The edgy singer gets real with her new LP

A MU­SI­CAL VIR­TU­OSO LEAVES HER OLD PER­SONA BE­HIND AND EMERGES AS AMER­ICA’S MOST REV­O­LU­TION­ARY ARTIST

Smithsonian Magazine - - Features - by Brit­tany Spanos

EVERY GEN­ER­A­TION de­serve san artist like Janelle Monáe:anou t-of-the box cre­ative who chal­lenges both the main­stream and the un­der­ground to keep up with her fu­tur­is­tic vi­sion.

With her third al­bum, Dirty Com­puter, re­leased in April, Monáe re­al­ized that the per­son she needed to chal­lenge most was her­self. The sprawl­ing, pop-lean­ing epic that fea­tures ap­pear­ances from friends (Zoë Kravitz, Grimes), he­roes (Brian Wil­son, Jon Brion) and he­roes she can now call friends (Ste­vie Won­der) sig­naled the first time Monáe would fully shed the skin of the fic­tional Cindi May­weather, the an­droid per­sona whose story is ex­plored in her pre­vi­ous two al­bums and de­but EP. Now, it was time to meet Monáe: im­per­fec­tions and all.

“I was re­ally afraid for any­body to see me not at the top of my game,” she told me back in April, when I vis­ited her At­lanta-based head­quar­ters. She was anx­ious about the re­lease of Dirty Com­puter, wor­ried how peo­ple would re­ceive her story as op­posed to May­weather’s. “But I’m at a space where my vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties and my hon­esty have be­come cooler to me,” she con­tin­ued. That hon­esty meant open­ing up to her fans and the world as a queer black woman in Amer­ica. “I think for a while I was try­ing to clean my­self, try­ing to make my­self ap­pear per­fect.” But now: “I re­spect the dirt. It’s about the dirt and not get­ting rid of it.”

Janelle Monáe Robin­son grew up in a work­ing-class fam­ily in Kansas City, Kansas, singing in church and later pur­su­ing mu­si­cal the­ater, first in high school and later dur­ing a brief stint at col­lege in Man­hat­tan. But New York City be­gan to feel like the wrong place to start, so she re­lo­cated to At­lanta, where she worked at

Of­fice De­pot and sang on col­lege cam­pus-

es. Her in­dus­tri­ous­ness led to con­nec­tions to her cre­ative soul­mates Nate “Rocket” Won­der and Chuck Light­ning, who per­form as the funk duo Deep Cot­ton, and Big Boi of the hip-hop duo Outkast, who brought her to Sean “Diddy” Combs and Bad Boy Records.

She made her de­but in 2007 with Me­trop­o­lis: Suite 1 (The Chase), a genre-jump­ing EP that caught Prince’s ear (he be­came a men­tor) and got her a Grammy nom­i­na­tion (for the song “Many Moons”). Her fu­sion of rock, funk, hip-hop and R&B proved timely, even ahead of the curve. Her first LP, The ArchAn­droid, fol­lowed in 2010, build­ing up to 2013’s The Elec­tric Lady, an elab­o­rate opus that gave a taste of what she could do without May­weather’s tale as her al­bum’s spine.

Monáe started think­ing along the lines of Dirty Com­puter even be­fore she re­leased The ArchAn­droid. The con­cept came out of piv­otal ther­apy ses­sions that helped

her iden­tify the ways she in­ter­nal­ized the parts of her­self she was afraid of. Ac­cept­ing her “dirt” has helped many oth­ers do the same.

“It leaves me speech­less when­ever I see peo­ple writ­ing a line about how the mu­sic has helped them come out to their fam­ily, has helped them not feel so alone, has helped them find courage to walk in [their] truth,” she said when we spoke again in Oc­to­ber. “All of those things just make me very hum­bled.”

Monáe has spent months tak­ing Dirty Com­puter on tour, bring­ing to life the nearly hour­long video, or “emo­tion pic­ture,” that threads to­gether the al­bum’s songs and stars Monáe and her friend Tessa Thomp­son as rad­i­cals in an op­pres­sive, fu­tur­is­tic so­ci­ety who are de­tained and “cleaned.” The con­certs re­flect the thrillingly free world Monáe’s and Thomp­son’s char­ac­ters in­habit be­fore run­ning afoul of the au­thor­i­ties.

“Although this is per­sonal work, it’s not solely about me: It’s about us,” she says, re­fer­ring to both the mu­sic and its per­for­mance. “‘Com­mu­nity’ was one of the words that I kept in my heart the en­tire time that I was mak­ing the project. [I’m] cre­at­ing this space for other dirty com­put­ers like my­self, to feel loved, to feel heard, to feel seen, to feel cel­e­brated.”

This yearn­ing un­der­girds all of Monáe’s work. She took no­table roles in two of 2016’s most lauded films: in Hid­den Fig­ures, she played the ground­break­ing NASA en­gi­neer Mary Jack­son, and in Moon­light, she played Teresa, the woman who pro­vides a safe space for the young pro­tag­o­nist, Ch­i­ron, as he comes to terms with his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and es­capes a volatile home life. This month, she’ll ap­pear in Wel­come to Mar­wen, be­side Steve Carell; she plays G.I. Julie, whom Carell’s char­ac­ter be­friends as he re­cov­ers from a vi­o­lent as­sault. “I con­nect with th­ese women who are strong and uplift­ing and they don’t get the love and the re­spect that I feel like they de­serve in real life,” she says. “I feel a per­sonal re­spon­si­bil­ity [to] honor [them] when­ever I can.”

Her work also ex­tends off­stage. Be­fore Time’s Up—which she proudly par­tic­i­pates in—was founded, she es­tab­lished Fem the Fu­ture to empower women in the en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try. She part­nered with Belvedere vodka to launch “A Beau­ti­ful Fu­ture,” which helped pro­duce short films writ­ten and di­rected by women to an­swer the ques­tion, “What does a beau­ti­ful fu­ture look like to you?” It’s the same ques­tion Cindi May­weather as­pired to an­swer as she fought for her right as an an­droid to love a hu­man. It’s the same ques­tion Monáe as­pires to an­swer on Dirty Com­puter. “A beau­ti­ful fu­ture,” she says, “looks like one of in­clu­sion for me.”

Monáe’s June show in Los An­ge­les felt like “the early stages of her space­ship jour­ney through our uni­verse,” one re­viewer wrote.

PER­FORM­INGARTSJanelle MonáeDirty Com­puter

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