Janelle Monáe: Imagining Her Own Future

Music Features Janelle Monáe
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Cindi Mayweather is the central character in Janelle Monáe’s last three recordings: the 2008 EP Metropolis, the 2010 album The ArchAndroid, and this month’s album, The Electric Lady. The songs on all three collections are set in the year 2719 in the city state of Metropolis. But Cindi doesn’t live in the cylindrical gold skyscrapers of the downtown area where the politicians and businessmen live; she lives in Slop City where the androids are ghettoized. The buildings there are older, from the mid-27th century when carbo-plastico facades were all the rage, and are now run-down with sooty streaks on the pitted exteriors.

“In the Slop City neighborhood,” Monáe explains, “you have a lot of androids. The community is very supportive, like any other ghetto. They can be working in stores; they can be working in factories. You have people working at the post office and people delivering newspapers, only the newspaper is a chip. The automobiles in Slop City are retro-futuristic; a car may look like 1967 Chevy but the wheels are floating. When it drove around Metropolis, it was brand new, but now it’s a used model in Slop City. The architecture is not cutting edge, because they don’t have the advanced technology that the humans have in Metropolis, so they have dilapidated buildings, very dystopian. It’s like Quindaro Boulevard in Kansas City; people are using drugs and selling drugs. You see people on the street corner rolling dice.”

This reference to “Quindaro Boulevard” alludes to another story, set in the year 1998, when a 12-year-old girl named Janelle Monáe Robinson lived near the intersection of 23rd & Quindaro in the African-American section of Kansas City, on the Kansas side of the Missouri River. Wyandotte County, the “Dot,” as the locals call it, is the poorest county in Kansas. Robinson’s mother worked as a janitor; her biological father drove a garbage truck, and her stepfather delivered mail. The family didn’t have its own house but lived with Janelle’s grandmother.

As a youngster interested in all kinds of music and visual arts, and not just the kinds you were supposed to like on Quindaro Boulevard, Robinson often felt like an oddball, even an android. When she wasn’t singing or drawing, she would camp out in front of her grandmother’s TV and watch reruns of Star Trek and The Twilight Zone. It pleased her to think that the future didn’t have to be more of the same; it could be almost anything she might envision.

“I was very intrigued by the unknown and by the idea of altering the future,” Monáe recalls. “When you see that there are so many different possibilities for the future, you don’t feel limited to one path. I used to write short stories about the future, and I found I loved being able to tap into my imagination.”

“Janelle is more militant than most folks,” observes her longtime co-producer Chuck Lightning (aka Charles Joseph II), “because she came from the Dot. It’s the kind of place you don’t want to be walking around at night. She came from a background of difficulties; even after we met her, there were crazy things going on in her family and neighborhood. But that’s what these records are all about, proving to a community like that that the future doesn’t have to look like the past or even the present. It can be whatever you can imagine it to be.”

Meanwhile, in 2719, Cindi is feeling similar frustrations with the limitations placed on her. Even a superstar android like Cindi, a prototype Alpha Platinum 9000 model, is subject to discriminatory Jim Chrome laws that determine where they can live, where they can work and who they can love. All hell breaks loose when Cindi pursues forbidden love with a human named Anthony Greendown.

“His father is a global millionaire,” Monáe explains, “but Anthony understands that people are suffering in Slop City. He really loves Cindi, even though she calls him out on his privilege. She says you need to do more for your community instead of coming down and rubbing it in our faces. Her being brave enough to speak like that was very attractive to him. And him being willing to do more for the Slop City was very attractive to her. She felt in her heart that he wanted to do something life-changing for her community; she saw that he cared about animals and could even morph into them. She saw a light in him that didn’t want to continue with capitalism but wanted something different. So they fell in love.”

The authorities were not happy. The opening track of the whole trilogy, “The March of the Wolfmasters” on the 2008 EP, has a perky, female newscaster from 28th Century Fox Television chirping, “Good morning cy-boys and cyber girls. I am happy to announce we have a star-crossed winner in today’s heartbreak sweepstakes. Android Number 57821, otherwise known as Cindi Mayweather, has fallen desperately in love with a human named Anthony Greendown. And you know the rules: she is now scheduled for immediate disassembly. Bounty hunters, you can find her in the Neon Valley Street District on the fourth floor at the Leopard Plaza apartment complex. The Droid Control Marshals are full of fun rules today: no phasers, only chain-saws and electro-daggers.”

