Janelle Monáe: “I started to think about a new breed of electric ladies fighting marginalisation.”

Ahead of her performance at this year’s Glastonbury, MOJO returns to our last encounter with the queen of future-facing R&B

Janelle Monae

by Tom Doyle |
Updated on

Having first entered our orbit with Afrofuturist sci-fi R&B/hip hop landmark The ArchAndroid in 2010, Janelle Monáe returned in 2013 dancing to a new beat. Ahead of her performance at this year’s Glastonbury Festival, we revisit MOJO’s encounter with Monae in full…

In room 430 of The Landmark Hotel in London’s Marylebone, a petite, self-contained young woman sits poker-straight in a posh antique chair, talking in precise sentences in a soft midwestern American accent. Immaculate in every way, from her carefully-considered utterances to her spotless attire – black-and-white checked bolero jacket, yellow nail varnish, quiff poking out from under the brim of her pork pie hat – Janelle Monáe cuts an elegant, if semi-detached figure. The impression is of a young lady who might be the product of some exclusive finishing school. Except the words emanating from her mouth speak of an inner weirdness. “No sex without screaming,” she calmly intones, nodding in MOJO’s direction. “Absolutely.”

Monáe is quoting one of her self-penned Ten Droid Commandments, inked on flyers handed out at her gigs after the release of her debut album, 2010’s The ArchAndroid, a sprawling sci-fi fantasy inspired by Fritz Lang and Philip K. Dick. These tangential directives speak of self-empowerment in otherworldly terms. Other instructions: “abandon your expectations about art, race, gender, culture and gravity”; “impersonate Salvador Dali, Walt Disney, Andy Warhol”; and a warning that “any children conceived during the show or within 48 hours thereafter may be born with wings”.

Throw these back at Monáe and a smile creeps across her cool visage. It’s clear that there’s real mischievousness at work beneath her ultra-composed exterior. She appeared with The ArchAndroid, fully-formed and seemingly out of nowhere: a serious, futuristically-minded artist who seemed part-human, part self-created robo-exoskeleton. But, as a practitioner of the kind of playful, psychedelic funk that places her in the lineage that stretches from Sly And The Family Stone through Parliament, Prince and OutKast, humour is clearly a key ingredient of her art. “We’re laughing behind closed doors,” she points out. “Whenever we do certain things, it’s always out of great joy. I think that humour allows us to live longer. It’s healthy. Just as important as sex.”

Another essential component, it seems, in the creation of Janelle Monáe’s artful, twisty R&B is the ability to lose yourself in the moment and surrender to the muse. Onstage, while touring in support of The ArchAndroid, Monáe would pick up a brush and begin to paint. Night after night, she found herself daubing variations on the same female figure, eventually giving her a name that became the title of her second album, The Electric Lady.

“I just didn’t understand it,” she offers, a little spacily, “and I would have dreams about this image. I had to name her in order to, like, talk about it. Because it was just kinda possessive in a way.”

Ask her if the appellation is a nod to Hendrix’s Electric Ladyland and she brightly responds, “Maybe we were speaking to each other. But I didn’t have any other word to describe her, except for she’s electric. And I started to think about a world where there was a new breed of electric ladies. Y’know, the electric lady would fight against marginalisation, the electric lady would have rebel music, the electric lady would be a hero figure.”

It was exactly the right kind of high concept for the sequel to The ArchAndroid, in which Monáe 
assumed the alter-ego Cindi Mayweather, an android in a future where human-formed robots are a persecuted race. The video for the first single from The Electric Lady, the Erykah Badu-assisted Q.U.E.E.N., described the imagined project of the title as “a musical weapons programme of the 21st century” and featured a piece of paper seen in a typewriter that set out the manifesto of Monáe’s Atlanta-formed Wondaland Arts Society collective: “We will create and destroy 10 art movements in 10 years.”

When MOJO talks to Monáe, The Electric Lady is still being completed, its creation running down to the wire. Of the seven tracks we hear, there is a new- found accessibility to the 27-year-old’s music in keeping with Atlantic Records boss Julie Greenwald’s assertion that with this second record, they’re keen to have “songs that can get played on mainstream radio”.

