A downside, perhaps, to the sheer imaginative power of Janelle Monáe is that it’s hard not to bring unreasonable expectations to any conversation one has with her. The musician and actor is on the phone from her home in Los Angeles, where for the last six months she has been sitting out lockdown. Monáe’s music career is dominated by sci-fi imagery, thrilling story arcs and inventiveness of a kind that has earned her comparisons to Prince, with whom she worked and could go toe-to-toe, not only on talent but also outlandish wardrobe decisions. The voice on the line, by contrast, is quiet, serious and devoid of all whimsy. She’s also terrifically earnest. To give an idea: Monáe is 34 but, asked to confirm her age, she says with what sounds like complete sincerity: “I’m timeless.”
She isn’t wrong, in a way; there is something about Monáe’s work that defies time and space, from her iconic first EP in 2007, Metropolis – in which she introduced her robotic alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, a character she used over the course of three albums to explore what happens when you break from convention – to the iconic 2018 feminist anthem Pynk, to her collaborations with everyone from Stevie Wonder to Grimes. Her music ranges wildly across the spectrum, taking in influences as various as cabaret, electronica, rap, orchestral, plastic pop and English folk, while falling within a cultural movement combining black history with sci-fi known as Afrofuturism. And this is before you even get to her acting career.
The crucial enabling factor here, Monáe says, is that she spent years working below the radar as an independent artist, writing and recording music out of the spotlight. “I had time to say no to things that didn’t work for me,” she explains. “I had time to find myself, to prepare myself for some of the obstacles that would come my way, and to understand that my story’s not supposed to be everybody’s story.” If a side-effect of that journey is a certain amount of humourless grandiosity on Monáe’s part, then the brilliance of her output is worth the price.
And there’s no question that Monáe is among the most thoughtful and politically engaged artists of her generation. The new movie in which she stars, Antebellum (due to be released later this year), is a horror vehicle that combines aspects of Get Out, Westworld and 12 Years A Slave. It’s a hard film to write about without giving spoilers, but it’s a high-concept project, half set on a plantation in the American south during slavery, half in the modern world, in which Monáe plays a successful writer who becomes the target of an outlandish racist conspiracy. The themes – how the past is not dead; how entrenched racism is in the US – are always apposite, but particularly so now, when the president is stoking white nationalism as part of his re-election campaign. “I read the script and thought, OK, this is a movie that’s connecting the dots from the past to the present and the future,” Monáe says. “And what the future could possibly look like, if we’re not careful.”
She is talking about America’s white-supremacist roots, a conversation that has, until recently, existed mainly on the fringe. In the wake of the death of George Floyd in May, the discussion has moved to the mainstream, along with the one around defunding the police, and while there are, Monáe says, “a lot of people late to the party, I’m happy that we’re having these conversations. You can’t talk about white supremacy, systemic racism, police brutality, without talking about chattel slavery, which is America’s original sin. My ancestors were forced to come to America and work for free, and the first institution of policing was the slave patrol, which was meant to hunt down and kill black people who had run away. So when we’re screaming, ‘Defund the police’, that’s what we are speaking to: we are reminding people, as this film does, that the police were not meant to protect and serve our community; they were meant to terrorise us. It’s a system built on traumatising black folks.”
Monáe is far more eloquent on the subject of America’s racist history than the writers of Antebellum, Gerard Bush and Christopher Renz. The two men also directed the movie and, in spite of Monáe’s excellent performance, it has a cheap, exploitative feel to it. The sexual violence is hackneyed; the character development thin. The movie would, one suspects, have been vastly superior if Monáe had written it herself. She is a fine actor, with a career that took off with her role in Moonlight, Barry Jenkins’ Oscar-winning film of 2016, and received a boost a year later from her role as Mary Jackson in Hidden Figures, in which she played a mathematician at Nasa, alongside Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer.
At heart, however, Monáe is a writer: quiet, watchful, sensitive to the kind of nuance entirely missing from her latest film. “I’m way more comfortable being curled up in a room reading a bell hooks or an Ibram X Kendi book, or watching Edward Scissorhands, than socialising at a party,” she says. Performance is part of her job – in the video for Pynk, for example, she famously appears in a costume mimicking the lines of a giant vulva; and in the artwork for her 2010 album The ArchAndroid, she has an entire miniature city on her head
– but her personality is a different matter entirely.
