Singing the cyber blues

Pub date May 7, 2008
SectionMusicSectionMusic Features

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Afrofuturism began in earnest with those "20 odd Negroes" brought to Jamestown. Truly, long-ago Africans brought to New World shores invented modernity on the fly, animating poet John Masefield’s "The Passing Strange": "Out of the earth to rest or range / Perpetual in perpetual change / The unknown passing through the strange." It’s an Afrofuturist manifesto, along with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s oft-quoted "We wear the masks …" and misanthropic Afrohippie Arthur Lee’s newly reissued, twisted, beautiful suicide note Forever Changes (Rhino, 1967). The sons of Arthurly, black and white, have been legion, but now, as Lee’s masterpiece celebrates its 40th anniversary, a potent daughter steps forth in jitterbug pompadour and saddle shoes to reflect his jet rock sighs back across pop light years: Janelle Monaé.

Atlanta’s Monaé — by way of Wyandotte County, Kan. — seems like the freak of every week. She seems beyond space oddity, a quirkiness that has had her dubbed the "black Björk" — although not the new heir of Labelle or David Bowie protégé Ava and her space-glam Astronettes. Monaé restores the sacred feminine to the techno bush, wailing on viral single "Violet Stars Happy Hunting": "I-I-I-I I’m an alien from outer space / I’m a cyber girl without a face, a heart or mind / … see I’m a slave girl without a race / On the run cause they’re here to erase and chase out my kind … " Her EP, Metropolis Suite, arrives in June, and her debut, Metropolis (both on P Diddy’s Bad Boy/Atlantic imprint), co-executive produced by OutKast’s Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, drops in September, both primed to serve as the latest essential texts for all youngblood black rockers/rockettes who hope that Arthur Lee dying for their sins was enough to pay the original African, psychedelic Pied Piper: Dionysus.

Metropolis is powered by Monaé as faceless, limbless, cyber-blues mama: a sepia version of the golden droid Hel from Fritz Lang’s 1927 dystopic Weimar classic Metropolis mashed up with self-willed modern savage Josephine Baker. Those calling Monaé a "black Björk" are missing the boat — and that boat would be the Amistad — and forgetting her less likely foremamas beyond the self-evident Baker, Nona Hendryx, and Grace Jones — such as Stevie Wonder’s late first wife, Syreeta Wright. Yet my recent retreat with Lady Syreeta’s first two Wonder-produced solo long-players has been something of a revelation: the limited edition reissue of Syreeta/Stevie Wonder Presents Syreeta (Hip-O Select/Motown, 2006) shows Monaé’s preternatural shade dancing through Syreeta’s highly romantic, space-rock take on "She’s Leaving Home" with Wonder as deus ex Moog, and such strange gems as "Your Kiss Is Sweet," and its reprise, "Universal Sound of the World." Lovely ‘Reeta deserves reinvestigation as the Afro-baroque yin to Grace Jones’ Afro-punkette yang.

Speaking of vital ancestry, Maurice White’s crucial Afrofuturist black rock outfit received tribute with 2007’s Interpretations — Celebrating the Music of Earth, Wind & Fire (Stax). Par excellence, the current space-rock revivalists’ badass Matrix and musical version of MLK-meets-Malcolm 2.0, Me’Shell NdegeOcello, shows Monaé the way to love on "Fantasy," a cover surely approved by Cee-Lo. Opening with a fiery guitar lick fit to rival Lee’s "Alone Again Or" in menace and dread as well as a shout-out of love and understanding (in sound) to the brothers and sisters in Iraq’s killing fields, "Fantasy," NdegeOcello’s radical reconstruction, is a single-song masterpiece delivered in stentorian cyber-affect.

As Monaé’s Metropolis aspires, it builds an almost unscalable mountain for black rock artists to leap in a single bound. The She-droid summons black Atlantis, expressing the very crux of the "20 odd Negroes" and their American descendants’ existential crisis — the very reason why we all perpetually want to take a ride on that ship Fantasii — intoning in deadened tones, "Every man has a place," while fading to black. Even though Sahelian falsetto Phillip Bailey appears nowhere to hit That Note, an exhilarating soprano channeling Syreeta Wright steps into the breach for Hendrix’s sacrificed Stratocaster. Hi-ho niggaz! Now, that’s passing strange into the stratosphere, "where other kind that has been in search of you" await with healing alien embraces. Here be Dragons of Zynth and ATLien rock replicants from outta ouro-boroughs like the vainglorious Monaé in the relentlessly hybridizing black Atlantic, breaking microchips off the old block to highlight yet another way to blue — and effect a funky space reincarnation.