Pop star Janelle Monáe is at once retro and futuristic, disarmingly down-to-earth and freakishly abstract. Here, she reveals the strategy behind her trendsetting look, the origins of her “divinely inspired” alter ego, and what it’s like to hang out with the president
By Eliza C. Thompson
Janelle Monáe may have been born to sing, dance, and write some of the most creative pop albums ever to hit an iPod, but the world wouldn’t have known about her if it weren’t for the video for “Tightrope.” The 2010 breakout single (featuring Big Boi) made her an Internet sensation, garnering more than 11 million hits on YouTube. In the video, the 27-year-old strides on screen with a move that can only be described as an ostrich walk, then treads an imaginary tightrope with a complicated series of swishy steps that make her feet look like they’re on tiny invisible wheels. It’s the kind of routine that almost no living person could pull off without looking like a massive idiot, but Monáe can make anything look good. Plus, the song is awesome. So awesome, in fact, that it earned Monáe multiple invites to the White House to perform for the Obamas, as well as a legion of fans who can’t wait to see what she’ll come up with next.
Born in Kansas City, KS, Monáe sounds a bit like Lauryn Hill, if Hill listened to lots of show tunes and Diana Ross and then time-traveled to the year 2113. She draws inspiration from legends like Stevie Wonder and Prince, as well as Michael Jackson, who certainly would have enjoyed the “Tightrope” dance if he had lived to see it. Usually clad in black-and-white menswear (lots of tuxedos and patent-leather oxfords) and often rocking a giant pompadour that would make Elvis cry, she looks like someone from an earlier era. Her music, though, is completely modern. The ArchAndroid, her first full-length, released in 2010, is a kaleidoscopic mix of soul, R&B, funk, and pop, and features cameos from fellow iconoclasts like Saul Williams and Of Montreal’s Kevin Barnes. It is an ambitious record, but she still manages the rare feat of achieving mainstream success without compromising her artistic vision.
It’s her artistic vision, however, where things get complicated with Monáe, especially if you’re a label exec looking for a radio hit. The ArchAndroid actually consists of chapters two and three of an ongoing sci-fi saga that began in 2007 with Monáe’s debut EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase). The epic tale follows her alter ego Cindi Mayweather, an android sent to free citizens of the future city Metropolis from the oppressive regime of the Great Divide, which uses time travel to suppress freedom and love. Monáe has called Cindi the mediator between the oppressed and the oppressor, quoting the 1927 sci-fi film Metropolis to explain, “‘The mediator between head and hands must be the heart,’ and Cindi is the heart.” Think Neo from The Matrix, but smarter.
Monáe is so committed to her Cindi persona that she gives up very little straightforward information about her personal life. When I ask her a series of innocuous questions about her day-to-day activities, I’m met with a confusing volley of totally out-there responses.
Do you have any pets?
“A pet llama. The grandson of Michael Jackson’s pet llama at Neverland.”
What do you do for fun when you’re not on the road?
“Skiing in my backyard, eating with Einstein’s nephew, and giving lectures at Spelman College.”
Are you single or in a relationship?
“I’m in an open relationship with two androids and a cyborg.”
It’s surprising, given sound bites like these, that Monáe has become the face of such mainstream brands as CoverGirl and Sonos. But despite all the billboards bearing her luminous likeness, she hasn’t forgotten her origins. Not long ago, she was living in a boarding house, selling copies of her self-produced EP, The Audition, for five bucks a pop. It wasn’t until 2006 that she caught her big break, working with Big Boi on the Outkast soundtrack Idlewild. He was so impressed that he told his friend Sean Combs (aka Diddy) to check out her tunes, and before long, she had a contract with Diddy’s label, Bad Boy Records. The aforementioned Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) failed to make much of an impact, but The ArchAndroid debuted at number 17 on the Billboard 200 and earned spots on the 2010 year-end best lists of The Village Voice, Spin, NME, Vibe, and Pitchfork.
Her highly anticipated sophomore album, The Electric Lady, is due out this fall, and while Cindi Mayweather’s goals have changed slightly since The ArchAndroid, Monáe’s unique approach to her music has not. In the spring, she released a video for the single “Q.U.E.E.N.” that found her paired with Erykah Badu in, according to the female narrator, “a Living Museum, where legendary rebels from throughout history are frozen in suspended animation.” The clip also features a skull-shaped record player, a poodle with hair teased to match Badu’s, and Cindi/Janelle leading a chorus line of dancers in mod minidresses.
