been doing the proactive work for a while is the music of Afrofuturism. Set as proper examples by the likes of Frank Ocean and Janelle Monae, Afrofuturistic-themed projects have established a safe space for queer artists to express their journeys in the mainstream while simultaneously pushing progressive thought on black culture forward.
Afrofuturism, in itself, is an artistic expression that explores the intersectionality of the African diaspora and technology. The fundamental genres of black music that have utilized Afrofuturism to get this message across are alternative R&B and various branches of electronic, including Detroit house.
As stated before, Frank Ocean and Janelle Monae have been the primary leaders of incorporating Afrofuturistic images and sonics in their discography to explore their sexualities. For Ocean, his most notable examples in the mainstream have been his 2012 studio debut album Channel Orange, and its follow-ups Endless and Blonde. For Monae, her most recent effort, Dirty Computer, dissects her pansexuality and the stigmas of being a woman, which harkens back to clues presented on her studio debut The ArchAndroid.
On Channel Orange, Ocean reminisces about the first summer he fell in love as a 19-year-old. The project’s second track—and what would be his breakthrough—“Thinkin Bout You,” reveals strong feelings for an ex, over a loopy, atmospheric synth. The allure of the track was its recording process, as the demo was originally composed for Bridget Kelly. Since Ocean kept the song for himself and sings the chorus in falsetto, the idea of it being a R&B tune for either a man or woman to sing draws upon the Afrofuturist ideology of genders being equal and unisex, ultimately eliminating that social construct from the balance of power.
Janelle Monae hits upon that notion frequently throughout Dirty Computer. Her interpolation of Martin Luther King Jr. quoting the phrase “that all men and women are created equal” from the “Declaration of Independence,” at the beginning of Computer’s “Crazy, Classic, Life,” gets the ball rolling. It’s not to say that Afrofuturism is trying to dismantle people identifying with their respective genders—shall they choose so—but rather show that it shouldn’t matter in politics or human existence. Especially in the black experience.
This train of thought comes into play with pansexuality and bisexuality—the latter being alluded to by Ocean in a 2012 open note on Tumblr, and confirmed in the lyrics of 2017’s “Chanel,” where he sees “both sides.” By Monae declaring her pansexuality, she admits to the concept of being “gender-blind” where it doesn’t matter who she falls in love with or how they identify.
Afrofuturism is also about the reclaiming of black identity through art, especially during periods of strong oppression. The core song on Dirty Computer that celebrates Monae’s racial pride (and that of a black woman) is “Django Jane.” She alludes to the black artistic dream of receiving an EGOT; she reps her hometown of Kansas City; she shouts out being “highly melanated” and “black girl magic;” and “for the culture, [she] Kamikaze[s, and] puts [her] life on a life line.”
Through this wave, she also debunks a core belief that black people should only be heterosexual in order to obtain success or to authentically identify as their race. In “Screwed,” her psychedelic, same-sex romp featuring Zoë Kravitz, Monae delivers this message loud and clear: “I’m tired of hoteps trying to tell me how I feel!”
Someone else that’s argued a matching sentiment, but through one-liners over Android-simulated beats is Gerard Donald, who made up one-half of the Detroit techno duo Drexciya (with James Stinton) and was one of the core members of the electronic collective Dopplereffekt in the 90s and early aughts.
As an influential pioneer in both those scenes, Donald reconstructed sexual ideology with avant-artistic surrealism. One of Dopplereffekt’s most prominent songs, “Sterilization,” has a robotic voice claiming “we have to sterilize,” a tongue-in-cheek allusion to the belief that the “gay agenda” is preventing black people from procreating. There was also the punny “Plastiphilia 2,” where A.I. voices repeat “I want to fuck a mannequin.” That particular lyric, if misheard, could mean “I want to fuck a man again.” Coincidentally, under a Frank Ocean subreddit, a user posted a screenshot of that song on April 8, 2017—the release date of the singer’s “Biking” remix. “Biking” sonically follows a cyclical motion lyrically and instrumentally, with Ocean saying, “I’m bikin’ with me and my Daniel.”
