“Tonight we celebrate our weirdness. We celebrate being outcasts. Being dirty computers. All the things that make us unique. All the things that make them uncomfortable.”Scant days removed from her low-key show-stealing turn at Glastonbury and fresh from a brace of arena shows in London and Dublin, Janelle Monáe has turned to Manchester as part of the opening night of the month-long Manchester International Festival.
With last year’s Dirty Computer proving to be both a commercial smash and a critical darling, to call Monáe a bit of a big deal is quite the understatement, and the capacity crowd made up of all ages, genders and sexualities have come together to welcome this outspoken champion of the oppressed.
A canal siding in central Manchester transforms into Heaven as the legendary DJ Paulette’s mixture of diva house, classic funk and disco floorfillers gives the bowl an all-inclusive festival atmosphere (sidenote- the bowl is overlooked by a number of rail lines, not far from a station- therefore, the trains tend to slow down as they pass over the bowl area. One of the most British things I have ever seen is huge swathes of gig-goers waving up at the train and its occupants, cheering when their gesture is responded in kind. Fantastic stuff.), while House Of Ghetto perform on stage, vogueing with microsurgical precision, striking runway model poses with power and pride.
House Of Ghetto are a celebration of self- self-confidence and individuality, love and tolerance, the perfect warmup for Monáe as the anticipation builds.”Also Sprach Zarathustra” blares out triumphantly (Wooooo!) before segueing into the slick funk of “Crazy, Classic Life“. Clad in a red and white short coat, boots and hat, Janelle cuts a striking image- part Grace Jones, part early-90s Janet Jackson as she owns the entire stage, flanked by similarly-dressed dancers who have taken a leaf out of House Of Ghetto’s book, occasionally venturing upstage to a central podium, Janelle has energy to spare and unbridled charisma, not once slowing down, flying through several costume changes and rarely staying in one place, she also possesses a huge vocal range, equally at home with wide soulful blasts and a rapping ability rivalling Chuck D in terms of power and fury, belting through the likes of the Nile Rogers-infused “Screwed” and “Q.U.E.E.N” with a passion and fire that the songs and subject matter deserve, while reclining on a throne during ‘Django Jane’ for her laser-focused proclamations over huge bass and trap house beats.
“Can I take my time tonight? Can I dance a bit for you?”
Monáe’s music is filled with callbacks to electronic funk and soul of the 1980s and 1990s, Michael Jackson, CHIC and especially Prince– the cinematic ballad “Primetime“, complete with a sea of cellphones from the bowl floor takes a sudden turn in the outro from fucking “Purple Rain” with its glorious larger-than-life guitar solo and impassioned singalong from the crowd, while “Pynk“, built from scratch over an Aerosmith sample is all soft-focus synth pulses, tight and teasing before dropping into a burst of future-funk that is impossible not to dance to.It is Prince who has the most influence on Monáe, the Purple One’s fingerprints are everywhere, both musically and visually, nowhere more than during “Make Me Feel“, a sparse, minimalist groove that feels like an evolution of Prince’s “Kiss”, reworking the skittish guitar and rhythm of the 1990 hit and transforming it into something genuinely spectacular, fierce yet tantalising as Janelle and her backing dancers moonwalked and thrusted their way across the stage.
This is followed with the fun, bouncing “I Got The Juice” with handpicked invitations to see “which dirty computers have the juice”- a chance to come onstage and showcase their moves to the spirited, loving crowd- if you are reading this, dude in the pink shirt, your cartwheel was amazing.
“This is a message from the future. We must continue to flight. Fight as human beings for other human beings. Fight for women and their reproductive rights. Fight for Trans women. Fight for members of the LGBTQIA+ communities. Fight for the disabled. Fight for the working classes. Fight for black people because black lives matter. I am proud to be a queer, black woman. Fight for immigrants. And most important- we must impeach Donald Trump.”
A roar breaks across the bowl as Janelle finishes her speech- which kept sustained cheers throughout- as the band fire into “Tightrope“, a frantic, joyous piece of modernised motown that reaches Elvis-at-Vegas-revue levels of crowdwork and musicianship without ever feeling over-the-top or unnecessary- as Monáe herself said, tonight was a celebration, a bright light of positivity in negative world. “Come Alive” took this even further, with Janelle dropping her band and the bowl into near-silence, and the entire audience into crouching.Coming out offstage, Janelle stalked through the crowd like a hunter, nearly crawling around the bowl floor springing call-and-responses out at the hunkered-down sea of humanity before bursting back into full-blown spectacle.As the show ends and the house lights come on, the crowd disperse but every single person is smiling. A night of inclusion, job done.
Words by Liam Moody, photography by Priti Shikotra. Special thanks to MIF.