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Janelle Monáe: Artistic Android of Excellence

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The musical work

of Janelle Monáe cannot be easily defined or categorized.  And while such tasks have grown in

importance on the business side of the equation, the only issue that concerns

Monáe is that she remains fearless in her music-making.

Bridging (and

blurring) the categorical lines that separate music lovers, Janelle has created

a debut album for the ages, which masterfully pushes the limits of “rock and

soul” music.  And at the age of 24,

as a byproduct of the hip-hop generation, the spirit of innovation flows

through her blood, and her music, too.

On May 18, 2010,

Janelle Monáe released the follow-up to her critically-acclaimed EP Metropolis:

The Chase Suite (Special Edition), which

featured the GRAMMY-nominated singles, “Many Moons.”  In the midst of a promotional campaign for The ArchAndroid, the singer managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and

settle down for an interview with Clayton

Perry – reflecting on her early experiences at American Musical &

Dramatic Academy, her emotional attachment to “Smile,” and the kindred spirit

she shares with Erykah Badu.

AllHipHop.com:  Since “Tightrope” served as the lead single for The ArchAndroid, I am curious to learn if there was a particular piece of advice or a

particular life experience that forced you to learn how to “tip on the

tightrope”?

Janelle

Monáe:  Oh, yes, for sure. But really,

just simply being an artist, there are so many highs and lows in the music

industry that I knew early on that I needed to stay right in the middle of all

of that, not getting too high off accolades and praises.  Whenever you let ego come in and stand

front-and-center, that’s a hard to thing to get rid of. And also, just learning

to not get too low over opinions and critiques and all of the reviews and

different things like that. And so, personally, I know that I have to have

balance, and have to pull back and not lean too much on one side. I feel like

when I was writing “Tightrope,” I wanted it to be an anthem for the

people who also are going through being oppressed for just being themselves.

And in those words that I wrote, I want them to recite those words. This is

what you say to those people who are trying to hold you back from being you.

AllHipHop.com:  Since you intended “Tightrope” to serve as an anthem of

sorts, when you reflect on the lyrics of “Cold War,” what do you hope

music lovers will be inspired to fight for when they listen to your music?

Janelle

Monáe:  Well, I come from a working class

family, so I create music for the people. My mother was a janitor and my father

drove a truck for trash collection. 

And my step-father, who is like my father, works for the post office. So

I definitely empathize with those who are turning nothing into something, going

through life struggles, everyday life struggles and just really, whether

they’ve gone through oppression, depression, suppression…and just trying to

stay sane in this world. And so that’s how I craft my music, to inspire and

motivate the people always.

AllHipHop.com:  To date, I have had the pleasure of seeing you perform in

New York City on two separate occasions. And at your album release party, I saw

you perform “Smile” for the very first time. What kind of special

attachment do you have to that song?

Janelle

Monáe:  Oh, man! I’ve been performing

“Smile,” for as long as I can remember. It’s definitely one of the

highlights of the set. I just think, as a human being, I have to ensure that I

stay sane. And sometimes we can really lose perspective and we can get caught

up in some of the negative things that are going on in our lives, and in the

world, and not realize that life itself is just a blessing. And so

“Smile,” when I heard Stevie Wonder’s rendition on With a

Song in My Heart, it made me cry, and I’ve

always wanted to give that same emotional experience that I had with it to my

supporters.

AllHipHop.com:  Although you are a tremendous singer, I just have to say,

James Brown would just be proud of your energetic performance. I know that you

attended the American Musical & Dramatic Academy in New York City, but do

you credit a particular pre-professional experience for merging your love of

singing and dancing?

Janelle

Monáe:  Well, I was always heavily

involved in musical theatre programs, which led me to school for musical

theatre. In high school, I had the lead role in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Cinderella. I had a part in The Wiz, too. And I wrote plays as well. I was a part of the

Young Playwright’s Roundtable at the Coterie Theatre. And so I was always using

my imagination and just writing. I guess this has been with me over half my

life. It seems the musical theatre is just instilled in my heart. I went to

school for a little while, but I left the American Musical & Dramatic

Academy because I didn’t want to be too influenced by the standardized teachings.

I didn’t want to sound like everybody else. I didn’t want to approach music and

art or musical theatre like everybody else. I wanted to create my own musicals

and bring out the things that made me human.