She puts some of this temperament down to being from Kansas City. Monáe grew up in a big, extended family on limited means. Her impetus to succeed came from her mother, Janet, who worked as a cleaner and in other low-paid jobs when Monáe was growing up, although her interests as a child were entirely self-directed. She identifies with that famous fictional daughter of Kansas, Dorothy Gale. “There are some commonalities there: I’m wide-eyed, I love believing in wonder and magic. As a kid, I would always throw myself into the arts – into music, painting, writing, choir, theatre. I would go around entering monologue competitions, or trying to be a young playwright. I loved world-building. When you grow up in a small town like that, television and the arts really help you assuage the boredom, and then moving to New York was like going to this yellow brick road.” (After school, Monáe moved to the city to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, before switching to a college in Atlanta.) “But I think Oz is in us,” she says. “Oz is who you are inside, and you have to tap into and protect it.”
Growing up, Monáe felt different from others in her community. From the video for her first single, Tightrope, onwards, she rocked an androgynous look in her now trademark tuxedo and, in a 2018 interview with Rolling Stone, defined herself as a “queer black woman in America”. Some coyness remained; Monáe’s work is full of lesbian subtext
– her collaboration with the actor and singer Tessa Thompson in the video for Make Me Feel seemed actively to encourage rumours that the two are an item – but you won’t hear her use that word, and there’s much talk, in her interviews, about the tyranny of “labels” as roadblocks to her “evolution”. Queer is a baggy term diluted by overuse, not least by heterosexuals – see the much-mocked “queer” straight couple featured in the New York Times Style section last year, and the queer writer Miranda July (cheerfully married to a man) – I wonder what it means to her?>
Sexuality is a journey, not a destination. The word queer gives me room to grow
“It means different. It means unafraid to try new things. I’m always learning more about who I am, and uncovering more and more about sexuality. For me, it is a journey, not a destination, as I gather more information about who I like. I’m a lot more open than I was in high school. I didn’t know myself then and had to meet more people, connect with spirits. I think that word gives me room to grow.”
This kind of talk will strike you as either liberating or evasive, depending on your view (and, possibly, your generation) but, either way, Monáe, growing up “as a Baptist kid in a very small, Republican state”, had a lot to contend with as she started to realise she wasn’t 100% heterosexual. “There was no one I could talk to about that. You do feel like an outsider. You feel, oh my goodness, I don’t know how I even have this conversation with my loved ones when all I’m hearing every Sunday is: if you are not heterosexual, you’re going to hell. And people using the Bible as a whip. I spent years unlearning that conditioning.”
Confidence helped, as did precedent. “Coming from a line of strong, matriarchal women, I was always taught to stand up for myself. My mother has everything to do with my freedom and my boldness, and that’s an active choice; my mother actively chooses to assert her voice. When I was a young kid, I remember her having to stand up to our landlords, who were trying not to fix up our duplex when things were broken, and she was always standing up for her brothers and sisters. If there was a teacher she felt was discriminating against me, she would let her voice be known at the parent-teacher meeting. My mom was always a lot more free and less reserved than I am.”>
My dad is sober now. We're best friends. But I had abandonment issues
Monáe’s dad was a drug addict for a lot of her childhood and mostly wasn’t around. “He’s free from drugs now, he’s totally sober, we’re best friends. But growing up he was in and out of my life, so I dealt with abandonment issues.” She has always found it hard, she says, when friends fall out of touch, or collaborators move on to other projects. Intellectually, she understands that moving on is, more often than not, nothing personal. But, emotionally, it can yank her back to the insecurities of childhood, when her dad would disappear for long stretches at a time. “I go back and forth between being assertive and hiding, because I don’t like the pain of being left behind.”
The conversations she had with her family about her sexuality were hard, mainly because she anticipated pushback. She hates arguing with her loved ones, but not as much as she hates passive-aggression. “We can all be guilty of it and it’s one of my pet peeves. I love my passive-aggressive people as humans, but it is something that is triggering for me, because I grew up in a family where if there was something bothering us, you knew about it. There was no stomping around the house; there was, OK, let’s discuss this. I think the harder a conversation is with the people that you love and care about, the more necessary it is for growth.”
And who knows, she says; sometimes people surprise you. “I have an aunt who is such a Bible thumper – and no disrespect to them, I love Bible thumpers – but she was the first person at the Dirty Computer concert. She was right there in the front row, hugging me and telling me how proud I made her. This was the one I was so convinced would not look at me as her niece that she loved. But our relationship has gotten stronger.”
