Photo: Leni Sinclair/Getty Images
Artists Who Define Afrofuturism In Music: Sun Ra, Flying Lotus, Janelle Monae, Shabaka Hutchings & More
Afrofuturism — the "intersection of imagination, technology, the future and liberation" centered on the African diaspora — includes a history of classics and contemporary visionaries. Explore some of the musicians behind this ever-evolving genre.
Web3, cryptocurrency, NFTs — these were all imaginative ideas that appeared in lyrics from OutKast and Shabazz Palaces way before they became trending topics. Ideas that stem from an innate love that Black culture has with science fiction and world-building. If you YouTube Goodie Mobb’s "Cell Therapy," you’ll watch them highlight concerns about the technology that has now become your Face ID on your mobile device.
All of these concepts originates from Afrofuturism, a belief coined by critic Mark Dery in 1994’s Black to the Future, and combines elements of astral jazz, Black American sci-fi, and psychedelic hip-hop into an imaginative, alternative vision of tomorrow. Rooted in exploring the otherworldliness that exists in Black artistry, Afrofuturism is directly responsible for Black Panther’s global success, and how artists like FKA twigs and THEESatisfaction were able to breakthrough in a crowded soundscape.
Culturally, Afrofuturism, as argued by author Ytasha L. Womack, is a "cultural and artistic practice that goes back to ancient African griot traditions and Egyptian astronomy," even describing it as" the intersection between Black culture, technology, liberation, and the imagination, with some mysticism thrown in, too." As Afrofuturism has become more visible and championed in pop culture, Afrofuturistic music offers a hopeful vision to a community whose existence has long been marginalized and ignored by mainstream gatekeepers.
This list champions the artists and creatives who have defined and iterated on Afrofuturism, inviting exploration of this rich sonic universe.
Sun Ra is and will forever be a legend. Influenced by his Afrocentric spiritualism, Ra’s music is imbued with a powerful energy that levitated listeners to new galaxies, taking them on sonic voyages, while exploring themes that related (and released them from) to the trials and tribulations of everyday life.
Ra’s imagination was unparalleled and his music, which dominated spaces from the mid-1950s until his death, made him a svengali of symbolism, imagery, and sound. With his Arkestra, Ra blended ancient Egyptian mythology, the aspirations of the Black community, and multidimensional expression that continues to have significant impact. And even with his spirit transitioned onto another plane, The Sun Ra Arkestra remains active, performing under the leadership of veteran Ra sideman Marshall Allen.
Erykah Badu, a Queen Mother who defies description, ushered in a higher level of consciousness in R&B. Unapologetically Black and an effortless communicator, Badu spoke to the needs of Black women and the community as a whole.
Badu’s visual aesthetic — innovative music videos, remixed hip-hop fashion, and shaman-esque live performances — balanced our real-life, near-dystopian reality with the hope that the Black woman is not only the Alpha-and-Omega but the key to saving our world.
As Baduizm came into being in 1997, just as Mark Dery’s theories were taking shape, the two symbiotic pairings would open the door for new languages and practices. Through her music and presence, Badu pushed R&B forward in a freer and more eccentric way.
The much-acclaimed jazz musician and bandleader, Shabaka Hutchings, says a lot in his music and if listening closely enough then you’re welcomed to already be in the know.
Hutchings, alongside his bands Sons of Kemet and The Comet Is Coming, not only adopts Sun Ra and Afrofuturism into his work but are also genuine fans of the genre. From reading N.K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy to using messages that are squarely from a Black POV, Hutchings is a masterful innovator whose sharp social critique asks the necessary questions that could create a better future.
In the vast realm of Blackness, which typifies Afrofuturism, there was an irreverent goddess and funk pioneer who averted simplistic viewpoints in favor of commingling contrasts, paradoxes and presumed oppositions. Betty Davis was her name and her broad, theatrical form of visual and musical storytelling has been adapted by the likes of the aforementioned Erykah Badu and new genre stars like Durand Bernarr.
With songs rooted in describing the Black working-class women’s experiences in street culture, she never bit her tongue. The cover of her 1974 album, They Say I’m Different, exemplifies this greatly, as she was photographed in a space-age outfit, and forever demonstrated how magically surreal she truly was.
George Clinton/Parliament Funkadelic
There have been many who have embraced the funk, but none — other than its architect James Brown — have used it to totally rewrite the rules of music history. George Clinton and Parliament-Funkadelic directly addressed stigmas and taboos attached to race, gender, class and sexuality, incorporating theatrics that impressed young artists like Ice Cube, Dr. Dre and Kendrick Lamar.
