“Ritual Technologies and Embodied Lineage in Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer”
Dani Oore:
Journal for the Society of American Music, 13, no. 2, May 2019, Cambridge University Press

Daniel Oore, “Ritual Technologies and Embodied Lineage in Janelle Monáe’s Dirty Computer” contribution to federated multi-perspectival colloquy on “Janelle Monáe Emotion Picture Project,” w/: Carol Vernallis (Stanford), Gabriel Ellis (Stanford), Gabrielle Lochard (UC Berkley), Jonathan Leal (Stanford), Steve Shaviro (Wayne State), Maeve Sterbenz (Columbia), Max Suechting (Stanford); multiple parts accepted to Journal for the Society of American Music, 13, no. 2, May 2019, Cambridge University Press.

Link to article:

This article explores the ritual technologies found in “Dirty Computer” through the lineage of auditory and visual elements in its first two outputs: “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane.” We find Monáe and her music video directors (e.g. Alan Ferguson) drawing on the spirit of her mentors and creative ancestors. Comparing Monáe’s “Make Me Feel” and Prince’s “Kiss,” we find similar rhythmic cycles, tempos, orchestrational timbres, and approaches to production, we also find similar use of blues harmonic structures, and similar choreographic and visual-design-costume elements (by directors Alan Ferguson and Rebecca Blake, respectively). Monáe also draws on the spirits of other creative ancestors, channeling James Brown, for instance, through his sonic, visual, and kinesthetic vocabularies. Monáe’s afro-futurist vision is rooted in profound embodiment of creative ancestral lineages, her Dirty Computer runs a venerable operating system of ritual technologies.


This article explores the ritual technologies found in “Dirty Computer” through the lineage of auditory and visual elements in its first two outputs: “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane.”

Among the most up-voted comments on Janelle Monáe’s Make Me Feel” music video are the following two succinct approvals:

Mher Khachatryan: “PRINCEss” [2.1K up-votes]
m a: “PRINCE BE SMILIN’ FROM HEAVEN FOR SURE” [2.1K up-votes][1]

Some commentators confess that “I can’t put my finger on” the Prince song that “Make Me Feel” evokes. Numerous others respond assuredly “Kiss” but offer no further explanation. Why “Kiss”? We know Prince helped Monáe with the larger project.[2] What inspirations does it make me feel?

How do the rhythms, grooves, and timbres of “Kiss” and “Make Me Feel” compare? “Kiss” and “Make Me Feel” each have a strong 3+3+2 accent pattern (counted as “1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2”) that is itself produced by the interaction of two distinct eight-beat rhythms: a 3+5 pattern, also known as a “Charleston rhythm” (where accents fall on the “1”s of a “1-2-3 1-2-3-4-5” cycle, which can also be written as accents on the “1” and “4” of “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8”) and backbeat accents (on beats “3” and “7” of “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8”). [See Figure 1.]

Figure 1: Two rhythms, a 3+5 “Charleston” and a backbeat, and the composite 3+3+2 (tresillo) pattern that their combination implies, heard in both “Kiss” and “Make Me Feel.”

The composite 3+3+2 pattern (that here emerges from the combination of the 3+5 and backbeat cycles) is found in dance musics around the globe. In Klezmer music, for example, we find the Bessarabian bulgar rhythm, while in Ghanaian Ewe music we find the Gahu rhythm, and in Afro-Caribbean musics we find the xaxado rhythm and Afro-Cuban tresillo (meaning “little three” or “triplet”). The tresillo also forms the first three accents of the son clave and in American popular musics we find this clave in Bo Diddley’s eponymous rhythm. The tresillo (or what Jelly Roll Morton called the “Spanish tinge”) appeared early in New Orleans and jazz traditions, and later, in part due to the “Latin music explosion,” continued in 50s rockabilly. The Caribbean versions of the 3+3+2 took new form in Jamaican 70s dancehall music, developed into the dembow riddim of 90s reggaeton, which also fed back into American pop, infusing contemporary hits from Ed Sheeran to Beyoncé and beyond with the 3+3+2.[3] Why did this rhythm find its way into “Kiss” and then “Make Me Feel”? Does it contain some optimal flow of syncopation and stability to elicit movement? If rhythm is a physio-psycho-social and indeed spiritual tool, the 3+3+2 pattern is an ancient technology, whether passed from one generation to the next, taken across cultures, or perhaps rediscovered by moving bodies.

