“I have total trouser envy!” said my friend Erin, aged 11 and three-quarters.

It’s no secret that I’m totally in awe and hopelessly in love with Janelle Monáe and have been for years. When Manchester International Festival announced she would be the opening act, I think I actually squealed. Social media groups were set up, plans hatched, and we waited patiently for Ms Monáe to arrive in Manchester. I purposely didn’t watch her Glastonbury set at the weekend so that my experience on the night would be fresh. That set was young Erin’s first introduction to Janelle. We have a new addition to the fan club.

Monáe is an enigma. A fabulous singer who can act, or is that a serious actress who tops the charts? For her twin acting debuts in 2016, she chose the roles of Teresa in Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning, Moonlight, as well as playing real life NASA mathematician and aerospace engineer Mary Jackson, who helped put John Glen and crew into space, in Hidden Figures. Regularly compared to Prince, her idol and mentor, Monáe gives us catchy tunes with truly feminist and political lyrics, some even reserved for the current POTUS: “If you grab my pussy cat, this pussy grab you back.”

Janelle Monáe at MIF19 - image credit Priti Shikotra 4Local legends DJ Paulette and House of Ghetto were selected to get the sold-out crowd warmed up with an extended set in the chilly Castlefield Bowl. All of them queer, women of colour or both, a running theme for the evening. The 30+ group I went with ranged in age from 11 to 66 and contained such diversity that it would get your Arts Council application approved instantly.

When Monáe burst onto the scene with her 2007 album Metropolis, she was all smart black and white costumes and natural hair, something of a rarity for famous black women. She is so stunningly beautiful and perfect that she actually looks like a real-life Cindy doll. Fast forward to 2019 and not much has changed. Her look is still stylised and sleek with splashes of bright red along with the metallic silver leggings Erin was eyeing up. Her group are all talented women of colour and she highlights and promotes each of them in turn during the set. No backing singers or dancers here, they are very much front and centre.

Janelle Monáe at MIF19 - image credit Priti Shikotra 1Loudly and proudly black and queer, Monáe is fiercely supportive of all women and women of colour. This week we saw her live streaming from Wimbledon’s court number one as two fellow African American women, Venus Williams and Cori Gauff, duelled for a place past the first round at Wimbledon.

Anyway, I probably need to leave out the gushing before Northern Soul’s editor cuts me off. Most of tonight’s set was from last year’s Dirty Computer sprinkled with the hits from her three other albums. Highlights included a lengthy version of Tightrope where she stripped on stage down to leggings and a bodysuit and went barefoot into the crown demanding they be quiet and squat down. Not so easy for some of us.

Janelle Monáe at MIF19 - image credit Priti Shikotra 1Throughout the gig, Monáe preached acceptance, love, compassion and support. If it’s an act, I’m fooled, but I don’t think it is. She seems to genuinely care about the world that is seemingly so full of hate and has considered how she can redress this in a small way. Leaving Castlefield we felt surrounded by love. I saw people I hadn’t seen in years; we were all glowing from the experience we had just shared. 

With Rihanna moving to London, can we start a petition to have Janelle Monáe set up home in Manchester? If Erin and I promise to keep a legally defined distance, can we make this happen?

By Michelle Nicholson

All images Priti Shikotra. Courtesy of MIF 2019. 


MIF19 runs until July 21, 2019 and features artists from across the globe premiering a variety of new work in spaces throughout the city. For more details about this year’s programme, please visit www.mif.co.uk.