Coolness has often been something perceived natural for blacks. That is not to say that no other ethnic group possesses a similar organic majesty or enchantment; yet, within the American landscape, where black culture has significantly shaped the most cherished of national art forms, it is hard to escape the notion that there is something particularly incredible and phenomenal about our souls. Some may view such intrigue as a hinderance – the stepping stone into leading other groups to assuming all blacks speak, eat, dress, and dance the same. It can lead to the radical, maddening notion that our culture is merely designed to be consistently borrowed, pilfered, stolen, and abolished by those who otherwise despise our skin. That sense of black coolness can be seen as a crutch, as a way for others to create control and boundary, to keep one “in their place.” Yet, for others, the ideal of black cool is something deeper, more refined. It is something of pride, of privilege, of power. It is something of integrity, of rapture, of exaltation. It is within those great believers that all of the hatred, malice, cruelty, and injustice is replenished, reformed, reinterpreted into a badge of honor. Think Miles Davis, think Nina Simone, think Gil Scott-Heron, think Lenny Kravitz, think Lauryn Hill, think Andre-3000, think Janelle Monáe. With black coolness, you are witnessing those raised to believe they are nothing shamelessly spitting in your face, telling you that they are, in fact, something quite extraordinary.
The birth of black cool is arbitrary as our pride supersedes mass thought, but such fascination undoubtedly slipped into the popular consciousness at the dawn of the jazz age. As the well-bred children of Victorian youth shed their rickety ideals for the rambunctious, riotous rhythms erupting in nightclubs and speakeasies, suddenly the once-derided black musician became the most sought-after idol. Everyone wanted to do the Charleston and sing like Billie Holiday; everyone wanted to join a band like Louis Armstrong’s or spend a night in Harlem. Only a generation prior, blacks had been seen merely as horrific leftovers of slavery, easily categorized as burdensome, difficult, libidinous, and worthless. Yet, as white actors and singers readily adapted the mannerisms and vernacular of their darker counterparts with intense adoration, they altered the perception of black culture as mere trash, welcoming jazz and its associated properties as the first true musical art forms created in America. Only now in our stately, naïve century do we view such a genre with a degree of solemn sophistication; however, in its heyday, jazz was Pop, it was the decadent throb that kept the kiddies up till morning.
With black coolness having taken off, one would assume its hosts would gain equaled acceptance. Unfortunately, what arose from this artistic admiration would become a consistent theme throughout America with black culture: a desire to accept its exterior without embracing the interiors of those who’ve created it. Famed journalist Norman Mailer would chronicle this paradox in his timeless 1957 essay “The White Negro,” aligning bebop-era cultural appropriation with Cold War hysteria, yet it takes very little to witness the consistency with the blues, rock n’ roll, and even disco, house, and techno. Hip hop – the most immediate purveyor of black cool as of late – is experiencing itself a breaking down of barriers as more non-blacks establish grounds within its confines, an act that speaks beautifully of the merits and brilliance of our globalized world, yet also creates a sweet anxiety of protection and preservation amongst certain gatekeepers. As with other art forms, one does not want to feel as if their culture has moved on without them, that those who are coming in late to the party are breaking the ancestral dishes on their way out. That kind of negligence and disinterest in the creators of one’s pleasures is what motivates those icons of black cool, reminding them that their coolness is to be appreciated and proudly hailed. They have seen the erasure of those before and wish only to carry their foibles – reclaim and redress them with love.
It is that unyielding sentiment that is most pervasive on Janelle Monáe’s otherworldly masterpiece, Dirty Computer. Undoubtedly, she is a child of the modern – endlessly inspired by the alienation and technophilia of the 21st century, constantly reinterpreting our deepest fears and possibilities with a mixture of the macabre and mesmeric. She floats, ballet-style, through the cold, distracting anomie and emerges remarkably supernatural, capturing hedonism and nihilism with effortless taste and seamless wonder. At the same time, hers is an air old-fashioned and classic, nestling the noses of juke-joint goddesses, funk saints, and R&B divas with tendered romanticism. She is aware of those who came before her and gleams that knowledge in respectful hues, mixing each style gracefully into the other as if they had always been made that way; it is a gift she shares with her close mentor, Prince, whose aural collages bridged gaps between cultures and genres in maniacal ease and intellect. It is no mistake then that Dirty Computer feels like a complete encapsulation of a certain millennial-laden black cool: an immaculate playlist devised by those beautiful outsiders in love with both the alternative and accessible – those oft-misunderstood bundles of history, individuality, and elegance.
Oftentimes, it is the oddball who becomes the true symbol of black cool. Oftentimes, it is the one whose mind digs deeper, spirit leaps higher, and imagination expands further. Usually, they are loners, searching for the right tribe with whom to cause mayhem. Usually, they are free thinkers, disconnected from restriction and authority. Usually, they are incredible stylists, concocting images of power and complete comfortability. There is a nerve, a slick saintliness within these geniuses that embraces the absurd, the surreal, and the strange whilst clinging to the closest cultural connections: groove, soul, and euphoria. Only from such a being could one receive the majestic, exhilarating coos of surf-pop auteur Brian Wilson on the opening titular track, before being thrust into one of the greatest, most liberating pieces of audacious jubilee. Against a pastel-coated ebullience, “Crazy, Classic, Life” ponders apocalyptic ruin in the midst of the dance floor, basking in ruthless spontaneity of the grand possibility that all will soon be finished. Though what mostly plays as a simple, straightforward pop-doom ditty slowly morphs into a masterful indictment of black excellence, as Janelle fiercely acknowledges her pride, fear, hope, and distress with a smooth, sultry rapper’s cadence, proving her musical breadth and immeasurable strength in one fail swoop.
Such vigor grows wildly upon Dirty Computer, transforming its dystopian concept of rebels being wiped of their soiled magnificence into an exquisite manifesto on the beautiful freedoms often unjustly usurped by those with greater control. Yet, Janelle’s vision is not one of defeat or discouragement, but one of renewal and reclaim, of truth and sobriety. This is apparent throughout the sun-stroked environs of “Take A Byte,” which alludes to some of the most prominent and pivotal women throughout history and fiction, creating a seamless nexus between Janelle’s colossal carnality and those infamous libertines of yesteryear. Within the bubbly intoxication of “Screwed,” a taut parade of colorful sexual innuendos can barely mask the encroaching terror and wiliness of a nation breaking on disaster. Upon “Django Jane,” she dives headfirst into a wonderland of roughneck radiance, championing black femininity in a startling mixture of sincerity and ambition. And on the slinking, slow-burning funktastic “I Got the Juice,” Janelle quite brilliantly warns any potential defiant lurking her way that “if you try to grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back.”
Such excellent, mind-boggling defiance also falls heavily with another of Dirty Computer’s greatest assets: its bold, brave celebration of queer love, fluidity, and self-acceptance. Within black culture, there are certain aspects that do not allow room or space for anyone who does not adhere to a heterosexual existence, creating great divisions and igniting perplexities amongst those merely attempting to live their lives as proudly and happily as possible. While some sadly become casualties to hatred and expectation, many others have increasingly embraced their truest selves, denying any chances of darkness and ruin to filter their thoughts. Those who were once taught to keep their emotions and feelings hidden and shut away have thrust clear of the insolence, the indignance, and the noxious. For queer people of color in particular such declarations are not only poignant but absolutely revolutionary, peppering upon a pop record the kind of lost shame and gained independence that has before seemed nonexistent. Women, in particular, have always been seen as those whose carnal tastes have been decided by others, yet on Dirty Computer, Janelle Monáe abolishes centuries of codified black sexuality and femininity, exterminating the permeance of patriarchal pestilence with endless valor.
As one of the most current icons of black cool, it may seem unfair to expect constant greatness from Ms. Monáe. For it is true that as much of a privilege it is to embody such ideals, there lingers that vicious flipside of having one’s soul drained, transforming one to a shell of their former regality. History, after all, is filled with young, gifted black geniuses who were torn down by their own torturous thoughts and the widespread dreams of their handlers and audience. However, one of the most remarkable components of Janelle Monáe is her unwavering, almost inconceivable confidence in everything in which she does. It is as if she has seen her destiny laid before her and is merely walking the path in the smoothest, most dignified fashions. Privy of her power, she is also aware of her own honesty: that she is not some glorified role model, some deified queen designed for the pleasures of philosophical banalities. She has, in fact, the awareness that all may not be solved by her own suggestion. But it is her spirit, her presence that allows that burgeoning awareness to appear ever-brighter and ever-possible. With Dirty Computer, she has splendidly imagined the future in the present and, in turn, has fully established herself as one of the grandest cultural architects of these strange, stupendous times.