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Monáe, Won­der, and Light­ing started mak­ing mu­sic to­gether in Won­der’s apart­ment stu­dio in At­lanta’s Buck­head neigh­bor­hood. Mean­while, Won­der and Light­ning were also run­ning an in­die la­bel—called Won­da­land—and Monáe signed on as a solo artist. She soon at­tracted the at­ten­tion of Big Boi, a mem­ber of leg­endary At­lanta hip-hop group Outkast, who put a song writ­ten by the Won­da­land team and per­formed by Monáe on the sound­track of their 2006 movie Idlewild. That ef­fort led to a short-term pub­lish­ing deal with Chrysalis, which sup­ported some early Won­da­land ven­tures—in­clud­ing a move into its cur­rent space. A short al­bum that they self-re­leased in 2007, called Me­trop­o­lis, got into the hands of Sean “Puffy” Combs, who flew to At­lanta to en­cour­age Monáe to sign to his la­bel, Bad Boy. For al­most any other artist, this kind of break would have been a dream, but Monáe and Won­da­land put some se­ri­ous thought into whether it was the right de­ci­sion. “At the time, we were read­ing a lot of stuff about the long tail, and su­per­fans, and serv­ing your core au­di­ence,” Won­der says. “If you have 500 peo­ple who buy all of your stuff, you can do ex­actly what you want to do.” Yet Combs’s pitch—to put real re­sources be­hind Won­da­land’s ideas, and to ex­pose Monáe to a na­tional au­di­ence—was per­sua­sive. She signed a deal with Bad Boy and At­lantic Records. “He told us, ‘I don’t want to be part of this cre­atively. I just want the world to know what y’all do,’ ” Monáe re­calls.

Won­da­land had been de­signed to pro­tect Monáe’s cre­ativ­ity from the de­mands of com­merce. (Says Julie Green­wald, At­lantic Records’ chair­man and COO, “It’s all about check­ing what­ever bag­gage you have at the door and com­ing into their world.”) Per­haps un­sur­pris­ing for a bud­ding en­ter­prise—but rare for one that grew out of an arts so­ci­ety—the mem­bers turned to busi­ness books to de­ter­mine how best to struc­ture their nascent com­pany. One that par­tic­u­larly res­onated with them was Ed Cat­mull’s chron­i­cle of Pixar’s rise, called Cre­ativ­ity Inc. “We re­ally passed that book around,” says Light­ning, who says it demon­strated “the im­por­tance of fig­ur­ing out who’s on our team, mak­ing sure that every­one we worked with un­der­stood what we were try­ing to do cre­atively.” Even more sig­nif­i­cant to them was Jim Collins and Jerry Por­ras’s Built to Last: Suc­cess­ful Habits of Vi­sion­ary Com­pa­nies, which in­spired them to cre­ate the Vi­sion Board, along with a set of core val­ues and guid­ing prin­ci­ples. “We handed [print­outs] around to every­body at the meet­ing when were get­ting signed at At­lantic [Records] so they could un­der­stand what our big, hairy, au­da­cious goals were as an or­ga­ni­za­tion,” says Light­ning. “And we can al­ways go back to the core val­ues when any share­holder or man­ager asks us about do­ing shows or en­dorse­ments or what­ever. Even in the stu­dio, one of us can al­ways opt out of a lyric by go­ing to the core val­ues—to say, like, “‘That would make sense if we were mak­ing a party song, but this is a song about cli­mate change.’ ” Monáe’s new­est LP, Dirty Com­puter, which came out in April to rave re­views, is a con­cept al­bum that plays with themes of sex, sex­u­al­ity, and per­sonal free­dom. It’s got a fu­ture-funk sound that ranges from Prince-in­spired vamps (“Make Me Feel”) and spare, New Wave–ish R&B (“I Like That”) to full-on rap tracks (“Django Jane”). The ti­tle al­ludes to an idea that Monáe had wanted to ex­plore since be­fore she re­leased her first al­bum, which is the way that LGBTQ peo­ple, peo­ple of color, women, and too many other Amer­i­cans are made to feel shame about the things that make them unique hu­man be­ings. “It’s told from the per­spec­tive of a young, queer, black woman who grew up in a work­ing-class fam­ily,” she says. “And that’s me! When I strip off this makeup, this out­fit, that’s my truth.”

Ear­lier this year, Monáe came out as pan­sex­ual—she’s had ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ships with both women and men, al­though she doesn’t talk about them pub­licly—which was more than a lit­tle nerve-rack­ing for her, given that she comes from a large, re­li­gious fam­ily. (“I had a lot of good ther­apy,” she notes.) One of Monáe’s chief goals is for peo­ple from marginal­ized com­mu­ni­ties to see them­selves rep­re­sented in cul­ture, pol­i­tics, and busi­ness. “For so many girls who grew up in work­ing-class back­grounds, the like­li­hood of suc­ceed­ing or own­ing their own busi­ness is slim. I want the girls who’ve been told ‘no’ be­cause of what they look like to read this ar­ti­cle and see them­selves.”

Along with the al­bum, Monáe put out an unusu­ally elab­o­rate vis­ual com­pan­ion, a 45-minute sci-fi mu­si­cal epic called Dirty Com­puter: An Emo­tion Pic­ture. In it, Monáe plays a “dirty com­puter” who un­der­goes de­pro­gram­ming de­signed to erase her past, which in­cluded a ro­man­tic re­la­tion­ship with a woman played by Creed’s Tessa Thomp­son. It’s be­come a hit on Youtube, rack­ing up 1.9 mil­lion plays, but it also serves as a high-bud­get call­ing card for her vis­ual sto­ry­telling skills as she and the Won­da­land team move into TV and film pro­duc­tion.

