Janelle Monáe has been gerrymandered. Back when Atlanta’s Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms was running for office in 2017, the singer and activist’s county was switched right before the election, then switched back after. Stacey Abrams’ widely contested gubernatorial race against Brian Kemp a year later proved triggering for Monáe as 300,000 Georgians were incorrectly deemed ineligible to vote.
“I saw Brian Kemp steal the election,” she says, calling from Los Angeles where she currently resides. Thankfully, her county had been sorted out before Abrams ran against Kemp so Monáe had the opportunity to exercise her right as a voter in that election. “I told Stacey and her team that if y’all need anything, don’t hesitate to call.”
The call came this year. Abrams’ controversial loss to Kemp is the subject of a new documentary called All In: The Fight for Democracy. Directed by Liz Garbus (What Happened, Miss Simone?) and Lisa Cortés (The Remix: Hip Hop X Fashion), All In not only traces Abrams’ journey to the election and ensuing voting rights activism but the long history of voter suppression in the United States that has uniquely targeted black Americans. The film’s team needed a song, and Monáe was the perfect fit, even though she wasn’t sure at first if she was up for the task.
“I didn’t tell them this, but I was thinking to myself, ‘I am not in a creative mood and some of this will be triggering to me,’” she tells Rolling Stone. Depleted by the emotional drain of both the Covid-19 pandemic and constant injustices aimed toward black Americans that caused uprisings across the country, Monáe had not found herself in a particularly musical mood. On top of that, she had a week to complete the song.
Thankfully, her long-time collaborator Nate “Rocket” Wonder was available to help motivate and inspire. The pair took all the necessary health and safety precautions to reunite and record what would become the invigorating anthem “Turntables.”
“I leaned a lot on him and the book that I was reading [Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Anti-Racist] and realizing that I have to be the energy for other voices who are putting themselves on the front line,” she explains. “I’m thankful that the spirit was able to move through us.”
Recording “Turntables” felt like Monáe had found an artistic purpose in a movement she has already done a significant amount of organizing and educating on. In the studio, she thought about the revolution at hand and specifically the black women behind the scenes and on the frontlines, like Abrams.
“What is a revolution without a song?” she wondered, as she worked on her first piece of original music since 2018’s Dirty Computer. “I started thinking about all the people on the front line. What could be my gift to them? It was this song to remind them that the tables are turning. We’re seeing that progress is being made, even in the midst of dealing with such traumatic events. We have figured out a way to be the solution. I wanted this to be my gift because revolutionaries need love too. They need inspiration, and they need an anthem. This is my stab at that.”
After completing “Turntables,” Monáe made a personal vow that if she was asked to change any of the rousing lyrics, she would rescind the track while maintaining support for the film that she ultimately found inspiring and moving. Thankfully, Abrams, Garbus and Cortés approved. The new video for the single features a trenchcoat-wearing Monáe performing in front of an American flag, ballot boxes and the kitchen of an Atlanta family as they eat breakfast. Footage from past and current protests is spliced throughout.
All In is screening in theaters now and will be streaming exclusively on Amazon Prime on September 18th. That same day, Monáe’s latest film Antebellum will be available for rental and purchase through VOD services. The horror thriller may prove to be as timely as the documentary, and both connect the past to the present with a clear vision of what the future can be: one that supports, uplifts, empowers and frees black Americans from slavery-era policies that continue to uphold certain standards of oppression.
“When we’re screaming ‘Abolish the police,’ we’re saying abolish a system that was meant to terrorize us fundamentally,” she says, referring to how the United States’ own police force was born out early slave patrols. For the performer, Antebellum feels like a part of an ongoing conversation that the George Floyd Protests and Black Lives Matter movement have made a national demand.
“Doing a film that’s centered around this successful author who finds herself trapped in a horrifying reality where she has to confront the past, the present and the future is very timely,” she says. “I think this film reminds us more than ever that the past is not dead. That is what I hope people walk away with from this film. It will trigger some, and it will motivate and inspire.”