More than any other funk collective at the time, the group experimented with Afrofuturism. Their Mothership mirrored Sun Ra’s own plan for Black people to escape a racist planet, departing for a utopia that existed elsewhere in space. With funkier-than-a-mug characters like Dr. Funkenstein and Star Child, as well as avant garde players like Bootsy Collins — Clinton’s Afrofuturist funk reflected a "backward and forward" vision that is still being clamored for.
A multifaceted phenomenon and serious force on the stage and screen, Janelle Monáe has gone from a recluse singer-songwriter under the Bad Boy label to a trailblazer for inclusionary rights in the LGBTQ+ community and an ASCAP Vanguard recipient.
Monáe has used Afrofuturism on concept albums like Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) to her first full-length studio album, The ArchAndroid to Dirty Computer. By elaborating on funk’s theatrical nature and using the love of artificial intelligence, non-human lifeforms, and other worlds as a form of storytelling, Monáe differentiates herself among other Afrofuturists as a"free-ass-motherf—ker" and griot worth keeping on repeat.
Afrofuturism is a label that usually gets slapped on Flying Lotus, the Los Angeles, California native, but not one that normally sticks. The man born Steven Ellison was always known as being left-of-center, but in 2008, he delved into sci-fi as a way of processing grief around his mother’s terminal illness.
On "Galaxy in Janaki," an impressionistic space opera, he employed sounds recorded from the monitors and respirators that kept his mother alive. That effort grew into celebrated works like Cosmogramma, Until the Quiet Comes, and 2015’s GRAMMY-nominated ode to limbo, You’re Dead. A mad scientist who is as inventive as his lineage — his great aunt and uncle are Alice and John Coltrane — FlyLo proves to be deft at crafting emotion without using many words at all.\
For years, Grace Jones has been more than a supermodel, more than a diva, and more than what any person can handle. The subversive Jamaican-born multihyphenate has always been ahead, forcing many to reframe how Black women were defined. Not overtly feminine or masculine, Jones' appearance and performance played with being non-binary at a time when only David Bowie was engaging with futurity with such ease.
The now 74-year-old artist still uses disruptions in her work. With her tenth album, 2008’s Hurricane, she delved into sonic landscapes with Tricky) with much more success than more of her "alternative" contemporaries, making her live experience one never to miss.
Those two dope boyz in a Cadillac have always been futuristic and plain ole’ funky. Before André 3000 and Big Boi became immortal legends, OutKast was the strangely cool outlier in the East Coast-West Coast-dominated rap landscape. Along with the Dungeon Family, Goodie Mob, Killer Mike, and a host of other legendary producers — the Mighty O changed how the culture regarded southern hip-hop. They definitely had something to say, and their messages are still being felt.
Billed as ATLiens, the duo channeled the imagination of George Clinton, the force of Rakim and KRS-One, and the effortless cool that led to audio revolutions all beneath the Mason-Dixon line. With themes such as knowledge of self, revolution, and dream-walking — OutKast might not have been the Afrofuturists that the culture expected, but surely were the ones hip-hop needed.
Ishmael Butler and Tendai Maraire are Shabazz Palaces, an atmospheric, bassed-out duo that comes from rap music’s id. Less interested in being formulaic, Shabazz Palaces is more about enrichment, offering solutions to one’s problems, embracing Afrofuturism, and emphasizing being socially conscious.
From their style of dress to their visual aesthetic, Ishmael, a former member of Digable Planets, may come off as plain weird to those who are only into the scam-raps and crypto-flexing found in today’s chart-topping songs. But this duo is progressive AF, laying down enough jewels for the next generation of hip-hop stars to stand out.
Photo: Steve Jennings/WireImage
7 Unforgettable Sets From Outside Lands 2023: Foo Fighters' Special Guests, Lana Del Rey's Return & A Superhero DJ Shaq
The 15th edition of San Francisco’s foggy summer festival brought the musical heat — and lots of wild surprises.
On Aug. 11-13, Outside Lands returned to San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park for the 15th time. The city's premiere multi-day music and food festival attracted approximately 75,000 daily attendees, and promoter Another Planet says that about half of the 225,000 ticket holders live outside the Bay Area.
Though it takes place in the peak of summer, San Francisco in August is relatively cold and nicknamed "Fogust," which may have shocked any of the out of towners who showed up in shorts and barely-there tops.