Monáe’s first album, The ArchAndroid, coincided with Barack Obama’s first term in office, and she has a talent for writing music that meets the demands of the time. That concept album was as freewheeling and ambitious a debut as there has been; an ecstatic reflection of America in better times. Returning, after Metropolis, to the idea of the android as a proxy for disenfranchised minorities, it swooped through gospel, soul and R&B, referenced the Jackson 5 and seemed to expand the pop spectrum itself. It was so mind-blowing, so giddily genre-defying, that the artist it left many listeners in mind of was David Bowie. Eight years later, Dirty Computer, much darker and more dystopian in outlook, still worked around ideas of freedom, with a sense of energy, close to ecstasy, beneath the grim surface. It was on this album that Monáe collaborated with Prince, before his death in 2016, resulting in such numbers as Django Jane, in which she celebrated her own success (“Yeah, yeah this is my palace, champagne in my chalice / I got it all covered like a wedding band / Wonderland, so my alias is Alice”) and by extension the right of others like her to chase it.
Her choice of acting roles is equally loaded. Later this year, Monáe will appear in The Glorias, a biopic of Gloria Steinem based on her 2015 memoir My Life On The Road, in which different actors, including Julianne Moore and Alicia Vikander, play the feminist in different phases of her life, with Bette Midler as Steinem’s fellow activist Bella Abzug. It covers similar ground to the recent TV show Mrs America, with at least one big difference: that of Monáe’s character, Dorothy Pitman Hughes, who co-founded Ms magazine with Steinem and was an activist and community organiser of equal standing. She didn’t appear in Mrs America, just as she has, relative to Steinem, been largely airbrushed out of history. “That’s why representation matters and that’s why I said yes to this film,” Monáe says.>
Gloria Steinem – she's so on it. She's an icon
Steinem herself approached Monáe to ask if she’d play Pitman Hughes. The two women had met, years earlier, at an awards ceremony, where Monáe had the chance to thank Steinem. “Talk about someone who’s timeless,” she says. “She’s so spry, and on it, and involved, and knows about what’s going on today – she’s an icon.” Most impressive, to Monáe, was the fact that Steinem lobbied hard for the Pitman Hughes character to have a central part in the film. (Monáe spoke on the phone to Pitman Hughes, now 82, and found it both inspiring and professionally helpful to hear her “talk about her relationship with Gloria; the things they had to endure”.)
Monáe was also, because Pitman Hughes has been so erased from public memory, “excited that her story was being told. And the fact that Gloria was adamant that Dorothy was in it really let me know what kind of person Gloria is. Dorothy is responsible for helping Gloria to be a great public speaker – she had stage fright, and because Dorothy was a singer, she was able to help her. She was one of the first black business owners in Harlem and was able to teach Gloria more about the black community.”
Steinem herself, meanwhile, is someone Monáe sees as “bridging the gap between Native American women, Hispanic women, Asian women, black women, white women. I think in this movie, you’re going to see that kind of intersectionality on screen and what happens when we can all work together, honouring each other’s differences, and realising that we are stronger together.”
It is a hopeful outlook, although, with the US presidential election looming, Monáe is prepared for things to get worse. “If we continue to sit back and allow this president to amplify white supremacy – and the way he is dealing with this pandemic, the number of lives we’ve lost as a result of him not acting – we’re going to see not better days, but deader days. My hope is we don’t get so fatigued that we allow our future to be hijacked.”
Monáe is doing her part and only hopes others do theirs. It is not enough, she says, simply to push back against racism when you encounter it. “Are you going to be actively anti-racist? Really show up for black women?” The amount of education left to do is staggering, she says, when you consider – to pick a single example – that “there are still white people having weddings on plantations, and posting photos of them online as if it’s a beautiful thing. For black people, it was not a beautiful time.”
This month, the directors Lisa Cortés and Liz Garbus have a documentary out called All In: the Fight For Democracy. It features Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor of Georgia in 2018 and lost to the Republican rival amid accusations of voter suppression; the documentary examines the history of voting rights in the US, and Monáe has written a song for the soundtrack. It’s called Turntables and Monáe is, justifiably, very proud of it as an anthem of change that exactly meets the moment. It has been a strange year, in which she has had to learn to live a “remixed lifestyle” and relax her need to be always working and busy. But this song is, in her mind, as important as it gets. “Got a new agenda / With a new dream,” Monáe raps. “I’m kicking out the old regime / Liberation, elevation, education / America, you a lie.”
It was written in the midst and immediate aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests and feels instantly era-defining. “It’s actually capturing what it is like to feel and to see and smell the tables turning – back into the hands of the marginalised.” It’s something else, too; not just an invitation, but a celebration. “I was able to make a song for the revolution that we’re in right now,” she says, and breaks her sober persona for a moment of whimsy and joy. “What is a revolution without a song?”