Emblazoned with promise, creation stories begin with an embryonic hope. Whether your most valued creation story is found in a holy book, arrives in the form of a big bang or starts with one small step for man, there is no denying our innate human desire to connect, create and discover. As the architect of a conceptual expedition that pledges to explore the intricacies of the human condition and beyond, Janelle Monae is the encapsulation of what it is to create with purpose, deliver with conviction and engage with progression. This commitment to creativity and growth rings true with the vanguards over at the Manchester International Festival HQ. Perhaps this explains why they chose Billboard’s Trailblazer of the Year 2018, Janelle Monae, to open the celebration. Mission successful? It sure was.

As the sun lowered in the sky and the temperature cooled on that pleasant Thursday 4 July, Castlefield Bowl began to fill with the buzz and hum of an excitable crowd awaiting a spectacle. A lustrous sea of diversity – suitably adorned in show-stopping colours, patterns, fabrics and fits – waved through the compact venue. In a time whereby the sociopolitical landscape can appear so fraught and fragmented, it is a refreshing beacon of hope to observe a community that demonstrates joy and understanding to one another. That is of course, the power of the world Monae has sculpted. Dedicated fans are invited to belong, in an interstellar of possibility. It is abundantly clear from a gaze around the Castlefield Bowl that the anticipated spectacle is an escape, a utopia upon which a being can realign themselves with the importance of their place in the universe.

Introducing an enigma is always a challenge, by definition they are indescribable. What could be more appropriate than Monae being beckoned on to her stage with the reverberating sound of Richard Strauss’ ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’? Iconic, of course, for its sensational use in Stanley Kubrick’s sci-fi classic 2001: A Space Odyssey; a precedent for the spectacular was set without hesitation. Monae emerged, strong and stunning, and took her place on her podium with the certainty of a queen, assured by the wild cheers of adulation from every corner of the Bowl. Zealously, Monae erupted into her set list with ‘Crazy, Classic Life’. Melodically, a wonderfully fun track that provides a subtle social commentary on the adverse treatment of black people amidst the hypocrisy of a Western world that all too often steals from black culture and fails to credit or reward it.

Themes of racial inequality ran prominently throughout Monae’s set. At points, an elegant black panther visual wowed as it strode proudly from screen to screen. Symbolically, this was a poignant reminder of the tireless fight for equality that has ensued for decades. Monae has a clever charm when it comes to coupling celebration with a stark reminder of societal failings. In similar societal scrutiny, ‘Screwed’ and ‘Django Jane’ followed, through which Monae examines the blurred lines crossing through sex and power and how each can be manipulated to satisfy the agenda of the powers that be. In the latter, Monae addresses the continued oppression of women and the further dismissal of minority group women. Empowered, the crowd burst into applause and woos as Monae boldly exclaimed the classic line that always delights her progressive fans, “Let the vagina have a monologue!”

Surrounded by a quad of spellbinding dancers and backed by a team of dynamic musicians, Monae appeared beautifully jubilant as she gave her all to her dedicated community. Moments of jaw-dropping delight were aplenty and the Castlefield Bowl revellers were certainly here for it. Monae implored, “Where my Queens?” before ‘Q.U.E.E.N’, to which a response made it clear that all of Monae’s “Queens” were in fact right there in front of her. Another fan-favourite made an appearance during ‘Pynk’, in the shape of the remarkable vagina pants. A moment for recognition was closely followed by mischievous giggles, knowing nods and inspired cheers as the lusciously pink lipped beauties paraded proudly across the stage – and rightly so, they are freakin’ awesome!

Pioneering a bolder, braver, even more tangible Afrofuturism, Monae’s alter ego Cindi Mayweather is a time-travelling android that has rebelled from her restrictions with the intention of returning to the past, fixing the atrocities of it and subsequently creating a brighter future. This narrative is weaved through Monae’s Metropolis, a conceptual mission to use art as a vessel for social justice. Monae’s dazzling landing at Castlefield Bowl was rich in Mayweather’s presence, filling the atmosphere with a sense of resistance, innovation and optimism.