The mild weather conditions meant that the true heat was left up to the performers to generate, and the more than 90 acts happily delivered. Below, we recount seven of the sets that were worth braving the summer cold to witness.
Shaq Takes Day One Championship
Moonlighting as DJ Diesel, NBA legend Shaquille O’Neal apologized for starting his incredibly surprising set a few minutes late.
"Sorry I’m late, I was just hanging with Steph Curry and Draymond Green," he said, name checking the Golden State Warriors’ star players. He laced his banter with basketball metaphors and later brought out Warriors guard Gary Payton II to play Queen’s "We Are The Champions" in the team’s honor.
After dropping jaws by firing up aggressively, atonal EDM beats, he invited the crush of fans to come up on stage and "party with Diesel" one at a time. His set veered from Guns N Roses to Imogen Heap and he has to be the first DJ to call for a "ladies only mosh pit" while playing Aqua’s "Barbie World."
When he threw a young blonde boy on his shoulders and they both pumped their fists in unison, it was everything — and that’s how a superhero DJs.
Janelle Monáe Celebrates The Fam
With a towering stack of Jamaican sound system-styled speakers, giant beach balls, a towel-waisted band and swimsuited dancers, Janelle Monáe brought the sexy "Black Sugar Beach" and "Lipstick Lover" vibes of her new album The Age of Pleasure to the Lands End main stage, which she last graced in 2018.
Monáe has since come out as nonbinary and greatly expanded her fanbase; at Outside Lands, she dedicated her performance to "my community, the LGBTQIA+ community," saying, "I love you so much. To be Black, to be queer, to be nonbinary, to evolve and to have family like you is a blessing."
Monáe’s natural charisma has only gotten sharper over time, and her dance moves are more infused with the quick steps of the Godfather of Soul James Brown and Prince. Her almost Rockettes-level line choreography with her dancers has leveled up as well.
This year’s Outside Lands also saw the debut of the LGBTQIA+-centric Dolores’ stage, which was powered all weekend by local party crews such as Hard French, Fake and Gay and Oasis. A highlight was Reparations, an all-Black drag show hosted by the incomparable Nicki Jizz, San Francisco’s serial Drag Queen of the Year (according to local publication 48 Hills) who wore a large penis hat that she claimed was true to her actual size. The most overtly queer-friendly edition of Outside Lands was something beautiful to continue and build on in the future.
Kendrick Lamar Brings The Friday Night Light
Last seen rapping to a small but rapturous crowd on a secondary stage at Outside Lands in 2015, Kendrick Lamar has grown immeasurably as a recording artist and live performer. Lamar commanded the Lands End stage, closing the festival’s first night with quietly assertive control and grace in a performance that felt like a rightful graduation. This veritable elder statesman slot has been previously held by major acts like Radiohead, Neil Young With Crazy Horse and Paul McCartney.
His 2022 album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers featured prominently in the 21-song set, which included leftfield covers of Pusha T’s "Nosetalgia" and The Weeknd’s "Sidewalks." But Lamar knows that people still want to yell their lungs out to earlier cuts like "Swimming Pools (Drank)," "Bitch, Don’t Kill My Vibe," "m.A.A.d city," "HUMBLE." and "Alright" and he obliged.
Lana Del Rey Swings Back To Twin Peaks
Flower crowns were all the rage when Lana Del Rey made her Outside Lands debut in 2016 at Twin Peaks, the festival’s second largest stage. A new generation has since discovered the singer’s outsize character and vibe, and as the gates opened on Saturday, giddy groups of teenage girls rushed to park themselves at the edge of that very same stage to catch Del Rey’s big return to Golden Gate Park.
This time, Del Rey’s set included a projection that said "God Bless You San Francisco" and a giant swing woven with flowers that flung her into the air while she sang. Her set spanned her classics, like "Video Games" from 2012’s Born To Die, current hits, such as the title track from this year’s album Did You Know That There’s a Tunnel Under Ocean Blvd., and a loving cover of Tammy Wynette’s 1968 country hit "Stand By Your Man."
Though she’s revered as an almost otherworldly figure and was an angelic vision in white, Del Rey doesn’t act untouchable in 2023 — in fact, she literally came down and touched some of those fans who waited all day for her.
Foo Fighters Come Out Crooning
"We’ve gotta fit 28 years into two f—ing hours!" Dave Grohl explained early in the Foo Fighters' set. It was a towering goal that they tackled with consummate ease, reaching back to hits such as "Times Like These" and "The Pretender" and showing the continuum through to recent songs like "Rescue."
