Got a new agenda,
With a new dream,
I’m kicking out the old regime,
Liberation, elevation, education.
The lyrics of Janelle Monáe’s Oscar shortlisted song, “Turntables” are a call for accountability flavored with positive promise. Written for the Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés-directed documentary about Georgia political activist Stacey Abrams, All In: The Fight for Democracy, Monáe’s song aligns in every sense with Abrams’ single-minded refusal to tolerate insidious, endemic and overwhelming voter suppression following her 2018 run for governor of Georgia. Rapping about a “new dream”, Monáe speaks to the long-sought turning of a societal and political tide in this country.
The call came early on in the pandemic. As an Abrams fan and a Georgia voter herself, Monáe had previously offered to help Abrams in any way she could. But when the documentary team approached, Monáe was, she says, “not in a healthy space mentally”. Not only were her tour dates disappearing and creative outlets shutting down, but there were many people she wanted to take care of. “People in my family were getting laid off and I was trying to figure out how to deal with that and help them.” She also launched her WondaLunch program, an initiative that both saves jobs and feeds people—just one of the many threads of her activism work.
On top of the pandemic, the political situation and the upcoming election weighed heavy. “You’re thinking about this election and you’re like, Are we really going to have four more years of the Trump administration, with so many lies and so much campaigning going on to take the power out of the hands of the people? I was just trying to figure out how I could get strong, so I could really be there for other people who I felt needed it.”
But when she saw an early cut of All In: The Fight for Democracy, she felt like she’d been issued her “marching orders”. She was ready to work. “I knew where I could put my fear. I knew where I could put my hope. I knew where I could put my focus and it was in ‘Turntables’. I felt like we were in the middle of a turning point in this country. That is how I got back into the studio.”
With just one week to write the song, the galvanized Monáe got together with her longtime Wondaland imprint partner, Nate Wonder. Watching the film, they had “a lot of emotions”, she says. “It was anger, there was a frustration. We cried watching a lot of Stacey’s parts of the story.”
It especially hurt to watch Abrams recount being turned away from the Governor’s mansion as a teenager. As valedictorian of her high school, she had been invited to the home with her family, but as they got off the bus, the mansion’s security turned them away, believing they were not welcome. “The security guard just knew that this young, Black, smart little girl did not get invited to the Governor’s mansion, when she and her family did. Seeing them get off the bus and be turned away, that’s the kind of stuff that you really want to bring awareness to, that you want to fight. You want to help in whatever way you can to amplify the injustices that are done to our people.”
In the studio, the song began to take shape, with the help of a choir. “We call them the Wondaland Choir,” Monáe says. “You hear them throughout the song, because this song is rooted in community. This song is not about me. It’s not about being a Janelle Monáe song. This is about a community of people coming together, using their strength to turn things.”
America, you’s a lie,
But the whole world ‘bout to testify,
I said, the whole world ‘bout to testify,
And the tables ‘bout to,
Tables ‘bout to,
Turn, turn, turn.
“The lyric, ‘America, you’s a lie,’ wasn’t something that I was excited to record, but it was a cathartic experience for me, because America is my home,” she says. “This is the place that my ancestors helped build. This is the place that I’ve known my entire life. This is also a place that has not kept its promise to marginalized folks in this country. The American dream is not offered to everyone.”
And the documentary provides undeniable proof of that dream being deliberately withheld. “I think the film, All In: The Fight for Democracy speaks truth to power,” she says. “It talks about the real harsh truth of voter suppression, and what it has done to Black and brown, poor folks in this country for so many decades… when the whole world got to testify, that was the people going to the polls.”
As a resident of Georgia, Monáe has herself been previously gerrymandered—a practice that skews elections by manipulating district boundaries and wrongfooting voters. And in 2017 alone, over 600,000 Georgia voter registrations were simply cancelled—an action overseen by the secretary of state, Brian Kemp, who also happened to be the Republican incumbent running for governor against the Democrat Abrams. When people were given the opportunity to vote for their chosen governor, they found machines were often out of order or reduced to a pitifully low number.
