“America, Please Take My Hand”: Three Black Visionaries Narrate Stories of American Life

Photos by Guzman, Dave Free + retOne, Julia Johnson + Cody Cloud

Since its inception, music has always reflected individual and collective experiences of humans. Specifically, Black musicians have captured meditations on life in America that consistently spur extraordinary music that pose questions, assess current circumstances, and share dreams for the future. Though she was far from the first to do it, Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814” is the contemporary “how to” book for infusing user-friendly pop music with pressing politics and razor-sharp messages. Kendrick Lamar’s “DAMN.” can be thought of as a follow-up to “Rhythm Nation,” but hones in his own experience of being a Black man in 2017’s America. After being fed up with the problems of the present day, Janelle Monáe writes her own declaration of independence on “Dirty Computer,” in effect creating an inclusive nation where individuals are celebrated for their differences no matter who they are. Together, these three albums create a fascinating look at American life, told through three unique perspectives of Black visionaries.

Photo by Guzman

Janet Jackson’s “Rhythm Nation 1814” (popularly referred to as just “Rhythm Nation”) sets ideas into action with “purposeful pop” that aims to inform, provoke, and spark something within listeners.  

Jackson struck gold with 1986’s “Control,” and aimed to keep that ball rolling with “Rhythm Nation” in 1989. The album was released amid the AIDS epidemic with widespread hunger and homelessness still rampant in America. The spoken-word intro, “Interlude: Pledge,” defines “Rhythm Nation” as “a nation with no geographic boundaries/Bound together through our beliefs.” 

The album jumps right into reflecting the times, as Jackson belts out, “Let’s work together to improve our way of life/Join voices in protest to social injustice.” Atop bass, electric guitar, and a swell of drums, the chorus repeats the refrain “we are a part of the rhythm nation,” fit for a chant at a protest. 

Think of the title track as the album’s manifesto, and “State of the World” as the true nitty-gritty exploration of the issues mentioned. Jackson tells multiple stories that paint the picture of daily struggles of American life. In the first verse she sings, “Fifteen: the mother is a runaway/No time for dreams or goals/Pressure is so strong/Her body she has sold so her child can eat.” Less than a minute later, she subs in another story, “​​Lil’ Johnny, all alone/His only friend, the doll he carries with him/Goes to school each and every day/To be teased because he has no place to stay.” Turning out a catchy song that addresses sex work and homelessness is a pretty miraculous feat for any artist, and Jackson performs with ease. 

She mentions a “Lil’ Johnny” character that could be serving a greater purpose. Perhaps “Johnny” represents a young queer child struggling to fit in with his peers–with the mention of his doll being a possible indicator. A casual definition of a “Lil’ Johnny” describes a small, naive, and innocent boy. The boy Jackson sings of easily fits into this definition and represents small children who grapple with life’s challenges. 

Continuing to draw inspiration from children, “Livin’ In A World (They Didn’t Make),” touches on hate being taught, not being innate. The song was inspired by a Jan. 1989 California school shooting that left five children dead, all Southeast Asian refugees. By expanding the scope beyond a general category of “children,” Jackson pushes listeners to think about how children of color are often more vulnerable to danger. She holds no feelings back throughout the song, as she argues that kids are “Payin’ for a lot of adult mistakes,” and asks, “How much of this madness can they take, our children?” In a final attempt at a wake-up call, the song closes with an audio clip of children screaming in fear mixed with gunshots. This jolting audio is a chilling wake-up call for the many Americans that have become desensitized to violence, and pushes the listener to feel more concerned with violence. 

After several consecutively political tracks, Jackson spends some time singing about friendship (“Alright”), infatuation (“Escapade”), and tenderness (“Someday Is Tonight”). But in the end, she makes a point to close with a sentiment encouraging an equality-focused mindset. “In complete darkness, we are all the same/It is only our knowledge and wisdom that separates us/Don’t let your eyes deceive you,” she says softly. She’s spent the preceding 65 minutes making her case for compassion, equality, and education, and now leaves you with a sentiment meant to stir, regardless of political or social beliefs. Her identity as a Black woman legitimizes her arguments even if they don’t directly describe her own experiences. She saves her personal point of view for the happier songs, and takes the role of narrator for the political numbers. In the end, Jackson looks to the future and is unsure of what will come tomorrow, but can only hope that she’s encouraged a positive change. 

Photo by Dave Free & retOne 

Cut to 28 years later, and find Kendrick Lamar’s ingenious fourth album “DAMN.” The record stands as an updated version of “Rhythm Nation,” but from a male perspective, directly addressing detractors with razor-focus as he expresses hopelessness, politics, and power without breaking a sweat. 

