Behind the boundary-pushing videos and explicit lyrics of Janelle Monáe’s music, Stylist discovers a woman with a serious agenda.
If you’ve been near the internet in the past two weeks, you’ll have seen Janelle Monáe wearing a pair of vagina trousers in her new “emotion picture” (music video) Pynk. You’ll have also seen Westworld actor (and recent Stylist cover star) Tessa Thompson climbing out of Monáe’s ‘vulva’. And heard Monáe singing the words: “Pink like the inside of your…”
The video, which has been viewed more than five million times on YouTube, is a brilliantly unsubtle statement about the “power of the pussy”, self-love and sexuality. Nevertheless, it’s clear that Monáe draws a line between her art and her life – as I’m preparing to interview her, I get an email requesting that there be no questions about her personal relationships or sexuality.
Not talking about such issues has been a fixed rule throughout Monáe’s 11-year solo career, even though her songs have long hinted that there’s something to ask. The dichotomy of Monáe is a complex and modern one. She’s an enigma – a superstar-shaped one.
Because there is no doubt that Monáe is a superstar. When she turned her hand to acting in 2017, her first two films (Moonlight and Hidden Figures) were nominated for Oscars. She’s a political force who can be relied on to give smart, sharp speeches that cut to the bones of what a debate is really about. When she introduced Kesha at the Grammys in January, she did so with a statement that has already appeared on placards at political marches: “We come in peace, but we mean business.” But it’s her status as a pop icon that’s the focus of today’s conversation. After a five-year hiatus, this week the Kansas-born, Atlanta-based singer, 32, releases her third album, Dirty Computer, her most honest and revealing work so far, drawn from what’s going on in the world right now.
At Stylist’s photoshoot, Monáe is a force to be reckoned with. Under a pink spotlight – that colour again – she pulls old-school Hollywood poses, breaking off frequently to ensure she looks just right, that she’s representing herself exactly how she wants. Her trademark monochrome tuxedos have been put away today: “The reason I wear my tuxedos is to put a middle finger up to a society that says I have to look a certain way to become successful,” she reveals. Instead, she’s sparkling in sequins and glitter. She picks the soundtrack from Hitchcock’s Vertigo, so the room booms with drama – somewhat overwhelming at 11 o’clock on a Monday morning. “I’ve found that I prefer to feel like I’m in a movie when I’m doing anything that has to do with photoshoots,” she explains. “It puts me in a very cinematic space.”
When we sit down to chat, Monáe is decompressing in a white dressing gown and Gucci sports socks. She’s an intense presence, with pin-sharp intellect that dares you to get on her wrong side. She speaks in long, explanatory sentences, answering questions with the kind of flourishes you’d find in a politician or a preacher. There’s not much of the wry humour she’s been showing off in recent videos in evidence today – she’s thoughtful and considerate, and very focused and serious – but, as she’s said before, she means business.
On her first album, The ArchAndroid (2010), she spent a lot of time performing as her alter-ego, a robot from the far future called Cindi Mayweather. For Dirty Computer, she’s back to being herself. “I did spend a lot of the past years sitting in my basement, going to the recording studio, trying to decide if I was going to tell Cindi’s story or if I was going to tell Janelle Monáe’s,” she says. “I think Janelle Monáe won this time around.”
There’s a new frankness to Dirty Computer. Was it important to show the world that side of you?
Vulnerability and honesty were what mattered this time around. I always knew that I had to write this project. I had this title already, but I just wasn’t ready. I needed to live more. I needed to have something more to fight for. I hate that these events [since Trump’s election] have happened, but in a sense, it’s allowed me to realise that there’s too much at stake to be silent. It was important that people were able to understand me as a more complex, complicated human being. There’s too much at stake to wrap things in a bow, or to wrap sh*t in a bag with some rose-petal wrapping paper to make it look better. No. This is where we are, and if we don’t make some significant changes within ourselves, and as a community and as a nation, we’re screwed. We’re f**ked.
What changed for you with this album?
I had to have conversations with myself. I had to really understand, for instance, in [recent single] Django Jane, how I felt when I said, “We gon’ start a motherf**kin’ pussy riot, or we gon’ have to put ’em on a pussy diet.” I hadn’t really opened up that side of me. I needed to get over what I thought anybody’s expectations were gonna be for me. I had to have real conversations with Janelle, like, ‘OK girl, you are an African-American woman, you use the word “n*gger” and you feel like you can use that’. Because I am that. I’m taking the power out of that word, you know. I wouldn’t want a white person saying that to me because that’s not their word. That’s not something that they have been oppressed by.
Is this the first time you’ve used that word in a song?
Yeah. In a song. But I have views about that. In the same way that women who call other women bitches, that’s fine with me, because that’s been a word that has been used to try to oppress us. When men say it, it’s totally different. It’s like someone rich coming into a poor community and saying, “Woo, you white trash! You poor black person!” It’s a language that I use to communicate with my people. I hadn’t been able to express that early on, and I had to figure out a way to come to peace with my evolution and walking in my truths.