In both “Kiss” and “Make Me Feel,” the 3+5 accent pattern is produced by low frequency kick drum or bass accents. In “Kiss” the backbeat is produced by a skin-slapping snare sound, and in “Make Me Feel” the backbeat is produced by a sensual tongue clicking. (The tresillo and backbeat patterns in “Dirty Computer”’s “PYNK” feature the same contrasting timbres.) The combination of lower frequency thuds and higher frequency slaps evokes the music made of foot stomps and hand claps, and might be traced to the similar use of these bodily sounds in ring shout rituals.[4] The two songs share very similar tempos: “Kiss” throbs at just under 112 beats per minute and “Make Me Feel” at 115. In each song, the groove is juxtaposed rather starkly against the vocals. Minimalist synths and rhythm guitar add depth, with the latter being the only musical instrument (in addition to the singer) depicted in both music videos: even unplugged, the electric guitar is a technological symbol of liberation and desire.[5]

“Kiss” and “Make Me Feel” also each embody their honest expression of Eros in a distinctly African-American song form, the blues. The marriage (and tension) of blues harmony and tresillo bass is an innovation developed in New Orleans.[6] Both songs’ harmonic progressions get comfortable in the safety of the I chord, raise the stakes by briefly stepping up to the IV chord (which then shifts to the vi chord in “Make Me Feel”), and regain our trust by returning home to the I chord, before climaxing on a V chord and falling to a IV chord, a release that both songs extend either through repetition (“Kiss”) or variation (“Make Me Feel”). Each song has three of these harmonic climaxes: temporality is simultaneously linear and cyclical, masculine and feminine.

“Make Me Feel” also recalls “Musicology,” Prince’s homage to his own studied inspirations. Each music video depicts that initiated space where sensual musical motion —and a strong backbeat— is celebrated. The space is sanctified with signifyin’ organs (0:36 in “Make Me Feel” and 2:42 in “Musicology”). Prince praises the spirits of masters like Jimi Hendrix and James Brown through the dancing body and electric guitar. Monáe channels Brown (“Good God…” and “I feel like…”) and particularly Prince (and his guitar) to explore her sexuality. In her live performances, Monáe ends “Make Me Feel” down on her knees and then gradually rises up as the “Make Me Feel” lyrics and harmonic progression are rearranged into James Brown’s “I Got the Feelin’.” In this way, Monáe summons her creative inspiration through his rhythms, melodic contours, articulations, horn shots and bass lines, cries and hollers, and fleet-footed dance moves. Communion and communication with ancestral spirits is prevalent across many—and many Afrological—cultural practices, and this connection seems to be an important aspect of Monáe’s Afrofuturism.[7] Her “Tightrope” music video, for instance, describes and then depicts subversive magical dance rituals, and in interviews about the video she mentions the “superpowers” invoked by setting her video in an asylum where Jimi Hendrix, Charlie Parker, and other greats were institutionalized.[8]

“Make Me Feel” invokes significant visual connections to precedents by Prince and beyond. In the “Make Me Feel” music video, the oppositional nature of Monáe’s sexuality is intensified through Alan Ferguson’s complimentary magenta-green and red-cyan palettes. Rebecca Blake’s “Kiss” video uses very similar (if more orange-blue) palettes. Ferguson’s video plays with another tension—also found in Prince’s work—between the seen and unseen. In “Make Me Feel,” reflective aviator glasses, black sheer flower-embroidery, and a latex-wrapped body recall the aviator glasses, black veil, and semi-naked bodies behind translucent glass in “Kiss.” A beaded face veil in “Make Me Feel” nods to Prince’s “Violet the Organ Grinder.” Monáe’s polka-dotted lips are comparable to those seen on Prince’s outfit in “Kiss,” to Nigerian face painting dots as seen in Laolu Senbanjo’s designs on Beyoncé in “Sorry,”[9] as well as those painted on naked bodies in Yayoi Kusama’s “Homosexual Wedding” and “Grand Orgy”... Each of these elements amplifies Monáe’s sensual body by simultaneously highlighting and gently obscuring its form. When used to invoke spirits of mentors or ancestors, each element also functions as a ritual costume or mask.

In “Django Jane,” we are brought through another set of gates into another sanctuary: a palace where oppression is being transcended, where dignity —specifically of women and Blacks— is actively reclaimed. Just before the middle of the video (at 1:26) Monáe spits the lyric “Black girl magic.” On the word “Black” her hands thrust forward and snap back. Monáe and members of her squad repeat this snapback gesticulation on the first downbeat of each of the next five measures (i.e. every four beats for a total of five kinesthetic accents). “Hip hop hands,” as Charles Mudede explains, are communicative, not decorative.[10] Monáe’s decisive gestures here are consistent with my theory that precisely such accented short-long patterns occur in emotionally- and socio-politically-charged contexts.[11] Recall Monáe’s accented short-long vocal snap in her 2015 Yoga: “You cannot po-LICE-this, so get off my areola;” (the short-long snap pair is underlined and the initial accented short is capitalized) with it, she reclaims and decolonizes the Other: the Black, female, and “android” body.

In Andrew Donoho’s “Django Jane” video, the intensity of Monaé’s first snapback shakes the entire video image into a corollary rhythmic aftershock, momentarily snapping us out of the mediated fantasy. In “Make Me Feel” (at 2:37), Ferguson synchronizes a shaky cam effect with a rhythm guitar tremolo to metaphorize the magnitude and range of Monáe’s emotions. Monáe’s across-the-floor choreography here, moving between sexual polarities, recalls that found (at 2:10) in “Kiss.” This “Dirty Computer” runs a venerable operating system, it glitches vulnerably and powerfully with technologies that make me feel.


