Those who ventured near singer Janelle Monáe’s concert at the Blue Hills Bank Pavilion on Saturday evening were treated to more colorful people-watching than the city usually offers. “Purple Rain” crop tops. A jean jacket with almost no denim surface area visible under a melange of patches and buttons, paired with swishy velvet trousers. Full-out goth regalia. A blue floral three-piece suit, with blue glitter lipstick. Hair of every imaginable style and color. Lots of sequins: sequined tops, sequined sneakers, sequined fanny packs.
Being in the center of such a multi-hued maelstrom may cause you to ask yourself a few questions. You might ask why you don’t dress to express more often. Or if there’s anything stopping you from taking as much joy in who you are as the woman onstage wants you to. And that, my dears, is the magic of Monáe.
During a set that covered most of “Dirty Computer” and a few old hits such as “Q.U.E.E.N.,” “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” her onstage manner flashed between laser-cut precision (the astounding dance break before “Make Me Feel”) and goofy realness. Her forthright messages of pride, love, and healing have flooded out as audiences see more of the real Janelle (sorry, Bratmobile) than ever before. She previously presented herself at an artistic remove, taking on the alter-ego of android freedom fighter Cindi Mayweather, but with her third studio album “Dirty Computer,” she peels off her chrome plating, and she has placed the intersection of her queerness and blackness at the center of what’s underneath.
Since she danced her way into the public eye a little less than 10 years ago, looking better than you do in a tuxedo (don’t fight me, it’s the truth), she has been a hero for the LGBTQ community. In the past, she coyly dodged inquiries about her own sexuality, but since dropping some of her most sexually and sapphically suggestive imagery in the lyrics and videos for “Dirty Computer” (those vulva trousers from the “Pynk” video made an appearance onstage) and coming out in a “Rolling Stone” interview as a “queer black woman in America” and “free-ass mother[expletive],” her star has shone even more brightly. She dedicated “Primetime” to love of all kinds, inviting the crowd to hold their partners close.
And while the audience was racially diverse, the stage itself was set with black excellence all night. With her, she brought a quartet of ferociously energetic dancers and a full arsenal of grinning musicians to provide delicious grooves. As her opening act she brought the excellent St. Beauty, a black electro-soul band that she discovered in Atlanta.
Animated black panthers (subtle) leapt across the giant screens onstage during “Django Jane” as she rapped while perched on a throne, and through the night she placed stylistic nods to black musicians who came before: James Brown, Prince, Michael Jackson, Salt-n-Pepa. Most of Monáe’s music is eminently danceable, but there were definite moments that were not for the colonizers, when the whiter segment of the crowd hushed and the black concertgoers got even louder and more free.
“This entire experience has been rooted in love,” she told the crowd between songs. She was here to love, and if you were there to love too, you were welcome.
Take what happened during “I Got the Juice,” when she scanned the crowd and invited some people onto the stage to dance solo in the spotlight for a few bars each. No matter how “well” each person danced, they were met with wild cheers and Monáe’s affirmation that they did got the juice. This wasn’t a contest, this was a celebration.
With St. Beauty
At Blue Hills Bank Pavilion, July 21
Zoë Madonna can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @knitandlisten.