Even without his untimely passing the day before her Congo Square performance on the opening day of 2016 New Orleans Jazz Fest, it’s likely that Janelle Monae would have included some tribute to Prince in her set. His “Let’s Go Crazy” is one of her regular live covers.
Along with songs by the Jackson 5 and James Brown, the cover versions serve as sort of a primer on her: fierce, authoritative funk, playful joy and, most Prince-like, a sexy androgyny that borrows cool from across gender lines. (Like the Godfather of Soul, at the end of Monae’s show a valet tosses a jacket across her shoulders.)
His influence seems apparent in her general creative vision, as well. Like Prince and his sprawling family of associated acts, her network of artists under the Wondaland imprint is broad, and constantly working in mutual collaboration.
When Prince headlined the 20th-anniversary edition of the Essence Festival in 2014, Janelle Monae was one of the acts he selected for a curated mainstage roster that was all Prince’s choice; during her version of “Let’s Go Crazy” then, he sneaked onto the stage with little fanfare to add his own guitar to the tribute.
The year before, he appeared on the slinky, slow-grinding track “Givin Em What They Love,” on her sophomore album “The Electric Lady.”
Monae opened her set at Congo Square with “Givin Em What They Love,” after announcing that the set would be dedicated to her late mentor.
“He was free, he was fearless, he was music. He was rock and roll. He was on beat,” she said.
“I am — because he was.”
Leading a band dressed all in white, Monae tore through her set: the snapping handclaps of “Dance Apocalyptic,” the warm, laid-back funk groove of the title track to “The Electric Lady,” the anthemic “Cold War” and hyperactive, sizzling soul of “Tightrope,” from her debut album, “The ArchAndroid.”
Songs were interspersed with a stream of conversation about Prince. Introducing “Q.U.E.E.N.,” she revealed that the BET Awards show had suggested she not appear, and that “this man, who fought for artists and creativity, made a call and said, ‘y’all better put Janelle on that stage.’ Because of that man, this song was able to live and be heard.”
After a languid “I Feel Good,” she told the story of her first interaction with her mentor: He called her backstage, after she’d played a concert he couldn’t make it to, and invited her to a jam session at his home that lasted for seven hours. “I love your jazz voice,” he’d said.
In memory, she sang the tear-jerking Charlie Chaplin-penned jazz standard “Smile.”
Prince’s influence on music and musicians is immeasurable, but Monae — with her gender-fluid style, her passions for showmanship and storytelling, her eclectic and sharp stirring-together of disco, funk, gospel and pop — is one of his most visible inheritors, and was also, of course, his friend. Since news of his death broke on Thursday, though, she had remained publicly quiet, posting nothing on social media and apparently giving no quotes to press.
Her show at Congo Square was a statement and then some.
On the big screens, you could see the famously composed performer leaking tears as she performed a cover of Prince’s “Take Me With U.” It ran directly into the first shiver-inducing synthesizer wave of “Let’s Go Crazy,” and as she delivered that song, she seemed captured in catharsis.
She kicked, screamed and jumped, as if her body was processing waves of love and grief. And she definitely wasn’t the only person at Congo Square who was dancing and crying at the same time.
Her pompadour shook loose. As guitarist Kellindo Parker gamely took on Prince’s solo, she dropped to her knees.
At the close, she was carried bodily offstage. It was 20 minutes early, by Jazz Fest’s clock, but following those ecstasies, what else was left? Only the afterworld.