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janelle monae brought bold sexuality to grammy stage

February 11, 2019
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To remember Janelle Monae as I first experienced her live on my television, is to remember a funky little musician with electricity in her feet. Her body would move and her voice would attempt to keep up, sweat would begin to overtake her face, and absorb the audience. By now, she’d have everyone gazing at her, in person and on the screen. We were captivated, being drowned — no, baptized — inside of the magnificence of an artist who time would prove as one of our generation’s greatest performers. If we could compare it to past masters, it felt like James Brown — funky, electric, filled with energy. But not so much the JB of “Sex Machine,” energetic yet devoid of a certain sexuality and erotica normally found in our greatest Black performers. When we look at Brown, Prince, Betty Davis, and Janet Jackson, to name just a few, we know that performed sexuality is a common thread to Black brilliance, and that a relationship with the erotic has long been a part of of empowering the Black theatrical imagination.

Last night at the Grammys, the same electric performer showed up, but this time she centered a sexuality and body politic that was not present when we first saw her many years ago. She sang her hit song, “The Way You Make Me Feel” from Dirty Computer, in a scantily-clad moonwalk that eventually exploded into a sensual rock and roll moment on the floor. She brought out dancers that wore the now-famous “pussy” pants, and the moment felt iconoclastic for the musician that was once engaged as a robot. Literally, because of the theme of her musical projects, but also metaphorically because she never, until this era of Dirty Computer, engaged herself as a sexualized, queer Black person blatantly. It looked like freedom.