The mysterious Janelle Monáe would rather talk about her android alter ego
by Travis Atria
Janelle Monáe is an electron; she is the Sphinx; she is Mona Lisa’s smile; she is something beautiful and familiar and impenetrable, something we know but don’t understand. Hundreds of writers have scribbled thousands of words about her, and yet none has really brought us closer to understanding the person behind the persona. Much of that is Monáe’s own doing. She offers up biographical information in carefully crafted shards cloaked in a smoke screen of science-fiction fantasy. She grew up poor in Kansas City; she only dates androids; her father was a garbage man who struggled with drug addiction; she is part robot and prefers the company of cyborgs; she attended drama school in New York before moving to Atlanta and starting the Wondaland Arts Society; she decorates her studio with sixty clocks set to sixty different times, encouraging all who enter to follow their “soul clock.”
Even her website plays into the hall-of-mirrors quality of her persona. It contains precious little biographical information, but it does offer nearly every magazine article and picture of her ever published. In other words, one sees her refracted through the lens of popular media.
This level of inscrutability only works when the art is strong, and in that sense, Janelle Monáe is David Bowie; she is Michael Jackson; she is Marvin Gaye. Or, at least she has shown that kind of promise. Her first official EP, 2007’s Metropolis: The Chase, earned her praise and attention from Prince, OutKast’s Big Boi, and Sean “Diddy” Combs, as well as a record deal on Combs’s Bad Boy label. Her next effort, 2010’s The ArchAndroid, was a universally lauded masterpiece that propelled her to the top of the musical world where she performed at the Grammy Awards and became CoverGirl’s spokeswoman. Her most recent release, 2013’s The Electric Lady, sees her star continuing to rise on the back of meticulous production, off-kilter hooks, and collaborations with Prince and Erykah Badu, among others.
Yet despite such saturation and success, she remains enigmatic, seemingly telling us through her work that separating the artist from the art is pointless at best and impossible at worst. “All these things are true reflections of who I am and what I love,” Monáe says. “I won’t record anything I don’t believe in.”
The Double Helix
Perhaps the best way to understand her, then, is to consider her music. Listening to her first three efforts is like reading a strand of DNA containing the genetic makeup of the last fifty-odd years of music. She offers it up in bits and snatches, maybe borrowing the drum part from Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” or the rhythm track from the Jackson 5’s version of “Never Can Say Goodbye.” But, just as soon as you think you know what she’s doing—that she’s just another retro artist mining the past and producing nothing essentially new—she tweaks it with help from her cast of Wondaland supporters, maybe adding strains of romantic classical music, or the clanging distorted guitars of punk music, or the lush reverb-drenched harmonies prevalent in current indie music. And all of a sudden, she’s taken you somewhere you had no idea you were going. “I definitely look to the past, but I’m focused on new ideas and the future,” Monáe says.
That statement might as well be the motto of Monáe’s collective, which includes some eighteen artists and musicians. Roman GianArthur, a Wondaland member and coproducer of Monáe’s work, expands on the idea. “We do a lot of listening—actively or passively listening to music that we love, and you can definitely hear that come out in our songs,” GianArthur says. “And, when it’s time to polish an idea that we’ve had that’s original, we take heed of the sounds we’ve been listening to, to know what works and what doesn’t work.
“We just want to focus on what’s going to jam most of all,” GianArthur continues. “We’re always looking to innovate, but like I said, the jam is the law. Here’s what it comes down to—when the song has an official melody, then it’s a song. If it can be played with just somebody singing it and one other instrument, could be the guitar, or the piano, or maybe just the drums, then it’s a song and we can do whatever we want with it after that. Sometimes, songs start off in a different tempo; like, the song ‘It’s Code’ started out about ten to fifteen beats slower than the album [version]. We picked up the tempo, switched up the drums some.”
Nate Wonder—another Wondaland member, half of the group Deep Cotton, and executive coproducer of Monáe’s work—expands on the writing process for The Electric Lady. “There were several songs that were in different spaces or may have been in a completely different genre that had to get fashioned in a different style to get on the album,” he says. “For instance, ‘Sally Ride’ sounded like Hendrix, like ‘Bold as Love’ at first, then it turned into a Simon & Garfunkel moody song, then it went to James Brown, ‘It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World,’ then it got to what it is on the album.”
GianArthur adds, “Janelle is always going to be writing her lyrics. Sometimes, she’ll come in with the melody or hook, or it will emerge in recording. I remember on ‘Ghetto Woman,’ I guess I had gone out of town—actually, I might not have even gone out of town, I might have just gone to dinner—and I came back and she had that whole song laid down. That’s my favorite song on the album, by the way.”
“Ghetto Woman” is so close in concept and execution to Stevie Wonder’s “Boogie On Reggae Woman” that Monáe’s retro streak seems dangerously close to crossing the line until one realizes she’s doing it on purpose, in essence updating Wonder’s song and using it as a vehicle to talk about her mother, who toiled for years as a janitor. The song ends up as one of her most powerful and personal works. In fact, Monáe has said that part of the impetus behind The Electric Lady was a desire to deal with more biographical matters. “To do this album properly, I had to revisit some turbulent chapters in my life, deal with some questions and experiences left over from my childhood,” she said on her website in a rare moment of candor. “There were so many things I had questions about. Sexual things. Racial Things. Gender things. Memories. Things I thought I had left behind me. New things I was discovering. But, ultimately, I found myself emulating my mother and grandmother and using their strength to surpass my fear.”
