She’s so MONÁE

Ac­tress, mu­si­cian, and fashion provo­ca­teur JANELLE MONÁE is us­ing her creative prow­ess and un­re­lent­ing drive to in­spire the masses

InStyle (USA) - - In Style - by LAIA GAR­CÍA pho­tographed by PAMELA HAN­SON styled by JU­LIA VON BOEHM

AAll eyes are on Janelle Monáe as she walks into a swanky restau­rant in up­town Man­hat­tan. Punc­tu­at­ing her blackand-white ensem­ble is a pair of tiny, very on-trend sun­glasses; these, how­ever, have a lens for the third eye at­tached at the top (not unlike the ones her idol Prince wore once upon a time). The glasses match her black Kenzo sweater, which fea­tures an all-over eye print. Who’s watch­ing whom?

For lunch she orders av­o­cado toast, fresh-squeezed or­ange juice, and a dozen oys­ters to share. She asks a few ques­tions to fig­ure out my back­ground, her mind cal­i­brat­ing itself in real time, cal­cu­lat­ing how the in­ter­view will go be­fore it has even be­gun. When she is sat­is­fied, she says, “OK, what do you want to talk about?”

In a way Janelle Monáe, 33, was born with a height­ened sense of aware­ness. The Kansas City, Kan., na­tive comes from a large re­li­gious fam­ily (“I have 50 cousins. Fivezero!”) and was pri­mar­ily raised by her mom—a jan­i­tor— and her grand­mother, who ran a de facto com­mu­nity cen­ter out of her home that was filled with kids, ex-con­victs, and re­cov­er­ing ad­dicts. Dur­ing this time Monáe was per­form­ing in plays and talent shows, and af­ter she grad­u­ated from high school, she de­cided to at­tend the Amer­i­can Mu­si­cal and Dra­matic Academy in N.Y.C. to study act­ing and mu­sic. Af­ter al­most two years she packed up again and moved to At­lanta, where she off­set play­ing col­lege cam­puses by work­ing at Of­fice De­pot. Even­tu­ally, her act caught the eye of Outkast’s Big Boi and then one Sean “Diddy” Combs. Her début EP, Me­trop­o­lis, re­leased on the lat­ter’s Bad Boy la­bel, was the first of three con­cept records based on the tale of her al­ter ego, Cindi Mayweather, an an­droid run­ning from the law af­ter fall­ing in love with a hu­man.

With a knack for sto­ry­telling, Monáe broke into the

scene as a fully formed artist. In the be­gin­ning she al­ways was out­fit­ted in a black-and-white tuxedo, a nod to the uni­forms worn by her work­ing-class par­ents. It was also her way of re­buk­ing gen­der pol­i­tics.

“I’ve al­ways wanted to redefine what a cool young black woman looks like in the mu­sic in­dus­try,” says Monáe with a sigh. “I was never in­ter­ested in fit­ting into a sys­tem that wasn’t built for me or with me in mind. I’m in­ter­ested in burn­ing that shit down and building some­thing new.”

A decade of crit­i­cally ac­claimed al­bums gave way to crit­i­cally ac­claimed per­for­mances in crit­i­cally ac­claimed movies like 2016’s Moon­light and Hid­den Fig­ures. In November Monáe will ap­pear in the Har­riet Tub­man biopic Har­riet, as Marie Buchanon, a free black woman and busi­ness owner who teaches Tub­man to em­brace her free­dom. Then she’ll por­tray Dorothy Pit­man Hughes—who co-founded Ms. magazine along with Glo­ria Steinem, played by Ju­lianne Moore—in The Glo­rias: A Life on the Road, based on the fem­i­nist icon’s au­to­bi­og­ra­phy. It’s ob­vi­ous that Monáe’s choice of movies has been very deliberate—most of them tell the sto­ries of underdogs, of peo­ple who have been writ­ten out of his­tory, whether they took part in big cul­tural tri­umphs or small personal ones.

“I don’t look at my­self as just an ac­tor or a mu­si­cian,” she says. “I am an artist, and I have a re­spon­si­bil­ity to tell the truth. I use dif­fer­ent medi­ums, but it’s all sto­ry­telling to me.”

