The sci-fi saga of Cindi Mayweather & the music of Janelle Monáe
In a far flung future populated by cyborgs and ruled by a totalitarian government, a war is being waged against this oppressive regime by an android who uses music as a weapon. This android’s number is 57821, but her name is Cindi Mayweather, and her ultimate goal? Love. Mayweather’s adventures aren’t chronicled in the pages of a graphic novel, nor in a summer movie blockbuster. Instead, this futuristic tale is painted with music and lyrics across the landscape of two primary albums: Metropolis: The Chase Suite and The ArchAndroid. However, there are continued references to Mayweather in the recently released album, The Electric Lady. While some of you may be familiar with android Cindi Mayweather, I’d wager many more of you would be familiar with her alter ego, singer, songwriter and composer, Janelle Monáe.
Mayweather’s adventures kick off with the verbal prologue at the very beginning of Metropolis: The Chase Suite. In a performance that sounds like it was ripped from the futuristic radio dramas of yesteryear while simultaneously echoing the “rap skits” popular in hip hop albums of the late ’80s and early ’90s. In this prologue, we learn that Mayweather has fallen in love with a human and therefore has incurred the wrath of her societal overlords. Not wanting to be destroyed by “chainsaws and electro-daggers,” Mayweather goes on the run, with those meaning to do her harm (The Wolfmasters) running close behind. Through the course of the Metropolis EP, we find ourselves swimming in Monáe’s inspirations and learn that they do not always go where we might expect. Featuring clear artistic influences such as Prince and Outkast, these musical styles meld with filmmaker Fritz Lang and writer Aldous Huxley to inform not just these albums, but Monáe’s music as a whole. Because of all of the references of robots and time travel, one might be tempted to call these complementary albums “concept works”, but that would be short sited. Monáe is interested in social awareness and uses the speculative fiction ideas behind her Cindi Mayweather character as allegory for our modern times. In an 2009 interview with Kurt Anderson for PRI, Monáe mentions the first time she saw Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis:
“You know, Metropolis, Fritz Lang’s Metropolis was very inspiring to me. My writing partner, Chuck Lightning, and creative director at the Wondaland Arts Society, introduced me to the German-Expressionist, 1927 black and white film. And although it didn’t have any words, it really spoke to my heart. You know, because even though it was written in 1927, I still feel like it mirrors the constant struggle between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ that are going on in the present. I thought it was such a touching tale, you know, just to have this… this lady who was ‘the one’ and she was trying to free all the…all the people in the underground. Yeah I though that there were so many strong parallels. Of course my mind… I just have a very imaginative mind, I just went even further with it, but Metropolis is here. It’s universal.”
Speculative fiction has been around since Mary Shelly first gave birth to “Frankenstein” in an effort to comment on the ever clashing and merging subjects of society, morality and scientific discovery. Monáe’s work does the same, merging cyborgs and lasers with thoughts of the working class, as well as historical references to the African American experience. In the final song on the Metropolis EP, “Sincerely, Jane”, we hear a heartfelt plea from mother to daughter about societal troubles concerning drug use, gambling and murder. The mother in this case is telling both Monáe and Mayweather to stay away because things have gotten worse at home. For Monáe, these pleas from her mother were very real, but this experience also serves as inspiration in a melancholic cliffhanger, as her alter-ego Cindi Mayweather leaves her broken city. In lyrics from “Neon Valley Street” on The ArchAndroid album pair Mayweather’s escape with her lover Anthony Greendown with that of the Underground Railroad’s Harriet Tubman and folk tale hero John Henry, wrapped in a landscape that feels a great deal like Blade Runner.
“We met alone, forbidden in the city, running fast through time, like Tubman and John Henry. But the time was wrong. Illegal aliens moaned. It’s such a pity that the city’s just a danger zone.”
These are the kinds of dual topics Monáe is interested in discussing. Matters personal, metaphorical, and professional interweave to show us the twin lenses of Monáe and Mayweather simultaneously. By using the mythic and the allegorical, she is able to bring people closer to subjects they may have otherwise been afraid or have avoided altogether.
It is also on The ArchAndroid album that we get to see Cindi Mayweather gain the role of leader and savior for those struggling, not unlike Maria in the aforementioned Metropolis. Mayweather has traveled through time to prevent the evil organization known as The Great Divide from enslaving the citizens of the city. This elaborate mythology is told through different genres of music which bob and weave between big band jazz, funk and folk giving listeners a variety of musical experiences reinforcing Monáe’s interests and influences all the while these very different historical sounds give us musical context for Mayweather’s time-traveling adventures.
Mayweather’s adventures have also extended into the realm of the music video, giving us a visual of her Metropolis and its people. The video for “Many Moons” featured on Metropolis: The Chase Suite is a perfect example of Mayweather’s AfroFuturistic Metropolis. A cyborg auction attended by every level of high society from the corporate, to the spiritual, to the criminal. In this action hall, everyone is looking to bid on a robot. Clearly the humans are in charge of this society and are being entertained by a robotic lower class, which they can buy and sell at will. It is not hard then, to recognize the similarity to slave auctions, even while Mayweather is calling attention to the anachronism in her lyrics and inciting musical rebellion before ascending to the sky releasing her life force. The “Tightrope” music video features Mayweather and her time-travelling compatriots held prisoner in an asylum known as The Palace of the Dogs, a place where dancing is forbidden. Though the video plays like a regular music, there are several science fictional elements to the piece, chief among them the two mirror-faced figures that police the asylum. Reading in between the lines, one could see this as the setting for something like a Doctor Who episode, as it illustrates the continuing thematic allegory about the need for art, and disdain for those who would suppress it. The video for “Q.U.E.E.N.” featuring Erykah Badu from The Electric Lady begins with Mayweather (although called Monáe in the video) imprisoned in a time museum specifically crafted to hold time traveling rebels. Mayweather and her fellow time travelers are released by two musical rebels who distract the guards long enough to play a record which brings everyone out of suspended animation.
However, perhaps the most recent video to express Monáe’s cyber future is the video for “PrimeTime” from The Electric Lady album. We begin in Mayweather’s Metropolis, at a place called “The Electric Sheep Nightclub,” a deft callback to Phillip K. Dick’s novel “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?” the inspiration for Ridley Scott’s film Blade Runner, but also to Monáe’s own final lyric from “Q.U.E.E.N.” on the same album “Will you be electric sheep? Electric ladies, will you sleep? or while you preach?” Mixing once again the socially relevant with science fiction. The video takes place in a nightclub filled with table dancing androids as Monáe waits tables for scumbags who constantly harass her. This music video vividly explores the futuristic world that Monáe paints with her music, as well as the continuing themes of a working class disrespected, and dreaming of bigger things. Is this the beginnings of the Mayweather/Greendown relationship that eventually leads Cindi to become the ArchAndroid?
Through music and video, Janelle Monáe and her cyber hero alter-ego Cindi Mayweather have painted an ever unfolding tale of a future gone awry and a hero rising to save us through the power of art and love. We have seen this sort of thing before, but we haven’t seen it like this. Janelle Monáe creates socially relevant science fiction as thoughtful and as important as anything created by Wells, Lang and Asimov. She has done this while showcasing musical range while weaving disparate genres and styles making each song important to the album as well as the thematic tale she tells. She has given us an android hero who sings, dances, and saves us from oblivion. As a fan of music, of science fiction and of art, I couldn’t be more grateful.