Janelle Monáe speaks her mind. Through her art, and in her off-camera life, she gives voice to the voiceless and comfort to the afflicted. And she does it to a funky beat. With the release of her new album, Dirty Computer, Monáe talks to Ashley C. Ford about visibility, about fighting for love, and about always choosing freedom over fear.
My introduction to Janelle Monáe came via email. “Have you heard of this woman?” a good friend wrote me. “I think she’s right up your alley.” They included a link to Monáe’s video for “Tightrope.” I watched the video, my eyes growing bigger with every frame. That signature pompadour, the two-tone oxfords, and even that little “Whooaaaaaa!” in the first five seconds of the song. This small, gorgeous woman bopped from one end of an asylum to another, in a tailored suit that allowed her to move like Jackie Wilson at the Apollo. It was fun, it was funky, and she was delightful. Monáe was, indeed, right up my alley.
Her debut album, The ArchAndroid, had just been released. It was 2010, I was in my sixth year of trying to complete my undergraduate degree, and I had entered a new phase of Fuck It All. With 25 percent of all the money I had left in the world, I bought the album. I knew little of what I wanted from the future other than more freedom than I’d ever had before. Monáe looked and sounded like the kind of person who could be honest with herself about who she was and what she wanted. I wanted to be that kind of person, too. To me, that kind of person was free.
Eight years later, I sit at a small table for two at the Mark Restaurant by Jean-Georges waiting for Monáe to join me for breakfast. Her third studio album, Dirty Computer, has just been released, and my social media feeds are chock-full of folks applauding the work, pining for Monáe, and declaring themselves Dirty Computers ready to follow her lead.
She arrives in a charcoal button-down blazer dress, sunglasses, and a hat that reminds me of a fashion-forward train conductor. That’s not shade. She apologizes for wearing the sunglasses and explains that she’s a bit tired. It’s an unnecessary apology, but appreciated. She and I both come from the Land of Polite Unnecessary Apology, also known as the Midwest. Monáe smiles a bit and asks me where I’m from. I answer: Fort Wayne, Indiana. She tells me she’s from Kansas City, Kansas, but now she resides in Georgia. I tell her I know all about Wondaland (her arts society and music studio in Atlanta).
Dirty Computer is an album that feels like a coming out in every sense of the word. It seemed in the past that the Grammy-nominated Monáe kept us at a distance. There was a sense that her signature pompadour might actually be full of secrets. While her talent is and was undeniable, her mysteriousness was also a huge draw. All of that changes now. Monáe admits that this album came from a place that’s more open. Still, she wants to be clear: This isn’t just some confessional album. It’s personal, but it’s intended to speak to the hearts and minds of many. “It’s about all of us, all the people that at least I feel a responsibility to. I had to pick who I was comfortable pissing off and who I wanted to celebrate.”
I’m curious, of course, about who she’s comfortable pissing off. “I had a list.” She smirks, and it reaches her eyes behind the sunglasses. “I won’t be able to be detailed, because I don’t feel it would be wise for me to pinpoint one person. When you’re trying to do something of this caliber, you’ve got to move in a very particular way.”
Monáe is thoughtful for a moment. She rests her hand against her face, her index finger hovering just above her top lip. “I will say that after this election, I dealt with a lot of anger. I dealt with a lot of frustrations, like many of us, when it came to the nonleader of the free world and that particular regime.” Like most artists over the past few years, the social and political strife currently rocking the United States hasn’t gone unnoticed by Monáe. In fact, for a while, it directly affected her capacity to create.
“I felt it was a direct attack on us, on black women, on women, on women’s rights, on the LGBTQIA community, on poor folks. I felt like it was a direct attack saying, ‘You’re not important. You’re not valuable and we’re going to make laws and regulations that make it official and make it legal for us to devalue you and treat you like second-class citizens or worse.’ I got to the point where I stopped recording because I was just like, ‘I’m going to make an angry album.’ ”
Quite a few conservatives and right-wingers have called for artists, athletes, and other black public figures to “stick to what they do,” or be “grateful” for their careers. However, people like Monáe know wealth and celebrity are not, nor have they ever been, enough to blind someone to the truth of their own oppression. Money only goes so far when solving a problem like racism or misogyny. “This is real-life shit that I’m having to deal with. You strip away the makeup, the costumes, and everything you know about Janelle Monáe the artist, and I’m still the African-American, queer woman who grew up with poor, working-class parents. When I walk off a stage, I have to deal with these confrontations. I have to deal with being afraid for my family.”