Her over­all aim, she says, was never to be fa­mous but rather “to add value to the cul­ture.” With the re­lease of last year’s Dirty Com­puter, her typ­i­cal new-al­bum nerves were height­ened by personal rev­e­la­tions that opened her up to a whole other world of cul­tural sen­si­tiv­i­ties. Her mu­sic video for “Make Me Feel” found Monáe in a chain-mail bikini top and match­ing trousers, do­ing a sort of push-and-pull chore­og­ra­phy with both a man and the ac­tress Tessa Thomp­son. It was im­me­di­ately crowned a “bi­sex­ual an­them” and fu­eled spec­u­la­tion about her and Thomp­son, whom Monáe was ru­mored to have been dat­ing as far back as 2015. The re­lease of an­other mu­sic video, for the song “Pynk,” found Monáe once again in the com­pany of Thomp­son, but this time the singer was wear­ing gi­ant pink pants in the shape of a vagina.

“One of the things that both­ered me be­fore I did Dirty Com­puter was this con­cept of re­spectabil­ity pol­i­tics, men and women who don’t re­spect agency and think that if we dress a cer­tain way, if we show skin, we’re seek­ing at­ten­tion,” says Monáe. “I don’t want your at­ten­tion. I’m ex­er­cis­ing my free­dom.”

When it came to wear­ing the prover­bial pants, she was all about hav­ing fun. Even bring­ing up the topic makes her break out into a huge smile. “I knew I wanted women, es­pe­cially black women, to be shown ex­pe­ri­enc­ing joy and cel­e­brat­ing each other,” she says. “Peo­ple get re­ally gig­gly when we come on­stage. It’s im­por­tant that we laugh.”

Monáe had al­ways made al­lu­sions to queer love in her mu­sic, but with Dirty Com­puter there was no longer am­bi­gu­ity. Fol­low­ing its re­lease, she came out as pan­sex­ual in an

“What I create has the po­ten­tial to shape the world, to change the nar­ra­tive, to be more in­clu­sive.”

in­ter­view with Rolling Stone, con­firm­ing that she was no longer telling Cindi Mayweather’s story but rather her own. A weight had been lifted, though not be­ing able to hide be­hind a char­ac­ter came with its own set of prob­lems.

“The ma­jor­ity of [my fam­ily] grew up Bap­tist, and the ser­mons would all be around how if you are a ho­mo­sex­ual or if you’re gay and you don’t re­pent and live a het­eronor­ma­tive life and get mar­ried, well … hell is your fi­nal des­ti­na­tion,” says Monáe. “I talked to my mom and dad first, and my mom, in par­tic­u­lar, had a lot of ques­tions. I said, ‘Mama, the only way that I can create art is to truth­fully tell my story. It has to come from an hon­est place, and this is who I hon­estly am. I don’t know any other way. I have to talk about my sex­u­al­ity. I have to talk about my black­ness. I have to talk about my wom­an­ness. I have to talk about these things. This is who I am as a per­son.’ ”

Though she ad­mits that not every­one in her ex­tended fam­ily has fully em­braced her com­ing out, Monáe is not hold­ing grudges. (Her mom, mean­while, has be­come her staunch­est de­fender back in Kansas City, telling pry­ing rel­a­tives, “I don’t want to have to slap a fool, but I will over my daugh­ter.”) She’s even get­ting ac­cus­tomed to a whole new host of ques­tions about her sex­u­al­ity, mainly whom she is dat­ing. “I’m a very pri­vate per­son, so I’ve been try­ing to nav­i­gate the space of talk­ing about iden­tity with­out dis­clos­ing that informatio­n,” says Monáe. “We’re in a cul­ture where peo­ple ob­sess and ob­sess over those sorts of things. And I get it.”

When asked about what brings her plea­sure, Monáe is less coy. “Mas­tur­ba­tion,” she says mat­ter­of­factly. Though it may seem like an at­ten­tion­grab­bing state­ment, it is rooted in prac­ti­cal­ity. “I have been in sit­u­a­tions where as a young girl you have com­pro­mised your morals and your val­ues and you feel used,” she says. “And I’m like, ‘If my mother had let me have a vi­bra­tor at a young age to be in touch with my body more, I could have saved my­self from so many poor de­ci­sions.’ You know what I’m say­ing?”

Dirty Com­puter was not only free­ing in the ob­vi­ous way. A self­pro­fessed per­fec­tion­ist, Monáe has since started em­brac­ing her mis­takes and im­per­fec­tions. The things that make her, you know, hu­man. “When I first came up with the motto ‘Em­brace what makes you unique, even if it makes oth­ers un­com­fort­able,’ I should have added, ‘even if your­self is the other,’ ” she says. “At the time I would say it, but I re­ally didn’t mean it.