After playing a few choice riffs of "Enter Sandman," it would have been less of a surprise to see a member of two-time Outside Lands headliner (and Bay Area natives) Metallica join them on stage than who actually came out for a cameo. After flying in from Argentina, Michael Bublé initially pretended to be a regular audience member before going onstage to sing his hit "Haven’t Met You Yet."
The Foo-Bublé connection is fun and surprising: New drummer Josh Freese has also played for the Canadian crooner, and "Haven’t Met You Yet" is part of a medley that the Foo Fighters are doing on tour that is comprised of other bands Freese has supported (including Devo’s "Whip It" and Nine Inch Nails’ "March of the Pigs").
Of course, the late drummer Taylor Hawkins will always be a prominent part of the Foo Fighters and their shows, and they played "Aurora" in his memory. As the park’s Polo Field lit up in violet-colored lights, Grohl’s 17-year-old daughter Violet Grohl also joined to sing three songs with her father, which he said was his absolute favorite thing in the world to do.
"I’m sure I’m embarrassing her right now!" he said.
Gabriels Tributes Tina Turner
"We’re California boys, but this is our first time in San Francisco," shared Gabriels singer Jacob Lusk before turning the Sutro stage into the Church of Outside Lands, and instructing everyone to share some neighborly love.
The Los Angeles band has some meteoric fans: Elton John invited Lusk, whose early resume includes being a former "American Idol" contestant who was in a gospel group with the late Nate Dogg, to sing with him on stage at this year’s Glastonbury. Lusk’s incredible vocal range flexes from baritone to falsetto on a dime, and he frequently takes a step back from the microphone while singing, as if not to overwhelm it.
In a particularly touching moment, Gabriels performed Tina Turner’s "Private Dancer" while a montage of footage of Turner filled the screen.
Megan Thee Stallion Triumphs Over Tragedy
Fog flooded the park as a super snatched Megan Thee Stallion took to the stage in a hot Barbie pink outfit and long red hair, but she blazed through the haze with ground-sweeping twerking and saucy tracks like "Body," "Her," "WAP" and "Big Ole Freak." It was her first performance since Tory Lanez was sentenced to 10 years for shooting her, and she was feeling noticeably buoyant.
"F— all my haters!" she said in the middle of the set. "None of the s— you was doing or saying broke me."
She received nothing but love from the crowd, and she was delighted by a big pocket of "boys" that she saw. Meg truly loves her "Hotties," and even stopped in between songs to sign someone’s graduation cap. A recent grad herself, she is proud of her fans who follow suit.
"Real college girl s—!" she exclaimed.
Photo: Paras Griffin/Getty Images
Outside Lands 2023: 10 Female And LGBTQIA+ Performers Taking Center Stage, From Lana Del Rey To Megan Thee Stallion
Outside Lands is stacking a sensational lineup for its 15th anniversary from Aug. 11 to 13. From aespa to Janelle Monáe, here's 10 awe-inspiring female and nonbinary artists who are ready to rule San Francisco's Golden Gate Park.
This year marks the 15th anniversary of San Francisco's Outside Lands, and while the festival always boasts the Bay Area's best, the 2023 lineup is especially stacked with incredible female and nonbinary talent. From aespa making K-pop history to La Doña's homecoming, the fest's latest iteration is bound to be badass.
As San Francisco transforms Golden Gate Park into a lavish festival ground for three days, check out these 10 performers ready to electrify the city.
Megan Thee Stallion
Time to get lit like a match. Megan Thee Stallion has been hitting stages across the country this year — from LA Pride to her hometown of Houston for the Men's NCAA Final Four — and there's no doubt she'll bring the heat to Golden Gate Park on Sunday. Though the three-time GRAMMY winner is known for her high-hype, feel-good freestyles, her latest album, Traumazine, opens up about anxiety and the importance of self-care. So whether you're having a hot or healing girl summer, her headlining set will be the spot for festgoers to let loose.
On Friday, Janelle Monáe will usher San Francisco into The Age of Pleasure. Sensuality and freedom flood the singer's most recent album, and for Monáe's headlining show, fans can expect bursting psychedelic soul, pop and hip-hop in an evening full of color and love.
Emphasizing intersectionality and identity (Monáe identifies as nonbinary), her wide-ranging performance will traverse her trailblazing concept albums like GRAMMY-nominated Dirty Computer and The ArchAndroid. Having conquered both the big screen and the stage as a multihyphenate, Monáe's set will be nothing short of a spectacle.
