Janelle Monáe Is Redefining What It Means to Be a Genius [INTERVIEW]
Janelle Monáe is a new kind of genius.
I’m tryna find my peace.
I was made to believe there’s something wrong with me.
And it hurts my heart.
Lord have mercy ain’t it plain to see?
Janelle Monáe sings directly to the camera before cracking from character, bursting out into brief laughter followed by an abrupt welling of tears. The wide-eyed robotic stares and theatricalist performance was overcome as the conflict buried in her eyes bubbled and surfaced for an unadulterated three minutes in that portrait frame of the artist. Within those four lines, Janelle Monáe offered, unbeknownst to us and maybe her, a glimpse of who she was.
That was eight years ago, when she sang these lyrics in her music video for “Cold War” — the second single off her debut album, The ArchAndroid.
“I knew that I was supposed to do this album before my first album,” she says to me in her milky, Midwestern twang, reflecting on the time between her debut and her new project, Dirty Computer, which would be released that same week in April. “My supporters who were with me since I got fired from Office Depot and I was singing on the library steps— I didn’t want to let them down.”
For the better half of 2018, the singer, songwriter, producer, actress, and auteur unraveled herself, revealing who she is and how she’s come to be through interview, after interview, growing more, and more candid. Profiles that packaged her narrative as her evolving into an artist and woman who “found her voice” and “freed herself” sidestepped the fact that she’d been doing this for a decade.
It seemed as if Monáe had been distancing audiences from her true self. But her coded lyrics, visual, and musical messages only whispered what she’s loud about now— her identity, her politics, her life. Now that she’s visible, and she’s allowed those of us on the outside, in, as personal as Dirty Computer is, this album isn’t a confessional.
A departure from the saga in her past albums, this is a new transparency where the humanness of the once android is a paraph on her signature style. She’s inverted her storytelling to reflect what she omitted before. Fandroids— Monáe’s name for the clove of supporters who watched her transition from a time skipping gender-defying android to a time-skipping human with flaws, feats, and everything between— who were expecting an expansion of her metropolis, instead, saw a revision of it.
“I just felt like now, more than ever, it was important, especially after doing Hidden Figures and Moonlight,” she says of the Oscar-nominated film where she played a part in telling virtually unknown history of three black women who were instrumental in getting the first American astronaut into space, and her role in the Oscar-winning drama about a young, poor, gay, black boy in Miami during the height of the crack epidemic— both bearing influence on her creative process for this album.
“We know that we exist in so many different ways,” she says. “The fact that we have those stories on-screen, and I was a part of both those movies, made me feel more emboldened and encouraged to dig deeper inside to be more vulnerable and more honest in the way that I approach my storytelling. Dirty Computer digs deep into the viruses and bugs of Janelle Monáe. And ultimately, it’s an album that encourages you to embrace the things that make you unique, even if it makes others uncomfortable.”
The project is anchored by a refreshing level of overt vulnerability that the public had not seen from Monáe in the past. Through its rollout, she attempted to master the delicate dance of being and becoming in the public eye. In Monáe’s case, performative identity serves a purpose.
At her album release party at Le Bain in New York in May, she stood across the room from me, dancing. She jumped on the mic singing impromptu along to Michael Jackson’s “Rock With You,” donning an ensemble, reminiscent of Janet Jackson’s Control era— a military cadet-style cap tilted to the right, dark, circular shades, and a pinstripe jacket with ‘80’s-esque shoulder pads that broadened her otherwise petite frame. In all-black, she managed to not get lost in the sea of colorfully loud outfits. After shouting out “all beautiful girls, guys, and gender-non-conforming” in the room, she clutched the mic close and said, “I see you. I am you. I love you.”
Monáe presents liberation and identity as a performance. But it’s performance as a means of communication. If ever it served well to make an artist into an paragon for whichever intersecting lanes of black identity, she is a good fit for it. A black, queer woman and creator— a new breed of pop star.
Monáe didn’t find her voice in this new age of black political art; her voice was amplified.
And years before it became the norm for popular black art to lean political, she was doing it with nuance, invention, and steadiness, bending genres, telling stories, offering political and social commentary through song and image. In hindsight, this was a feat — especially for one signed to Bad Boy, an unlikely home for a singer producing avant garde art at this level.
