I don’t know how they do it, but somebody at MIF manages to book someone extra special. 2015 had Bjork; 2017 had Arcade Fire, and this year has the phenomenally talented artist, musician, actress, and activist Janelle Monae.
The extra special something is always held in the Castlefield Bowl, and it’s the perfect spot for it. The crowd are suitably happy and pretty much everyone around has a huge smile on their face. Setting the tone for the evening is DJ Paulette and the House of Ghetto dancers-come-models draped in netting and feathers and rainbows galore that add a little touch of carnival. The party vibe, aided by the almost obligatory ‘vogueing’, is contagious. Pockets of people in the growing crowd join in and the mood lifts even further. June is, traditionally speaking, Pride Month, but one look around these parts will tell you that Pride is still very much alive and kicking – with London Pride literally just around the corner. “We celebrate Queer, Black…” says the DJ – and the rest is undiscernible through the cheers.
At long last Janelle Monae makes an appearance – after an intro of ‘Space Odyssey’, because obviously – and the audience goes nuts. The set has been split into four smaller, distinct parts, or acts comprised of three songs per Act. ‘Crazy, Classic, Life’, ‘Screwed’, and ‘Django Jane’ make up the first act, but honestly, she could be playing anything at all and the audience would adore it. I’ve never seen anybody command a crowd as quickly and as effortlessly as Janelle Monae. It isn’t necessary, but the dancers are actually a nice touch to the performance. As is obvious, Monae isn’t one for just turning up, singing a handful of songs, and disappearing into the smoke. She pulls out all the stops and really gives something of herself to it all. The throne, which, for someone else might look horribly tacky, but it works, and suits the glamour and glitz of the evening, even this early on into it. Speaking of smoke, during ‘Electric Lady’ (halfway through Act Two) bright pink lights manage to piece through the smoke – and the smoke machine is working overtime already, blurring everything in sight. A celebration of womanhood, of femininity, and black women such as this is never and wouldn’t ever be dampened by an over-eager smoke machine, though.
In the manic flash of strobe lights and smoke, Monae vanishes, only to return just as suddenly with her dancers in another new outfit and launches right into Act Three with ‘Pynk’ and the party vibe continues on. ‘I Got The Juice’ brings about something unexpected. A small handful of the crowd are invited onto the stage with her to sing and dance. And it’s such a lovely moment of celebration and togetherness you can’t help but be moved by it and brings the loudest cheer of the evening.
Not even a few tiny drops of rain spoils this pride parade. After shouting a simple “Happy Pride!”, Monae gives a passionate speech about being “proud to be a black, queer woman,” and how we must all fight for LGBTQ+ women and men, for women’s rights, and, most importantly, that “we must impeach Donald Trump!” Even here, across the pond, the roar of the crowd rallying behind Monae is deafening. Change is surely afoot, and Janelle Monae is, at this very moment, leading the way.
For the encore – ‘Come Alive’ – Janelle returns very simply dressed, climbs down from the stage, and joins the audience, calling for quiet and for everyone to crouch down. Monae gives the word and everyone leaps up and dances like they don’t care if anybody is watching, and screw them even if they are. Janelle Monae is truly an original, a real artist in damn near every sense of the word. Judging by this, the world needs more of Janelle Monae than ever before.
Photo: Priti Shikotra