Monáe took a break from finishing up her new LP in Atlanta to chat with BUST about what really makes the woman beneath the pompadour tick.
When did you first start singing?
I don’t remember. Singing is part of my DNA. Both sides of my family are musically inclined. I had living-room training. That’s when you go in a living room and sing in front of everybody, and then everybody sings with each other.
What was it like for you growing up in Kansas City?
I grew up in a very big family. My mom has nine sisters and two brothers, so right now I have over 50 first cousins. I never really had any need for outside friends because my family was enough for me. My parents both worked really hard. We were living from check to check, but I never felt like I was in need of anything. My mom supported me when I decided to get into the arts, and it was a great moment for us when I decided to do talent showcases. My family would watch us rehearse and then take me [to the shows] in a little two-door Dodge. The hardest thing for me has been being away from my family. My mother is moving to Atlanta, so I’m excited about that, and my sister is moving to Atlanta too, so I’m really excited about having them here with me.
Before you started making albums, you studied drama at a conservatory in New York. What led to that interest?
As great as Kansas and my family were, I wanted to leave after high school. I wanted to hone my craft, get better as a performer, and be involved with musical theater. But most importantly, I really just wanted a ticket out of Kansas City. I didn’t finish, but I learned a lot about myself. I grew up in predominantly African-American schools, so it was a culture shock for me when I moved to New York because I was the only black girl in my classes. I had to adjust, and people had to adjust to me. I also learned that I didn’t want to be in musical theater. I think it’s the control freak in me. I didn’t want to go from audition to audition and have my success be dependent on what I look like and whether or not I’m right for the role. So I started to plan for my future: to own my own label and write songs, plays, and concept albums that I could have full creative control over.
How did you support yourself before your music career took off?
After high school, I needed money to go to New York, but nobody would hire me. Then this lady from my church who was the supervisor at a cleaning service said, “Come here and I’ll hire you.” I was the youngest maid there, and all the women would ask me to sing while we cleaned. I was the only one with a clean record. A lot of the women were ex-convicts trying to get back on their feet. That was one of the most interesting jobs I’ve had. Then, when I moved to Atlanta, I worked at Office Depot. I got fired from that job because they caught me using the computer at the store to respond to my fans who had seen me perform. After that, I didn’t work any more. It was time. It was all or nothing. I pressed my own EP, The Audition, and I sold it for five dollars while living in a boarding house with five other girls.
Your last album, The ArchAndroid, referenced Fritz Lang’s Metropolis and had a very sci-fi feel. How did you get so into science fiction?
I would always watch The Twilight Zone with my grandmother, and I knew about Star Wars and things. But when I met [my producing partners] Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder, they got me into Isaac Asimov, artificial intelligence, and cybernetics. Chuck asked me to watch Metropolis, and I was like, Wow. I saw the parallels between growing up in Kansas City and the have-nots living underground, working for the haves. That constant struggle was something I could identify with because my parents worked day and night, trying to make a living. I thought science fiction was a great way of talking about the future. It doesn’t make people feel like you’re talking about things that are happening right now, so they don’t feel like you’re talking down to them. It gives the listener a different perspective.
Did sci-fi also influence your new album, The Electric Lady?
Absolutely. I was really inspired by Brave New World.
How does it relate to The ArchAndroid?
The ArchAndroid focused on self-realization: realizing your superpower and the things that you’re capable of doing. With The Electric Lady, we’re talking about self-actualization: being the change you want to see. It’s also more personal, more revealing. The new album deals with a new breed of woman.
What do you mean when you say “new breed of woman?”
To give an example, I mean Michelle Obama, or some of the women I met while performing at the Nobel Peace Prize Concert in Oslo in 2011, or Ellen DeGeneres. These are strong, bold women who are taking their stands and not being marginalized. Overall, it’s the connection of core values that makes us a new breed of woman, the things that we believe in—like the nonviolent approach, and wanting to make a direct effect on the next generation of women, and making sure that we’re saving that next generation of women from marginalization, discrimination, and oppression.
Will Cindi Mayweather appear on The Electric Lady?
Absolutely. She is a part of me, and I’m a part of her.
How did you come up with the idea for your alter ego?
