Janelle Monae And The Realities Of Performative Activism
    • TUESDAY, AUGUST 25, 2015

    • Posted by: Isaiah Taylor

    Old news...Janelle Monae is always doing great things. Recently, Monae and her unique labelmates at Wondaland Recordings released the song, "Hell You Talmbout." The song takes just a fraction of the names who were victims of police brutality and -- like the historical music of black protest -- puts their names in song format. The song itself sounds like a combination of Atlanta college drumline mixed with Southern Baptist spiritual chorus. It's really good. There is something special happening in this song, and it may take years of hindsight vision to really get to the core. To speak of "Hell You Talmbout" now is to speak on how we're talking about these issues in how we protest and how we're developing our senses on how we look at protesters via social media. This conversation centering around Janelle Monae -- a black woman (this needs to be said for emphasis) -- has started an even larger discussion. How do we see these performative acts of activism?

    In the above video we see Janelle Monae's Wondaland crew (Jidenna, Roman GianArthur, Deep Cotton, St. Beauty, and George 2.0) walking the walk. They performed "Hell You Talmbout" prior to leading a march on police brutality in Philadelphia. What's worth noting is that Wondaland Records is also releasing an EP titled Eephus. Thanks to social media conditioning my heightened sense of cynicism, questions of how genuine the artists of Wondaland Records are swirl.

    Isn't that awful? We've seen forms of "twitter activism" build to multiple forms of art and "realized activism," and, so, we bring out the measuring sticks. I see it all the time, and it is a discussion that needs to happen as movements curated via hashtags become news stories for mainstream media. Especially in the case where "Hell You Talmbout"'s lyrics could be misinterpreted as a song based on hashtags. Have a seat (or two or three) if that's your immediate impression, and recognize that the victims of police brutality were people prior to being amalgamized as a hashtag. Maybe reduce the amount of twitter feeds you read and focus on the specific concerns of these movements...well, if you're invested beyond the daily goings-on of your timeline, anyways.

    The song's lyrical use of "say her name" is poignant just based on the perspective of those whose activism can only extend to a tweet. It functions as a way of saying to those who utilized the respective hashtags of #SayHerName and #SayHisName that their voices were heard. This is an act of performative activism that could and should touch many "real activists." This is a direct acknowledgement that not only does "twitter activism" have an effect, but when all these voices are gathered, great action can happen.

    To clarify, this ongoing discussion of "performative activism" and whom is deemed a super-duper "real activist," is an argument that has been ongoing for a long time. Recently, these judgements have taken hold of social media...namely by people with too much time on their hands, but it's a discussion worth having. This is a conversation that requires the folks concerned with these performances and displays of activism to admit that they are keeping score. It would be hypocritical if I didn't admit to checking someone's genuineness with my own moral gauge. When a white person performatively interjects their thoughts on black issues or when a straight person applies their "counterpoints" to queer topics, there is and should always be someone shouting "Hell You Talmbout?"

    With all that said, if I had an issue with this song it's one that requires me to acknowledge my "score keeping." In "Hell You Talmbout" they use the phrase "Say Her Name" (and "Say His Name" though the hashtag came about as a result of #SayHerName) but name fourteen men who were slain by law enforcement. This is a glaring issue when you recognize that there are only four women mentioned throughout the entire song. Let me emphasize again, this is a great song. This song should be chanted while marching to your own beat. This song should be played through every speaker imaginable. As I acknowledge my score keeping and the amount of time I had on my hands to play this song (over 20-times; it's a really great song), my ears recognized something familiar that black women have commented on for years.

    Whether it was intentional or not, "Hell You Talmabout" reinforces the idea that when a movement begins, it requires men to be the center. When men aren't the center, they hijack the conversation and make their thoughts and lives the focus. We've seen performative acts of activism initiated by black women on Twitter. #BringBackOurGirls comes to mind as a movement specifically centered on the abduction of Nigerian women by Boko Haram's forces. The movement spread because of black women. Subsequently, many other women of color were also very vocal and very performative which was very positive...only for a white woman to go on television to say she initiated the hashtag, and yes, she was selling a book.

    So, yes, performative acts of activism can be harmful. There are people who are using these movements for personal gain while stepping on the backs of folks who are galvanizing and creating communities beyond their smartphone apps. So if I were to be dismissive of the power of "twitter activism" and these performative acts (for better or worse), then I'd have to be dismissive of the positives that bear fruit because of its existence. I don't think I can do that.

    There is no act of activism that isn't performative. I've never heard of someone saying, "I want to bring light to this issue that's important to me, but in the quietest way possible." This isn't to discount the previous point that there are folks using these issues just to bring attention to themselves and, by doing so, drowning out the voices that need these platforms to make viable connections. This is an aspect of activism that predates tweets and hashtags. The colonization and co-opting of workers rights and civil rights has always been a thing.

    I don't think that's what Janelle Monae is doing. Prior to this record, Monae has been extremely vocal about her stances on police brutality, black women and black lives. If the trade off of Monae and her Wondaland camp using their platform to sell us music is a byproduct of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I'll take it.

    When I see the few black women who've carved out their space in popular media taking chances, it rightfully scares me*. Beyonce doesn't have to stand in front of a sign that says "feminist" at the MTV VMAs. Rihanna doesn't have to rock the patriarchal boat with a video like "Bitch Better Have My Money." We as music listeners shouldn't project our every progressive whim on these artists. There is no perfect feminist, so why should we expect every artist to get it right everytime the camera is on them?

    "Hell You Talmbout" is a phrase I've heard several times in my short life. I've heard it from my mom, her sisters and my grandparents...Southern Baptist-raised folks who would utter those words just before they were fixin' to educate you on what you THOUGHT you knew but were totally wrong about.

    I'm happy Janelle Monae and the folks of Wondaland made "Hell You Talmbout." They made it for protesters out on the street and they performed it for those people. I can't be against that.

    *I should say scared for them. An example, would be Janelle Monae, a day after releasing this song she performed the song on NBC and was cut off when she decided to comment on police brutality.

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