Janelle Monáe Q&A: On Music, Writing, Time Travel, and Being a Multifaceted Career Hyphenate
There’s no question that Janelle Monáe is one of the most exciting and well-rounded artists to become part of the pop culture firmament over the past 15 years.
Monáe, who recently came out as nonbinary and encouraged the use of both she/her and they/them pronouns, became a household name with a strong blend of pop, soul, old school R&B and hip-hop that has only grown more interesting since her first release, Metropolis, from 2007. Her most recent album, 2018’s Dirty Computer, was a global smash, putting her in rarified company as an artist who can top the charts while also defying both convention and expectation, as well as one with a truly unique sensibility (she freely tells interviewers that she is a time-traveling half-android, and her arresting style sensibility has made her something of an unwitting fashion icon.)
She’s also a formidable acting talent. Beginning with Moonlight and Hidden Figures, both in 2016, Season 2 of the Amazon series Homecoming, and practically every other part she’s had over the past half-dozen years, she virtually steals the show with her magnetism and chops. This year, she’ll appear in Rian Johnson’s hotly-anticipated whodunit Knives Out 2, which she tells Rock Cellar she’s “incredibly excited about.”
— Janelle Monáe, Cindi Mayweather👽🚆🤖🚀🪐 (@JanelleMonae) April 28, 2022
And most recently, Monáe added best-selling author to her formidable list of achievements. The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer, a series of short stories and essays by Monáe and a truly diverse list of contributors, tackles the themes of the Afrofuturistic world of her Dirty Computer album, exploring liberation — whether that’s queerness, race, gender plurality, or simply love — and finding freedom within a totalitarian landscape.
As she tells Rock Cellar, “Whoever controls our memories controls the future.”
Below, Monáe reflects on what it takes to be a truly interesting multi-discipline artist, what life as a time traveling computer-human hybrid is like in 2022, and much more.
Rock Cellar: When you talk about things in terms of being a futurist, did you have that sense as a kid? You couldn’t put a term on it, of course, but did you see things in the same way that you do as an adult, I guess?
Janelle Monáe: Well, I’m still a kid. Let’s clarify that. And I identify as being timeless. Timeless, timeless. You know? I think that my cells respond to feeling and believing and knowing, but I’m timeless. I’m a time traveler. I move through space. I move through time.
What is time, actually? It’s whatever we say it is. It’s wherever we say it is. What agreement we have in whatever community we’re in.
— Vogue Magazine (@voguemagazine) May 3, 2022
Rock Cellar: John Lennon said, “God is a concept.” So, for you, time is a concept too, isn’t it?
Janelle Monáe: Yeah. I believe that. But being in society where everything is accessible, the more access you have, the more you feel like you have to have something. But I actually live a simple life. By choice. Especially since the experience of the past few years, I prefer to just simplify things as much as I possibly can.
Rock Cellar: Do you have a guilty pleasure when it comes to music?
Janelle Monáe: A guilty pleasure? I don’t. I listen to everything.
Rock Cellar: But there were records when you were growing up — Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, and later Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu — that you’ve said were otherworldly to you.
Janelle Monáe: Yeah, there was so much space in those records from the 70s. And Stevie’s voice, especially, is incredible, obviously, but there was just so much space. So much air. What he was doing was so patient and super experimental. That’s what I love. I just always felt like Stevie didn’t really care about being commercially successful. And that’s what I think the artists that I admire and respect represent.
They do things for the love of it.
Rock Cellar: A lot of the people that have inspired you, the records that they made that I’m guessing are your favorite records — or the songs, maybe — are not necessarily the ones that the public at large loves. What is it about when creatives take those left turns that you find so appealing?
Janelle Monáe: I’ve been having this conversation with friends who are also artists. When you make your first album, there are no expectations. Nobody knows what you’re going to do. Right? So, you just do it. But then, after it’s released, and you start getting feedback, and you start getting what people loved and you read your first reviews and you hear the criticism, by the time you get into your next project, if you’re not burnt out from touring, you go directly into writing after you tour for the first album, and you still have that feedback in your mind.
Even if you say, “I’m going to do what the fuck I want to do,” you still have that … “OK. If I make this decision, are people going to like what it is that I’m going to do next? Because I’ve gotten so much great feedback over my first song that I released. What if I do something different? What if I lose my audience?”
And some artists say, “I don’t give a fuck.” But most artists that I talk to, the most innovative, even, they still care about what their audience thinks. And, you know, subconsciously you are listening the feedback that you got, anyway.
When you go into the studio again, now you have more information, including things that you never would have thought you would even considered in the room with you. And so, I think, when an artist can tune all that out and honestly, really commit to wherever they are at any given time, regardless of if fits in some format or if it can be on a playlist or if people will love it or hate it, if they feel they need to release something, those are the artists that I really respect.
