Janelle Monáe: Artistic Android of Excellence
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.
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 TheArchAndroid, 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 TheArchAndroid, 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
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?
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?
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
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?
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?
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?
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?
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
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?
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?
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.
ArchAndroid stands as the centerpiece of
a four-part Metropolis series.
What reflection do you have on your first encounter with Fritz Langs
silent film? And do you see the
series evolving past the fourth suite?
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.
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,
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
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?
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