“Em­brac­ing your unique­ness is an active choice,” she con­tin­ues. “I don’t wake up look­ing flaw­less every morn­ing. I don’t wake up feel­ing em­pow­ered. I don’t wake up feel­ing fear­less. I have to ac­tively choose to feel that way.” She adds with a laugh, “I’m like Issa Rae in In­se­cure, like, ‘Bitch, keep it to­gether!’ ”

So, when does she ac­tu­ally feel pow­er­ful?

Monáe thinks for a sec­ond. “That’s a tricky ques­tion be­cause power dy­nam­ics do ex­ist. For ex­am­ple, if I walk in [a room] and I’m the only black woman in a room of white folks and they are mak­ing de­ci­sions, there is a power dy­namic there where I feel like I may have to as­sert my­self more, or I may be a lit­tle un­com­fort­able, de­pend­ing on what’s on the ta­ble for me to own. That used to in­tim­i­date me, but now when I walk in, I re­al­ize that I am an im­por­tant piece of the puz­zle. My ideas mat­ter. What I have to create has the po­ten­tial to shape the world, to change the nar­ra­tive, to be more in­clu­sive.”

With her em­bold­ened sense of self, Monáe is ready to de­velop more projects through her pro­duc­tion com­pany, Won­da­land Pic­tures. She wants to direct and plans to take film­mak­ing cour­ses, and she’s su­per­ex­cited to re­al­ize some of her ideas as a writer. In ad­di­tion, she’s keen to ex­plore new modes of com­mu­ni­ca­tion be­yond her own brand of intergalac­tic slan­guage. “I speak an­droid, which is help­ful for the fu­ture, since we will be merg­ing.” Pause. “But I re­ally want to be flu­ent in French.”

Un­in­hib­ited and un­afraid, she says that au­di­tions no longer make her anx­ious, but her nerves do man­i­fest in other, en­tirely re­lat­able ways. “I get ner­vous at the thought of giv­ing birth,” she says. “I haven’t had a child yet, and I think the In­ter­net makes ev­ery­thing feel like the worst can hap­pen. Then, in ac­tu­al­ity, it is true for black women—they have such a high mor­tal­ity rate when they’re giv­ing birth.

“[Hav­ing a baby] is like a sci­ence­fic­tion movie,” she adds. “It’s mirac­u­lous. My grand­mother had 12 kids, and I heard she went to work the next day af­ter she had one of my aunts. I come from that woman, you know? If she can do that, you know I can take it to the next level.”

To Monáe, it’s all con­nected—mu­sic, film, art, sex, ba­bies. The all­knowing third eye is al­ways on watch. She tells a story of be­ing over­come with emo­tion at the sight of a color­chang­ing star one night af­ter a con­cert in Palm Springs. The sky was clear, and Monáe watched as what she per­ceived to be Sir­ius flick­ered from red to green to blue. She started cry­ing, awed by its mag­nif­i­cence.

“That was the only time I’ve been starstruck,” she says with a laugh. “Lit­er­ally. But it just made me re­al­ize that me and the uni­verse are cool, you know? I’m at peace with what it gives me.”

Ver­sace turtle­neck. Dolce & Gabbana pants. Rus­lan Ba­gin­skiy hat.

Dolce & Gabbana blouse and ear­rings. Area pants. Chris­tian Louboutin pumps.

In­style x karla T-shirt ($40; xkarla.com). Chanel pants and belt. Rus­lan Ba­gin­skiy hat. Necklaces: Shay Jew­elry (top) and Jen­nifer Meyer. BEAUTY BEAT Ap­ply a pow­der high­lighter with a damp brush to in­ten­sify the sheen. Try Danessa Myricks Beauty En­light Il­lu­mi­na­tor in Tran­quil­ity ($24; danessa myricks­beauty.com).

Nina Ricci body­suit, trousers, and hat.

Carolina Her­rera shirt. Wol­ford body­suit. Louis Vuit­ton hat. For­ever 21 socks. Manolo Blah­nik boots.

Chanel jacket, pants, ear­rings, and scarf. Chanel Fine Jew­elry rings. Hat, her own. BEAUTY BEAT Prep strands for a smooth style with Maui Mois­ture Smooth & Re­pair + Vanilla Bean Con­di­tioner ($9; ama­zon.com). Hair: Nikki Nelms for Im­paq Beauty. Makeup: Jessica Smalls for The Wall Group. Man­i­cure: Sreynin Peng. Pro­duc­tion: Av­enue B.

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