The Wars No One Sees: A Black Woman’s World According to Janelle Monáe

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“When you step outside, you spend life fighting for your sanity.” 

Janelle Monáe – Cold War

In the eight plus years I’ve been listening to her music, Janelle Monáe has constantly proven to be one of the most exciting figures in Pop music. Her fifteen-year career has led her down fruitful avenues of creativity and artistic exploration as a musician, performer, writer, producer, director, actor, model, and android. In her modest moments, she captures the hearts of the world with her stage presence and powerful singing voice. In her wildest moments, she frames her experiences as a Black woman through the lens of Afrofuturism, science fiction, and wild funk. Her latest album Dirty Computer has been released today, April 27, 2018. After you read this post, do yourself a favor and listen to what might be the best album of 2018. In celebration of this premature claim, allow me to turn the clocks back to 2010, and examine one of her breakout singles, “Cold War.”

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqmORiHNtN4&w=560&h=315]

If this song happens to be your introduction to Janelle Monáe, this is possibly the best place to start. Other songs such as “Tightrope,” “Electric Lady,” “Q.U.E.E.N.,” and “PYNK” are all fantastic and most definitely worth listening to, but “Cold War” is a powerful, poignant, personal statement from beginning to end. Being her second single, it’s quite a surprise to hear (and see) the vulnerability in her performance, proving from the beginning that she was meant to be an artist that challenges her listeners.

The lyrical analysis is straightforward: Janelle Monáe sings about her struggles as a Black woman in society and the music industry. When she sings “this is a Cold War, you better know what you’re fighting for,” it’s plain to see that she’s imploring her listeners, even herself, to keep focus on what we want out of our lives and not let anyone else impose their truth onto us.

So why is this song worth talking about, you may ask? Because Black women simply do not have that same luxury as other people in the world, let alone the United States.

“If you wanna be free, below the ground’s the only place to be.” These lyrics evoke the memories of Sandra Bland and Erica Garner, two women who, since this song’s release, have lost their lives expressing the importance of Black rights in this country. The same spirit that lived through them lives through Janelle Monáe as she uses her talents for self-expression, which in turns inspires her to discuss the affairs plaguing this country today.

And when paired with the music video, the poignancy and vulnerability are magnified. Such a simple concept with absolute conviction and controlled rage, she strips naked, only shown from her shoulders up, and lip-syncs the song. Tearing up, choking on her words, and maintaining eye contact is a tough task to watch, let alone perform. Eight years later, “Cold War” still brings about these strong emotions.

And hopefully they bring out strong emotions from you all.