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Playing with Power – Enacting Freedom

Playing with Power – Enacting Freedom

“There’s a black renaissance,” I find myself saying over and over again. At the same time that racism moves from the implicit to the explicit (and our sector keeps pushing implicit bias), black identity has been steadily morphing, evolving into the future. These new, ancient, radical identities are easily seen in the entertainment industry. At the forefront are black women singers. They offer us new identities that are political, but also more than that. They reimagine subjectivity, coolly enacting, performing a blend of intersectional identity and expanded conscience.
Two songs that stand out are Seinabo Sey’s “I Owe You Nothing” and Janelle Monae’s “Django Jane.” Sey says this song is a way for her to stand up for herself. The singer is of both Swedish and Gambian descent; her father was Maudo Sey, a renowned musician. She says about the song, “It’s about living in Sweden and being a black person in a white society and feeling like you have to be really grateful to get a chance.” She notes that she feels freer now and this, her second, album is more direct than her first. “This time, I felt like it would be good for me in my life to get to the point quicker and stop beating around the bush.” The song, she says, is an ode to herself. It begins like this:
I owe you nothing
I be myself and I ain’t fronting, eh, nah, nah, nah
I owe you nothing
I be myself and I ain’t fronting, eh, nah, nah, nah

I don’t have to smile for you
I don’t have to move for you
I don’t have to dance, monkey dance, monkey dance, monkey dance for you

See, I won’t help you understand
I don’t need no helping hand, no
See, these aren’t tears, this is the ocean
These aren’t fears, this is devotion
While politics shapes the world around Sey and impacts her, she thinks it’s also important for black women to be carefree—from demands to be twice as good to even get a chance. She says, “We have to start, and this might sound weird, but embracing our mediocrity, and things we do which are mediocre, and to just live in that fully. I realise that I stop myself from doing all kinds of things because I’m not an expert at it, which is a privilege that white people have.”
Like Sey, Monae’s work is political, while simultaneously moving beyond politics to the freedom of agency and imagination, drawing a powerful identity. “Django Jane,” a response to Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained, is a protest song for black women. Monae invites you into her vast, boundary bending, liberatory imagination. This is not a powerless identity story; she tells you from the very start, “This is my palace, champagne in my chalice…Wonderland, so my alias is Alice.” In last year’s interview for a Rolling Stone cover story, in which she confirms rumors that she is bisexual—pansexual, in fact—she says, “I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.” She goes on, “I’m open to learning more about who I am.”
While Sey seeks to make sense of her dual heritage and the dislocation it has caused, Monae constructs multiple identities beyond stereotypes. In reference to her first album, The ArchAndroid, in which she offers us an android persona, which also serves her as protective armor, she tells Rolling Stone, “All I saw was that I was supposed to look a certain way coming into this industry, and I felt like I [didn’t] look like a stereotypical black female artist.”
Monae is known for her Afro-futuristic musings, intentionally projecting blackness into the future. She says of the lyrics on her third album, Dirty Computer, which features “Django Jane,” “They’re the unfiltered desires of an overthinker letting herself speak without pause, for once.” The album, she says, is for outsiders. She tells the Guardian’s Rebecca Bengal, in an article titled “You don’t own or control me,” that the song is “a response to me feeling the sting of the threats being made to my rights as a woman, as a black woman, as a sexually liberated woman, even just as a daughter with parents who have been oppressed for many decades. Black women and those who have been the ‘other’, and the marginalised in society—that’s who I wanted to support, and that was more important than my discomfort about speaking out.”
Influenced by Monica Sjöö’s The Great Cosmic Mother (which was hugely influential for me when I read it in college), she speaks for women against the misogyny of our time,
We gave you life, we gave you birth
We gave you God, we gave you Earth
We fem the future, don’t make it worse
You want the world? Well, what’s it worth?
Emoticons, Decepticons, and Autobots
Who twist the plot?
Who shot the sheriff, then fled to Paris
In the darkest hour, spoke truth to power?
Made a fandroid outta yo girlfriend
Let’s get caught downtown in the whirlwind
And paint the city pink, paint the city pink
And tuck the pearls in, just in case the world end
My favorite part, where I have to turn it up and try not to look crazy bumping in my car, is when she sings:
Yeah, Gemini they still jammin’
Box office numbers, and they doin’ outstandin’
Runnin’ outta space in my damn bandwagon
Remember when they used to say I look too mannish
Black girl magic, y’all can’t stand it
Y’all can’t ban it, made out like a bandit
They been trying hard just to make us all vanish
I suggest they put a flag on a whole ’nother planet

Jane Bond, never Jane Doe
And I Django, never Sambo
Black and white, yeah that’s always been my camo
It’s lookin’ like y’all gon’ need some more ammo
I cut ’em off, I cut ’em off, I cut ’em off like Van Gogh
Now, pan right for the angle
I got away with murder, no Scandal
Cue the violins and the violas
While power suffuses the air we breathe and we definitely need to pay attention to the political, it is time to catalyze the imagination and start living free now. These two artists show us how it can be done.
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