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2015 essay

This the future: Janet Jackson

Indeed, big sister Janet already has an enduring body of artistic and philanthropic achievement, but she ain’t through.

The year is 2015.

Janet Jackson’s Rhythm Nation 1814. Released 26 years ago.

janet. Released 22 years ago, 

The Velvet Rope. Released 18 years ago, 

That’s a trilogy of my youth. Those records (and subsequent tours) stand today as proof that Ms. Damita Jo was/is Afrofuture – sonically, lyrically, stylistically, visually, choreographically, intellectually, spiritually, alladat. She gave us art about race, gender, sexuality, love, poverty, intimate partner violence, HIV/AIDS, and social injustice. On “New Agenda”
from the janet. album she wrote and sang these words:

Because of my gender / I’ve heard “no” too many times / Because of my race / I’ve heard “no” too many times / But with every “no” / I grow in strength / That is why / African-American woman / I stand tall with pride. 

Janet has carried Us with her to the top of the charts and around the world. She is one who has been for me as she described the QUEEN Tina Turner for her: she “doesn’t seem to have a beginning or an end in my life. I felt her music was always there, and I feel like it always will be.” Indeed, big sister Janet already has an enduring body of artistic and philanthropic achievement, but she ain’t through.

Janet Jackson accepting Ultimate Icon Award

This year she is launching her Rhythm Nation record label, making her the first African-American woman recording artist to form her own record
label
. She is also releasing her new record on this label and going on a world tour that already has sold out dates. As she accepted the Ultimate Icon award at the 2015 BET Awards she told us all, “Twenty-five years ago, we created Rhythm Nation hoping the world could be a better place. But today there is even more to be done.”

Janet and Michael Jackson dance in sync during the “Scream” video

Janet put out her first record 33 years ago in 1982, a year before I was born. (Control came out in ‘86 when I was 3!) Considering that blows my mind because there’s no way enough time has passed to make me 32 and her 49. We’re still running the thread of time that goes from “Miss You Much” to “Runaway” to “That’s the Way Love Goes” to  “Got ‘til It’s Gone” to her feature on “What’s It Gonna Be” to “Someone to Call My Lover”, so I am somewhere between training wheels and registering for my first college classes. She’s still in box braids and big hoop earrings writing poetry and cussing Tupac out. Or being lonely but not letting just anybody hold her in her red hair and fedora. Or making futuristic videos with her
big bro and Busta Rhymes. Okay?

Okay. Conceding that time has passed, I make what should be now the obvious confession: I grew up on Janet. She – like Whitney, like House Party movies, like Cinderella Brandy, like 100.1 The Beat playing Maxwell’s “Ascension” (Shouldn’t I. re-uh-lize… youuu’re the high-est of the high?…) on a Saturday afternoon, like 25-cent drinks I sold for 50 cents apiece, like new Living Single episodes, like Dominique Dawes, like Flo-Jo and Jackie and Gail – holds a special place for me. 

MTV feature on Janet Jackson for The Velvet Rope album

She was creative, eclectic (but not in an obnoxious way), proud and inclusive of her heritage, adventurous, sensual, demanding, sensitive, caring, pensive, sometimes shy but not shrinking. I watched her play with ideas of gender and continuously define for herself what it is to be a woman. I didn’t even know until this year she had considered herself to be a tomboy – both a “Whoaa!” thing and a “That actually makes sense” thing to me now. It only deepens my understanding of why I relate(d) to her as the tree climbing, skating holes in pants, playing in the mud girl-child. She is a major inspiration for me seeing I need not fret over performing gender “correctly” – Is this too “girly” and vulnerable? Is this too “masculine” and rough? – or put too much stock in the messages “Girls don’t do that!” I have heard since I began doing things girls shouldn’t/can’t/don’t do. (Which at times feels like everything including “exist.”) I can say “Eh. Screw it” and grab the freedom not to bend myself to fit inside an idea of what a woman is (or should do or should say) that doesn’t include all of me. I can bring out and be all the woman that is me – in part because many women, including Janet Jackson, have lived in/as/for themselves dynamically.

Gif of Janet Jackson album covers from 1982’s Janet Jackson to 2008’s Discipline

I am STILL getting so much life from her songs, her message, her movement, her style. It’s perhaps a strange thing to recognize and audacious thing to say, but I have seen and do see myself in Janet Jackson. In 17 years I’ll be like her, coming out here telling y’all I’m not close to finished.

This the future.

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