Mention this to Monáe, though, and she dismissively points out, “I don’t even think about that stuff,” assuming the mask of the untouchable artist for whom commercial concerns are poisonous to her creative mind. Still, it seems that with The Electric Lady, the odder, ’60s psych elements of The ArchAndroid have given way to a more straight-edged, if still tangential R&B that takes in the upbeat chants of Dance Apocalyptic, the go-go-flecked funk of the title track and the small hours, Miguel-duetting balladry of Primetime. Lyrically, though, there is still left-field strangeness and even hints of Sapphic fascination in Q.U.E.E.N. (“Say is it weird to like the way she wear her tights?/Am I a freak because I love watching Mary?”)

Perhaps understandably, given her funkiness and arch sexual teasing, with The ArchAndroid, Monáe came to the attention of Prince, who contributes to an as-yet-unnamed track on The Electric Lady. The connection made via the latter’s near-decade-long on-stage collaborator, DJ Rashida, the two built a relationship during long phone conversations before, in September 2010, Prince invited Monáe and her band to Minneapolis to jam. “We’ve been friends ever since,” she states. “I’m honoured that I was able to produce him on the album and to work with such a musical icon as him. Whenever I need to talk, we talk.”

She sounds as if she’s taken this development in her stride. But wasn’t she a teeny bit intimidated by the prospect of studio-directing such a formative hero of hers? “Oh yeah, I mean, this is Prince,” she admits, a hint of excitement detectable in her voice. “I will say that I definitely wanna repeat the experience.”

Every self-creation has a past, of course, and for Monáe it was a working-class upbringing in Kansas City with a janitor mum and trashman dad. Her earliest musical fascination was with Judy Garland’s Dorothy in The Wizard Of Oz, although she soaked up other musical influences through her family, ranging from what she calls “operatic, classically-trained gospel” to the primal-screaming rhythmic funk of James Brown.

As a precocious nine-year-old, she remembers sitting her folks down and informing them that she was going to be a performer. “It’s in my DNA, I think, to perform, to sing, to entertain and to say something meaningful,” she says, offering a standard pop-quote bromide that you suspect finds her playing out how she imagines a serious musical artiste should speak. “To have a message with the music,” she goes on. “I think that is the purpose that I’ve been given. To make a difference.”

Yet the further she talks about her background, the more Monáe becomes animated, her accent intensifying, her sentences accelerating, and part of her “artiste” mask falls away. Striving to cultivate a voice and passionate about the stage, as a teen she joined the local Coterie Theatre’s Young Playwrights Roundtable, and began writing musicals, mostly involving “families dialoguing”. Taking this interest further, she moved to New York to study drama. “I think I was probably 50 then,” she adds, surreally. But finding herself the only black girl in her class, she felt isolated and disillusioned, quitting after only nine months.

“I was thinking long-term,” she states. “And I didn’t want to go through life not understanding myself because I was too busy playing someone else’s character.”

Instead, she began to form her own character to play. Relocating south to Atlanta, she lived on the campus belonging to the largely black colleges of Morehouse, Spelman, Clark and Morris Brown, and felt empowered by rubbing shoulders “with these people who were forward-thinking, y’know…doctors, lawyers, just very goal-orientated. That’s where I built my fanbase.”

Here she began recording, issuing a debut album, The Audition, her entrepreneurial spirit revealing itself when she sold it on CD from outside her boarding house. Its cover depicts her as a tousled-Afro Lauryn Hill-alike, the music veering from the Off The Wall grooves of Lettin’ Go (written about being sacked from her job selling ink and erasers at Office Depot after being caught using a computer to communicate with fans on her website) to the starry-eyed fame-lust of the Garland-like showstopper Cindi and the first stirrings of her cyborg obsessions in Metropolis. In retrospect, it reveals Monáe in a fascinatingly raw, naïve, transformative state.