Let’s face it: any romantic relationship is difficult, full of internal tensions that must be carefully negotiated by the two lovers. But a relationship that’s unconventional—whether it’s interracial, interfaith, same-sex or human/android—faces additional pressures from the outside. It’s especially tough when you have Droid Control Masters coming after you with electro-daggers. Cindi and Anthony go underground, sleeping in a different place every night. They are often separated, and this puts even more strains on their fledgling affair.

“Like any other couple,” Monáe emphasizes, “they have obstacles to overcome. She wants to know why she has to be disassembled. She’s on the run a lot, so they can’t be together. She’s very prideful. So you have those moments like you have in any relationship. They go through all these emotions together, so they’re relatable. It’s like my relationships, like your relationships.

“To make things worse, other people are adding their own trips to the obstacles. The androids from Slop City don’t think he’s good enough for her, and the rich people in Metropolis don’t think she’s good enough for him. It’s like some Muslim wanting to marry a Christian American. The Muslims think he’s not good enough for her, and the Americans think she’s not good enough for him. I have to say it’s not a happy-ever-after ending, though you’ll have to wait for a future installment to find out exactly what happens. But it’s like any relationship; it’s never resolved.”

In such circumstances, jealousy inevitably arises. We’re programmed for it, whether we’re talking about human DNA or android DOS; “It’s Code,” as one song title on the new album puts it. Taking on Cindi’s persona, Monáe sings over moody, midtempo synths and congas, “I heard ’em say, ‘Love’ll be your curse or a restless friend,’… I never thought I’d be the one that would push you in her arms.” It’s only when the two lovers get some time alone that they’re able to work things out. On the slow-jam duet “Primetime,” with Monáe singing as Cindi and Miguel singing as Anthony, the lovers mutually declare, “Ain’t nobody peeking but the stars above. It’s a primetime for our love, and heaven is betting on us.”

“No matter what our differences are,” Monáe suggests, “whether it’s our religious beliefs or our economic backgrounds, love can overcome them. Cindi and Anthony didn’t get to choose where they were born into, but they saw each other whole. That’s the thing: not seeing just the religious background or the economic background, but seeing the whole person. It’s about not getting caught up in the Great Divide, but standing up for love, making time for love in our busy lives. It’s so important to prioritize what’s most important, and for Cindi and Anthony that was love.”

“Back in slavery days,” says Lightning, “when your wife and kids could be taken from you, falling in love was a revolutionary act. And today, when there are still so many obstacles to love, it’s still a revolutionary act. You want to be a revolutionary? Go have sex, get married, have kids—it doesn’t matter what race you are, what gender you are, what technology you are. Even in the future, people are going to fall in love with the wrong people by society’s standards. You don’t see that in the Hollywood movies, because they have to have all those explosions. But what if love was the explosion?”
Like the advanced female-android model she is, Cindi has to juggle a number of roles. She’s Anthony’s girlfriend; she’s a wanted criminal; she’s the popular Slop City singer known as Electric Lady, and she’s the prophesied revolutionary leader known as the ArchAndroid. And the new album has songs for each of those roles. As the criminal Cindi, Monáe sings “Q.U.E.E.N.” with Erykah Badu, an uptempo funk number that mingles synths and horns into chase music that echoes Cindi’s flight from the electro-daggers. “I can’t believe all of the things they say about me…,” Monáe sings. “They call us dirty ’cuz we break all your rules now…. Am I a freak for getting down? I’m cutting up; don’t cut me down.”

As a Slop City fan of the superstar Cindi, Monáe sings the title track “Electric Lady” with Beyonce’s kid sister Solange. Over massed female harmonies and punchy Earth, Wind & Fire horns, Monáe exclaims, “Ooh, you shock it, shake it, baby. Electric Lady, you’re a star—kinda classy, kinda crazy, but you know just who you are.” There’s even a hip-hop break where Monáe raps in double entendre: “She’ll walk in any room, have you raising up your antennas.” As the revolutionary Cindi, Monáe sings the minimalist punk-funk of “Givin’ ’Em What They Love” with Prince on guitar and vocals. “I am sharper than a razor, eyes made of lasers…,” she warns; “I ain’t never been afraid to die, look a man in the eye.”

Like Cindi, Monáe has to juggle a lot of roles as well: child of Quindaro Boulevard, female pop star, science-fiction tale-spinner, political activist, and well guarded, 27-year-old private person. She has had to be proactive about defining each of those roles for herself, because there were so many folks ready to define them for her. When her early DIY CDs began circulating in the music industry in 2003-2005, lots of labels and managers wanted to sign her up, but they wanted to sign her as a sexy woman singing songs written by other folks.

