Janelle Monae: Making Magic in a Musical Wondaland

janelle monae RO cover

Story by A.R. Shaw

Photos by Hannibal Matthews for Steed Media Service

The ballroom at the antique store, Paris on Ponce in Midtown Atlanta, resembles a 19th century cabaret. Modeled after the celebrated Le Chat Noir at Montmartre in  Paris, the walls are lined with impressionist paintings, a few antique bronze statues sit on marble tables, and Régence furniture is situated in front of a small stage.

The nostalgic scenery makes it easy to imagine the singers, dancers and magicians who graced similar stages in 19th century France. Days before going on tour with Bruno Mars, the room provides an apropos backdrop for Janelle Monae to demonstrate her magic for rolling out’s camera crew. Dressed in a regal black tux, top hat and high heels, Monae posed as if she was an illusionist with the unique ability to cast a spell on all of us.

Indeed, it takes only a few moments to become rapt with amazement by Monae. She barely stands 5-feet tall, but her impact is that of a giant. Monae is signed to Sean Combs’ Bad Boy label, but she maintains complete creative control of her projects and image. She styles herself with unsparing discipline and only chooses wardrobes with color schemes of black and white.

Monae’s self-restraint is evident from the start of the interview. She often hesitates before speaking, pausing to make sure that every answer is concise and on par with how she wants to be presented to the public. Words do influence thought, so Monae makes sure that her messages and music are properly aligned.

“Music is a weapon,” Monae says. “It’s a tool that can take you all over the world. I’m very careful with the themes that I choose. When I write music, I’m thinking about the people. I want to create music that becomes their choice of drug whenever they want to feel euphoria. Whenever they are depressed or oppressed, I hope that they are inspired by it, instead of doing man-made drugs that are not healthy spiritually or physically. There is power in words, so you have to be careful with what you are promoting and what you are saying.”

Monae speaks and writes with a sense of tact, but her imagination is far from tamed. She captures the essence of multiple music genres and redesigns them until it becomes her own creation. Her latest album, The ArchAndroid, is the result of fearless experimentation and exploration into ‘70s funk, rock, classical music, ‘60s folk, Southern hip-hop, jazz and soul. It’s a concept album that tells the story of a female android who deals with discrimination at the hands of humans. In many ways, the album serves as a metaphor for any race or group that has been oppressed throughout history. The tale unfolds like a Broadway musical.

“We will live in a world with androids because of the rapid speed of technology,” Monae says. “We will have to figure out how we will all get along. I love speaking about the future because it gives us a chance to rewrite history. The music is the heart of it all. Everything connects back to love, respect for each other and freedom.”

Monae’s boundless ingenuity was born of necessity and from her childhood experiences in Kansas City, Kansas. Raised in one of the poorest counties in the state, by a mother who worked as a janitor and a father that battled drug addiction, Monae relied on her creativity because her family could rarely afford to buy her material items.

“I was inspired by knowing that I came from an environment that didn’t have the greatest resources,” she says. “But you used your imagination more because you didn’t have all of those elements. That’s where I cultivated my imagination and gift for writing plays and creating characters and alternate worlds. I started to go there [mentally] as a result of not having everything. Artistically and creatively, I’m able to go to worlds where no one else can go.”

Monae escaped her harsh reality by writing songs and plays during her youth. Her musical gifts eventually took her far from Kansas. She often compares her journey of stardom to Dorothy’s adventures in the epic tale, The Wizard of Oz.

“The Wizard of Oz was an adaptation of the zaniness of Kansas,” she says. “It’s a very dreamy story, and it represents my life, as I meet certain people who represent the Scare Crow, The Lion and Tin Man. You meet interesting characters who can help you and get you on the road you need to be on.”

During her travels from Kansas to New York and Atlanta, Monae met her writing partners, Chuck Lightning and Nate “Rocket” Wonder. They formed the Wondaland Arts Society and soon caught the attention of Big Boi of OutKast.

“Janelle Monae is a visionary,” Big Boi said during a recent interview with rolling out. “She knew where she wanted to go, and I wanted to help facilitate. Her voice impressed me the most. Her range is incredible. She wasn’t trying to sell her body; it’s always been about the music first.”

Monae recorded several songs with Big Boi, and he later introduced her to Combs, who signed her to Bad Boy Records in April of 2008. “Puff went to my website and listened to my music,” she recalls. “He called and said he wanted people to know about us. I asked him to fly down to Atlanta for my album release party for Metropolis. He flew down and checked out the performance. He was inspired by what we were doing and he just wanted to promote the work. I’m looking to do the same thing as well with other artists.”

Several of the greatest artists of this generation are inspired by Monae’s musical innovations. She has performed and toured with her mentors, Stevie Wonder and Prince. Katy Perry invited her to open for her fall tour, and her “Hooligans in Wondaland” tour has opened to rave reviews. When performing on her own, Monae is backed by an enormous band, complete with a string quartet and brass section.

Dressed in black and white, the Archorchestra complements Monae’s high energy and time-traveling themes perfectly. Imagine witnessing James Brown, The Beatles and OutKast on stage simultaneously. She embodies them all while taking the audience on a mesmerizing trip.

Monae continues to be a welcomed anomaly in the music industry in that her persona, style and unique sound are pure and undefiled by the heavy hand of business. Once business becomes the inspiration for music, music often fails to inspire.
Although she presented herself as a magician during our photo shoot, Monae’s most impressive trick is her willingness to dream the impossible dream and share it with the world.

“Music is a stimulant to getting in tune with your imagination,” Monae says. “Art inspires art. A movie can inspire a song, and a painting can inspire a performance. It’s important to exercise that and write as much as you can. Albert Einstein said it best, ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.’ If that’s not enough, I don’t know what else is.”

A.R. Shaw
A.R. Shaw

A.R. Shaw is an author and journalist who documents culture, politics, and entertainment. He has covered The Obama White House, the summer Olympics in London, and currently serves as Lifestyle Editor for Rolling Out magazine. Follow his journey on Twitter @arshaw and Instagram @arshaw23.

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