Girls in Cars

Aside from the cheerful candy-colored queer eroticism of Janelle Monae’s video for “Pynk,” one of the things that strikes me is the way Monae flips the trope of women in a car into a narrative of black female pride and empowerment.

Women in cars are, of course, a well-worn visual feature of many rap music videos. In general, both the lyrics and the visuals suggest that women are, like cars, accessories, functional objects to be used, and less valuable than the cars they ride around in.

A couple of examples:

Dr. Dre, “Still D.R.E.”:

Wyclef Jean’s semi-tongue-in-cheek “Young Thug”:

In “J.D.’s Gafflin’,” Ice Cube talks about

[jacking] them motherf*ckers for them Nissan trucks.

So, while for male rappers, cars are a symbol of sexual dominance, credibility, and hypermasculinity, for Janelle Monae, cars are vehicles for freedom, independence, and irreverent fun.

Sort of like a combination of this:

Not unlike this:

Interracial buddy road movies have a long history in Hollywood, beginning with the 1958 prison-escape movie The Defiant Ones, featuring Tony Curtis and Sidney Poitier.

Perhaps it’s time for an interracial girl-buddy road film — or, for that matter, any girl-buddy road film in which the heroines don’t need to be destroyed in the end.

And, lest anyone imagine Janelle Monae is the first gender-bending black woman in popular music, read this belated obituary of Gladys Bentley (1907-1960).

Bentley’s lyric “What made you men folk treat us women like you do?/I don’t want no man that I got to give my money to,” are a far cry from blues portrayals of women as emotionally dependent upon men, like Bessie Smith’s in her only known film appearance:

Funk and Futurism

yokoo_5_large

Earth, Wind and Fire as part of the cycle of creation.

What is Afrofuturism?

Briefly, the term denotes an African American ideological current associated with aesthetic references to outer space, non-Western cosmologies, religious and historical revisionism, and a stringent critique of the socio-economic plights of African Americans (and diasporic and continental Africans more broadly).

Earth, Wind and Fire’s video for “Let’s Groove ” (1981)

includes multiple aesthetic references to Afrofuturism: a backdrop of flying white stars in the vastness of outer space, glittery and metallic-colored spacesuit costumes, and a group line dance preceding through a receding, neon pyramid. The line dance—a salient feature of the Chicago-originated television series Soul Train, proceeds through a potent symbol of Egyptology: the pyramid. Egyptology, an influential religious current during the 1960’s and 1970’s, placed black people at the center of Western and world history, and the pyramid adorns several EWF album covers, including 1977’s All ‘N All.

Superheroes and comics also figure heavily in the Afrofuturist aesthetic. In the 1970s, DC Comics published an issue of Lois Lane in which Lois has Superman use futurist technology to make her black for a day, in order to “get that story.”

blackloiscover

blacklois4

Read the whole story here.

If we think of the escapist trend in 1970s funk as a retreat from the hardships of the day-to-day struggle, the religious-science-fiction-cosmological-Afrofuturist trend in 1970s and 1980s funk goes beyond escapism, and advocates for a kind of spiritualized black self-empowerment. Is this vision also escapist? Or is it meant to unify the African-American community in the quest for a better future? If so, can it succeed?

Watch the legendary P-Funk Mothership landing live in concert for the first time in 1976, and note that Parliament-Funkadelic repeatedly reference the 19th-century spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot”:

The “sweet chariot” in the original song is the vehicle in which the Old Testament prophet Elijah was carried up to heaven. How do George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic revise this symbolism?

One of the earliest pioneers of the Afrofuturist aesthetic in music was jazz pianist Sun Ra. To learn more about Ra’s philosophy, listen to the lectures he gave as a visiting professor at UC-Berkeley in 1971, all linked here.

The opening titles from Ra’s 1974 film Space is the Place.

Ra live with his Arkestra in 1979:

Some femme Afrofuturism: 

Grace Jones.

Janelle Monae.

Legendary sci-fi author Octavia Butler.