Fast Company - - Secrets Of The Most Productive People -

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.

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