And yet, despite all of this, the people of Georgia refused to be cowed. “We saw them exercising their power as they stood in those long lines,” Monáe says. “We saw Georgia turn blue. We saw us put in office our first Black and Indian vice president, in Kamala [Harris]. We saw the people speaking. We saw that it was their turn to talk and to be loud.”
Growing up in Kansas City, KS, Monáe doesn’t remember a time when music wasn’t vital. “Music has been in my family for a long time, back to my great, great, great, great, great-grandparents,” she says. “My great-grandmother, actually, is alive and she’s 94. She played the organ better than I’ve ever heard it played before by anybody. It’s been a place of happiness for us when we all get together. I’ve never known a life without music and I’ve never known a life without storytelling.”
And Monáe’s music has continued that storytelling. From the very start of her career, she produced more than songs and albums, creating fully fleshed-out conceptual experiences, with her alter-ego ‘android’ character Cindi Mayweather representing a societal ‘other’—her cartoon-esque pompadour hair, and tuxedo outfit, a ‘uniform’ that referenced the clothes she grew up watching her family wear to their service industry and blue-collar jobs.
She is, of course, also a storyteller in a more literal format: acting. Her onscreen roles have often depicted the erasure of Black stories, and revealed previously untold narratives. In Hidden Figures, she played a real-life mathematician whose key participation at NASA had been entirely written out of history, and in Moonlight she nurtured a young Black man ostracized for his sexuality. In her most recent film, Antebellum, her character’s arc addresses the fallout of an oppressed and obscured history as a nightmare reenactment of slavery bleeds into the present day.
With her strong drive from early on to create societal commentary, does Monáe see a parallel with Abrams? Even in college, Abrams called out for change, burning a Georgia state flag to protest its Confederate emblem.
“I definitely feel like Stacey and I are from the same family,” Monáe says. “I think we both grew up with working-class parents, and having folks in our family who we’ve had to really look after. It is our responsibility to look after our communities. I think we both feel a bigger purpose, like it’s bigger than us. What we’re doing, it’s not about us getting the glory. It’s not about me getting shine, or her getting shine. It’s about shining light on the folks who, again, have been pushed to the margins of society. I can’t speak for her, but I feel as though, even if folks didn’t know our names, we would still be doing this work in some other way.”
It’s a boomerang booming back,
You laid the egg now it’s ‘bout
You gaslight and ‘bout to meet
You f–k up the kitchen, then you
should do the dishes.
Right now, Monáe is brewing up more visuals, more music, more concepts. “I’m really interested in putting more stories of Black joy on screen,” she says. “I have a company that’s been quietly developing lots of projects called Wondaland Pictures. We talk at least five times a week about all the ways that we can tell these radical and rebellious stories that center our Black icons, that center Black joy, and that allow us to see that spectrum of who we are.”
Musically, she’s especially focused on the elevation and support she can offer women. “One of my biggest things with that is making sure that women, specifically our Black women, who have to put the world on our shoulders and save the world, if it’s in the election, or if it’s in politics, or if it’s just in organizing, I just want to make sure that we create music for them that really gives them joy. I think that’s very important.”
Now, with both her song and the documentary it was written for having made the Oscar shortlist, Monáe may once again be bringing balance-redressing truth to the Academy stage, just as Hidden Figures’ nomination and Moonlight’s Best Picture win did in 2017. During the 2020 awards show’s opening number, Monáe sang, “It’s time to come alive, because the Oscars is so white.”
As she danced down into the audience that night, to stand among the rows of famous faces, she declared a celebration of all the women directors, and said, “I’m so proud to stand here as a Black queer artist.” Now, this year, how does she feel to be back in the Academy conversation once again, with a song that addresses the very core of underrepresentation and marginalization: the theft of democracy?
“I want the message in this film and what this song represents to be amplified to as many people as possible,” she says. “We cannot let up off the gas.”