There was a moment in Janelle Monáe’s headlining Open Spaces show that, if one thinks about it, took a career’s worth of traveling to arrive at.
After performing for more than an hour to a near-capacity Starlight Theatre crowd blanketed under crisp 50-degree October air, Monáe paused for an interlude during “I Got The Juice,” a bouncy, Pharrell-produced pop song of chest-thumping self-affirmation.
For most of the night, Monáe aptly treated her on-stage jaunt as both a homecoming and a coronation (at one point performing while sitting on an actual throne). Yet, for a night centered around her, the Wyandotte County-born star took deft pivots to include Kansas City in the revelry.
“If I call you on stage, I need you to show everybody why you’ve got the juice,” the 5-foot Monáe mandated.
And so she began selecting. First, a swaggering teenage boy, head full of dreadlocks, from the F. L. Schlagle High School band. Monáe, herself an F. L. Schlagle Fine Arts alumna, had gifted the school a gang of tickets.
Next, Monáe chose a shy, but ecstatic, young mixed-race woman wearing an “Electric Lady” jacket. Then a rambunctious forty-something white woman named Hannah, and finally Darryl Ammons, the F. L. Schlagle Fine Arts teacher Monae often credits as the early orchestrator of her interest in the fine arts and her pursuit of a music career.
One by one, Monáe gave each a moment to dance like no one was watching, an opportunity to exorcise inhibitions and any worry of outside perception in order to celebrate themselves.
It was essentially a microcosm of Monáe’s personal and career trajectory, from an obscure artist often afraid to fully reveal herself to a dazzling Oscar and Grammy-nominated star, one self-assured enough to have crafted “Dirty Computer,” a sharp, queer pop album hailed by critics as one of the most fearless and awe-inspiring pieces of pop released this year.
Monáe brought her Dirty Computer Tour, with all its flamboyant ferocity, Saturday night as she held her first concert in Kansas City in nearly five years. The headline offering for the Open Spaces music and arts festival was an astounding homecoming that showcased just how far the Wyandotte wunderkind had come.
“From performing at Big Eleven Lake and Indian Springs Malls talent shows ... This place, Kansas City, has taught me so much about myself,” Monáe told the crowd.
Assurance and audacity were the night’s common threads. After all, a queer, dark-skinned black woman running through a set list of tunes hinged on sex-positivity (“Screwed,” “Make Me Feel”), feminism (“Django Jane”) and same-sex attraction (“Q.U.E.E.N.,” “Pynk”), in socially conservative Missouri — while wearing vagina pants — requires at least a touch of nerve and considerably more panache.
Yet the night wasn’t just about shock and awe.
Monáe, who this year came out as pansexual (and professed being nervous at how her family in Kansas City would take the news), used the night to affirm those she felt might have been touched by “Dirty Computer” the most.
“Tonight we celebrate self-love even if that makes others uncomfortable,” she said, before shouting out members of the LGBTQIA community in the audience and proclaiming “Happy Pride!” before entering into “Primetime,” a smoldering ballad about ubiquitous love from her 2013 album, The Electric Lady.
More than 50 members of Monáe’s Kansas City, Kan., family were present, including her mother, father and grandmother, as well as Kansas City Mayor Sly James, city councilmen, congressional candidates, faculty and students from her alma mater, and lifelong friends.
“You are the reason I am where I am today,” Monáe said to the crowd. “I want anyone with aspirations to know that great things come from this place. You can do and be anything you want to be.”
A human message from a digital girl in an analog world.
Set List: Dirty Computer; Crazy, Classic, Life; Screwed; Django Jane; Q.U.E.E.N.; Electric Lady; Primetime; Pynk; Yoga; I Like That; Don’t Judge Me; Make Me Feel; I Got The Juice; Tightrope; Come Alive.