When discussing the social importance of Afrofuturism, Monae has previously noted the parallel between the place of the android and the place of, what she calls, “the other”. “The other” is the suggestion of an outcast, a loner, or an alien within social norms. Monae has stated that she considers herself to belong to this category since she is “a woman and black person”.

This sense of rising up and breaking through the oppression was immense during her Manchester show, and Monae received thunderous applause when she declared, “I’m sick of Republicans telling me what to do.” Some might consider this an untimely statement as Americans elsewhere would have simultaneously been celebrating Independence Day. However, in terms of responding to the tyrannically repressive Trump administration’s iron-fisted rulings on immigration, religion and abortion rights, it could not have been more pertinent, more appropriate or more necessary.

Ultimately, Monae’s ongoing exploration into the stolen rights of the marginalised and the vehement manipulation of the fortunately powerful has one destination ahead – unity. Evidently, Monae sees a future that is unified, fair and prosperous for all. While she does not shy away from controversy, and she goes forth in her civil duty of calling out the ill-mannered and grossly selfish, Monae presents her world with joy. She transmits a message of shared peace. Unifying the sea of diversity in front of her, she demanded:

“We must fight for black rights.
We must fight for minority groups’ rights.
We must fight for Trans rights.
We must fight for LGBTQ+ rights.
We must fight for disabled peoples’ rights.”

With the crowd encouraged and applauding in hope at Monae’s vision for a brighter future, she finally announced:

“We must fight to impeach Donald Trump!”

Rousing applause rip-roared through the Castlefield Bowl as Janelle Monae stood powerful, invigorated and impenetrable. This was a truly electric sight to behold and an experience that I’m sure will have moved many in the moment as well as stimulated the urgency to heed the call to fight for justice outside of this event.

Exemplifying her belief in the importance of inclusion, Monae invited a handful of attendees to join her on stage to celebrate and take part in her brilliant ‘I Got the Juice’. Monae handpicked lucky fans right there and as they joined their idol on stage, the audience cheered in support and admiration. The first fan, a young, wheelchair-bound person, was followed by four more enthusiastic characters – some belonging to marginalised communities respectively. Each guest was asked their name by Monae and asked, “Do you got the juice?” to which they replied, “I got the juice!” Individually, each guest exhibited their ‘juice’ in a 30 second freestyle performance that of course the crowd went mad for. Monae commended and embraced each of her guests, beaming at the sight of their pride and excitement.  

After a fabulously energetic ‘Tightrope’, Monae exited the stage. Hungry for more and fired up to infinity, her audience pleaded for her return. Obligingly, Monae did just that with her exquisite smile and love for her fans clearly displayed. Monae informed that she had to “get ready for this one” and began to remove parts of her glorious costume. Shocked, the audience watched on in utter curiosity. Monae is notoriously reluctant to unveil much of her body, instead choosing to indulge in the beauty of costume that embraces androgyny, dandyism and resistance to succumb to the expectation of a female ‘star’. However, Monae stayed true to form as it appeared that the removal of her costume was to make a statement about neutrality. Barefoot, and in just a plain black leotard, Monae climbed into the crowd. Tentatively, fans watched as Monae made her way to a spot in the crowd, crouched down and willed the crowd to “shush”. After some uncertainty, and some comical gesturing from Monae, the crowd eventually participated. Now almost silent, Castlefield Bowl waited in anticipation before Monae burst back into ‘Come Alive’ and bid farewell to her adoring fans.

As a landmark of this great city’s dovetail to the arts, MIF endeavours to bring a plethora of forward thinking, evocative and one-of-a-kind shows to the Rainy City every two years; 2019 rocketed into orbit with thanks to the inimitable Janelle Monae. During her performance, Monae told of how she would share with us a secret; something she rarely tells. She told of how she is frequently asked how she goes on to a stage and puts on a show. What is her secret? “The secret is that I come out here and I hope that you will take a little part of me with you.” Monae paused for reflection. “I want to give you a memory that you can access on your happy days and access on your dark days.” With her vulnerability and the dedication to her cause, Monae proves herself to be a celestial being of magnificence.

Where Monae will go from here, who knows? But I’m sure we’ll have to look up to the sky to see it.

Charlotte Reck