Monáe existed as singular in the past; now she doesn’t quite stand alone. With a constellation of qualities that would have otherwise be unfit for the constraints of mainstream music at the time, she could have very well set precedent for this now-accepted and expected type of artist long before it was realized.
Maybe she envisioned this new landscape for music. After all, she prides herself in being present in the future.
“I think through science fiction. Afrofuturism is my storytelling medium,” she says.
When I asked if she reads any theorists on Afrofuturism, she lists novelists, instead.
“I love Octavia Butler— Parable of the Sower, Wild Seed— I think she’s incredible. She’s still my favorite, my go-to black author. But I’m really excited about N—” she struggled to say Nnedi Okorafor. “I’m horrible with pronouncing names. Let me find out. Hold on,” she grew silent for ten seconds. She wanted to get it right. “N-N-E-D-I,” her voice jumps with excitement as she spells out the first name of the novelist who penned Who Fears Death. “I love her work,” she affirms before delving into other reads.
“I’m reading this book called The Great Cosmic Mother.” The 1987 book by Monica Sjöö explores the religion of the Goddess as the original religion of all humanity––asserting that women’s bodies inform the seasons, the phases of the moon, and the earth as a whole.
“I think everyone should read it,” she says. “The women [in the book] are not African American, they’re not black, but they’re very smart and they have a great perspective. It talks about matriarchal societies, before patriarchy got into effect, and that all things were created through women. It inspired my writing. It inspired ‘Pynk.’ It inspired Dirty Computer.”
What she envisions the future to look like for black people— for black women specifically— is documented all throughout the visual component of the album’s running motif to “femme the future.” It’s a a futuristic transmundane shangri-la of her own design— where they can live out loud, in color, in flaw, and in power.
Dirty Computer is her tour de force. A conceptual project blending genres as fluidly as it blends the personal with the political, through sonics, visuals, song, and rap— Monáe proves to be as adept with her visual and auditory storytelling. In Dirty Computer the emotion picture, she is among the women and men under attack by a surveillance state attempting to erase and reprogram their histories and memories. Monáe, her lovers, friends, and the other Dirty Computers fall victim to the regime. Once they become privy to to the program, they play the game until they beat the game and escape.
In “Janelle Monáe Invites Us In: A discussion on the performance of freedom,” Deria Matthews writes, “Monáe creates a mirrored dystopia of today’s present where freedom is a multimedia performance communicating wayward possibilities to those already disinvited from the rest of the world. With this, Dirty Computer becomes an archival invitation into a rogue community opposed to a coming out party for a conventional mass audience… It is colored with pride and a deep understanding of history. It is invested in the protection of that history from those who are interested in manipulating stories and narratives.”
It’s a storyline that parallels the trajectory of her career. Where this project may be heralded as her most liberated art, in relation to her past work, she’s polished what she’s preached. And, according to her, this isn’t the result of any new-found artistic freedom.
“I’ve always had agency,” she said. “It’s all about timing.”
A few days after our interview, Monáe came out as queer. In a subsequent interview, actress Tessa Thompson spoke on her bond with the artist, prompting more speculation about the nature of their relationship. Though Monáe has used this unwavering interest in her personal life as an opportunity to expand her political and social range of topics in her art, in some regard, the gaze of the public has overshadowed her art. An album that was ten-years in the making, that showcased her signature approach to storytelling, her growth as an artist, a person, and a visionary, an arguable candidacy for “genius” was overshadowed by the public’s incessant desire to know the answer to one question: is she gay?
It makes one wonder where Monáe stands in the pantheon of great black artists in this age.
In music, “genius” can be predicated to what artists bring to the industry through talent, skill, or mere moments in their careers. Monáe makes a case for her genius on “Django Jane,” when she raps, “If she the G.O.A.T. now, would anybody doubt it?” Asking, if a woman were the greatest at what she does, would the world admit to it, dismiss it, or deny it?