Before long, her music caught the ear of OutKast’s Big Boi, who alerted Sean Combs, the result being her signing to the latter’s Bad Boy Records for The ArchAndroid. Venturing outside the R&B box, it revealed her to be a questing artist, from her love of Ziggy Stardust to her collaboration with Athens, Georgia psychedelicists Of Montreal. And, its sci-fi projections of a dystopian future served, in her mind, as a warning. “It just paints context and allows you to talk about so much stuff when you speak about the future,” she muses. “It also makes you to want to save the future. If it’s going in a negative way, you can say, Hey, I don’t want my future to end up like this.”

 In terms of her more immediate future, Monáe already feels and acts like a star. For such a compact figure, she walks tall and seems possessed of an unshakeable confidence. In May, at the last minute filling the boots of a sickly Aretha Franklin, she fronted the Chicago Symphony Orchestra for a black tie benefit performance in the Windy City that included grandstanding cover versions of Prince’s Take Me With U and Charlie Chaplin’s Smile.

“It was just so enthralling,” she says, “to see these rebellious dignitaries standing up dancing in their tuxedos. I mean, they were so involved and it just gave me this visceral, electrifying feeling to see them giving us standing ovations. I mean, I’ve been to symphonies and that’s not usually what happens. I felt at home, like, This is where I belong.”

Even if, as she insists, Monáe has a strong sense that she was born to do this, there remains a feeling that she is still hiding behind her assumed personas. MOJO wonders aloud whether, in creating Cindi Mayweather and the “character” that is Janelle Monáe, the singer had perhaps felt that her real self wasn’t interesting enough?

“The real Janelle Monáe is extremely interesting,” she stresses, cool once again. “Very much so. I can do a whole movie on my experiences. I think you are speaking to the real Janelle.”

Asked if this dogged pursuit of fame and artistry has come at any personal cost to the “real” Janelle, she says, “My biggest sacrifice has always been leaving my family to pursue my career,” suddenly sounding slightly choked. “Missing out on the celebratory times or the times when people are going through certain things and you just can’t physically be there because you are focused. But knowing that they support me and they love me and they want me to do well helps me to deal with all that.”

This single-minded determination, along with undeniable talent and genre-blurring experiments, mark out Monáe as a unique artist whose career will doubtless be fascinating to follow. By the end, face-to-face, even her loftier pronouncements sound more human, less self-built android. She refuses to be placed in any box, though. As she raps in Q.U.E.E.N., “Categorise me, I defy every label.”

“Absolutely,” she smiles. “I meant every word of that.”

Does she have a mission statement, though? What is Janelle Monáe’s ultimate goal?

“I want to achieve unity and love,” she decides, her wide-eyed dedication snuffing any cheesiness inherent in such a statement. “I think that’s been my gift – to understand the divisions that we’ve placed in music, where we say, Well this is pop and this hip hop. You get so caught up in that, that you don’t realise they’re saying the same things. A lot of the same rebellion in punk music is in soul music. You’re speaking about the same issues, but you’re just going about it musically in a totally different way.

“I want The Electric Lady to be something that you hear every day,” she concludes. “Something that takes you when you feel down and makes you want to party. It should become a part of your life.”

Later that evening, MOJO attends a media playback of selections from The Electric Lady at the rooftop Radio Bar on The Strand. When Monáe appears, she gamely takes to its small stage and encourages the assembled to kick off their shoes and dance on a patch of Astroturf, creating a spontaneous party as she sings over tracks from the record, flanked by frugging members of the Wondaland Arts Society.

Afterwards, she seems buzzed by the experience and it is as if, finally, we glimpse the real Janelle Monáe – the stage-obsessed kid with the churning desire to perform, utterly enthralled to witness the effect she’s had, even on a bunch of tight-arsed journos.

“It was incredible,” Monáe beams. “Just to see you guys taking off your shoes and the smiles on your faces.”

This article originally appeared in MOJO 239, The latest issue of MOJO is on sale now. More information and to order a copy HERE

MOJO 369
Just so you know, whilst we may receive a commission or other compensation from the links on this website, we never allow this to influence product selections - read why you should trust us