I didn’t come up with it. God came up with it. It was...a revelation. It was something that I can’t fully take credit for. I’m a spiritual person, and I don’t think that my ideas are [fully] cultivated from me. I think a lot of it had to do with the Creator helping me create Cindi.
How did the “Q.U.E.E.N.” collaboration with Erykah Badu come about?
Erykah and I met a few years back. She was the first established female artist to reach out to me and brought me on tour with her. She said, “I wanted you on tour with me because you would keep me on my A-game.” She’s like a big sister to me. I talk to her every week. “Q.U.E.E.N.” was really inspired by our private conversations... about our communities, about society, and about how people look at women. She’s a musical hero of mine and a very strong force in the music industry, and she’s remained true to herself throughout [her career]. She’s constantly evolving, she thinks for herself, and she’s unafraid to fail. It’s inspirational and aspirational for me to watch.
Do you consider yourself a feminist?
I am a woman. I am a feminist. So, naturally, I feel my job is to stand up for our rights when they have been attacked. I also feel a responsibility to speak against marginalization of women through my music and messages.
I’ve heard you say that your black-and-white wardrobe is a tribute to your parents. Would you explain your uniform a little more for us?
Well, for one, I like how it makes me feel. A deeper meaning is that I always want to rebel against how a woman “should” dress. When I came into the music industry, no one who was mainstream at all was wearing tuxedoes. Women were, and still are, “supposed to” wear dresses and heels. I own all those things; I wear dresses, I wear heels. But at the end of the day, I won’t allow myself to be controlled. I felt like that was happening—“You need to look a certain way; you need to be marketed a certain way.” They just could not fathom how somebody who’s female would be successful wearing a tuxedo. So I picked a uniform. It was a punk approach. Kind of like, “Kiss my ass, I’m gonna wear the same thing every day, and I’m not gonna allow you to control me.” I picked the uniform, and I made sure that I stuck with it because it reminded me of my parents and how they had to put on the same uniform every day to go to work. I wanted to pay homage to working-class people. My grandmother had 16 brothers and sisters, and they shared the same pair of shoes. Every time I put on my outfit, I think about my grandmother, my dad, and my mom, and how hard they worked for me to be able to do this.
People sometimes make assumptions about your sexual orientation because you wear so much traditionally masculine clothing. What message do you hope to send about gender and identity with your uniform?
You don’t have to be a gay woman to wear a tuxedo or a straight woman to wear a tuxedo. I do not identify my armor as menswear or womenswear. If I did, I would be encouraging the acceptance of marginalization and stereotypes in our community.
Has anyone tried to pressure you to change your look since your early days in the industry?
The only pressure that you feel is the pressure that you put on yourself. Someone could really try to sell you their ideas [for your career], but I just never allow myself to feel like that. I thought more long-term than short-term. How would I feel in the long run if I had to go out and do stuff that I didn’t really believe in? My biggest fear was always feeling owned, or feeling like a slave, or feeling like I wasn’t in charge of my ideas.
You played at the inauguration this year. What was it like getting to meet President Obama?
Well, that wasn’t my first time. I’ve been to the White House four times now. I’m not trying to brag. I feel like somebody’s playing a trick. It just feels very surreal. Michelle Obama loved “Tightrope” so much. That’s the song that really got me to the White House. The first time I was there, I performed at a state dinner for South Korea. I got this letter in the mail that said, “The President and First Lady would like to invite you to be our performer for the state dinner. We love what you do, and we think you’d be a perfect fit.” That was just, Wow! They were sitting right in front of me. Then they invited me back for the Easter Egg Roll and the Christmas party, and then President Obama asked me to perform at this private event for the inauguration. It was crazy. I was standing on top of [Senior Advisor] Valerie Jarrett’s table.
Politics is obviously very important to you, as we heard on your single “Q.U.E.E.N.” Do you feel an obligation to address those subjects in your music?
With “Q.U.E.E.N.,” I did what was necessary. That song is for the marginalized. I’ve felt marginalized, being a black woman with big ideas. There are times when society can make you feel as though you shouldn’t be doing something because you’re this ethnicity, or you’re a woman, or whatever it may be. So I wanted to make an anthem for women all around. I wanted to make sure that I was raising questions and speaking up for those who don’t often get a chance to speak up.
Photographed by Alex Martinez
Makeup by Saisha Beecham
Hair by Caprice Green
Styled by Jabe Mabrey
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