Watching the BBC’s Glastonbury coverage, I was taken by a blind impulse to see Janelle Monáe on stage, in the flesh. Much has been said about how the scintillating appearance rocketed her critically acclaimed 2010 album The ArchAndroid (Suites I and II) in the Amazon charts by almost 5000%. For me, on 26th June the Wondaland Arts Society intruded into my living room and propelled me from Armagh to Brugge days later. It was an enterprise that comprised thirty hours of travel, excessive airport dwelling, and at one point straying into the Belgian capital’s labyrinthine hinterland, rarely seen by the average tourist. Our presence was heralded by a seasoned gentleman drifter – not without a certain charm – who bestowed my fellow adventurer Helen with the most gentle of caresses to her back in welcome. Needless to say we soon quickened our step out of there.
Inevitably I am left the richer for our efforts. Prior to Monáe’s arrival on stage, the Belgian audience is striking in its serenity. Nervously fingering my bow tie, I notice that my own very modest attempt at the Monáe pompadour prompts polite sidelong glances from curious neighbours. A false sense of self-aggrandizement surges in my bones. Maybe exhibitionism comes more naturally to me than I’d thought! Dickensian baton-wielding pallbearer, MC and chief rabble-rouser George Two Point Oh takes to the stage to stir this bunch from their reverie and conjure up Janelle Monáe. Ripples of anticipation circulate as the “Suite II Overture” commences in a set-list largely realising the concepts of The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III), consistent with its origins as one entity, interdependent and whole. When Monáe reveals herself from beneath a hooded cape during the opening song “Dance With Me”, the air is thick with the corporeal energy emanating from this intense, spry figure until a spirited irreverence is betrayed by the roguish flash of her widening eyes.
There is a joyous, collaborative spirit at the heart of the intricate stage tableau, Ziegfeld-esque in scope and bursting the stage at the seams. Superlatively ambitious, every moment mesmerises. Stalking Nazgûl Wringwraiths, recalibrated watusi-frugging go-go dancers, vignettes of zombie shoot-outs and the visitation of the artist’s muse make it a feast for all senses. The theatrics are cranked to a level that is truly thrilling. It comes as no surprise to learn that Monáe was trained at the New York American Musical and Dramatic Academy (coincidentally based in Florenz Ziegfeld’s erstwhile home), and headed for Broadway when a change of heart rerouted her to Atlanta. From a female boarding house she shepherded her independent record label and umbrella creative movement, the Wondaland Arts Society. I like to imagine these ideas took seed in the boarding house of Stage Door of 1937 starring Katharine Hepburn and Ginger Rogers among a group of aspiring stars of the stage, scrapping for the roles that fall their way. Indeed Monáe has stated a great affinity for Hepburn, their shared straight-backed, forthright manner and steely gravitas mark them as women who dare. Monáe has spoken of playing golf with Sean “Diddy” Combs and Hepburn ripping up the turf in Bringing Up Baby springs effortlessly to mind.
Reminiscent of Anna Leonowens’s lessons in The King and I, in the finale “Come Alive (War of the Roses)” Monáe plays teacher to her spectators who follow her scatting example.
At the breakdown of the song, she coaxes her band mates to lie down as the voices are stripped away to her lone soothing voice, she then wordlessly cajoles the crowd to sit down in a simulated group breather for puffed-out, over-excited tykes after a run-around. One woman, front and centre, will not budge.
There’s always one. A fierce battle of brassy wills follows. Monáe doesn’t blink, she barely moves. Her face is simply fixed on an ever so slight frown and with one small gesture of the hand she persists in ushering the impertinent woman to sit down like her well-behaved classmates (who at this stage are booing and chucking anything to hand in her general direction). Her eyes narrow. It’s all starting to feel very Mary Poppins and I’m gritting my teeth with the fear that Monáe will reach for her carpet-bag and umbrella and take to the skies. The parrot handle will whine about how ungrateful we all are and she will defend us, clear her throat and make out there is some grit in her eye. Absorbed in this alter reality I suddenly realise the impudent one has surrendered under the weight of all the heckling. A frenzy of stage and spectator breaks out! Monáe mounts a band mate who conveys her into the thick of the crowd to be raised up on our hands. A Belgian girl who had been timidly peeking at me earlier screams directly into my face: “GO TO HER!”, and flings me with Herculean strength in Janelle Monáe’s direction.
Barriers down on every front.