As with Monáe’s mu­si­cal projects, the Vi­sion Board weighs in on the film work she ac­cepts, al­though she makes the fi­nal de­ci­sions. This

year, she will fol­low up her mem­o­rable roles in Moon­light and Hid­den Fig­ures with a per­for­mance along­side Steve Carell in Wel­come to Mar­wen, a ten­der fan­tasy drama from Cast­away and For­rest Gump di­rec­tor Robert Ze­meckis. Monáe, who de­scribes her­self as “a sponge, al­ways watch­ing,” has soaked up some key man­age­ment les­sons from the film­mak­ers she’s worked with—moon­light’s Barry Jenk­ins, Hid­den Fig­ures’ Ted Melfi, and Ze­meckis. “I no­ticed how they start early—if you start things early there’s a dif­fer­ent level of stress,” she says. “So I brought that back to Won­da­land—let’s get ahead of our sched­ule. Be­cause that’s how you have fun, you have room to en­joy the ex­pe­ri­ence. And all three of them are so chill and col­lab­o­ra­tive—they never have to flex those hi­er­ar­chy mus­cles. That’s how I run Won­da­land.”

The fact that Ze­meckis had di­rected Back to the Fu­ture was ad­mit­tedly ir­re­sistible to the sci-fi-ob­sessed Won­da­land team, but the de­ci­sion to ap­pear in Mar­wen was ce­mented for Monáe when Ze­meckis heard and re­sponded to a con­cern she had about her char­ac­ter be­fore sign­ing on. “I said, ‘There’s never a mo­ment be­tween her and the main char­ac­ter that says that she’s im­por­tant in this film.’ A week later I got a re­vised ver­sion of the script and he had writ­ten in some­thing to make you em­pathize with this char­ac­ter more. And that was enough to make me do the movie—to have this in­cred­i­ble di­rec­tor take the time to make this change him­self? I felt lis­tened to—he re­spected my opin­ion as an artist, and that made me feel like he was some­one I wanted to have a re­la­tion­ship with.”

When Monáe signs on to act in a movie or TV show, she now works into the con­tract that she (or other Won­da­land acts) will be in­volved on the mu­sic end. When Jenk­ins needed a piv­otal song for Moon­light, Moore sug­gested “Clas­sic Man,” by Won­da­land artist Ji­dena. “They know ex­actly the way the track would func­tion in the film,” Jenk­ins says. In ad­di­tion to voic­ing a pound dog in Dis­ney’s forth­com­ing an­i­mated re­make of Lady and the Tramp (in which Tessa Thomp­son will be the voice of Lady), Monáe will per­form mul­ti­ple songs for the sound­track, and Won­da­land will write new mu­sic for the film. In­creas­ingly, Won­da­land is also of­fer­ing mar­ket­ing and de­sign ideas for these projects the way a full-ser­vice con­sul­tancy would. The team has de­vel­oped its own pitch process, from re­search­ing decks to print­ing up color­ful, hard­cover books that help po­ten­tial col­lab­o­ra­tors see their vi­sion. “Our ap­proach is, ‘We’re go­ing to show you what we’re go­ing to do,’ ” says Moore, who worked as Cal­i­for­nia Con­gress­woman Max­ine Waters’s chief of staff be­fore join­ing Won­da­land. “For young cre­atives of color, the chances that some other peo­ple get— those aren’t the same chances we get. So when we go in to pitch some­thing, we can show them: This is the thing.” Their work is mak­ing an im­pres­sion: In Oc­to­ber, Won­da­land signed a ma­jor film de­vel­op­ment deal with Uni­ver­sal. “They’re tal­ented, gre­gar­i­ous peo­ple, and that’s a po­tent com­bi­na­tion,” says En­deavor part­ner Dave Wirtschafter, whose agency has rep­re­sented Monáe since 2011. “We worked with Prince, and were lucky enough to know about some of the ideas he wanted to pur­sue out­side of mu­sic but wasn’t able to be­cause he didn’t have the in­fra­struc­ture. Janelle has the in­fra­struc­ture. She’s aug­mented by this skilled group of peo­ple that sur­round her.” Un­like most ma­jor tour­ing mu­si­cians, Monáe can’t book huge runs of shows, be­cause she needs to ac­com­mo­date her act­ing roles. Her cur­rent tour, for Dirty Com­puter, for ex­am­ple, has been bro­ken up into three legs so far—two in the U.S., one in Europe—and will con­tinue through next year, when she’ll be work­ing on at least three films (see “An Artist in Full” side­bar). Still, she can’t imag­ine let­ting act­ing be­come the pri­mary fo­cus of her ca­reer, the way it did for artists such as Cher and Will Smith. Mu­sic, she says, is too po­tent. It “has the power to bring peo­ple to­gether. It has the power to make you want to have sex, have a child. It has the power to heal.” Per­son­ally, she has been draw­ing strength from Ste­vie Won­der—even in dark po­lit­i­cal times, “he al­ways moves the con­ver­sa­tion back to love,” she says—and Prince, her role model for nav­i­gat­ing celebrity, Hol­ly­wood, and the mu­sic busi­ness (he fa­mously bat­tled Warner Broth­ers for con­trol of his mu­sic). “I watched Prince never get dis­tracted,” she says. “Re­main­ing free, and the way he fought for that, was a form of protest.” It’s a les­son she’s in­cor­po­rated into ev­ery­thing she’s done, in­clud­ing Dirty Com­puter, the first al­bum she ever made with­out his feed­back. “One of my big­gest strengths is I’m unafraid to say no,” Monáe says. “I’m not into peo­ple own­ing me. I have a strong vi­sion, and any com­pa­nies or part­ners who want to work with me have to match my pur­pose: shap­ing cul­ture, re­defin­ing cul­ture, and mov­ing cul­ture for­ward.”

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