ASK JANELLE MONÁE HOW SHE gets everything done—the critically acclaimed albums, the world tours, the film roles, the activism—and she’ll answer with a single, slightly unexpected word. “Slack!” she says, with a cheerful laugh. “Email used to stress me out. Now I can organize every conversation, and I go into the channel when I need to—i don’t check it every hour. Like, when I get up, the first thing I do is not look at my phone. The first thing I do is I take at least 10 deep breaths.” She demonstrates, seemingly shifting her mind from the cacophonous, dimly lit restaurant, where she’s occupying a prime corner table, to a mellower internal place: “Inhale . . . exhale; inhale . . . exhale. That really calms you down.”
Productivity software, it should be noted, is not the kind of thing most stars would dig into during a dinnertime conversation about work-life balance. But Monáe—wearing a high-collared houndstooth shirt and black beret on this September evening at the swanky Clocktower, in New York’s Madison Square Park neighborhood, is exceedingly practical. She’s also methodical (putting out only three albums in over a decade), selective (turning down nearly 30 offers before signing on to her first movie role, in 2017’s Oscar-winning Moonlight), and deliberate (helping steer corporate collaborators, like Belvedere Vodka, toward larger goals). Case in point: She’s performing tomorrow, so after considering a glass of wine, she decides to stick with water. She orders a dozen oysters—“i’m more of a West Coast [oyster] girl, I like the small ones”—and eats them with slabs of the house bread, which she carves from a small loaf. “I didn’t ever eat oysters until I got into the music business and started going out to dinners,” she says. “I thought they were this expensive thing, but you can get oysters for a dollar! Anyway, I just love them.”
Monáe is in New York to perform alongside Cardi B, Janet Jackson, Shawn Mendes, and the Weeknd at the annual Global Citizen Festival, which inspires fans to engage in a range of anti-povertyrelated efforts in exchange for tickets. Today was mostly a travel day. Monáe is just off the plane from her home base in Atlanta, where she was recording some new music and speaking to students from the city’s three historically black colleges on behalf of Michelle Obama’s voter-registration campaign, When We All Vote. “Michelle, Mrs. Obama—well, my forever First Lady is what I call her,” says Monáe, 32, who has known the Obamas since they were in the White House. Monáe joined the effort to honor her grandmother, who passed away recently. “Our grandparents didn’t have the right to vote. My mother came up at the end of segregation.” Monáe, who picked the venue—spelman College—aimed her pitch directly at black students who might be voting in their first election during the midterms. “I was speaking to that demographic and telling them that black voter turnout was down 7% between 2012 and 2016. We need to galvanize this generation and get them to vote.” (Says Obama of Monáe, “She never forgets where she came from.”)
This kind of targeted thinking also pervades Monáe’s artistic work, which she typically develops in conjunction with her longtime collaborators at the Wondaland Arts Society. Wondaland is a record label, a TV and film production company, a brand consultancy, a management firm, a hub for activism, and an actual place—the closest comparison being her late friend Prince’s Paisley Park, an inspiration for the enterprise. Its current physical manifestation is a grand suburban house outside Atlanta that has been converted into a supremely vibe-y complex of recording studios, offices, lounge spaces, and a communal kitchen.
Wondaland has about 10 employees. At the top of the org chart is the Vision Board, which is Wondaland’s version of a board of directors. Monáe serves as CEO, alongside Wondaland creative director Chuck
Lightning (né Charles Joseph II), and executive producer Nate Wonder (né Nathaniel Irvin III). This trio determines which projects Monáe and the rest of the outfit will pursue. “One of the reasons we created it,” says Mikael Moore, Wondaland’s managing partner and Monáe’s manager, “was to figure out how, in an artist-led enterprise, you allow for the visionary leadership of someone like Janelle, while still giving her the space to be, you know, Janelle.”
Job descriptions at Wondaland are blurry. Everyone is encouraged to weigh in with ideas; even Wonder’s father, a well-known futurist and professor at the University of Louisville College of Business, is Wondaland’s chief learning officer. Still, Wonder tends to specialize in songwriting and music production, while Lightning’s focus is screenwriting and fleshing out the heady, often sci-fi-inflected concepts that typically underpin Wondaland projects. (The pair also perform together under the name Deep Cotton.) “We’re all involved in the music side and the film side and the endorsement side and the activism side,” Monáe says. But “it starts with the Vision Board. If I have an idea, I bring it to Chuck and Nate, and vice versa. Say it’s an album, or a movie—we [then] bring that to the management team and say, ‘Help us execute, keep us on schedule. All I want is to make sure the creative part of the enterprise is protected from people who don’t understand the metamorphosis—the many stages it takes to create art.” It helps, adds Kelli Andrews, Wondaland’s operations manager, that “we’re candid with each other.”
Monáe grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, raised by her mom—still one of her most important influences—who worked as a janitor, among other jobs. (Her dad struggled with addiction problems, but she and her father are now close.) She was obsessed with the arts, performing in an after-school Shakespeare program, singing and playing the guitar, and listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on repeat. After a brief stint in New York, Monáe moved to Atlanta to pursue music; she got a job at Office Depot, enrolled in a local community college, and lived in a boardinghouse with six other girls, near Morehouse College, where Lightning, Moore, and Wonder were students.
At the time, Lightning and Moore were running an arts collective called Dark Tower Project, which was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and drew students from Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta University. One day, Moore stumbled across Monáe playing a free gig—just her and her guitar—on the steps of a library shared by the three schools. Impressed, he bought a CD and invited her to sing at a poetry slam the group was having the following evening. “She opened her mouth to sing, and the audience leaned forward, agape,” recalls Wonder, also a Dark Tower member.