Hot off supporting Taylor Swift's Eras Tour, beabadoobee is headed to Golden Gate Park on Sunday afternoon. The Filipino-English singer/songwriter has carved out a space for herself between indie rock and bedroom pop, first becoming known for her sweet, spacey falsetto and her sleeper hit "Coffee" in 2020. The indie star has since expanded her worldbuilding abilities rapidly, spinning intricate scenes from her debut Fake It Flowers into her scenic second album Beatopia — similarly, beabadoobee's Outside Lands set will likely flaunt the vitality of her imagination.
Raveena is the definition of grace, and her Friday Outside Lands set is sure to swell with serenity. Mindfulness is the objective of the singer's soulful music as she grounds herself through tranquil mixes of R&B and pop. From her 2019 debut Lucid to 2022's Asha's Awakening, her voice epitomizes comfort whether it floats through delicate strings or stony drums. At Golden Gate Park, Raveena will bring momentary, blissful peace to the festival's chaotic fun.
Ethel Cain is ready to take concertgoers to church — even on a Friday. The experimental breakout star is known for dissecting dark, Southern Gothic themes in her music, establishing herself as a rising leader in the modern alternative genre (and also in the LGBTQIA+ community, as she is a trans woman). Her debut album Preacher's Daughter only came out last year, but the critically acclaimed album swiftly earned the musician a cult following. After bewitching Coachella audiences back in April, Cain's upcoming Outside Lands set is sure to be compelling.
More than 10 years after she wrote her first original song, NIKI is ready to storm the Twin Peaks stage. Her deeply sincere indie pop drifts with bittersweetness, and it's powerful to witness how well the Indonesian singer's intimacy translates to massive crowds.
Signed to label 88rising in 2017, NIKI soon found herself playing concerts for a growing global fan base that resonated with her heart-to-heart songwriting. Ranging from the dramatic depths of her debut album, MOONCHILD, to 2022's earnest self-titled Nicole, NIKI's Outside Lands set will be perfect for listeners who want to escape with their head in the clouds.
Lana Del Rey
Lana Del Rey is the reigning queen of summertime sadness, and she'll be doin' time at Golden Gate Park as one of Saturday's headliners. Known for spinning tales of tragic romance, the GRAMMY-nominated singer/songwriter plans to enchant audiences at Twin Peaks stage following her release of Did You Know There's a Tunnel Under Ocean Boulevard. Her discography haunts and aches, filled with everything from folky gospel to trap pop; if one thing's for sure, Del Rey's highly anticipated performance is bound to be a spiritual journey.
Born and raised in San Francisco, La Doña is making her city proud by performing at the Bay's biggest annual music festival. Taking the Lands End stage with her 11-piece band on Friday, the Chicana musician has come a long way since picking up the trumpet at age 7.
Centering around personal identity and community, her music beautifully merges traditional Latin folk with modern cumbia, reggaeton, and hip-hop. La Doña's progressive sound just earned her a spot on Barack Obama's annual summer playlist, and less than a month later, her hometown will get to see what all of the hype is about.
When aespa takes to Twin Peaks stage Friday, they'll make history as the first K-pop act to ever perform at Outside Lands. Exploding onto the music scene in 2020, the innovative South Korean girl group gives K-pop a fresh edge, distinctively inspired by hyperpop and hip-hop. The group's name combines the words "avatar," "experience," and "aspect," representing their futuristic style that's often embellished by a metaverse aesthetic. Their mind-blowing Coachella and Governors Ball debuts hinted that aespa is ready to pull out all the stops for their Outside Lands crowd.
Maggie Rogers knows how to break free. The 2020 Best New Artist GRAMMY nominee will get the crowd hyped for Saturday headliners Foo Fighters with an enthralling set. Although her debut album Heard It in a Past Life pulses with steady revelations, her alternative follow-up Surrender leans into sweat and desire. As she's proven at many festivals past, Rogers' show will be infused with bright energy, from the slow emotional burn of "Light On" to the exhilarating "Want Want" as the sun goes down.
Photo: Rich Fury/Getty Images for The Recording Academy
9 Times Queer Artists Made History At The GRAMMYs: From Elton John's Collab With BSB To Kim & Sam's "Unholy" Union
In celebration of Pride Month, GRAMMY.com has collected nine of the most meaningful and thrilling performances by queer artists from the ceremony’s history, which helped uplift the global LGBTIQA+ community.
