Janelle Monae might be the weirdest mainstream pop star since David Bowie. In an exclusive Irish interview ahead of Arthur’s Day she talks about childhood poverty, her controverisal Robin Thicke photoshoot and how she managed to get Prince to sing on her new record.
What a gloriously barking figure she cuts, with her outrageous tuxedos, sci-fi hairdo and jibber-jabber about androids and alter-egos from a thousand years in the future. To describe r’n b sensation Janelle Monae as a far-fetched cross between James Brown, David Bowie and Lady Gaga may verge on cliche – I’m sure I’m not the first to make such comparisons – but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. By the standards of mainstream pop, truly she’s an odd egg: a situationalist prankster with a bubble-gum soul.
As is often the case with visionaries, Monae does not make allowances for the uncommitted. Either you’re with her or, well…you’re probably sitting there slightly baffled at this strange creature with the toilet-brush quiff and a fondness for men’s evening wear. Five minutes into her exclusive Hot Press interview – which precedes her Arthur’s Day performance and the release of much anticipated second album Electric Lady – and already she is holding forth on Grand Concepts and making your head reel. Robots (“androids” is her preferred term) as metaphors for social repression, the significance of her black-on-white uniform, the ‘soul clock’ that tells her when a project needs to begin and when it’s done… you’re listening to it all tumble out and don’t know whether to be awestruck or politely baffled.
Monae’s pretension could lodge in the craw if her music wasn’t so irresistible. You will have encountered her quasi-hit ‘Tightrope’, a jittery nu-soul anthem from 2010 whose fans include Barack Obama (he’s had Monae over to the White House to perform it on four occasions). Now, with Electric Lady, she looks set to rocket into high-orbit. Reviews are ecstatic, she’s been invited to give a centre-piece performance at New York Fashion Week; the boss of her label, Atlantic Records, has pledged to do whatever it takes to make the record a hit.
Of course, considering the LP has cameos from Prince, Erykah Badu, Miguel and Esperanza Spalding (ask a Justin Bieber fan who just can’t let go), he may well be pushing on an open door. With teaser single ‘Dance Apocalyptic’ already ripping it up on YouTube, Monae, it seems, is finally set to become the star she’s imagined herself to be since she started hawking home-recorded tapes around Atlanta half a decade ago.
Strong-willed female performers are routinely called out for their supposed ‘attitude’ and, judging by her press appearances to date, nobody is going to confuse Monae (27) for a shrinking violet. Nonetheless, it would be simplistic to describe her as a diva. She knows her mind, no question, and, as already pointed out, the Philip K Dick shtick can be initially disconcerting (when she starts monologuing about the relationship between singing and painting you fear she may never end).
After a while in her company, though, you see a different side. Under the lacquered exterior, she seems shy, maybe even sweet. Asked why she keeps banging on about ‘androids’ in her work, for instance, and her voice changes slightly – becomes softer – and she explains that it goes back to growing up poor in Kansas City (actually in Missouri, should it ever come up in a pub quiz)
“I feel I need to fight for civil rights, having grown up in a family that went through the most horrific things,” she says, adding that she regards ‘android’ as a metaphor for ‘the other’ – whether that be black people, gays, women or any oppressed minority (she got the idea from the silent movie Metropolis in which mechanical men toil, Morlock-like, in the underground).
“I grew up with hard working parents. My grandma, she worked hard too. She was a cook for 25 years. My people weren’t victims or anything – but they had to struggle because of the circumstances they were put in, circumstances they struggled to break free of.
“My grandmother was a sharecropper – she was definitely discriminated against, treated differently because of the colour of her skin. So although an android is something from the future, what I’m talking about are people who discriminate against others in their community. I don’t want people to feel I am talking down to them in the songs. By using the ‘android’ it becomes a metaphor. It’s like the Bible.”
She’s looking forward to playing Arthur’s Day. Outside-the-box gigs intrigue her. Hence her joy at performing at The White House.