You strip away the makeup, the costumes, and everything you know about
Janelle Monáe the artist, and I’m still the African-American, queer
woman who grew up with poor, working-class parents.
Monáe mentions two things that helped her deal with her anger and start recording again: 1) Therapy. 2) A bit of advice from Stevie Wonder. In therapy, she was able to unpack a lot of emotional weight and affirm the validity of her feelings. “I didn’t want to censor them,” she says. “It was impossible to.” Then there was a dinner with Stevie Wonder. After listening to Monáe’s feelings and frustrations, the music giant asked her to pull out her phone and record what he said next:
Even when you’re upset, use words of love / ’Cause God is love / Allah is love / Jehovah is love / So 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
To say Monáe took Wonder’s words to heart would be an understatement. She made that recording into an interlude on Dirty Computer called “Stevie’s Dream.” “I was challenged,” she says. “It’s easy for me to just stay angry, but it’s harder for me to choose love.” So how does one construct an album “rooted in love” for the people who need it most? Monáe did it in three parts, or movements. “I like to call that first movement the reckoning. Realizing what you represent to society, that you’re a dirty computer. It’s the sting of being called a nigger for the first time by your oppressor. The sting of being called bitch for the first time by a man. You’re like, ‘OK, this is how I’m viewed in this society.’ ”
Indeed, the first four songs on the album sound like invitations to view the world from the margins with all its truths and complications. The songs seem to call for an understanding that not all of us get the same shot at being carefree and young. It made me think of young people like Tamir Rice and Jordan Edwards, who were both behaving appropriately for their age and were killed for that very thing. I ask Monáe if she intended to convey this message. She nods her head. “We don’t get that same grace. That’s just honest. People need to look and assess those privileges that the majority of white people in this country have versus — ” She trails off for a bit, wanting to say this as correctly, as clearly, as possible. “We just need to really have a conversation on this and understand it’s a real thing. We don’t get second chances in the same way that white folks do, period.”
“Django Jane” kicks off the second movement. “I like to call that the celebration.” Monáe says the word “celebration” like a demand. It’s pointed and makes a word that at times seems frivolous suddenly seem more necessary than one might have imagined. “It’s a celebration of being a dirty computer. It’s self-empowerment. When you have songs like ‘Django Jane,’ that’s where the pivot happens. It’s like, ‘Whoa. I’m here. I’m choosing freedom over fear.’ ”
Our food arrives before Monáe can describe the final act. She prays over our meal (“I’m still very traditional in some ways”), then makes it back to her point. “The end of it was the reclamation. I too am American, and this is a very American album, seen through the lens of a black woman. It was important to remind us that our ancestors built this shit. From the White House to black Wall Street, so many things that have been taken for granted and dismissed.”
I too am American, and this is a very American album, seen through the
lens of a black woman.
Despite the black woman’s history of being dismissed or thrown under the bus, Monáe wants us to know that we’re baked into the foundation of this country, and no progress can or will be made without us. Over the course of our conversation, she repeatedly states that she does not speak for all black people or all black women. But she does speak in support of us. And she won’t be leaving us to fight for our freedom alone. It’s not that she isn’t afraid of speaking out sometimes.
“There’s lots of fears that I have about just living openly and freely and criticizing those who are in the position of power,” she says. “You just never know. You never know what could happen when you are outspoken. It’s a risk. It’s a risk that I’ve prayed on and I’m willing to take.” It’s easy to believe these words sitting across from her, and perhaps even easier if you’ve listened to the album. Once you do that, there can be no denying that Monáe truly believes the future belongs to us — the marginalized — in all the ways it always should have. It’s easy to believe she’ll help us find our footing along the way. I am reminded that this is a person who knows who she is. And what she represents. Janelle Monáe is down for the dirty computers.
“I’m not running to Canada. I’m not leaving. I’m standing here, and I am gonna fight for love.”
A version of this article originally appeared in the July 2018 issue of Allure. For fashion credits, see Shopping Guide. To get your copy, head to newsstands or subscribe now.
Fashion stylist, Jaime Kay Waxman. Hair: Nikki Nelms. Makeup: Francelle. Manicure: Angie Aguirre. Set design: Mila Taylor-Young.
Catch up on Allure‘s cover interviews:
- How Lupita Nyong’o and Hairstylist Vernon François Created the Looks for Her Allure Cover
- Why Helen Mirren Wishes She’d Said “Fuck Off” More as a Young Woman
- Three Models Reflect on Asian Representation in Beauty for Our First-Ever Hair Guide