“My name is Jane57821. I’m a dirty a computer.”
Those are the first words spoken in Janelle Monae’s emotion picture Dirty Computer. Jane’s a sexually liberated, carefree Black girl in the not too distant future, where cars hover and drones monitor citizens every move. Dirty Computer opens with Jane being prepped for deprogramming in a massive laboratory. She’s complying as an ominous computer tech begins removing her memories but then until she’s asked to repeat “I am ready to be cleaned.” Jane does not compute. Her mind’s still free.
Monae’s opus reflects Jane living her best life: She meets and falls in love with Zen (played by real-life bestie Tessa Thompson) while happily tethered to Ché (played by Jayson Aaron). Her and Zen's love endures even though their circle are monitored, harassed and arrested for simply living while Black.
Dirty Computer is told through a series of carefully curated videos from Monae’s newly released album of the same title. From the previously released “PYNK” and “Make Me Feel” to the premiere of videos for “Crazy, Classic, Life” (directed by Alan Ferguson) and “Screwed” (directed by Emma Westenberg). Each video could easily live on its own but strung together as a 48-minute-film, Monae’s messaging is clear: To fully live one must have freedom of love, expression and self.
After Dirty Computer’s New York premiere at the Walter Reade Theater, Monae told audiences she and her longtime Wondaland partners Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder, along with Ferguson, collaborated in a hotel room for hours (only breaking their creative flow with runs to Target for large Post-Its). But for the celebrated artist and actress, the idea has always been with her.
“With Dirty Computer, it was an album I knew I need to write before The ArchAndroid, but I needed to live. I needed to have conversations with myself,” Monae says.
While Dirty Computer feels personal – Monae recently revealed to Rolling Stone she’s “a Black queer woman in America” and identifies with pansexuality – the film also reflects Monae’s frustrations with what’s happening politically.
“When the color of your skin can get you escorted out of a Starbucks for having a business meeting, or you can be in your own backyard and the police officer mistakes your phone for a gun and you’re murdered, [or you’re] Rykia Boyd… I can name so many people,” says Monae. “Strip away me being an artist, I’m still a young African America woman. It was difficult for me to channel all the emotions I’ve been feeling about how we’ve been treated.”
Monae continues: “The most important thing for me was to articulate it in a way that people would understand my position. How do I articulate it in a way we feel celebrated, we feel bold and feel empowered. And that we don’t stay angry, [that we can] do something about it. I wanted to do something that’s rooted in love. I do believe for any revolution to start, love has to be at the center of it. If we’re listening just to respond, I don’t think we’ll get anywhere. If we’re listening to understand, through understanding there’s empathy. Through empathy, we can lead to love. That’s what I really wanted to do with this project.”
However it’s received as far as streams and views, Dirty Computer arrives when Monae’s at her best. As she says on ESSENCE’s Yes, Girl podcast: “I'm just happy to be a Black woman creating art. And expressing myself as free as I want to. As freely as I want to. And not feeling the pressure to be anything other than where I am right now. I consider myself a free-ass motherf***er.”
The short film Dirty Computer is available on YouTube; it was produced by Monae, directed by Andrew Donoho and Chuck Lightning with additional videos by Alan Ferguson, Emma Westenberg and Lacey Duke.