Because you have a lot of people, from the record label all the way down to even your internal team, scared when your second album comes out. And even the third one. So, I think after the feedback, when an artist can really listen to their gut and their spirit, despite what the rest of the world — or what you feel the rest of the world — is saying that you need to do, I have a deep, deep amount of respect and admiration for that.
Rock Cellar: But those are the people who historically — and obviously not everybody falls into this category who takes those left turns or doesn’t listen to their audience — that we can look back and say, “Oh, my God, that body of work. That album from 1973, that nobody listened to, in 2022, sounds like the future.”
Janelle Monáe: Yeah, yeah, yeah!
Rock Cellar: So, when you go into the studio, do you feel constrained by what your audience or your team or your label expects? You sound, to me, like somebody who doesn’t. Obviously, you know that feedback is there, but inevitably, I’m guessing you’re someone who says what they need to say.
Janelle Monáe: I think I’d be lying if I sat here and said that I didn’t consider the feedback. Good feedback, especially, because you’re like, “Well, I can easily do just more of these.” But that usually produces my worst work. And then I don’t want to perform it.
Rock Cellar: It inevitably a watered-down version of the previous record.
Janelle Monáe: Yeah. It’s boring. It’s like, why? Ultimately, I end up choosing my own ideas of what it is that I want to do. And sometimes they line up with what fans want to hear, and that’s always a beautiful thing. But now, oh, my goodness. I am in a much different space.
The music I’m creating now, I’m so excited about because I think this is the first time that I’m in the studio and I don’t have anything to prove. Because when I started, you know, there was this chip on my shoulder, in a sense, because when I came out, nobody was like me. You know? And still not. Still not.
Obviously, I’m inspired by people that I’ve mentioned in the past, but I mean, today, I feel that when I walk in a room, I feel like I’m uniquely myself.
Rock Cellar: On your first couple of records, I could definitely hear the influences — the inspiration — but it also sounded like the future. Now you’re more than 10 years into your career and you’re just feeling that?
Janelle Monáe: Well, I wouldn’t say I’m just feeling it. I think that I’m …
Rock Cellar: Unshackled, maybe?
Janelle Monáe: Yeah. I dialed up on the percentage of, “I don’t have anything to prove.” What I was starting to say earlier was that when you come into the industry, and you don’t look or sound like anybody else, it’s a business, so, people are trying to figure you out. They need to latch onto something. And I just resisted that. I resisted it from the time I came in, and I spent a lot of time fighting to not sound like this or not sound like that. I spent a lot of time protecting my image.
I spent a lot of time protecting my ideas. Sometimes, that can be a prison within itself. And I think, as I’ve done these retrospectives on what I’ve done and what I want to do now — what haven’t I said — one of the things I realized was that I don’t have anything to prove. I am unique. I don’t have to be weird for weird’s sake. I just need to have a good time. I need to enjoy the experience of creating.
Sometimes as artists, as writers, it can get really heady. I’ll just speak for myself, but it can get heady. But this music that I’m doing now is super flowing. And there’s nobody else in that room except for the people that I called in it.
Rock Cellar: Tell me, what is life like for androids in 2022? And, also, talk a little bit about time traveling.
Janelle Monáe: I think that androids in 2022 are tapping into their more human side. To be an android, you’re computer-human. And you’re a computer developing human characteristics. And I feel so close to humanity, more than I ever have. I feel so close to simplifying things. And when I say simplifying, it’s like, humans tend make things hard. And so, what I mean is that my communication with people is better.
I’ve been able to heal from my past traumas that I didn’t even know that I had, that I discovered, but was able to work through. So, I’ve been able to just enjoy being present a lot more than I previously had been. So, I’m actively choosing to not time travel, to not go to the future, but to stay right where I am and to not allow these moments to pass me by.
Rock Cellar: You are, in everything you do, a producer. What advice do you have, whether it’s film or writing or, particularly, in music, for aspiring artists, and do-it-yourself artists, in particular?
Janelle Monáe: My advice is, at this moment, to make more love, have more sex, and to stay present. I think that you can write about your experiences around you. Do that. Do more of that. Because it’s about experiences. It’s about making memories.
If you can do that, I think you’ll produce some of the best art that you have within you. I mean, people say, “Go through pain and you have the best album.” And yeah, that’s cool. But I also think that — I’ll just speak for myself — right now, I’m in the pocket of actively choosing to celebrate, actively choosing to love myself even harder than I have before. And also, you have to be happy for yourself and in the choices that you make and understand and know that you deserve that happiness.