I really did have to walk it like I talk. I was always saying, “Embrace the things that make you unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable”. I was saying that, but I don’t think I was really living it. I was scared of rejection and was feeling, ‘If you bring out this new side of you, all of your fans might not come with you this time around.’ Now I’m at peace.
You were scared of being rejected by your fans?
Yeah, because I’ve seen it happen with other artists, where [fans] say, “Oh, I don’t like that music any more, I want them to be like the first album.” I had to actively choose freedom over fear. Because freedom is not free. It comes with great sacrifice.
I’m surprised you were worried about that. You have always struck me as a Bowie-esque artist who does whatever they want.
That’s a huge compliment. David Bowie and Prince were both able to evolve and be whatever character they wanted to be with each album. I only hope that I will be as free as them. But I’m sure they probably had some moments where they had to have conversations with themselves. I feel like we’ve been put here to evolve.
Speaking of evolution, how have you felt watching the Trump presidency play out?
I’ve gone through a lot of emotions. I was working on my album during the time [when Trump first took office] and I went through a large spell of anger. As things progressed – as certain rights started to get revoked, when [Trump] started talking more about an immigration ban, when people in his cabinet were fighting to get rid of Planned Parenthood, as people died in South Carolina because of the hate that Donald and his neo-Nazi supporters promoted – it got really dark for me, to the point where I could not write anything. I’m thankful that I had this album as an outlet, because I was able to channel that anger. I didn’t filter the truth.
Prince once told you that you should run for office. Are you tempted by politics?
No. Barack Obama was an exception [to most politicians], who really did care about the people. When he spoke, you got the sense that he cared about minorities, he cared about women, and I know it took a lot from him to make certain decisions. I know that he pissed a lot of people off. I know he would have wanted to do more.
You’re friends with the Obamas. What are they like?
They’re like family, I love them so much and I miss them deeply. But, unlike them, I feel like my most effective role is as an artist. Art brings people together. Music brings people together. I’m not a Republican or a Democrat, I don’t want to be on anybody’s team. I’m not for a red state or a blue state – I’m for a purple state. Let’s combine everything, and let’s use our imaginations to come up with a solution to help better our future.
You don’t want to form the Purple Party?
Yeah! I can form a Purple Party! But I would have to rewrite all the regulations and rules. It would be very avant-garde and non-traditional.
How are you with authority?
I don’t do well with that. I don’t do well with people telling me what to do. I’m very independent. I’ve been an independent artist for so many years. I had to do my own hair, my own make-up, be my own stylist, sell my own CDs out of my car. I’m pretty meticulous. But I’m learning to let go.
You’ve said before that you grew up poor, but you’ve also said you will turn down financial opportunities if you don’t fully believe in them. Does the fact that you grew up without much money make that harder?
Yes! Oh my goodness, are you kidding me? When you start making money and being able to purchase things you didn’t think you could ever purchase… and I’m not even that rich, there are artists making way more money than me. People say all the time, “If you would only do this, you could be making this amount of money.” But it never was about that for me. When I think about what my goals were when I first got into the industry, they’re still the same. All I wanted was 500 people in my congregation, meaning people who came to my concerts. I didn’t need a megachurch with an ATM machine with 10,000 seats in it to feel purpose. As long as I could pay my bills, I didn’t need to be rich.
You do have an air of a preacher about you…
[Laughs] Well, you know, I’m ordained by the people. No set of pastors has endorsed me.
It seems like you’ve undergone a transformation in your life. Would you agree?
I feel like I’ve been remixed and rebranded by the universe.
But isn’t that quite passive?
I think it is. I believe in a higher power. There are certain things that have happened in my life that have been mindblowing, that I could not have done without thinking it and being in tune with the universe and feeling like God heard me. Everything is not because I did it. I’m not arrogant enough to believe that.
What kind of things are you talking about?
I did an episode for [Channel 4 series] Philip K Dick’s Electric Dreams, and I had thanked Philip K Dick almost 10 years ago in one of my independent EPs, and on The ArchAndroid. Last year, his daughter wrote me a letter that said: “I saw that you thanked my dad; I have this role [as customer service rep Alice in Autofac] I want to offer you.” I was like, this is pretty wild, for me, this young black girl from Kansas City finding out about Philip K Dick, and then his daughter reaching out to me.
What are the other modern sci-fi tales you love?
I love [award-winning Black Mirror episode] San Junipero. I actually met [show creator] Charlie Brooker. He’s one of the smartest minds of our generation. Science fiction poses all of those questions to us, the possibilities of what could happen to us if we choose the left door, or if we choose the right door. There’s light and dark all around us. If we use the internet for darkness, if we use technology for darkness, then we’ll live in darkness. If we use technology and the internet for light, so there will be light. It’s understanding that if we don’t have balance, if we don’t pay attention to the levels at which we engage with each other, or choose not to engage with each other on a human to human level, then we’re gonna be screwed.
Dirty Computer by Janelle Monáe is out on Friday 27 April.
Photography: Jonty Davies