Janelle Monae‘s been touted as the second coming of James Brown and Erykah Badu all in one. She flies across stages in her black and white tux like an Energizer Bunny on uppers sporting a pompadour that puts Conan O’Brien’s to shame. Her voice soars on optimistic ballads and rocks out on frenetic pop tunes. Then she stops singing and starts talking about androids, robot brains and future realities and suddenly this new dance funk diva hero raises eyebrows. ‘What on Mars is she talking about?’
Yet, when she says things like ‘Cindi Mayweather is the bridge that unites the haves and the have-nots’ or “The android represents the other…and I think we all can agree that in one point in time in our lives we may have felt [like the minority],” all this android talk seems much more human. Issues of peaceful co-existence, class and minority oppression aren’t all that foreign. It’s “Twilight” for the soul set except instead of vampires and werewolves, there are androids and sheroes. Evidently the promise of the post-racial present revolves, not around the color of skin, but whether you have any.
On The ArchAndroid, Monae’s alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, assumes her full power to unite the humans and androids after human cruelty and discrimination puts the two classes of beings at odds. Using Fritz Lang‘s seminal silent film, Metropolis, as a springboard, Monae explores the film’s opening quote throughout her album, “The mediator between the mind and the hands is the heart.” Nowhere is this made more clear than on the wistful and simple “Neon Valley Street” where Monae intones, “May this song reach your heart.”
“[Cindi's] the heart and I’m asking myself as an artist to be the heart in the music I create, especially with The ArchAndroid and The Metropolis Suite was always intended to unite, not divide us.”
Monae’s heart drives her to constantly show loyalty to her non-musical influences, whether it’s with her straight-laced black and white suits paying homage to her working class upbringing (her mother was a janitor, father drove a trash truck, stepfather, a postal worker) or the irrepressibly upbeat messages behind her cryptic and danceable songs delivered to the people who need to hear them most.
“I’ve always wanted to just show through my music a message and just how I live my life, you know, a different side of women, of Black women of color. We’re not all monolithic. We have our own ideas. I have a right to my imagination.”
Building the Janelle Monae brand or her recording label, Wondaland Arts Society, took a lot of imagination considering just a few years ago, this songbird spent her days slinging ink cartridges at Office Depot and singing behind the walls of a boardinghouse in the shadow of the Atlanta University Center (AUC). But it takes a special kind of mind to turn that circumstance into a business opportunity.
“I was thankful to have somewhere to stay and it was good because I lived on [the] campus of Spelman, Morehouse, Clark – that’s where I tested all my music. I would do dorm lounge tours and just perform and you know, the sororities would put on shows for me and I would be selling my CD out my boardinghouse. My roommates would help, so it was good. I was around very forward-thinking African-Americans, business owners, future business owners and I loved that energy.”
One of those early supporters during that time was Big Boi from Outkast. Impressed with Monae’s sound and vision, Big Boi helped release the song, “Letting Go,” about her getting fired from Office Depot.
“That was the start of our relationship – him just understanding where we were trying to go and…he wanted to make sure that whatever he could possibly do to help the music we were creating reach the main surface. He’s been doing that over the last few years and I’m thankful to have him and Andre  in our corners. They’re huge supporters of Wondaland and we’re like family.”
It’s hard to believe such a bold artist being gun-shy with this distinct creative vision, but the making of The ArchAndroid, a lot of which came to Monae in dreams, allowed her to drop a lot of baggage and put everything out there.
“I worked with Nate ‘Rocket’ Wonder and Chuck Lightning, us three, we would be very open-minded and be unafraid to fail. A lot of the time, I actually consider myself a perfectionist and I would drive myself crazy trying to make things perfect, but I have found peace in being unafraid to make mistakes.”
Songs like “Come Alive (The War of the Roses)” and “Mushrooms & Roses” are indeed fearless as they dive into psychedelia with Monae wailing with the guitars in the former and fading away into distortion on the latter. Though her reputation is built on the high energy tracks like “Tightrope,” she constantly expands on the low-key moments from Metropolis Suite I: The Chase like “Smile.” It’s the rich sounds and vocal explosions of her softer experiments that take you places no soul singer has in years. Both sides add to the aural ‘emotion pictures’ she aims to create with collaborators Nate ‘Rocket’ Wonder and Roman GianArthur (who helped conduct the Wondaland ArchOrchestra) on The ArchAndroid, taking cues from great film composers like John Williams of “Superman” and “Raiders of the Lost Ark” fame with a splash of Walt Disney‘s knack for whimsy.
“We took a very cinematic approach to this. That’s where my biggest influence is. I love movie scores. I love big ideas, big concepts…We have movie trailers and playbills for The ArchAndroid and we also have a budget to create a visual for every single song on The ArchAndroid so we are going to be doing a movie for this.”
Though the concepts are spacey and intricate, the key to holding on to her audience never eludes Monae.
“I didn’t try to do anything different for the sake of being different…We always have to create something that people can understand. This music is for the people to empower them so they can dream bigger and imagine higher, imagine greater.”
With that in mind, Cindi Mayweather can freedom fight in the future all she wants, but let’s hope that Janelle Monae keeps at least one toe planted firmly in present tense Planet Earth where funky, forward-thinking women are desperately in demand.
Watch Janelle’s latest video for “Cold War”