Janelle Monáe Revisits “Dirty Computer” in Visionary Work of Afrofuturism, “The Memory Librarian”

Janelle Monáe, Jayson Aaron and Tessa Thompson in the official poster for the Dirty Computer Emotion Picture; The Memory Librarian’s front cover featuring Janelle Monáe. Photos Courtesy: Wondaland/IMDb; Goodreads

Four years after the release of their third studio album, Dirty Computer, artist, musician and writer Janelle Monáe returned to the world of Jane 57821 with a short story collection, The Memory Librarian. Written alongside five sublime storytellers — a different writer collaborated with Monáe on each story — The Memory Librarian is a literary mixtape of sorts. 

For those who loved the 2018 album, or the accompanying Emotion Picture — a short film that weaves Dirty Computer’s music videos and dystopian world together into a narrative — the book is a welcome return to an unwelcoming, totalitarian world.

For “Fandroids,” it marks an exciting moment — seeing the multi-hyphenate step into yet another creative medium. And, for literature lovers, The Memory Librarian easily joins the ranks of other visionary sci-fi, urban fantasy and Afrofuturist works, like ​​N.K. Jemisin’s The City We Became — or Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower

Janelle Monáe in the Dirty Computer Emotion Picture. Photo Courtesy: Wondaland/IMDb

But there’s also no denying that, much like Dirty Computer before it, The Memory Librarian arrives at a defining moment in American history. Between unprecedented book bans; the fragility of our reproductive freedom; the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement; the fight for trans and queer rights; and the movement to protect access to gender-affirming care, Monáe’s book is essential reading. 

In late April of 2022, I had the pleasure of attending a City Arts & Lecture Series event in San Francisco that featured Monáe in conversation with acclaimed writer George M. Johnson (All Boys Aren’t Blue). And that discussion only reiterated the connections between The Memory Librarian and our present moment.  

The Memory Librarian: What Is the Story of Dirty Computer?

“Some new dawns are dark, like a silk hood slipped over a nation’s head, then choked shut. An eclipse. It started that way,” Monáe writes in The Memory Librarian’s introduction. That’s the thing about good science-fiction writing: It feels eerily real and uncanny in its precision. It gives you the framework and language to understand the only partly seen perils of your present — and how they may unfold. 

During the City Arts program, Monáe confirmed that Dirty Computer connects to her previous work, The ArchAndroid (2010) and The Electric Lady (2013). But it’s also their first album that isn’t explicitly about Cindi Mayweather — the runaway android and denizen of Metropolis who has served as Monáe’s alter-ego.

Cindi calls the year 2719 home, but the character was also a means of home for Monáe before Dirty Computer. As a younger artist, Monáe found safety in the metaphors, in the android persona who was her, but also wasn’t. That was over a decade ago, long before Monáe publicly shared that they are nonbinary. “Who I was was going to be shaping my art,” the musician recalled, saying they spoke with family and close friends before the release of Dirty Computeran album that’s unapologetically full of queerness

Janelle Monáe in the Dirty Computer Emotion Picture. Photo Courtesy: Wondaland/IMDb

Of course, Dirty Computer is still a concept album. Instead of Cindi, Jane 57821 serves as the narrative’s protagonist. Played by Monáe in the Emotion Picture, Jane finds herself living in a homophobic, anti-Black, anti-trans totalitarian regime. In the opening pages of The Memory Librarian, we learn how New Dawn, that regime, was formed. And it was formed pretty easily; first came the cameras on our phones, then came the Eye in the Sky. 

As is the case in most dystopian works, Jane takes a stand against New Dawn. “Dirty Computer was written out of a nightmare that I’d had,” Monáe recalled. “I had a dream that I was in a theater… I was walking down the aisle…and the usher was, like, you need to go. You need to come with me. They’re stealing people.” 

In the nightmare, Monáe was kidnapped. Their memories were wiped clean and she was given a new identity. This, of course, resembles the main narrative of Dirty Computer. Jane is captured and subjected to Nevermind — a means of cleansing her memory. New Dawn’s goal? To eradicate all “Dirty Computers” — that is, people who are uniquely themselves. 

Jane’s memories take the form of the music videos for various songs on the album; she struggles to retain her sense of self and, hopefully, save her lovers, Zen (Tessa Thompson) and Ché (Jayson Aaron), who have also been deemed “dirty.” Although the short story collection fleshes out various facets of this world, it takes its name from the notion that there’s a memory keeper — someone who has a Dewey Decimal System, Monáe says, of people’s identities before they were wiped clean. 