“DAMN.” arrived only a few short months after Donald Trump’s inauguration and reflects the dejected spirit of many Americans, specifically Black Americans, at the time. For nearly a decade prior, the Compton-born rapper gained acclaim as a bright star of the West Coast hip-hop scene. Lamar’s 2015 album “To Pimp A Butterfly” spurred several hits, most notably “Alright” which sparked controversy. This backlash is mentioned forthright on “DAMN.,” going as far as using a clip of Fox News host Geraldo Rivera saying, “This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” This audio clip sets the tone for most of the album, and allows Lamar’s sentiments to directly respond to the criticism and blatant racism hurled at him as a successful Black man despite the odds. 

“DNA.” asserts Lamar’s authority immediately, firing out the line, “You mothafuckas can’t tell me nothin’/I’d rather die than to listen to you/My DNA not for imitation/Your DNA an abomination,” at lightning speed immediately after the Rivera soundbite. Lamar opts for a method opposite of Jackson’s polished delivery, but the effect is even more commanding. The passion in his voice is palpable, and only further illustrates how close the themes are to his heart. 

While “DNA.” is the perfect high-octane introduction to Lamar’s point of view, “XXX.” stands are the strongest pillar of the album. The song opens with an acapella intro by producer and singer Bēkon: “America/God bless you if it’s good to ya/America, please take my hand/Can you help me understand?” In many ways, the song is a direct follow-up to Jackson’s “State of The World,” but this time told through the perspective of a Black man in 2017. Just like Jackson did on her song, Lamar references that same young boy, and tells us that, “Johnny don't wanna go to school no mo’, no mo’/Johnny said books ain’t cool no mo’/Johnny wanna be a rapper like his big cousin.” Now that both artists have used the same figure of speech, it’s clear that the name’s use is far from random. The inclusion of the line “Johnny wanna be a rapper like his big cousin,” likely acts as a commentary on how sensationalized rap and hip-hop culture has become, and how it affects young kids with aspirations. In 2017, “Johnny” is no longer concerned with being made fun of at school, he just wants to make it big and have his 15 minutes. Lamar doesn’t make a case for or against Johnny’s goals, but offers them up for interpretation. 

After filling us in on what Johnny’s been up to, the song pulls the curtain back on American hypocrisy, line after line. Lamar situates himself as a hypocrite, saying, “I chip a n****, then throw the blower in his lap/Walk myself to the court like, ‘Bitch, I did that!’” before quickly changing his tone and saying, “Alright, kids, we’re gonna talk about gun control.” By placing himself in this role, he reflects the typically conservative hypocrisy found in defending the second amendment, but not children or anyone else victim to violence. “It’s nasty when you set us up then roll the dice, then bet us up/You overnight the big rifles, then tell Fox to be scared of us/Gang members or terrorists, et cetera, et cetera/America’s reflections of me, that's what a mirror does,” he heaves. His pronunciation of “that’s what a mirror does,” is tweaked to sound like “that’s what Ameri-does.” The slight change emphasizes how American culture predestines Black men for failure, and details that by looking into America’s mirror, Lamar sees this country’s predetermined image of him, instead of who he really is. 

As a result of being misunderstood, he laments on the confessional cut, “FEEL.” “I feel like it ain’t no tomorrow, fuck the world/The world is endin’, I'm done pretendin’/And fuck you if you get offended,” he confesses. A deep sense of hopelessness is conveyed throughout, and the song is a vessel for his emotional catharsis. “Ain’t nobody praying for me,” is repeated throughout, and is used to depict his grave way of thinking. With all the forces working against him, it’s no wonder that he feels as if no one is looking out for him. 

Though the movement had been active for several preceding years, “DAMN.” eerily predates the boom of Black Lives Matter by just a few years. In a society that labels Black Americans as “strong” as means to suppress their feelings and complexities, Lamar’s confessional approach to the album is courageous. Each song is a puzzle piece that adds to the broader picture of his personal anecdotes about identity and his reactions to life. 

Photo by Julia Johnson + Cody Cloud

Building off Jackson’s call for unity and Lamar’s frustration with the present, Janelle Monáe uses her third studio album, “Dirty Computer” to look to the future and write her own manifesto for fellow “free-ass motherfuckers.”