[1] Janelle Monáe, “Make Me Feel,” uploaded February 22, 2018, video, YouTube, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tGRzz0oqgUE. Accessed March 25, 2018 and December 6, 2018.

[2] Annie Mac, “Janelle Monae Is Back! She Tells Annie Mac about Prince, the GRAMMYs and Releasing New Music, BBC, February 22, 2018, https://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05z205r.

[3] See Christopher Washburne, “The Clave of Jazz: A Caribbean Contribution to the Rhythmic Foundation of African American Music,” Black Music Research Journal, Vol. 17, No. 1, 1997; Godfried T. Toussaint, “The Euclidean Algorithm Generates Traditional Musical Rhythms,” (2005); Jasper Miller, “Syncopation, Dancehall & Coldplay: The Rhythm that Underlies Pop Music,” Medium, January 15, 2019, https://medium.com/@jazzehmiller/syncopation-dancehall-coldplay-the-rhythm-that-underlies-pop-music-e92cf965fef0; and Jerry Leake, “3+3+2 Structure,” http://www.rhombuspublishing.com/articles.html (which also discusses the pattern within the Sitar Khani of Hindustani music, and within the Cocek of Macedonian Romany music). Note that the tresillo rhythm is heard in the bass of Elvis Presley’s versions of “Hound Dog,” while the hand claps simultaneously sound a “rotated” version of the rhythm: 3+2+3. For analysis of the tresillo underpinning in Beyoncé and Jay-Z’s recent APES**T, see Daniel Oore, “APES**T: HEAVEN & EARTH Mythic Structures in Time and Space,” (2018), http://dani.oore.ca/apeshit/.

[4] The relationship to the ring shout proposed in Vijay Iyer, “Embodied Mind, Situated Cognition, and Expressive Microtiming in African-American Music,” Music Perception, Vol. 19, No. 3, 2002 is discussed along with other theories of backbeat impulses in Daniel Oore, “Snap, Twang, and Blue Note: A Cross-Cultural Examination of Features That Accompany Temporal Deviations in African-American Musics,” (2017), http://dani.oore.ca/snap-twang-bluenote/.

[5] Steve Waksman, Instruments of Desire: The Electric Guitar and the Shaping of Musical Experience (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

[6] Jelly Roll Morton’s 1923 “New Orleans Joys,” Professor Longhair’s 1949 “Mardi Gras in New Orleans,” and David Bartholomew’s 1949 “Country Boy”—all before Elvis Presley’s 1956 recording of “Hound Dog”—are a few examples. See Charles Hiroshi Garrett, “Jelly Roll Morton and the Spanish Tinge,” in Struggling to Define a Nation: American Music and the Twentieth Century (University of California Press, 2008).

[7] Ancestral spirits and transmission in Oore “Snap, Twang, and Blue Note.” http://dani.oore.ca/snap-twang-bluenote/

[8] Bill Forman, “Pop Sensation Janelle Monáe Uses Science Fiction to Convey Stark Realities,” Colorado Springs Independent, June 10, 2010, https://www.csindy.com/coloradosprings/pop-sensation-janelle-monandaacutee-uses-science-fiction-to-convey-stark-realities/Content?oid=1739497.

[9] See dotted body designs in Carol Beckwith and Angela Fisher, Painted Bodies: African Body Painting, Tattoos & Scarification (New York: Rizzoli, 2012).

[10] Charles Mudede, “The Language of Hiphop Hands,” The Stranger, March 27, 2013, https://www.thestranger.com/seattle/the-language-of-hiphop-hands/Content?oid=16346921.

[11] Oore, “Snap, Twang, and Blue Note.”


Explore ways of embodying the groove that underpins Make Me Feel. You can do this by yourself, or, if in a group split in two, one for each rhythm.
Start by using your left hand to thump the 3+5 bass-kick drum part on your chest (two hits every eight beats: so, on the “1”s of “1-2-3 1-2-3-4-5” or on the “1” and “4” of “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8”). [See Figure 1.] Try with and without the music of Make Me Feel or Kiss. Don’t just count… dance… FEEL. Next try clapping the backbeats (two hits every eight beats: landing on beats “3” and “7” of “1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8”). Instead of clapping, try slapping these backbeats on your right thigh, or clicking your tongue, or experiment with other timbres. Again, try with and without the music.
Now, can you do both rhythms together? If you are by yourself, try doing the 3+5 with your left hand on your chest while doing backbeats on 3 & 7 with your right hand slapping your thigh (or tongue click).
How do the rhythms interlock? How do they feel together? Dance with these rhythms!
In what other songs featuring Janelle Monáe can we find such rhythms (e.g. Grimes’ Venus Fly or Fun’s We Are Young)? What sorts of variations occur in such manifestations —what happens, for instance, in PYNK? Dance it out!