From left: Janelle Monáe and Tessa Thompson in the Dirty Computer Emotion Picture. Photo Courtesy: Wondaland/IMDb

The Memory Librarian, Dirty Computer and Afrofuturism

While Dirty Computer might be the most pop-adjacent of Monáe’s studio albums, it features elements from so many genres: funk, hip-hop, R&B, neo soul, electropop, space rock, trap, new wave, futurepop — the list goes on. The narrative of Dirty Computer, and its visuals, though, do share a genre connection with the artist’s earlier work. That genre, of course, is Afrofuturism. 

Often associated with iconic Black writers like Octavia Butler, Afrofuturism is often used interchangeably with sci-fi. But that’s an oversimplification. The term was coined to describe speculative fiction and other art created from Black artists’ points of view; as Donyae Coles puts it in a post for Afropunk, Afrofuturism is “the future as told by people of the African diaspora”.  

While discussing The Memory Librarian with George M. Johnson, Monáe confessed that they hadn’t grown up aware of Afrofuturism. “I didn’t really know who Octavia Butler was, [when The ArchAndroid came out],” Monáe said, but they were eager to learn more about her fellow Afrofuturistic artists. “I ha[d] community — I ha[d] family out there that I need[ed] to know.” 

I am not America’s nightmare —

I am the American dream.

Janelle Monáe, “Crazy, Classic, Life”, Dirty Computer

When asked what Afrofuturism is to them, Monáe cited Grace Jones, Prince and Missy Elliot as fellow Black musicians working within the space and aesthetic. But the musician also provided their own definition, saying that Afrofuturism is “Black people defining who we are in the present and in the future — on our own terms, on our own pace.” 

Yohanca Delgado, who worked with Monáe on the “Save Changes” story, joined Johnson and Monáe for the discussion. “One of the things that I love about Afrofuturism, specifically, under the umbrella of futurism, is the elegance of moving forward while also being fully aware of your history,” Delgado said. (She then fangirled over being able to live out a “nerd’s dream” by helping Monáe worldbuild — very relatable.)

Imagining a World “Where the Computer Cannot Reach”

In addition to uplifting authors with their platform, Monáe’s collection centers on people of color as well as queer, trans and nonbinary people. For them, the book is about — and for — all the “nerds” and “weirdos,” for everyone who has felt isolated for being unique or living in their truth. 

“My prayer has always been…[that this book will find] those who are searching for community,” they explained. “When the church won’t let you in the church anymore, this book becomes your bible. This community of Dirty Computers becomes your family when your family won’t let you in.”

Janelle Monáe (center), Tessa Thompson (right, front) and others in the Dirty Computer Emotion Picture. Photo Courtesy: Wondaland/IMDb

Maybe the world of Dirty Computer and The Memory Librarian takes a slightly more fantastic approach — the use of the Nevermind gas, the way New Dawn members can swipe through memories like pictures on a phone — but the problem of censorship is all too real today. It’s been found that book bans, which have reached an unprecedented high, are targeting predominately writers of color and queer and trans writers. 

By challenging works by these writers, including Johnson’s Black, queer memoir-manifesto, state and local institutions are erasing important voices, readers who see themselves reflected and entire communities. For Monáe, that’s exactly why her book matters so much. “So, that’s my hope,” they continued, “[that] when people don’t feel like they belong to the communities that maybe they were born into, they would feel at home right here, with this book.” 

Earlier in the City Arts conversation, George M. Johnson pointed out that Afrofuturism, and futurism at large, hinges on worldbuilding — on imagining something that’s so unlike our present. For them, the connection between the genre and abolition work, for example, is clear. You have to imagine something that doesn’t yet exist; you have to tell the story through your lens and, often, reclaim the power to do so by dismantling the existing framework. You have to speculate, to dream. 

To worldbuild is to take the first steps in imagining a liberated, equitable future. Monáe underscores this notion, writing, “Beyond time and memory — where the computer cannot reach — is dreaming.”

Quotes from: A Conversation with Janelle Monáe with collaborator Yohanca Delgado and host George M. Johnson, courtesy of the City Arts & Lecture Series and co-presented with Marcus Books and Sistah Scifi. Listen to the full discussion courtesy of KQED

If you’re interested in purchasing The Memory Librarian and/or All Boys Aren’t Blue, consider supporting Black-owned bookshops, such as Marcus Books & Sistah Scifi, either through their own websites or via Bookshop.org or IndieBound.org