A version of this story about Janelle Monáe first appeared in the Race Begins issue of TheWrap’s awards magazine.
When Stacey Abrams and the filmmakers behind the documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy” came to Janelle Monáe in the spring of 2020, the singer, songwriter and actress had no intention of going into the studio to record any new music. “Like the rest of the world, I was trying to make sense of the world we were living in,” she said. “We were in a pandemic, people were dying, we had an election coming.
“But I watched the documentary, which walks through voter suppression and where we are and how far we’ve come or how far we haven’t come. And I felt I had a responsibility to show up for Stacey and write a song about the state of our country. We need to all pitch in and educate each other and fight against those who are abusing their powers.”
Monáe herself experienced voting irregularities when she went to the polls in 2017 to vote for Atlanta mayoral candidate Keisha Lance Bottoms, only to find that her district had been gerrymandered out of Atlanta. (After the election, which Bottoms won, that districting was reversed.) “I felt like my power was taken away from me,” she said. “My vote was taken away from me. And it also let me know how important local elections were and how much more engaged I should have been.”
But Monáe also knew that she had to write a song that went beyond her own experience. “It had to feel inclusive,” she said. “It could not just be about me, it had to be about we. I imagined myself marching with those who are constantly on the front lines, fighting for Black lives — what would I want to hear? I wouldn’t want to hear anything depressing, I’d want to hear something to motivate me.”
Nathaniel Irvin III, the song’s producer and co-writer (with Monáe and George A. Peters II), gave Monáe a selection of musical beds, she knew immediately which instrumental backing she wanted to use. “I look at everything as energy,” she said. “How can I create music that gives energy when we’re all fatigued mentally, spiritually, emotionally and physically? And the music felt triumphant. It had the soul, it had the funk, it had the swag.”
To write the song “Turntables,” she originally began toying with the phrase “the rooster has come home to roost” – which, she said, “would talk about what America had done to marginalize folks and how everything is coming back around. But then I started thinking about turning the tables, and about revolutions. We’re in a revolutionary moment with politics and with Black Lives Matter and with voices being amplified to the loudest degree possible. And I started thinking about when you put a record on the record player, it’s RPM, revolutions per minute. I knew that it was something special with that metaphor, and with naming the song ‘Turntables.'”
There’s a real anger that flows through the song, with lyrics that include “America, you a lie” and “You f— up the kitchen, then you should do the dishes.” It worried Monáe to the point where she figured that if Abrams or directors Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés thought the lyrics were too radical, she’d put it on her own album rather than change the lyrics.
“I know that Stacey is a public servant, and I was like, ‘OK, maybe some of the things that I’m saying might be a little too radical for her.’ And I thought that if they had notes, I would probably just keep this one for myself, because I won’t go back and dilute how I’m feeling. I had to be honest.
“But when she heard it and the directors heard it, there were no notes, nobody saying, ‘Change this’ or ‘You can’t say this word.’ We were all on the same page — because in the fight we’re in, this is the music we need to hear.”