Monáe’s first two albums explored life, love, and more as her cyborg alter-ego “Cindi Mayweather.” On “Dirty Computer,” she sings from the perspective of a more autobiographical character, “Jane 57821.” In 2018 Monáe came out as queer, (adopting the label “free-ass motherfucker” in place of traditional identifiers) and this personal discovery is explored across many of the songs through her afro-futurist lens. The title, “Dirty Computer,” is a phrase Monáe adopted to represent those marginalized by society for their differences and imperfections. To her, being a “dirty computer” means finding value in attributes that others may not, and saying, “I’m a dirty computer, but I too am American.

Like anyone, Monáe’s perspective is informed by her identity. The intersectionality of being a queer Black woman is embedded in her storytelling and is what makes moments like “Crazy, Classic, Life” so stirring. “We don’t need another ruler/All of my friends are kings/I’m not America's nightmare/I’m the American dream,” she sings. In some ways, “Lil’ Johnny” is now “Jane 57821.” But the character has matured, and is now unafraid to fight for change–no matter the cost. She and her fellow “dirty computers” reject capitalistic systems that have kept them down for too long–and really, we might be better off if Monáe and her friends were the leaders of this country. The song cleverly prologues the rest of the album, setting the scene for the expressions of “dirtiness” to come. 

“Screwed” provides backstory to the earlier declarations, and finds Monáe and Zoë Kravitz melding their voices together atop a guitar and synth groove, singing, “I hear the sirens callin’/And the bombs are fallin’ in the streets/We’re all screwed.” The word “screwed” acts as a double entendre for the state of the world, and for sex. In the chorus she sings, “You fucked the world up now, we’ll fuck it all back down,” as an act of defiance against the bleak state of affairs she faces. Similarly to Lamar’s approach on “DAMN.,” the themes in the song directly reflect American life in the late 2010’s. She promises that no matter how hard outside forces try to disrupt harmony, she and the other “dirty computers” will retaliate twice as hard. This sentiment came to be realized in many of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests across the country. Her promise to “fuck it all back down” is a clear-eyed prediction of what came just a few years later. 

Aside from the strong themes, the album’s soundscape is a feast for the ears. ‘70s funk, thudding hip-hop, sweet and airy synth-driven pop, and ‘80s pop-leaning soul weave together to create a seamless genre-defying experience. She lands on the bubbly and suggestive cut, “Pynk,” that doesn’t aim to disarm, but rather gush over infatuation. Now that the world’s ended and all hell has broken loose, she finds something sweet that she wants to shout about from the rooftops. She uses the metaphor “Pynk” to suggestively imply several innuendos. “Pynk where it’s deepest inside, crazy/Pynk beyond forest and thighs,” she sings in a high-pitched lilt. We find her openly embracing her queerness for the first time in her career with a “you do you boo” attitude, singing, “‘Cause, boy, it’s cool if you got blue/We got the pynk.” 

Her quest for unity is punctuated by sweltering confessions (“Make Me Feel”), self-acceptance (“I Like That”), and fear of what’s to come (“So Afraid”). In the end, she arrives at the most fervent moment, “Americans.” As organ-esque synthesizers swell up, she sings, “We will win this fight, let all souls be brave/We’ll find a way to heaven, we’ll find a way.” The chorus is a representation of Monáe’s journey to overcome obstacles, while reminding listeners that there’s still work to be done. “Love me, baby, love me for who I am/Fallen angels, sing and clap your hands/Don’t try to take my country, I will defend my land/I’m not crazy, baby, naw, I’m American,” she beams. This is not the oppressor’s country anymore, she and the other “free-ass motherfuckers” have come out on top. 

In Monáe’s America, no one is left out. Her vision is afro-futurist, and her stories beg the question of what this country might be like if we were to embrace the “dirty computers.” Declarations such as “Until Latinos and Latinas don’t have to run from walls/This is not my America,” lead the song towards its close, and several other marginalized groups are acknowledged. Her effort to include all in her version of America echoes Jackson’s outro to “Rhythm Nation,” calling for people to see each other as equal. Monáe builds off this concept and points out that each of us are different, and that’s to be celebrated. To round out the journey, she leaves us with a final sentiment, “But I tell you today that the devil is a liar/Because it's gon’ be my America before it's all over.” 

If you listen to these albums today, “Rhythm Nation” represents America’s past, “DAMN.” reflects the present, and “Dirty Computer” blueprints the future. The three artists don’t give listeners the step-by-step approach to solving racism or bigotry, but that’s not the intention. They aren’t here to tell you how to fix everything, but instead offer tales of injustice, pain, hopelessness, strength, and perseverance that are meant to inspire progress. 

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