Another fascinating aspect of Monáe’s work is her use of the futuristic struggles of androids as an allegory for the civil-rights struggles of Black Americans. All of her work takes place in a fantasy world called Metropolis circa the year 2719, where an android named Cindi Mayweather battles against an evil power structure that seeks to subjugate all androids. Monáe has consistently blurred the lines between Mayweather’s fictional experiences and the real-life ones of marginalized groups—not just Blacks, but gays, immigrants, or anyone who is other. Two generations before her, artists like Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, and others talked about those experiences in terms of civil rights and the day-to-day experience of life in the ghetto. One generation before her, artists like Grandmaster Flash, KRS-One, and others talked about them in terms of the violence on the street and the devastation of the inner cities. Perhaps it is a testament to the successes of the civil rights movement and life in the age of Obama that Monáe can now approach the subject more obliquely. Or, perhaps she is simply the latest in a short but influential list of artists practicing a genre called Afrofuturism. As Wax Poetics contributor Michael Gonzales wrote in a recent article for Ebony magazine, “Named by writer Mark Dery in his influential 1994 essay ‘Black to the Future,’ the term Afrofuturism has become a cultural catchphrase to describe the world of tomorrow today in music, art, theater, politics and academics.”1 Gonzales notes that Afrofuturism has a history in Black art and culture extending back through artists like Sun Ra, Parliament-Funkadelic, and even W. E. B. DuBois.
Clearly, Monáe recognizes her ties to such artists. “One of the things I wanted to do with this new album was to show how diverse and how cool R&B music used to be,” she says. “ ‘Dance Apocalyptic’ was inspired by Bo Diddley, and this is a Black man who really was the originator of R&B. If you look at his work, he inspired the Rolling Stones, the Beatles, Hendrix—so many people. I think R&B music was definitely an inspiration to a lot of genres. When you think of rock music, when you think about punk, when you think about all of that, I think it may have been derivative from [R&B]. So, one of my goals with this album and all my work is to showcase the DNA that R&B has in all these genres.”
Just as clearly, she recognizes her ties to great sci-fi authors like Philip K. Dick, who wrote Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, a book Monáe references often throughout her work. “I like telling stories rather than just writing about myself,” Monáe says. “Sometimes, I can be boring. But I’ve always been interested in science fiction, and I’m always discovering new authors, and new music, new subgenres.”
By calling the album The Electric Lady, she has also paid quite obvious homage to another Afrofuturist, Jimi Hendrix. What is interesting here though is that while Monáe utilizes many of the very things that kept Hendrix from attaining a significant Black audience—sci-fi fantasies, tripped-out guitar solos, a refusal to stick to genres that are considered “Black”—she doesn’t seem to face the same problem of listenership. Maybe this is the true achievement of the Internet age, that in a world where everything is accessible to everyone, it is perfectly natural to reference Debussy and Simon & Garfunkel and still fit firmly in the mainstream of Black music. In fact, Monáe’s work might even be a foreshadowing of a post-racial musical landscape where influences from every era and genre are so varied and omnipresent that the resulting mixture has no color. Such an idea is most likely still a pipe dream, but Monáe and her cohorts seem to be leading a charge to make that dream a reality.
Chuck Lightning—the other half of Deep Cotton and an executive coproducer of Monáe’s work—breaks it down further. “I think it is really interesting that we allow race, and culture, and all these other things to kind of box in our viewpoints on the kind of art that people make, and how it should be marketed, and who should listen to it, and who should buy it, and who should love it, and who should support it,” Lightning says.
Wonder agrees, adding, “Growing up, my dad played Simon & Garfunkel as much, or almost as much, as he played Stevie Wonder. The thing is, I don’t feel like I am unique in that area, and I think that as we enter into this new phase as human beings, where we’re so digitally connected and our musical catalog can be as diverse as we want it to be, our idea of genres becomes less and less real, and less and less of a valued commodity than it was. It just doesn’t make any sense to define things in such a broken-up kind of way. That’s just not how we listen to music anymore.”
GianArthur says such a shift is a good thing, and that it has impacted his work with Monáe. “I’m glad that it’s possible,” he says. “For example, I got the idea for ‘BabopbyeYa,’ [the final song on The ArchAndroid] from a combination of Radiohead and Queen—Queen’s ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ and Radiohead’s ‘Paranoid Android.’ ” Again, it is worth noting that as little as ten years ago, very few R&B artists would claim such influences.
With all the talk about influences, though, Monáe remains unique. From her signature coiffure to her black-and-white tuxedos, she has a dead eye for the iconic. And she has the musical talent to match her grand ambitions. “I just want to use my music to inspire people,” she says. “I don’t mean to sound arrogant, but I’m only interested in big ideas.” Coming from a woman who has climbed to the top of the musical world by age twenty-seven with a five-part musical suite stretching across three albums detailing the exploits of a messianic android in the year 2719, such a statement seems easy enough to accept. And, perhaps we have finally arrived at a deeper understanding of what Monáe truly represents—an idea—that is, an idea in the original Greek philosophical sense, the Platonic ideal, meaning “an abstract archetype of a given thing, compared to which real-life examples are seen as imperfect approximations.” Such an archetype, such an idea can exist outside of race, sexuality, nation, era, or creed; it doesn’t have to be understood by any of those traditional markers to have a lasting impact. In fact, it doesn’t have to be understood at all. An idea, if it is big enough, can stand timelessly on its own.
And in that sense, Janelle Monáe is a photon; she is a flying saucer; she is Stonehenge; she is something beautiful and familiar and impenetrable, something we can understand without understanding.
1. Michael A. Gonzales, “[Black Alt] What is Afrofuturism?,” Ebony.com, October 1, 2013.
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