That Janelle Monáe's new song clocks in at over six and a half minutes long — an eternity in today's 3:30-radio-friendly-hits age — speaks to the extensive history of violence that inspired it.
In the song, "Hell You Talmbout," Monáe, the psychedelic-soul heiress to George Clinton's throne if there ever was one, abandons her spaced-out aesthetic for a grounded piece of realism perfectly fit for the here and now.
The formula for the song is simple, and therein lies its strength: Monáe and her Wondaland Records labelmates repeat the names of black men and women who have been killed by police officers or by other vigilantes, both in American history (Emmit Till and Amadou Diallo) and in very recent events (Eric Garner and Michael Brown).
"Sandra Bland: Say her name!" Monáe's usually polished voice trembles over the track, invoking Bland's death in a Texas jail cell, which happened only weeks before the song's release last Friday.
The desperation in her vibrato lets it all hang; this isn't the eccentric R&B queen who "only dates androids," but rather an earthly black Kansas City native who has read the writing on the wall. It's a song for the #BlackLivesMatter moment, only made more so by the stripped-down, almost marching band beat that provides the track's foundation. In a way that this generation has not seen often enough from major artists, the beat and the gospel-esque refrains ("Say Her Name!") are unmistakably made for protesting.
It's a big step for Monáe, who previously proclaimed that she's "really not" into politics.
“This song is a vessel,” she explained on Instagram.
“It carries the unbearable anguish of millions. We recorded it to channel the pain, fear, and trauma caused by the ongoing slaughter of our brothers and sisters. We recorded it to challenge the indifference, disregard, and negligence of all who remain quiet about this issue. Silence is our enemy. Sound is our weapon. They say a question lives forever until it gets the answer it deserves… Won't you say their names?”
The day it was released, Monáe performed “Hell You Talmbout,” (What The Hell Are You Talking About?) along with two others songs on NBC's Today show. As the performance winded down, she began to speak about the meaning of the song, before her audio was cut off by an anchor. It was unclear if she was intentionally cut off by production, but the following day the Today show posted both Monáe's other performances on their website. “Hell You Talmbout,” her newest song, had been left out entirely.
Not that it mattered. The day before the show she had already planned a march and a protest in New York City, and the following day she held one at the Department of Justice headquarters in Washington D.C.
With such a simple foundation for the powerful song, it's not a stretch to foresee a point in time where the do-it-yourself song might become a staple of the nation's renewed civil-rights movement, #BlackLivesMatter.
The sustained movement has already brought Monáe back down to earth from her extraterrestrial flights of fancy. How many more activists will her song enlist?
After all, with 60 unarmed black men and women killed by police or who have died in police custody so far this year, according to the Guardian, there will be many more names left to say in the very near future.
Daniel Rivero is a producer/reporter for Fusion who focuses on police and justice issues. He also skateboards, does a bunch of arts related things on his off time, and likes Cuban coffee.