‘Hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue’. Screams and cheers for Janelle Monáe rang out across Castlefield Bowl as she delivered this pivotal lyric in the outstanding ‘Django Jane’. This was the second time I have seen Janelle perform on the Dirty Computer tour and I pick out this song and moment in particular as it’s a performance I haven’t seen matched in between those two dates. When Janelle raps she’s fiery and direct; when Janelle sings she’s soulful and powerful; when Janelle dances she’s funky and mesmerizing; when Janelle Monáe performs she is world class. ‘Django Jane’ was simply a single ‘moment’ in a night full of them.
The somewhat strange crossover of the Sound of the City Castlefield gigs, where acts like Elbow and Kylie play this year, with the Manchester International Festival, which opened with a Yoko Ono curated ringing of bells for world peace, set the gig apart in the festival schedule. She couldn’t have asked for a better crowd to walk into, though – the local DJ Paulette flanked by the House of Ghetto Dancers vogued and posed to warm up the audience, a unique and genuinely exciting way to kick off the night.
For so many in that crowd it was a welcoming atmosphere, it’s very rare to go to gigs and feel like everyone is on the same page, not just thanks to the frequent call outs to be proud of what makes you different. On ‘Screwed’, Janelle gets the crowd to chant ‘I’m Dirty, I’m Proud’ before telling the Republican Party to get screwed themselves. The whole Dirty Computer album is a celebration of being a black queer woman in America, but this is taken up to 11 on stage by Janelle, who you couldn’t possibly say was not proud of who she is. As a part of the LGBTQ+ community myself, surrounded by people from every background, race, gender identity and age, the community spirit that came from that stage was a joy.
Emerging from backstage following an extended vamp by her insanely funky band, the outfit of the night was finally here. The ‘Vagina Pants’ that made ‘Pynk’ one of the most memorable videos of 2018 caused a ripple of adoration from the crowd, her dancers joining in for the catchiest celebration of your lady bits you’ll ever witness on a stage. Every song she performs from ‘Q.U.E.E.N.’ to ‘Electric Lady’ to ‘Crazy, Classic, Life’ never puts the artist as the centre of the empowering message it holds. Instead it’s a communal experience, where, yes, Janelle my ‘booty don’t lie’ either. As she picks out a series of people from the crowd to dance with her, she asks each of them if they ‘got the juice?’ before they are let loose to dance like no one is watching. If you didn’t have the juice (or even know what the juice was) before a Janelle Monáe gig, you definitely leave with it.
The most memorable moments of the night, for me, come near the end. I’m yet to hear a song as good as Make Me Feel since it was released last year and I hope I get to watch Janelle perform it for the rest of my life. Closing the show was ‘Tightrope’, following a call to ‘impeach Donald Trump now’ before the funky kicked in. Her most James Brown moment – Janelle Monáe used to get her dancers to bring out a cape for her in early performances – it still goes off as well as it did eight years ago. Following that burst of classy brass, her encore of the still-bonkers ‘Come Alive (The War the Roses)’ closes the night with another song from debut album The ArchAndroid. Janelle got the entire crowd to crouch down onto the floor, repeating ‘La La La’s’ along with her as she climbs and crawls to the middle of the cluster of fans. Everyone comes alive for one final communal dance as the show ends. It’s a spectacular moment in a spectacular gig that few there will forget.
One of my favourite artists playing one of my favourite outdoor venues in one of my favourite cities while the sun goes down was never going to end with me complaining was it? Maybe I’m biased, I’ve been a ride or die Janelle stan since the day I first heard The ArchAndroid, but I honestly can’t imagine anyone being there at that gig and not living their best life. Janelle Monáe finally had her cultural moment with Dirty Computer and the tour that has followed has taken her star power to new heights. This night in Castlefield, along with a storming Glastonbury headline set a few days earlier, felt like the start of a victory lap for Janelle to end this tour, taking her community of proud fans along with her.
Words by Sam Atkins