Dirty Computer, or the Political Nature of Personal Stories
BY ATTOU MAMAT
STUDENT AT MCGILL FACULTY OF LAW
If you love music as much as I do, you might know that the 61st Grammy Awards took place last February 10. You might also know that among this season’s Album of the Year nominees stood Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer, the singer-songwriter’s most personal opus to date.
Indeed, Dirty Computer is a vibrant musical masterpiece in which Monáe explores her relationship with queer black womanhood and the meaning of such an identity in today’s America. The collection of songs is supplemented with a visual album, which Monáe calls an “emotion picture” (and rightfully so—the composition takes the viewer’s consciousness through a journey of bliss, heartbreak, anger, tragedy, confusion, and fascination).
Most importantly, in Dirty Computer, Monáe exposes the political nature of personal stories. Through her lens, her emotion picture showcases interactions between black and LGBTQ+ individuals on the one hand, and the law – i.e., a manifestation of state power – on the other.
“The Personal Is Political”: Recognizing the Political Nature of Personal Stories
In Dirty Computer, Monáe brings to life this slogan of second-wave feminism: “The personal is political.” The idea behind the argument is that individual experiences are necessarily connected to political and social structures. It follows naturally that personal stories play a crucial role in the transformation of those structures.
As articulated by political science student Paige McAdam: “[o]ur human suffering, and the ways that we express ourselves in order to survive it, can be a way to teach others and to enter into political conversations.” McAdam adds: “Sharing our stories and perspectives with one another puts our individual experiences on the public stage, and it is on this public stage that politics take place. Ultimately, politics is where the relationship between our private thoughts, values, and grievances takes shape in a public forum.”
Dirty Computer: When the Personal Spills into the Political Through Art
The narrative in Dirty Computer is set in a futuristic, dystopian society which calls its people “computers”. The state stigmatizes marginalized people as “dirty”—contaminated by “bugs”. Dirty computers are “cleaned” in a facility which erases all memories that are contrary to the state’s ideology through a process called “the nevermind”.
Through the film, Monáe’s character Jane—a loosely-based self-insert—is subjected to this process. The literal erasure of Jane’s memories parallels the social erasure of certain narratives from the public sphere, particularly those of marginalized individuals and groups.
In the first memory, the viewer sees Jane driving on the highway, jamming to “I Got the Juice” with her (black) friend in the passenger seat. They are interrupted when a law-enforcing robot asks them to pull over and to show their I.D. This scene is the viewer’s first introduction to Jane’s history of interactions with the law. It recalls police road checks as a tool of state control that is disproportionately used against the black community.
Then emerges the first full song, “Crazy, Classic, Life.” Its bright synth chords and funky bass lead into a celebration of marginalized folks, with bodies of all colours appearing on screen dressed in counter-cultural outfits, dancing in an empty swimming pool. In that scene, Monáe paints a utopia where the carefree black girl in her can thrive (“young, black, wild, and free” are the first words she sings). She sets the tone—musically, visually, and narratively—for the whole piece. This chapter of Dirty Computer illustrates the purpose behind Monáe’s creation of the tale: “One of the things that was most important to me…was to make sure I was coming from a very honest place… You know, it's an album to really celebrate those that I felt needed to be celebrated most. Those in marginalized communities.”
However, Monáe is sure to remind the viewer that the dream is not yet reality. In the song’s outro, Monáe raps about double standards in the treatment of black women and white men by law enforcement: “Handcuffed in a bandeau / White boy in his sandals / Police like a Rambo / Blow it out, blow it out like a candle, Sambo / Me and you was friends, but to them, we the opposite / The same mistake, I'm in jail, you on top of shit.”
Upon the song’s conclusion, the sweet celebration turns sour: the utopia is shattered when sirens, helicopters, and gunshots announce the beginning of a police raid. Screams erupt as party attendees run away from law enforcement. Once the height of the commotion has passed, the scene cuts to a row of (mostly) black people, on their knees, handcuffed, facing the viewer. This poignant image invites a reflection on the difficulty for marginalized individuals to escape the criminalisation of their very existence. In that moment, the carefree black girl evaporates, and Monáe’s plea of “just let me live my life” resonates loud in the viewer’s mind.
Conclusion: Art Imitates Life (and Law)
Although Dirty Computer did not win Album of the Year (the award went to Kacey Musgraves’ Golden Hour), it remains a culturally and politically significant piece. So much more could be said about it, but instead of continuing with my analysis, I urge you to listen to the album and to watch the emotion picture. As jurists, we have so much to learn from personal stories expressed through art such as this one. They provide a safeguard against ivory-tower syndrome by reminding us to connect the law to the people it affects daily and by highlighting the importance of everyday phenomena that could otherwise escape the eyes of academics. Such stories give meaning to our work by giving it “a personal touch”, as my Constitutional Law professor would say.
Most importantly, through their inherently political nature, personal stories remind us that the law’s ultimate purpose is to serve the people, something we should remind ourselves in all our interactions throughout our careers.
 Paige McAdam, “Storytelling Intersects the Personal and Political” (29 May 2015), online (blog): Firesteel <http://firesteelwa.org/2015/05/storytelling-intersects-the-personal-and-political/> [perma.cc/7HFW-YB79].