“I feel my calling is bigger than just music,” Monáe says. “I feel I’ve been called to be a leader, to go out to the community with a message. When I came into the industry, people told me, you have to look like this, you have to sound like that. I rebelled against that. I wanted to project that I’m always in control of my music and my image. Even my wardrobe has a message to it. I wanted to prove that there are many ways to be sexy. It’s important for young girls to be empowered by the way I dress and the way I don’t dress.”

“There are certain expectations that come with being the kind of artist she appears to be on the surface, an attractive black woman” adds Nate Wonder (aka Nathaniel Irvin III), the trilogy’s third co-producer. “When women go into these offices, they’re assessed on their looks, much more than men. If you’re too good looking, the companies say, ‘Don’t write songs; let us take care of that and you’ll be famous.’ We had several horror stories with Janelle before we released Metropolis. They’d hear her and want her to be Jennifer Hudson and sing ballads or be Beyonce and sing dance tracks. They wanted her to wear a dress and sing other people’s songs, and not write her own songs.

“But her attitude toward them was the same as her attitude toward everything: ‘Fuck you, I’m going to do what I’m going to do.’ Early on there was a Big Boi video they wanted her to be in. This was a big opportunity for her, a big song, a lot of exposure. But when she showed up on the set and found out what they wanted, she said no, and when she says no, she means it.”

Part of that “fuck you” was the radical image that Monáe adopted and has refused to budge from. She always wears jackets and slacks, always in some variation on a black-and-white pattern. She wears her hair in a do that resembles a furry black coconut teetering on the top edge of her forehead. It’s a handsome, striking look but it’s in no way designed for mass-market sexual fantasies. Monáe herself refers to the look as her “uniform,” a tribute to the uniforms her parents had to wear each morning as they went off to work. It’s also a reflection of the down-to-earth attitude that Monáe, for all her sci-fi storytelling, brings to her “job.” “She was a hustler before we ever met her,” says Lightning. “If you were a black female in 2003 and you had your own, full website, you were a hustler.”

Lightning and Wonder had heard rumors about this young woman living in a boarding house on the Strip, a section of Atlanta where the campuses of Morehouse, Spelman and Clark converge. She wasn’t a student, but this newcomer from Kansas City, by way of New York and Philadelphia, would walk into dormitories uninvited and before anyone could throw her out, she’d start singing her original songs accompanied only by her own acoustic guitar. She would soon captivate students who put off going to class to buy the CD demos she was hawking for $5 apiece. At the time, Lightning and Wonder were part of an Atlanta arts collective called the Dark Tower.

“We sponsored this event in 2003 where we invited def poets from all over the country,” Wonder recalls. “We had this band playing at intermission, and they had the terrible idea of asking Janelle to open for them—terrible for them, because once she started singing, no one gave another thought to the band. I remember looking at the audience, and everyone had their mouths hanging open.”

“When people touch you like that,” adds Lightning, “when they cut right through, like Lauryn Hill, you know it’s coming from a very deep place.”

The producers invited her into the studio the very next day, but they weren’t sure what to do with her. Here was this tiny, quiet woman in a huge, round afro and a big, hollow guitar. She had these intriguing songs with a sci-fi angle, but the music didn’t seem to match the lyrics. Then one day Wonder was working on a song by Deep Cotton, the band led by him and Lightning, when Monáe snuck into the studio.

“I turned around,” Wonder says, “and this person I’d always known to be demure and reserved was jumping around on the couch and on top of the counter like crazy. All I had heard were her acoustic songs; I’d never thought of her as someone who would jump on my counter and kick my dishes. A week later, I was driving her back to her boarding house and she said, ‘Put on that song from the other day.’ I did and she started jumping around in the seat like she was having a seizure. I called Chuck and said, ‘This might not be our song; it might be her song.’ It wasn’t the last time.”

Once the trio figured out that Monáe’s songs about outer space fit well with Deep Cotton’s future-funk, things started clicking. They came up with the name Slop City from Funkadelic’s 1973 Cosmic Slop album. Lightning sat Monáe down and made her watch a DVD of Fritz Lang’s 1927 German Expressionist masterpiece, Metropolis. Her mind was so blown that she not only adopted the film’s title but also its iconic poster image and its color scheme.

“I had never watched a silent movie before,” she says, “and I was struck by the black-and-white cinematography and the 1927 set design. I could see how it inspired so many movies that came later. But most of all, it had a big idea. That’s what I’m about—not money, not fame, but ideas that can change the world. I was struck by the parallels between the movie and my own life—the conflict between the haves and have-nots. That quote in the film about the heart being the mediator between the mind and the hand, that inspired me so much. That’s what I wanted to devote myself to, to being a mediator.”

