02/11/2011 02:38 pm ET Updated Nov 17, 2011

Exploring Death in Janelle Monae's Music

I tip, tip, tip on the tightrope everyday of the week. Seriously. I'm a huge Janelle Monae supporter. For the unfamiliar, Monae is a 25-year-old singer, songwriter and entrepreneur. Through Wondaland Arts Society, her record label, she negotiated a deal that allowed her to retain creative control and leverage a full-scale marketing campaign. In honor of her two Grammy nominations -- the awards take place this Sunday -- we'll explore the role of death in Monae's music.

The chorus of Monae's "Sincerely, Jane" piercingly inquires:

Are we really living or just walking dead now?
Or dreaming of a hope riding the wings of angels
The way we live
The way we die
What a tragedy, I'm so terrified
Day dreamers please wake up, we can't sleep no more

Recalling Ralph Ellison's insight about the blues, we can say that the above lyrics are "autobiographical catastrophe expressed lyrically." They invoke tragedy and terror, yet leave room for "dreaming of a hope riding the wings of angels." They evoke hope for a community that "really lives" while entertaining the debilitating thought that our communities might be "walking dead." The lyrics, in other words, unearth the interior disagreement between what we hope for and what we actually see. Monae's lyrics withhold an easy assurance that everything will necessarily be alright, but refuse to allow despair to eulogize hope. Judging from interviews, these musings may reflect Monae's arduous Kansas City upbringing. Her exchanges with the media, moreover, impress a certain conclusion upon the observer: Monae's work emerges from a social -- and existential -- space where death is no stranger. In her own words:

Mentally I had to leave my environment, because if I paid attention to all the people that were dying around me [emphasis added], the people in my family who were strung out on drugs, selling dope, having sex and my friends getting pregnant at an early age, I could have easily been depressed by everything and gone the same route. I mean I love my family and the people of my city, no disrespect, but that life was not for me.

The incomparable exuberance and excellence of Monae's performances are widely acknowledged. Less noticed, however, is the sense that when Monae dons her signature black and white tuxedo, she enacts a profound lament for "all the people that were dying." The buoyant jubilee of Monae's Grammy nominated "Tightrope" -- that brass-heavy ode to sustaining one's equilibrium in the midst's of life's contingencies -- emerges from the parched valley of dry bones in "Sincerely, Jane." And in that valley of death, Monae invites slumbering citizens to replace the American lullabies of selfish spirituality with the vivifying intonations of lament. Daydreamers, please wake up, we can't sleep no more.