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Janelle Monae's "Dirty Computer" (Memory Erasing and Robot Police) and the Black Panther Film (Use of Vibranium and T'Challa's Superpower, Purple Flowers)

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Janelle Monáe wasn’t made for these times – no wonder she’s always got her eye on the future. From an early age, she’s been a sci-fi/fantasy fan, grooving on The Twilight Zone and Star Wars as a kid. Yet for the 32-year-old musician and actress those genres have never been about escapism but, rather, a means to express how it feels to be an outcast

That’s partly the reason why she adopted the android persona Cindi Mayweather for her terrific early-2010s albums The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady: She’s not role-playing so much as she’s telling us who she really is.

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Much of the poem’s heat springs from its opening stanza, which plays like a confession eager to break free. Of the disguise so many black Americans choose to wear, he writes: “It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes / This debt we pay to human guile / With torn and bleeding hearts we smile.” Conspicuously enough, the poem is about the price of false identities, of the veils people graft onto themselves out of fright, or survival, or merely cowardice. Over the years, Dunbar’s poem has found unusual resonance in the music of Janelle Monáe, who until the release of Dirty Computer—her third full-length album, out today—performed behind the mask of Cindi Mayweather, a genderless cyborg from the future. In a batch of recent interviews, the Kansas-born, Baptist-reared chanteuse confessed to fearing judgment if she abandoned the android persona—a guise many people believed had become a convenient cover for her rumored sexuality as a queer woman. “I felt like I didn’t really have to be her,” Monáe says of herself in the New York Times Magazine, “because they were fine with Cindi.” Over time, Cindi came to represent a rejection of a more open, fluid womanhood fans hoped Monáe might tap into. Her acting roles, in Moonlight and Hidden Figures, portrayed a vulnerability and gentle fire that her music decidedly sidestepped; the disparity made her musical self feel more engineered, aesthetically and emotionally. Yesterday, though, she did away with the mask altogether, telling Rolling Stone that she’s pansexual. On “Crazy, Classic, Life,” one of Dirty Computer’s earliest songs, Monáe summons her release

“I am not America’s nightmare, I am the American dream,” she sings without a sniff of apology or the terror of intolerance. “Just let me live my life.”

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Thus, to listen to Dirty Computer in isolation is to enjoy a fantastic album from an artist at the height of her powers

To see it as the culmination of Monáe’s entire narrative journey, however, is to understand it as a remarkable achievement in modern science fiction. Monàe simultaneously evolves her conception of an “android” and uses the story to transform herself. By opening up about her real-life identity, she finds her own posthumanist moral: Only by realizing that the android and the human are one and the same can we begin to celebrate the faulty programming inside us all.

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