Once they had a title, the trio, now working as the core of the Wondaland Arts Society, got serious about Monáe’s Cindi Mayweather stories and began drawing architectural sketches, character portraits and maps of the Metropolis city state (think ancient Troy mixed with Blade Runner Los Angeles). The trio released two CDs under Monáe’s name: The Audition and My Favorite Nothing, but it wasn’t until the Metropolis EP that the vision clicked into focus. They were getting ready to also release that one themselves when Sean “Puff Daddy” Combs got wind of the project and caught a plane to Atlanta.

“When Puff came in and heard the music,” Lightning recalls, “he was like, ‘This is the most amazing shit I’ve ever heard. When I listen to Timbaland’s music, I know how he does it; when I listen to Dre, I know how he does it; when I listen to Kanye, I know how he does it. I know they took this sample from here and sped up that vocal over there. Your stuff, I don’t know how you’re doing it. All I can tell is it must take a lot of time to get that level of detail.’”

Combs agreed to leave the tracks alone, just as he had heard them, sign her to Bad Boy Records and to use his connections with Atlantic Records to give Metropolis a big push. That’s how Monáe became the opening act on Erykah Badu’s tour. When the tour stopped in Los Angeles, a woman came backstage and said, ‘Someone wants to talk to you,’ and handed Monáe a cell phone. It was Prince, inviting her over to his house for a jam.

“I was freaking out on the tour bus,” Monáe confesses. “His house was like a palace, and we jammed till seven in the morning. It was a real communal vibe; everyone got to sing and play guitar. That’s one reason I admire him; even now he’s excited about music.

“I was afraid of Prince when I first saw him as a teen; his eyes scared me. I once had a dream that he chased me in a purple suit. But I loved the fact that he was a male and he challenged what it meant to be masculine. He sang in this high voice and dressed in purple and lace. When I decided I wanted to write my own songs, that’s when I really got serious about listening to Prince. When we started our own production group, we studied the New Power Generation, because we could tell the music and images they were creating were going straight to the people without interference from the industry. We wanted to make sure we did the same thing.”

On the previous album, Cindi kept hearing about the ArchAndroid, the mythical messiah who the prophets said would lead the androids to freedom. The fugitive hoped that she would run into this messiah somewhere in the underground. But on this album she finds out that she’s the ArchAndroid.

“She realizes and goes, ‘Oh, my God,’” says Lightning. “The first song on this album, ‘Give Them What They Want,’ that’s when she knows. It’s like she’s Harriet Tubman as she’s crossing the Mason-Dixon Line. It’s like in the Matrix when Neo asks Morpheus, ‘Are you saying I can dodge bullets?’ and Morpheus says, ‘You won’t have to try.’”

“She tells herself, ‘I am not going to wither under these circumstances; I’m a razor,’” adds Wonder. “It’s a reflection of what happened to Janelle between the two albums. She realizes her role in the music industry, and she takes that very seriously. She’s not going to swim with the current; she’s going to make sure that she will do what needs to be done.”

This is a big month for the Wondaland Arts Society. Monáe is releasing Electric Lady and gearing up for a fall tour. Deep Cotton is releasing Runaway Radio, its debut “fixtape.” Meanwhile, Wondaland remains in negotiations to bring the Metropolis narrative to additional platforms, including film and graphic novels.

Monáe finds herself in a situation not unlike Cindi’s: she’s both a popular entertainer and a rebel, both a hero and a target. Her enemies won’t be coming with electro-daggers; they’ll be coming with bright lights and cameras, with checkbooks and pens ready to scribble out big numbers if she’ll downplay the politics, focus her sound more for black radio or just put on a short skirt. How long can she hold out?

“Janelle always talks about her music as a church,” Wonder says. “She says, ‘I don’t want a mega church. If it’s only ten people, I don’t care; at least it’ll be my church and I’ll be able to tell the truth.’ She has a very strong compass; it always points north. When she wants to do something; it’s very hard to get her off that. If there’s an easier way to do it, she’ll stick to the way she wants to do it. She’s not afraid of failure; she’s going to follow her vision to the end.”

“Music in general can tap into the subconscious; it’s a gateway drug,” Monáe says. “People may come to the club to have a good time—and that’s fine—but you want them to leave the club with a message. That’s when you become an artist, when you mix one with the other—like Prince or Marvin Gaye. I don’t put myself in their category because I haven’t accomplished nearly as much as they have, but that’s what I aspire to.”

And what message does she hope people will take away from Electric Lady?

“I want to be clear,” she replies. “When I’m talking about the android, I’m not talking about an avant-garde art concept or a science-fiction fantasy; I’m talking about the ‘other’: women, the negroid, the queer, the untouchable, the marginalized, the oppressed.”