The 60-plus years of the GRAMMY Awards encompasses some of the most awe-inspiring and breathtaking moments in music history — and it should be noted that queer performers have produced some of the most dazzling highlights. From Elton John’s 1999 GRAMMY Legend Award to Sam Smith and Kim Petras’ 2023 performance of "Unholy," there is no shortage of iconic queer moments in GRAMMY history.
But more than merely honoring and showcasing queer artists, the ceremony is also the only major award to have moved beyond the outdated gender binary in its categories, an important step in ensuring that every artist feels welcomed. And as queer stars continue to deliver stunning performances in addition to award wins on Music's Biggest Night, young artists have meaningful representation and inspiration.
In celebration of Pride Month, GRAMMY.com has collected nine of the most meaningful and thrilling performances by queer artists from the ceremony’s history. These moments commemorate some of the most impressive artists of the last few decades and helped uplift members of the LGBTIQA+ community around the world.
Elton John & The Backstreet Boys - "Philadelphia Freedom" (2000)
When one LGBTIQA+ icon writes a song that honors another queer trailblazer, it’s bound to make for a special moment on stage.
Performed at the 42nd GRAMMY Awards — the same night the Rocket Man was honored as MusiCares Person Of The Year, and a year after taking home the Legend Award — Elton John performed the bright and swinging "Philadelphia Freedom." With backing from the Backstreet Boys, the performance filled the room with sunshine.
The song was inspired by John’s close friend, tennis icon Billie Jean King. His piano flanked by the five Boys, John delivers a rollicking take on the number one hit, the mythic megastar in top form from every swaggery vocal growl to each thumping piano chord.
Melissa Etheridge & Joss Stone - "Piece Of My Heart" (2005)
Melissa Etheridge has always been an incredibly vulnerable artist, but when she walked onto the stage during the 47th GRAMMY Awards, her head bald due to chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer, her legend of raw strength reached a new level.
A loving grin plastered on her face and chopping out an explosive guitar riff, Etheridge didn’t waste a second, joining soul pop star Joss Stone for a tribute to queer icon Janis Joplin. Every syllable of "Piece of My Heart" coming out of Etheridge’s mouth shines sharply like a rough-cut gem, but her explosive howl as the song comes to its climax is the stuff of legend.
The fact that Etheridge made it through her cancer treatment and can still rock stages to this day is only further testament to just how powerful this moment of defiance turned out to be.
Lady Gaga - "Born This Way" (2011)
While the conversation surrounding Lady Gaga’s early ‘10s award ceremony run will always center on her extravagant and boundary-pushing attire and stagecraft, she made sure to put her queer advocacy at full volume during her take on "Born This Way."
Sure, she entered the 53rd GRAMMY Awards in an egg and took time in her performance to play a snippet of Bach made famous in "The Phantom of the Opera" on a keyboard topped with mannequin heads. But in the very next moment, she ensured that the whole track slowed to a righteous halt to deliver a core message: "No matter gay, straight or bi/lesbian, transgender life/ I’m on the right track/ I was born to survive."
The white latex and space egg are important, but Lady Gaga wants to make sure you understand that the art is all in support of a message of inclusion, that stripped down to our strangest basics we’re all human.
Frank Ocean - "Forrest Gump" (2013)
Frank Ocean has proven to be one of the most mercurial stars in R&B, releasing just two studio albums since 2011 despite some of the most rabid anticipation in the music world. His changed plans, canceled performances, and vague updates only fuel that fire — but it’s performances like "Forrest Gump" that encapsulate that whole fandom experience.
The 55th Grammy Awards were a big night for Ocean, with six nominations and two golden gramophones coming his way, but his tender, raw love song was perhaps the most memorable of a night full of impressive tributes and star power. Homosexual love songs don’t get televised too often, and that’s what "Forrest Gump" is: pure, unabashed and straightforward; a young, mesmerizing vocalist and songwriter laid bare, playing a keyboard and backed by a video screen. There’s nothing to distract from his voice and his words: "You run my mind, boy/ Running on my mind, boy/ Forrest Gump."
Macklemore, Ryan Lewis, Mary Lambert, Madonna & Queen Latifah - "Same Love/Open Your Heart" (2014)
There may not be a bigger performance of queer love in awards history than Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ elaborate staging of "Same Love" from the 56th GRAMMYs. Their performance of the anthem included lesbian vocalist Mary Lambert and queer icon Madonna — oh, and Queen Latifah literally overseeing marriage ceremonies for 33 couples of varying sexual identities and orientations, when same-sex marriage hadn’t yet been federally recognized.