AllHipHop.com:  For me, it is hard to imagine someone having that much

strength to just walk away from an opportunity like that. What inspired and led

you to Atlanta?

Janelle

Monáe:  Not really an interesting story.

It was just me following my inner compass. Something was telling me to move to

Atlanta, and it was one of the best things that happened to me because I was

able to meet so many like-minded individuals. I started my own recording label:

The Wondaland Arts Society. This is my home. I’m from Kansas City originally,

but artistically I had to make it to grow here, and I’m so glad I made that

decision. I listened and I trusted my instincts.

AllHipHop.com:  Shed a little more light on the Wondaland Arts Society,

especially two of your fellow collaborators, Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder.

What kind of special relationship do you have with  them?

Janelle

Monáe:  Absolutely. The Wondaland Arts

Society serves as a recording label. We look at it like a Motown. There are so

many artists that we’re going to be putting out. Deep Cotton is next in line to

put out their projects, and I’m excited about those guys. The label and the

collective consists of artists, from visual artists to performance artists to

actors to screen writers, graphic novelists, graphic artists, I mean musicians,

you name it. We just want to help preserve art and create a blueprint for a

generation coming behind us to follow. And we really want to help promote

individuality, celebrating our differences. And we use music as our weapon and

we have a right to our imagination. And Nate “Rocket” Wonder and

Chuck Lightning have been creating all the music that you’ve heard. We’ve been

collaborating together, just us three. Nate usually handles all the music that

you hear and Chuck and I, we write and conceptualize together. So those are my

favorite writers and producers. If you ask me all the time, who do you want to

work with, I’m working with my dream team.

AllHipHop.com:  When you look back on your recording experiences together,

is there a particular word that immediately comes to mind?

Janelle

Monáe:  Fearlessness. We were very

fearless in this process. A lot of the songs came to me, and I think Nate and

Chuck also said they had some of these experiences. But I got a lot of my song

ideas in my dreams. I would literally wake up in the middle of the night. I

would have my iPhone recorder by my bed, and I would just record whatever I

dreamt, whether it was a full song or it was images that I’d seen, or whatever.

We kept ourselves very open, and we tried to be as free as we possibly could in

creating and not doing things just for the sake of being different, and, at the

same time, not trying to allow politics on this album. We just really listened

to our Maker, and a lot of the stuff couldn’t have been planned. We focused on

the music. We knew that we wanted to create music to uplift and motivate the

people. And that’s all we focused on when creating.

AllHipHop.com:  As I encountered your music, it also allowed me to be

introduced to other artists. I actually saw the video for Sun Ra’s “Space is

the Place” for the first time on YouTube just after discovering your work.

And in my conversations with others, they have discovered – and re-discovered –

artists like Fela and James Brown, too. What kind of historical appreciation do

you hope that your fans will generate and pull from the previous generation of

artists?

Janelle

Monáe:  Yes, as much as I love the past,

and I love the past artists, artists like James Brown and whatnot, I think it’s

also important to focus on new concepts and ideas. We really want to have focus

on the future and create something that really hasn’t been done. Those are our

goals. At the same time, we definitely understand those artists who come before

us and who’ve helped open up doors and make it a little more easy for us to do

the type of music that we love doing. People fought for us to have the creative

freedom that we have, and we do pay homage to those artists. You can find that

however you can.

AllHipHop.com:  I know this summer you are hitting the road with Erykah Badu

and you also have a few appearances on the Lilith Fair. As you began to prepare

for these experiences, what conversations did you have with Erykah and other

fellow female artists?

Janelle

Monáe:  Erykah Badu and I are really good

friends. She has definitely been a huge supporter of me at a very early stage

of my career, and I support her evolution. So I am excited be on tour with her.

We both really stand up and want to fight for individuality. I think it’s very

important. So I’m excited to go on that tour. We also are musical theatre

lovers at heart. We auditioned for the same school, the American Musical &

Dramatic Academy. So I’m on tour, and I’m on the Lilith Fair tour that I’m

honored to be a part of. And then I’m also on tour with Of Montreal, and

they’re good friends of mine. I have a song with Kevin Barnes on The

ArchAndroid entitled “Make the

Bus.” If you listen closely, we were such huge lovers of each others’

voices that he was trying to imitate me, I was trying to imitate him, and we

ended up sharing the verses. So one line, I would sing. The next line, he would

sing, and we’d go back and forth like that. So I’m excited to be working with

him because they’re also pretty wild and dramatic. We’re all going to save our

dramas for onstage.