The mighty but light weight of Monáe’s pop-leaning political prose can’t be likened to the popular art veering towards fodder for a growing appetite for black political response art. She hasn’t pandered to the demand for black art as a response to today’s political climate. This stage of her career— where she’s amplified what she’s already been vocal about, sometimes sub rosa other times head-on — has aligned with the moment. Where an artist like Prince— Monáe’s late mentor, whose clear imprint on the framework of her latest album left an indelible mark on his mentee’s artistry— tapped into the zeitgeist of his time, Monáe is a vector of hers.
But can she be heralded as one of the premiere music visionaries and geniuses of the moment?
In the podcast Revisionist History, journalist Malcolm Gladwell alluded to economist David Galenson’s theory on creativity. Galenson asserts that there are two types of trajectories creative geniuses take. Artists who never have a clear, easily articulated idea, that work slower and start off not knowing their purpose or direction throughout their careers are “experimental innovators.” They lack consistency and direction, but still end up reaching their genius zenith through trial and error. Artists who do their best work early in their careers, who tend to work under quicker, more specific articulation, are “conceptual innovators.”
Monáe straddles the fence between these two types of creative genius. Where she may lack in unbridled magnetism (hers is a subtle kind) and unchallengeable technical skill (hers is a natural kind), she counters with consistency and conviction. She knew her purpose and followed her path up until this point.
“I can go in a studio or [into] songwriting and I’ve already scratched what I was gonna write because I just felt like it wasn’t good enough or I didn’t want to talk.” She calls herself a “self-editor,” omitting topics she wasn’t ready to talk about. And it’s ever apparent in her methodology. She’s inviting but not too open. Loud but not incendiary. While some have recalibrated themselves to the times with newfound political stances, she’s mastered the art of balance and consistency. The difference between then and now is, she’s ready.
“I didn’t know how to express my feelings of frustration or anger. It’s one thing to be those things, but at the end of the day, I understand that love has to be at the root of all misunderstanding. We have to speak out of love, so until I was fully ready to articulate what it is I was trying to say through a young African American woman’s lens, I didn’t move on it. I just move when I feel my self clock tells me to move or my inner compass tells me to move.”
She’s able to see the lapse in those two different spaces, and where has she existed on those two planes as an artist, wanting to create through rage and love and the tenor of emotions not oft extended to black women who make music. Monáe’s level of genius is one that isn’t usually prescribed to black women who create. A lighter look at what her male counterparts in the speare of popular music— the Donald Glovers, the Kanye Wests, the Kendrick Lamars— are given the space to express.
“It’s important to express your honesty,” she says, taking a breathe. “And I’ve honestly been affected by the things that are happening to African Americans, black folks, in general in this country. Just the whole concept of being at Starbucks, and you can be black and sitting in there having a meeting, and the police are called on you because you look like a threat, because of the color of your skin. You could be in your backyard minding your own business, and a police officer mistakes your cell phone for a gun, and you’re killed. I’m watching women’s rights be trampled on. I’m watching how we’re portrayed in the media.”
“The leader of the free world tells you through his mouth and through the policies that he’s trying to push, he doesn’t even care about immigrants… about people’s rights,” she said with an air of frustration.
A 32-year-old black woman from the heart of the country in Kansas City, Kansas, daughter of working-class parents, Janelle Monáe is as American as it gets; the face of the nation’s past and future.
“My ancestors built the White House, she says. “My mother lived through segregation, a sharecropper who picked cotton, my father was a sanitation worker. These are working class people that I care about. When those in positions of power say over and over again through their actions, ‘we don’t really give a fuck about the people that you love, or you,’ it’s beyond frustrating, and it was impossible for me to not discuss that… Talking to people like Stevie Wonder and my therapist [helped] for my personal life, for just frustrations that I’ve had with this administration.”
In an interlude on her album titled “Stevie’s Dream,” Stevie Wonder says,
“Don’t let your expressions, even of anger be confused or misconstrued. Turn them into words of expression that can be understood by using words of love.
Love is at the root of her particular type of self-preservation as an artist, and as a person.
“When I wrote songs like ‘Django Jane’, it was important to get out my anger,” she said, “to get out my frustration, to be deliberate about where I stood on certain issues. To make sure that women— black women in particular— knew that this is an album for us. This is for you. This is for me. It’s about a journey through all these emotions and ultimately realizing that love, which sometimes is very difficult to do when you are feeling like you’re an oppressed group, it’s difficult to love through all that pain and through that hurt. It’s still a work in progress, but I think that it was harder to choose [love]. I don’t think keeping anger or frustration inside is the answer.”
