By Gabriel Barr
Our society is one that prides itself on its differences but still chooses to judge others on the ones that stick out the most in relation to restrictive norms. There are stigmatizing labels for everything from sexuality to gender to whether or not one enjoys certain foods. One way that people battle the stigmas created through these terms is reclamation. Many groups (racial, sexual, gender, etc.) take back and claim the slurs that have been used against them. It’s difficult to learn about any topic related to social justice without learning about how a group has reclaimed any number of words as a form of pride. From racial slurs to homophobic names, the reclamation of derogatory labels is a great force in civil rights arguments today. In our society, the internet and similar forms of communication have made it easier to find others who share similarities with them. People are thus more easily able to organize marches and festivals around their differences from mainstream society.
One term to be reclaimed is the word “freak.” The recording artist Janelle Monáe uses her song ”Q.U.E.E.N.” to turn the word “freak” around on those who impose it on others. Monáe uses “Q.U.E.E.N.” as a declaration of independence from a society that tells her, and so many people like her, that the way they are is unacceptable.
Monáe’s “freaks” aren’t what one would normally think of when they hear the word. The connotations of the word “freak” relate back to the freak shows of the late 1800s to the mid-1900s. It conjures images of one-armed men, bearded women, and people whose gender is not identifiable with the binary system of male and female. Instead of relying on these tropes, Monáe uses both queerness and blackness as examples of modern “freakishness.” The “”freaks” here are people whose identities have been stigmatized and marginalized throughout history. The lyrics to “Q.U.E.E.N.” declare those differences as things to be proud of and to be loud about. “Q.U.E.E.N.” is a song that claims difference and individuality as prideful assets. Monáe and fellow recording artist Erykah Badu illustrate the ways in which their blackness has been “freakified” within the larger culture by acting out parts of their largely black culture. In modern discourse, fun had by black people is often seen negatively because of racist stereotypes. The hook of “Q.U.E.E.N.” highlights these feelings, asking:
“Am I a freak for dancing around?
Am I a freak for getting down?
I’m cutting up, don’t cut me down.
Yeah I wanna be, wanna be Queen.”
Here, Monáe and Badu illustrate their confusion as to whether or not their behavior is “weird” enough for them to be called “freaks.” They use slang to build familiarity with the audience and then cause the question to be turned on the listener as to what “freakishness” entails. “Cutting up” is a black slang term that means “having fun,” and it’s used here to ask whether or not their joy and celebration is out of the ordinary (“Cutting+up.”)
The first verse of the song sees Monáe facing judgement from others, saying
“I can’t believe all of the things they say about me
Walk in the room they throwing shade left to right
they be like, ‘Ooh, she serving face’
And I just tell ‘em cut me up and get down.”
Here, Monáe and Badu introduce queerness as a sort of modern “freakishness,” using terms from both queer and black communities. ‘Throwing shade” is a term particularly coined by black queer persons that means “to insult in a coy manner” (“throwing+shade”). “Serving face” is another term that means that the makeup or appearance that one has is perfect (“serving+face”). Later on, Monáe asks “Am I a freak because I love watching Mary? Hey, sister, am I good enough for your heaven?” Here we see Monáe introduce queerness into the argument, asking point-blank whether or not queerness necessitates alienation and discrimination. Throughout the song, Monáe doesn’t freakify queerness or blackness herself, but instead dares the listener to do it for her. By doing this, Monáe makes the listener analyze just what would make these things “freaky.” Throughout her work, Monáe has used the idea of “androids.” In a 2011 interview, Monáe stated that she sees “androids” as the “new other,” a symbol for blackness, queerness, or any other differences that society sees as worthy of discrimination (“RnB sensation Janelle Monae…”).
Monáe uses terms that are used very prominent in black queer communities to highlight the ways in which society ostracizes and excludes black, queer, and queer black persons. She proposes that what is being freakified is the act of being true to one’s self. She asks, “am I a freak?” repeatedly, forcing the listeners to answer (even if just to themselves) yes or no. If yes, the listener must analyze why Monáe is a “freak.” If no, the listener has accepted self-expression, individuality, and community as completely valid in any form. Monáe uses “Q.U.E.E.N.” as an anthem of self-love and independence in a world where people would rather have compliance than individuality. She brings queerness and blackness to the forefront in tandem, dancing, singing, and celebrating pride in herself even when the world tells her to fail.
“Cutting+up.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2016
Monáe, Janelle, and Erykah Badu. Q.U.E.E.N. Nate “Rocket” Lightning, 2013. MP3.766.
“Serving+face.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.
“RnB Sensation Janelle Monáe Is Here Because We Need Her.” Evening Standard. N.p., 04 July 2011. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.
“Throwing+shade.” Urban Dictionary. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Apr. 2016.