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.”