For Monáe, who started seeing a therapist before the release of her debut album in 2010, therapy has long been a solution to her issues with channeling emotions and putting this method into practice. But she champions the internal work that comes with that.
“Therapy absolutely works for me,” she says. “I’m able to speak to someone who can help guide me through my feelings. I have the right to change my mind around things. I have the right to forgive. I have the right not to forgive. It’s something that I can be in control of, if I so choose. And having choice is very powerful.”
Her alter ego had been another means to reckoning with control and, a concept writer Najma Sharif explores, the censoring of self under public and private watch. It was an attempt to extricate herself from the demands of an industry and the expectations of fans, and a feint to conceal a part of her truest self earlier in her career as she navigated an industry set on defining and defying her. But where many thought that this android, cyborg-esque persona only restrained her, she attests, at times, her alter ego empowered her.
“I think people may have just assumed that ‘Oh, this isn’t Janelle Monáe.’ I am a little bit more flawed. Cindi Mayweather represents the highest form of Janelle Monáe.”
Where Monáe had her android alter ego Cindi Mayweather, Beyoncé had Sasha Fierce, and Nicki Minaj had Roman Zolanski. The three of them, who are supreme artists of their respective lanes, have all sort of shed these personas in more recent times.
“Those women are extremely talented,” she says of the two artists. “And Beyoncé is a friend. I love her— she’s been a huge inspiration to me as a performer, as a black woman,” she says. “As a writer, I have an imagination, and I’ve used it since I’ve been a little girl. I’ve never wanted to stop my imagination from running wild.”
Where black women in entertainment who excell beyond perceived expectation are likened to a type of otherworldly strength and endurance that at times defies the humanity in their artistry, Monáe is adamant about unveiling the humanity that has always existed in her art even during the periods where her alter-persona presided over her personal one.
“David Bowie had Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars. Prince has had alter egos. There are a lot of men who have done it and been very successful. People appreciate it, and they respect it. I just felt like as a black woman, and as an artist who loves great storytelling, who loves an experience, on stage and sonically and musically, why can’t I have an alter ego?”
Perfect cookie-cutter-crafted personas crumble sooner or later. But Monáe doesn’t immolate her alter-self for the sake of self-discovery. She wasn’t breaking down before our eyes and coming to form as a new artist. She’s been curating her existence in a way that could both placate the public’s palette and protect her personal life. She is no longer composed of the “plastic sweat, metal skin, metallic tears” she sang about more than a decade ago. Now, she exists in our dimension, in full flesh.
“I’ve always been trying to achieve being the best person that I can be, the best human I can be, the best android, whatever, but I’m realizing it’s okay to not strive for perfection— to ride in your gray area. Everything’s half black and white, She says. “It’s about the journey; it’s not always about the destination. I’m fine with not having all the answers and not being so put together..”
This is a response she also uttered at her film premiere, and in interviews leading up to the album release. She’s spoken and repeated entire statements like this one. When I attended her premiere screening for the Dirty Computers film, the Q&A portion of her responses sounded rehearsed. Some statements from the panel were verbatim as our conversation and other interviews regardless of the question asked.
This isn’t too much of a diversion from what happens when artists go on press runs for their projects. But it’s clear that Janelle Monáe sticks to a script. And with her narrative, she wants the world to be on the same page she’s on. Only, her page is prewritten. It’s a performance that fits into the parameters of her political pop persona— one that is controlled rather than contrived.
With Monáe, everything is a performance, in the best sense. There’s nothing disappointing about her not delving deep enough for our desires. Janelle Monáe is where pageantry meets purpose; her pristine brand of political-radical, albeit whatever surface-level-radical an entertainer can be— is practiced and perfected, but not fake. She isn’t posturing, but like a pageant queen, she stands before us, on a stage with a beaming spotlight, stipulating through song, dance, and short speech how she wants to change the world. If ever performative identity served a purpose, it’s through entertainers. And if ever an entertainer is heralded as a pop star our time, it’d be Janelle Monáe.