Few artists ever come along that from the moment you see them, you realize they are going to change the music world and your life. There have been legends who weren’t really appreciated in their early years, and then there were those who captured you right from the start. Janelle Monae is the latter. The ArchAndroid is going to be nominated for ‘Album of the Year’ at next year’s Grammy Awards. Ahmed called it!
First, I’d like to start by asking you about the “Tightrope” video (her first single upcoming album, The ArchAndroid). There were so many hidden messages and images going on in there, and I wanted to ask you about one of them…unless you mean for them to be esoteric?
Well, I definitely signed an agreement with the Palace of the Dogs not to disclose any information but…I guess I was a ‘patient’ there, and that is a re-enactment of something that really happened there.
So the Palace of the Dogs is an actual working asylum?
Yes, a sanitarium.
I did want to ask you about the very end of the video where you start singing “Happy Birthday”. What is the meaning or reason for that?
Well, it can be interpreted in many ways…it could be the birth of a new generation, or it could even be the birth of someone who had been shackled becoming free.
Okay, I can see that. Well, let’s talk about the musical influences in the video because I saw and heard so many from James Brown, to Michael Jackson, to Jackie Wilson, to “Little” Stevie Wonder circa the ‘Fingertips’ album…
Oh really? Yeah (smiles)
I also wanted to ask you, too, since you are so active and energetic on stage, if you have a workout regimen or is your performance the actual workout?
(chuckles) When I perform, that is the workout. I mean, I do try to exercise but sometimes my schedule doesn’t allow for it, so a lot of it is built over years of just performances, and when your adrenaline kicks in (claps for emphasis) you just have it naturally. And usually my songs create electricity inside of me–I become very possessed like an out-of-body experience. Something just comes over me and I don’t realize it.
I actually realized that a while ago. And I guess I should admit that I used to live in Atlanta and knew the scene, so I’ve actually seen you perform before, in your previous incarnation before this one (referring to when she used to rock a large curly afro and wore colorful dresses, in contrast to her now signature hairstyle and black & white tuxedo suits)
Oh, wow…that’s nice (apparently surprised)
Yeah, and to that point, what has been the difference between the kind of attention you received in the past and the kind you receive now in this new incarnation…and I use that word only because I’ve heard you talk about ‘transition’ to describe your evolution as an artist/person.
I don’t know…it’s not something I concern myself with. You know, I try to stay very balanced, and not be persuaded by anyone’s idea of who I should be. I’m for individuality and embracing the things that make me…me, even if they make other people uncomfortable, including myself. I think that it’s important that I grow and continue to try ideas, be unafraid to make mistakes, to wear the same uniform over and over and over again, where my hair this way over and over and over again…it’s my right!
Definitely, and it’s a bold statement. (she chuckles, nodding). I also wanted to talk about your business relationship with Sean Combs, and I realized that you refer to him as such…
Well, that’s his name right?
It is, but most use his moniker–P. Diddy–and I noticed you don’t (she smiles at the observation). So, what I gather is that he heard your music and wanted to help you promote your projects…so does that make him like a…consultant of sorts?
He’s a project champion…this is a campaign and he is an endorser. He strongly believes in the message of the Wondaland Arts Society (her own music label) and me as a businesswoman and artist. He’s been a man of his word and has been wanting to expose what’s been going on in the Wondaland.
So Wondaland Arts Society is your label. Does that make your official title ‘President’, ‘CEO’…?
Co-founder. Nate Wonder (who is seated in the room with us) is also one of the co-founders. It’s like a musical orphanage; you know…we have visual artists, graphic novelists, performance artists, musicians, screenwriters…you know. We’re very self-contained. We’re really trying to create a world where the individual can come into themselves…and to use the music to unite. We understand that music can bring so many together so we want to help preserve that for the next generation to come.
Is that a parallel to what The ArchAndriod is about, because I was noticing phrases like “The Great Divide” and I guess it that kinda ties in altogether what you were saying?
Absolutely. It’s something that we’re fighting for. If it wasn’t just Black people being “the others”, then I think “it’s going to be the Android that will be “the others”…the mediators between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ to restore oneness. Cyndi [Mayweather] is my muse.
When did you first come with the concept of The ArchAndroid?
It’s been a while. It did come to me. I saw a lot of parallels in the movie Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang. Movies and music, in general, evoke emotions; I was really moved by that movie and the constant struggle of the ‘haves’ and ‘have-nots’, and it just inspired me, my writing partner Chuck Lightning, Nate, and all of us to work on the album.
As for UK-based music/artists, I heard that you were into David Bowie as he was an musical influence or inspiration, among others?
I didn’t really get into David Bowie until after the Metropolis: The Chase release (her debut EP) because people were saying it reminded them of his album Ziggy Stardust. It wasn’t until I listened to it that I was like, “oh man, that’s been like a compliment for a very long time!” I love Salvador Dali, even though he’s not from here. I’m a visual artist, so a lot of Surrealism gives me inspiration. I was working on a painting at the time of the creation of The ArchAndroid, and I started to see…you know…songs and sounds and colors, and I would speak to Nate and Chuck to make the songs feel more organic and visually connect the instruments to the colors; like making the hook have a bold and bright red–we knew what instruments connected. So, that’s really been my inspiration. And you know, all of artists…American artists [as well] like Walter E. Disney–a lot of overtures in [animated] films by him. Stevie Wonder…yeah…huge influence–Innervisions and Music of My Mind; all those timeless and classic albums. And I feel that’s what we’ve crafted…transformative music that really does evoke emotions that you live in, the life life that you have, and I know this because I experienced it firsthand and I’ve been really moved by the music.
