POC MAG – Pop Prophet feat Janelle Monáe
Music is her weapon and the world is her stage. Behold the futuristic vision of janelle Monáe.
“Are you ready for an interactive e-motion picture?” asks the man in the top hat and cane to a rammed Hoxton Square Bar And Kitchen in Shoreditch, London. People are more than ready. Ever since Janelle Monáe’s beyond-stunning appearance on David Letterman – in which she channelled the ghosts of James Brown, Michael Jackson and a thousand Broadway stars into a performance of her song ‘Tightrope’ that left Madonna looking lethargic and Lady Gaga uninspired – the buzz around her has grown closer to a nuclear hum.
Sat in a Mayfair hotel the day before the show, Janelle Monáe exudes quiet confidence. “I’ve been performing for over half my life, the stage is my home,” she says in her soft, smoky voice. “I wrote plays and musicals growing up and that kept me alive, kept me out of trouble. I could’ve been doing some other creatively mischievous things.” Born in 1985, Monáe’s been a hot ticket for a while now, winning talent shows all over her native Kansas as a child (providing valuable supplementary income for her working-class parents), making a splash on OutKast’s Idlewild album and so impressing Diddy with her self-released digital EP Metropolis that he snapped her up for his Bad Boy record label and billed her as “perhaps the most important signing of my career”.
Metropolis was the first of a four-part concept piece based on Fritz Lang’s movie, in which Monáe, cast as her “muse” Cindi Mayweather, returns from the future to lead a fight for android rights. She explains: “The android represents the new form of ‘the other’ – something I can relate to and I feel a lot of people can. We’re going to live in a world of androids anyway, I do believe, because of the rapid speed of technology, nanotechnology becoming smaller and faster every two years. So I pose the question: ‘Are we going to fear the android and treat them inhumanely, treat them like slaves?’”
Monáe has stated such views so earnestly it’s led some critics to ponder whether she’s an android herself. But the new album, The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III), lists human inspiration for each track.
From Princess Leia’s ‘cinnamon buns’ hairstyle to the cover artwork for Stevie Wonder’s album The Music of My Mind, a kaleidoscope of influences inform Monáe’s unique vision. She says she sees music in terms of colours, dabbling away at a track until it’s the right “shade”. Yet her clothing is monochrome, a pattern of self-designed black and white suits that are strikingly androgynous, a suggestion she swats away imperiously. “Fashion is something you do, you don’t talk about it. I don’t even think it’s that important, I don’t believe in menswear and womenswear, it’s just a uniform paying homage to the working men and women. For me there’s just no grey area, it’s either black or white.”
Now located in Atlanta, Georgia, with her Wondaland Arts Society – a collective of “graphic novelists, performance artists, actors, musicians, screenwriters, you name it” – Monáe is serious about her art. She retains full control over her music, clothes, hair (a spectacular pompadour), choreography – “not that I really choreograph anything, but if I wanted to, that would be up to me” – and believes fully in the transformative power of music. “We [Wondaland] are all using our unique gifts to help preserve art and use music as our weapon. We have the right to our imaginations and are unapologetic,” she states with the determined familiarity of a manifesto.
It’s this desire to share her gift with the world that led Monáe to quit New York’s American Musical and Dramatic Academy and abandon her plans to become a Broadway star. At least for now. “I still love and respect it and I want to see ArchAndroid on Broadway,” she says, “but I had to leave to get into contact with the things that made me unique as a writer and as a performer. I didn’t want to be too influenced by anybody’s standardised teachings. I have to be involved in the creative process to be connected to it. That’s the only reason I didn’t stay in New York – I wanted to create my own New York.”