Janelle Monáe’s “Turntables” is her first new single since 2018, when she released the Grammy-nominated album “Dirty Computer,” and what a power anthem it is.
Written by Monáe, Nathaniel Irvin III, and George A. Peters for the Stacey Abrams-produced documentary, “All In: The Fight for Democracy,”(streaming on Prime Video), the soulful, empowering song is a rallying cry for a revolution. As Monae sings: “I’m kicking out the old regime / Liberation, elevation, education / America, you a lie / But the whole world ’bout to testify.”
The power anthem will undoubtedly find its way into contention for best original song at next year’s Academy Awards. Monae talks about how “Turntables” came to be and the message of its video.
Both you and Stacey Abrams are from Georgia. What did it mean to get the call to contribute a song to the documentary?
I knew I had to show up for Stacey Abrams. I was in Atlanta when Brian Kemp stole the election from her. A lot of people don’t know this, but Kemp was the Secretary of State which meant he was overseeing the election and running for Governor against Stacey Abrams — that right there is a conflict of interest. He helped push voter suppression. There were so many applications that didn’t go through in terms of registering, people were turned away and there were long lines. He was at the core of why Stacey Abrams is not Governor and why people who were trying to vote for her couldn’t.
I was in a f–ed up place emotionally with the state of the world and of the country, but let me show up for Stacey because we need her. Also, let’s show up for the documentary and its filmmakers Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés, who are bringing to our attention the past and present obstacles we have with voter suppression. It really explains why we feel [as Black folks, as marginalized voices] like voting has not worked in our favor. But once you can educate people around it through a song and a documentary, then people can understand and say, ‘I’m going to fight for this,’ or they’re not. Our job as artists is to bring for the facts.
Being that you weren’t in the right headspace, how did you find the fire to write those empowering lyrics?
We’re in the middle of a revolution right now. I’ve been doing a lot of observing through social media. I have friends who work in the Black Lives Matter movement and Color of Change movement. I’ve had my boots on the ground serving food in our communities with the Wondalunch we do. I think people are coming together like never before. Black people are holding those who benefit from the system that we’re in accountable like never before.
Progress locally is being made. I just wanted to create energy in the form of a song because I also know that with fighting comes emotional and physical fatigue. What is a song without a revolution? What is a revolution without a song? That was my north star, knowing that people are going to be emotionally fatigued right now, and what can my contribution be?
I watched the documentary with Nate “Rocket” Wonder who has collaborated on all my albums and we said, “What do we want to hear? What would get us motivated?”
Tell us about putting the video together with all those striking visuals. What was the message?
It was super important for me to not highlight so much the violence and the trauma that we’ve been experiencing as Black people and marginalized communities, but to show all of the people who were leading the revolutions in the video and the love we have for one another. I wanted to show us getting things done, and that was the most important thing.
I got to work with a Black woman director, named Child, who is very sensitive to the time and has a perspective of living in America. I didn’t have to explain the energy or how to help highlight the triumphs. She and I spoke about all the images and we wanted to go through the past, the present, and what the future looks like.
You see me pulling out trash from the ocean; pulling out this different version of the Statue of Liberty as this Indigenous woman who comes out of the ocean. We are bringing attention to our Native American brothers and sisters and to the Africans who were stolen and forced to work over here and were enslaved. That was important to reframe the narrative and what the “American Dream” can look like.
I spoke with Liz and Lisa about their reaction to hearing the song for the first time, and Lisa said she was ready to take notes, but then she didn’t because she loved it so much. What is that like for you as an artist to not get notes back?
I was shocked too. I thought Stacey, Liz or Lisa would probably ask, “Can you take this curse word out or say it differently?” I was prepared for them to say that, and I thought if they did, then I probably would not be able to contribute because there’s no way with how I’m feeling that I would be able to say anything less than this. I’m just thankful that when they heard it, they felt the same way and they weren’t trying to stop my artistic impression. They were on board from the jump.
How long did you have to put it all together?
I had a week. I was coming up with the music and the lyrics. I allow myself a day or two to listen to it. I don’t turn it in immediately. Even after I record it, I still like to reflect and ride around to it. I have people come over or I send it to people whose taste I trust. You record it and then you wait to see how you’re feeling the next day.
Watch the video for “Turntables” below: