Soul Train Awards Reject the Cis-Tem, Rename Gendered Award for Janelle Monáe

Feature image of Janelle Monáe accepting the Spirit of Soul award at the 2023 Soul Train Awards by Paras Griffin/Getty Images for BET.

On Sunday night at the 36th annual Soul Train Awards, Janelle Monáe received the night’s highest honor — the Spirit of Soul Award. Previously called the Lady of Soul Award (past awardees include Erykah Badu, Jill Scott, Alicia Keys, Mary J. Blige, Mariah Carey, Jasmine Sullivan, and Beyoncé to name a few), the award is one of the most illustrious that an R&B singer can win in their career. It’s a crowning jewel. As reported by Them.us, BET announced earlier this month that they were changing the award’s title in Janelle Monáe’s honor. Monáe was given the award by their protégés, the rap duo Flyanna Boss.

During their acceptance speech, Monáe spoke to the significance of the occasion. “There’s nothing like being recognized by your own family,” Monáe said on Sunday. “I’m so honored to have something like this for us that continues to evolve and showcase so many different forms of what soul can be.” This is especially true coming from to come from Soul Train — a media brand with over 50 years of close association with excellence in Black music.

The Spirit of Soul award is often thought of in Black communities as akin to a lifetime achievement, and as such Monáe reflected on their body of work thus far: “I wanted to shine a light on our community through my storytelling, through the art that I make through music, movies, fashion; bringing it back around to us, to our Blackness, to our beauty,” they said. “And I cannot help but think about the spirit of so many who’ve had to whisper to me, ‘thank you,’ in my ear because they did not feel seen. They did not feel safe. And they felt unheard for far too long. I’m thankful to be able to show up for you.”

Who’s cutting onions!! You simply cannot tell me that you aren’t tearing up right now!? Like??

In a pitch perfect wrap up (I’d expect nothing else from my ArchAndroid), Monáe invoked their own mentor, Prince, saying: “I’m thankful for the spirit of so many who have come before me. The spirit of Prince, whose spirit taught me ‘I’m not a woman. I’m not a man. I am something that you’ll never understand.’”

Janelle Monáe also opened the Soul Train Awards with a medley from their latest album The Age of Pleasure, already a queer classic and up for this year’s Album of the Year at the Grammys. The combination of “Float” and “Champagne Shit” will feel familiar to anyone who saw Janelle Monáe on tour this year, as the same two songs opened her tour.  Notably, Monáe changed the closing lyrics of “Float,” which are designed as a toast, from cheering to “the fucked up shit we can’t erase” (as in, taking in all our mistakes as well as our beauty) to “to the people they can’t erase,” a nod to the night’s historic proceedings. Janelle smiled and raised their glass to the audience the audience, “they cannot erase us!”

As is often the way with Janelle Monáe performing, sapphics fall in their wake — the joy of watching Keke Palmer in the last minute of here simply is the best. (Watching Keke Palmer have joy right now is the best, no matter what.)

The Soul Train Awards’ decision to rename the Lady of Soul award to better reflect Janelle Monáe as a nonbinary artist comes at a time when many other award shows are grappling with how to adjust, make room, or otherwise embrace gender neutral categories in their ceremonies. In 2010, the Grammys moved towards gender neutral language, however many other major award shows — including the Emmys, Oscars, and Tonys — still do not. In fact, earlier this year, nonbinary star of the Broadway show & Juliet Justin David Sullivan pulled out of Tonys consideration due to the show’s gendered acting categories. When the Tonys aired in June, both the lead and supporting gendered acting awards for musicals, in categories intended to honor male-identified actors, went to two Black nonbinary actors: J. Harrison-Ghee for Some Like It Hot, and Glee alum Alex Newell for Shucked. The Soul Train Awards, a majority Black award show and annual Black community event, is in so many ways paving the way here. And I couldn’t be more proud of that fact.

And this is not completely related to the more serious matters at hand of Janelle Monáe quite literally changing the cis-tem at the Soul Train Awards, hosted by traditionally conservative Black media company BET.

However!

Just in case you missed it!! Janelle Monáe also went viral last week after they won a top-off with Usher in Vegas right before Thanksgiving.  I personally watched this video carousel an umpteen number of times that I could no longer count and I’ve blushed and squirmed at each and every one of them?

All I’m saying is, big week for Janelle Monáe.

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Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 681 articles for us.

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