And also, I come from a working class family where my mother was a janitor, my father drove garbage trucks, and my stepfather worked at the Post Office, so I have a connection with that working class and I wear a uniform in homage to them so that I always connect to them as a reminder that there are people who really need to be inspired, who really need music, and need life tutorials on how to stay balanced; “Tightrope” deals with balance…a lot of songs on the album are self-help songs. “Cold War”…’do you know what you’re fighting for”…it deals with just realizing you have powers and just giving into and connecting with them, and using them. It’s about being unafraid to fly but also make mistakes and to be the individual you were called to be. I don’t believe in bullying and I want to stand up for that person who can’t really speak for themselves. That’s also my inspiration, that there are people who need me.
You seem very…aware of things (my emphasis on “aware” draws a muffled chuckle and smile from her) and I’ve noticed another consistent theme in previous interviews where you mention you have ‘core values’ and talk about community, but I wondered what other points there were in your list of core values?
Sure! I have to really process why I am choosing to go down this road and what things actually matter to me, because sometimes you can be in the forest for so long that you don’t see the trees, or don’t know if a tree is good or bad. For me, as I mentioned, my community is very important to me, no matter how much success comes my way, and especially young girls. I’ve always wanted to redefine what it means to be a young lady because there are so many different ways you can command attention and respect and still be sexy, still be looked at as beautiful. We don’t all have to take the same path to get to the same destination, whatever success means to you. I’ve always wanted to give [young girls/women] another option, so it does matter what kind of influence I’m putting out there. And then the music…just creating quality music, doing quality performances and making sure that I’m not wasting my recordings. I mean, music has the power to change lives, a movie can evoke so many emotions. Ideas can take you a long way…imagination can inspire entire nations! And so I have a commitment to come up with new concepts and ideas. And those are just a few thing–my list is just growing and growing.
Based on your values and the many things you stand for, and if you don’t mind me getting too personal…
No, go ahead.
…it just seems, in one respect, that you might intimidate potential suitors, but beyond that…what kind of individual or their characteristics compliment the type of vibe that you have?
Are you saying who am I attracted to? (she calls me out lol)
Well, not so much attraction but just compliments or mirrors your…okay fine, for the sake of argument, let’s just say attraction (smiling, I choose not dig a hole).
(laughs and gives me a quick “c’mon son’ look) I love ‘thought leaders’, I love really knowledgeable individuals who actually understand their purpose and can be a rebel with a cause, you know? I love individuality and when people are comfortable with themselves…not trying to be overly masculine or over feminine, that’s why I only date androids. Specifically how I like them. (smiles)
And what’s the working definition of an ‘android’?
An android, you know…it’s a robot with human characteristics! You can buy them in different places and you never really have any problems with them. (smiling)
Guess we’ll just leave it at that (she starts laughing). Okay, based on you saying you are a visual artist, and things that inspire you emotionally, I have 3 back-to-back questions: what is your favorite movie?
I love Edward Scissorhands.
Best concert you ever attended?
Hmm…it probably was the Outkast/Lauryn Hill concert in 1999. The Miseducation/Aquemini Tour.
And the album that transformed you in a way that you desire your album to transform people?
I would say Innervisions by Stevie Wonder.
When next will you be performing in the UK?
I’ll be here with Of Montreal in September. They’re on the album, on the song “Make the Bus”, and then on tour with Erykah Badu, but only in North America, and then the Lilith Fair Tour this Summer. I’ll be gearing up for my headlining tour soon after, towards the end of the year.
What are thoughts on London, as a city?
I have not really had the opportunity to go out as I’m usually inside during the day, promoting. Of course, Estelle is from here and I think she’s wonderful and she’s over in the States now. But from what I’ve gathered here, girls who look like me have a hard time over here and I wish I could see the day where people would stop looking at race as a limiting thing. People need to understand that we are not monolithic; we have our own diversely creative ideas. I just hope that what I do opens more doors, more awareness and diversity for other female artists to follow after me, and that people become more free after listening to the music that I create, as other artists have done for me like Outkast and many others. I just hope that over here and around the world that people just celebrate our differences more.
Lastly, what is the greatest thing about life right now, for you?
(smiles) That I get the opportunity to impact a generation…my generation and the generation to come after me in a big way. Like I said, I’m for individuality, I am for embracing the thing that makes you you, I am for uniting through the music, knowing that the music we’re creating will bring people together. It’s just a beautiful thing and inspiring to know I have the potential to change lives.
Indeed, she will! The ArchAndroid drops 18 May, 2010. Visit www.jmonae.com to pre-order and for exclusive information.
Words by Ahmed Sirour