She Sings The Body Electric
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.
Ed Power, 19 Sep 2013
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).