AllHipHop.com:  As you speak on the individuality you and Erykah Badu honor

and appreciate, have you ever felt any backlash or pushback for trying to

maintain your individuality?

Janelle

Monáe:  Thankfully, I have a very

supportive team. I mean from Sean Combs to Big Boi to Atlantic Records,

everyone here can remember when we decided we all really believe in the

message, and we are free. It’s time that, as being a black woman and of the

black people, that people understand that we are not all monolithic. We need to

celebrate our differences. Being a woman in the music industry, I think that

it’s extremely important that somebody is saying that, and saying that we need

to celebrate our differences. Redefining how a woman can wear her hair and how

a woman can dress and the type of music that she can create. I think that

that’s important. I think that sparks the fire and it encourages other young

girls who are deciding if they’re going to be comfortable with themselves and

their unique qualities or if they’re just going to live vicariously through

somebody else and follow somebody else. It helps them to love the person that

God made them to be.

AllHipHop.com:  The

ArchAndroid stands as the centerpiece of

a four-part Metropolis series. 

What reflection do you have on your first encounter with Fritz Lang’s

silent film?  And do you see the

series evolving past the fourth suite?

Janelle

Monáe:  I can’t give away too much

of that information, but we’re constantly

creating music. Suite IV will be out sooner than you think! We’ll

never stop, like a waterfall, and that’s why we try to do what’s right with it,

so that God doesn’t take away our superpowers and if it’s given us, that we’re

very thankful for it. But right now, we’re just focusing on creating the

visuals for every song on The ArchAndroid.

It’s going to be a mini-movie – a mini motion picture that translates the music

to the live experience.

AllHipHop.com:  Recently, I came across a quote from Brentin Mock in the

Atlantic, and I wanted to get your thoughts on his assessment of the ArchAndroid. He wrote: “Monáe has given pop music its first Toni

Morrison moment, where fantasy, funk, and the ancestors come together for an

experience that evolves one’s soul.”

Janelle

Monáe:  I appreciate those individuals who

are listening to the music, from critics to supporters and music consumers, and

their letting it move them. They’re not trying to categorize it and keep

accepting it for what it is. But I try to stay very balanced. I don’t get too

high, I don’t get too low. At the end of the day, I am interested in breaking

boundaries and exceeding all the genres and labels. I want to do away with all

those things. I mean, great music is great music. You either love it or you

hate it, in my opinion. I’m going to continue to create that music, hopefully

lead by example and help promote individuality. Not just being different for

the sake of being different. I think it’s important that you have a message and

that you do the music that’s in your heart. That’s what I’m doing – without

getting too high or low over any comment.

AllHipHop.com:  As more and more people become acquainted with Janelle

Monáe, “the artist,” what would you like for them to know about Janelle Monáe,

“the person”?

Janelle

Monáe:  I’m a doer. I don’t really do a

lot of talking, I guess. But I’m very interested in uniting. I want you to know

that. The thing I love about the Android is that it represents the other. And that’s why I connect with the Android. I think that we are going to live in a world with

androids soon, because of the rapid advancement of technology. I think, though,

that we’ll need a mediator for the other and the majority, of the haves and the

have nots, the oppressed and the oppressor. There’s a saying in Metropolis, the movie, which inspired me. “The mediator

between the mind and the hand is the heart.” And I consider myself the

heart.

AllHipHop.com:  Well said, well said. As you have traveled internationally,

how do you gauge your reception? It is often said that music is the common

denominator for all people. Is there something you have seen in your travels

that might have proven that?

Janelle

Monáe:  Well, I haven’t been able to not

go anywhere and feel at home. I mean, we’ve played festivals with so many

different ethnicities and colors and cyborgs and androids and gays, straights …

All that. If music is making us united, I’m just very grateful that we’ve been

able to create that music that people can bond over and unite on. And that’s

happened across the world. That’s in North America, in Europe and in the UK as

well. I think that people love what they love. Music has no color. So that’s

the thing that I think makes people feel so inviting, and I think their live

experience juxtaposes that. As it pertains to me, it has been keeping people

coming, so that’s a blessing.

For more information on Janelle Monáe, visit her official

website: http://www.jmonae.com/

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