Macklemore and Lewis won big at the ceremony, thanks in large part to inescapable upbeat hip-hop like "Thrift Shop" and "Can't Hold Us." But instead of getting everyone in the room with some easy fun, the duo opted for "Same Love" — a track in support of marriage equality and a protest to a tendency towards homophobia in the genre. Together, they provided a powerful statement of acceptance and love that surely opened eyes for audiences around the world.
Kesha, Camilla Cabello, Cyndi Lauper, Julia Michaels, Andra Day, and Bebe Rexha - "Praying" (2018)
The whole world was changing for Kesha on the runup to the 60th GRAMMY Awards. After years of struggle against her alleged abuser and an attempt to fully reclaim her career and life, she had not only taken powerful steps in that direction — she was doing so on Music's Biggest Night.
Her new album, Rainbow, had netted two nominations, and she was asked to perform. She opted for "Praying" (co-written by Ryan Lewis), a paean to the power of change and hope, even in the darkest hours. Surrounded by a cadre of powerful women and clad in white and embroidery of blooming flowers, Kesha’s performance shows a moment of new life and transformation, an inspirational moment that continues to grow with promise of even more new music.
Janelle Monáe - "Make Me Feel" (2019)
Janelle Monáe’s performance at the 61st GRAMMY Awards felt like a celebration of her quest to share her truest self. During a performance of the sensual, stylized, sci-fi epic take on "Make Me Feel," Monáe incorporated snippets of other Dirty Computer highlights into the breakdown — including the line "let the vagina have a monologue" from "Pynk" (probably the first time that request had been made on the GRAMMYs stage).
Her black-and-white clad synchronized backup dancers gave shades of Robert Palmer, but Prince (another Black icon comfortable in gender-fluidity) was the true touchstone. But that’s in no way to say that Monáe is anything but an unparalleled icon of her own, whether on the guitar, in her dance steps, or on the mic.
Lil Nas X - "Dead Right Now"/"Montero (Call Me By Your Name)"/"Industry Baby" (2022)
After years of controversy and criticism (notably from talking heads and members of the public who had or would not listen to his music), Lil Nas X’s performance at the 65th GRAMMY Awards had a real sense of catharsis.
Not that the Georgia-born rapper necessarily needed it — he’s proven plenty capable of pushing back and insisting on his identity on the daily, in social media and interviews. Still, the wide range of styles (both musical and visual) and performance versatility on display that evening felt special. His interstellar take on "Dead Right Now" proved he was capable of rising above all the noise; the hip-swiveling dazzle of "Montero (Call Me By Your Name)" showed he was unafraid to show his sensual side; and the stomp-along "Industry Baby" (complete with an appearance from Jack Harlow) demonstrated that Lil Nas X is just flat-out one of the most exciting vocal talents in hip-hop.
Kim Petras and Sam Smith - "Unholy" (2023)
Trans representation on the GRAMMYs stage took a big step forward at the most recent ceremony, thanks to Kim Petras. Not only did the German-born pop star become the first openly trans woman to win a GRAMMY Award, but her blistering performance of "Unholy" with Sam Smith likely ignited more than a little bit of inspiration, intensity, and passion in the viewing audience.
Cast in a red glow, the duo embraced the fires of lust, Petras playing the fiery cage dancer to Smith’s devilish ringmaster. Every second of the performance dripped with sweat and sex, refusing to bow to any expectation or censure, Petras humping a corner of the cage as Smith gyrated around a cane. The smoking hot fever dream more than earned the FCC complaints and the zealous fans who went on to devour more of Smith and Petras’ music.
Photo: Mason Rose
5 Takeaways From Janelle Monáe’s New Album, 'The Age of Pleasure'
On her first album in five years, Janelle Monáe trades a sci-fi world for a lush sense of escape. Out June 9, 'The Age of Pleasure' offers a utopia of sensual and sonic exploration.
Since her 2010 debut album, The ArchAndroid, Janelle Monáe’s work has been grounded in intricacy.
Whether Monáe is building sci-fi worlds, continuing the Afrofuturism narrative of her Cindi Mayweather character or analyzing the concept of American identity on 2019’s Dirty Computer — which scored a nomination for Album Of The Year at the 2019 GRAMMYs — she tasks listeners with digesting various storylines and concepts.
Now, Monáe is shaking off all expectations with her fourth studio album, The Age of Pleasure. Released on June 9, the 14-track album takes a more streamlined approach, creating an escape in just over 30 minutes. The artist appears lighter, even more self-assured and quite frankly (as seen with her near-nude promo campaign) ready to get wild.