Ocean’s exploration of his bisexuality became groundbreaking for hip-hop, a genre that is relatively closeminded to anything outside of the heteronorm. In order for him to break those shackles, he had no choice but to get experimental with his artistic genius, separating his “Solo” style from the harder street edge of Odd Future.
Afrofuturism creates room for this expression, as it purposely deviates from what others outside of black culture perceive or expect it to be. It flips the aggressive connotations associated with the term “urban” upside down, and relays a strong message that black people can be just as artistic, scientific, and intellectual as the European standards that gain more acceptance to experiment.
Channel Orange received its title based on the neurological phenomenon grapheme-color synesthesia: A feeling one gets when they associate a color with something else; for Ocean, his past summer fling felt orange. Opening up the album with “Start,” he includes the sound of a PlayStation 2 console when it first turns on—an analogy to how his romance, and discovery of his bisexuality began.
That is only the beginning of the technological sound effects Ocean laces throughout his projects for musicality purposes. In addition to the motion picture clips of dialogue in both Channel Orange and Blonde, there is also (but not limited to): warped reverbs on “Pyramids”; pitched-up vocals on “Nikes”; noises akin to a levitating spaceship on “Skyline To”; and “Good Guy” sounding as if it were recorded on cassette tape.
Through all the drugs, unrequited love, and religion, we as the listeners are lead through Ocean’s dystopian world of confusion as he grapples with his sexuality, which causes him to lose a few mates who were not willing to wait. An element that comes into play with his work, as well, is the notion of masculinity versus femininity. Blonde has two stylizations—with the “e” or without it—for that specific reason. This deconstructs a stigma that often plagues LGBTQ and gender politics.
An indie artist who utilizes Afrofuturism to express individuality and freedom in sexuality is Dawn Richard. Her Heart trilogy finds her being a soldier in various stages of her career. When describing the album cover for the second installment, Blackheart, Richard revealed the symbolism of the mask was meant to strip away gender and “a new face,” as to get to “the heart of the music.”
Throughout her solo career, the former Diddy-Dirty Money and Danity Kane member had been a proponent of black artists exploring other genres outside of R&B and hip-hop. For her, that is primarily felt on Redemption Heart, as she segues through various components of electronic. In the song “Love Under Lights,” she recalls a debate with a pretty woman on who's better between Drake or Kendrick Lamar, and is tempted by her own darling “Nikki.”
Androgyny plays a major part in the intersectionality of Afrofuturism and queer artistic expression. The artist that exhibits this the best is Monae, who was introduced to the general public with 2010’s “Tightrope.” As a part of her video and live performance shtick, the singer danced James Brown-style in a suit, prompting early speculations of her sexuality. On “Django Jane,” she references ArchAndroid (the debut album “Tightrope” is on) and how audiences perceived her as looking “too mannish.”
Finding herself at a new point in her career, Monae defines that narrative on her own terms. As Adrienne Brown mentions in her lengthy examination of Dirty Computer’s accompanying 44-minute visual project, those powerful aesthetics are reminiscent of Prince, a cisgender man who confidently strutted around his stage in stilettos, breaking gender norms, while also leading 80s MTV-rock and pop. And although Monae acknowledged The Purple One as her muse, one could even argue that Grace Jones paved the way for androgyny for black women—as she did for Richard and Kalenna Harper’s looks in Diddy-Dirty Money.
Of course, there are those before Monae, Ocean, and even Richard, that have been incorporating Afrofuturistic art and expression into their music. Particularly, openly queer artists such as Shamir and the late, glimmering disco pioneer Sylvester James. And the readings on this particular subject matter are just as expansive. After all, AfroPunk exists for a reason, the festival’s mantra of “no sexism, no racism … no homophobia … no transphobia, no hatefulness” ringing an all-inclusive truth. It remains to be seen who else will join the movement, or at least, if they’re not queer, will be inspired to take their art outside the boundaries.
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