“I felt it was very important that I form a relationship with the President and the First Lady,” she nods. “Getting that first invitation, I was pinching myself. I didn’t know they were aware of me. ‘Tightrope’ was the song the First Lady and the President enjoy. I got to go there four times.”
Artistic since childhood, she embraced her black and white aesthetic in her early teens. By high school, her mother was driving her to talent shows around Kansas and Missouri. Upon graduation she studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and, from there, moved to Atlanta, sharing a boarding house with six other women. She was fired from her job at Home Depot for spending too long promoting her music on the internet. Attending a poetry jam shortly afterwards, she made the acquaintance of Atlanta music scenesters Nate Wonder and Check Lightning, who introduced her to the science fiction movies of Ridley Scott and Fritz Lang.
Word started to get around Atlanta about Monae, bringing her to the attention of Big Boi from Outkast. He requested a track for a mix album; she gave him ‘Lettin’ Go’, a wry account of her departure from Home Depot. From there her career has gone incrementally stratospheric.
Though straight she has become a gay icon, recently appearing on the cover of lesbian magazine Diva. This fills her with pride. As a woman of colour, she empathises with sexual minorities.
“I see a lot of parallels between black people and [gay] people. I see my responsibility to not only be a musician but to speak on behalf of those who are marginalised and don’t have the rights or the voices. People who are killed or arrested or fired from their jobs. I see a connection between being a woman and being an ‘android’."
Another magazine whose cover she recently graced was Vibe, a cheerleader for Africa-American music. She shared the splash with feminist bete noir Robin Thicke, singer of smash ‘Blurred Lines’. Inside, the two are pictured together, looking like the bestest of BFFs. In light of the controversy swirling around Thicke, did she have misgivings about posing with him?
“When I was living in a boarding house and working at an office depot and selling my CDs Vibe was one of the first major publications to write a story about me,” she says. “When they invited me to do the cover I didn’t know who it was [also sharing the spread]. I don’t comment on anyone else’s music and I won’t be able to comment on that. I was excited to be on the cover. They were behind me early. I wanted to return the favor.”
She’s happier talking about the heavyweight line-up of cameos on the new LP. It’s the presence of Prince that really stands out. The patriarch of Paisley Park duets with Monae on Electric Lady’s best moment, the lush ‘Give Em What They Love’. She’s a confident performer but, still, Monae can’t QUITE believe Prince agreed to collaborate.
“He was a fan of my Metropolis EP. He actually called me up to say how much he liked it. He invited me and the band over for a jam session at the house. I own my own record label and Prince thought that was cool. We’ve toured together. I was fortunate enough to open for him at Madison Square Garden. He’s a mentor to me. I was pinching myself in disbelief when he agreed to do the song. He doesn’t go on albums very often. More than that, I got to produce him, which was even a bigger deal.”
P.Diddy is also a famous chum and is executive producer of Electric Lady. Musically he and Monae inhabit different dimensions. As business people, however, they have a lot in common.
“He was very respectful of me as a businesswoman the first time I made his acquaintance,” she recalls. “He didn’t want to be involved creatively – didn’t want people to know about ‘us’. I got the opportunity to learn from him. Of course, he learned from me too. He is such an advocate for what we do. If we ever need him to go to meetings and speak on our behalf, he does it. What I admire about him is his work ethic. He is very passionate and that has rubbed off I think.”
Monae is a founder of the Atlanta collective Wonderland and regards her day-to-day existence as an artistic journey in itself. Hence her black and white dress code, a regime she follows at all times, regardless of circumstance. Asked whether this ever stops being fun she begins to dismiss the question but has second thoughts.
“It can be exhausting,” she nods. “Sometimes I find I want to wear more white than black or discover I’m wearing more black than white. And you need to keep it in balance. It’s all part of the bigger picture ultimately. I want to devote myself to changing people’s lives, to helping alter the future in a positive way.”
The Electric Lady is out now. Janelle Monae plays Arthur’s Day September 26
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