The Age of Pleasure is Monáe's first album in five years and trades in her previous warnings of AI-driven dystopian futures for a lush paradise, replete with a reggae swing. With warm melodies and lyrics meant for the bedroom (or wherever one enjoys pleasure), the album creates a utopia where all are welcome.
"I think being an artist gets lonely," Monáe told Rolling Stone in May. "Most people don’t understand what’s going on in my brain. Community has been so helpful to me; it’s beautiful that I have a title called The Age of Pleasure because it actually re-centers me. It’s not about an album anymore. I’ve changed my whole f—ing lifestyle."
Throughout its journey of self-exploration, here are five takeaways from Janelle Monáe’s new album, The Age of Pleasure.
Janelle Embraces Sexuality Across The Spectrum
In 2018, Monáe shared that she was pansexual and came out as nonbinary last year (using the pronouns "free-ass motherf—er, they/them, her/she"). Her journey of discovering more about her queer identity (which was alluded to in previous albums, most notably Dirty Computer’s woman empowerment anthem "Pynk") envelopes The Age of Pleasure.
"Lipstick Lover" is a hazy, reggae-tinged ode to the queer woman gaze ("I just wanna feel a little tongue, we don't have a long time," Monáe urges), while "The Rush" mimics an orgasm complete with a breathy spoken word by actress Nia Long and a naughty verse from Ghanaian American singer Amaarae. And then there’s "Water Slide," which floods the speakers with barely-concealed innuendos.
The idea of "guilty pleasure" is completely stripped of guilt. Here, there isn’t shame or taboo surrounding sexual acts or what one identifies as.
She Showcases The Beauty Of The Diaspora
While creating this album, Monáe got inspired through parties hosted on her Wondaland West property in Los Angeles. People from all backgrounds were welcomed, and the album celebrates the joining of the communities. Monáe called upon artists across the diaspora — Ghana, Nigeria, Jamaica and the Dirty South — to be part of her utopia.
Fela Kuti’s son Seun and his band Egypt 80 open the album on "Float," queer icon Grace Jones seduces the ear with the French-speaking "Ooh La La" interlude, Jamaican dancehall legend Sister Nancy provides reggae authenticity "The French 75." The end result shows there is power in creative numbers, as well as sonic commonality across the African diaspora.
Self-Confidence Is At An All-Time High
The artist is completely free lately, from displaying her breasts on red carpets to dancing on bar tops at afterparties. She adores every curve of her body, and that confidence radiates on The Age of Pleasure. It’s best displayed on "Phenomenal," where Monáe and rapper Doechii trade cocky lines atop a deliciously wacky beat that fuses South African amapiano with New York City ballroom culture. "I'm lookin' at a thousand versions of myself and we're all fine as f—," Monáe muses more than once.
She doesn’t want you to forget just how good she looks and wants everyone to feel that same way about themselves. The "I'm young and I'm Black and I'm wild" line on "Haute" is better digested as an affirmation in front of the mirror.
Pleasure Is Meant For Fun In The Sun
Pleasure is best enjoyed in the sweltering heat, so it only makes sense the artist released this album at the brink of summertime. Her "Lipstick Lover" music video is a hedonistic dream, with queer women and femmes enjoying each other’s company (and body parts) at a sweaty, West Coast pool party.
Album highlight "Only Have Eyes 42" winks at polyamory and its dreamy flip on the Flamingos’ 1959 doo-wop classic is best served with a Red Stripe beer and sand beneath one’s feet. Whether you’re enjoying the lapping waves on a Caribbean island or soaking up the rays in your backyard, The Age of Pleasure is the fuel for your own fiesta.
She Hasn’t Lost The Funk
As the late Prince’s mentee, Janelle Monáe is a master at funk. While she boasts "No I’m not the same" on the album opener, parts of Monáe’s previous sound excitedly peek through.
Her discography is stuffed with dancefloor jams, and The Age of Pleasure keeps the party going with a seamless fusion of rap, R&B and funk. Still, its exploration of new sounds like reggae, dancehall, amapiano and Afrobeats is a thrill.
From the triumphant horns on "Float" to the electric groove of "Champagne S—", the album is begging for a live rendition. It just so happens that Monáe is embarking on a North American tour. It kicks off on Aug. 30 in Seattle and will keep the good vibes going until Oct. 18 in Inglewood, California.