Janelle Monáe, 'Turntables': Protest Music In 2020 : We Insist: A Timeline Of Protest Music In 2020 This song, part of our 'We Insist' timeline of 2020's noteworthy protest music, was released Sept. 15.
NPR logo Janelle Monáe's 'Turntables' Stresses 'Liberation, Elevation, Education'

Janelle Monáe's 'Turntables' Stresses 'Liberation, Elevation, Education'

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In 2015, Janelle Monáe released the visceral and raw "Hell You Talmbout," a protest song that directly listed the names of the Black lives lost at the hands of law enforcement and vigilantes, a nearly 7-minute journey. Five years later, Monáe returns to the movement, with "Turntables," a marked difference of energy, delivery and presentation. When compared to the exposed pain of "Hell You Talmbout," "Turntables" sounds sleeker, more palatable and mainstream. But its messaging remains just as urgent.

During the video's three minutes, Monáe finds herself on a beach, a symbol of freedom, and in front of a U.S. flag, an emblem that has recently been seen as a mark of oppression for Black Americans. Her salient lyrics slice through a neo-soul groove: "I'm kickin' out the old regime: Liberation, elevation, education / America, you a lie / But the whole world 'bout to testify." By the end of the song, the "I" becomes a "we," a full-fledged surrendering to the collective need to effect real change.

Throughout the music video is footage of marches past and present. Figures like Angela Davis, Muhammad Ali, Toni Morrison, Stacey Abrams, and Maxine Waters are featured prominently, Black thought provokers, leaders and politicians who have pushed for societal upheaval. Visually, Janelle Monáe sends subtle, but key, messages about the embattled U.S. Postal Service, about the lack of Black representation in the toy industry, about climate change — all vastly singular topics, yet interconnected by an umbrella of miseducation and inequality. Through it all, Monáe remains unafraid and unshaken by the circumstances that surround her. If anything, she's rushing forward to meet them head-on.