Photo: Jolie Loren Photography
Janelle Monáe On Choosing "Freedom Over Fear" & Creating 'Dirty Computer'
It’s been nearly a decade since most fans got their first glimpse of Janelle Monáe in the back of a pink Cadillac in OutKast’s “Morris Brown” video. The appearance was a fitting nod to the singer’s start at the Atlanta University Center, which houses Spelman College, Morehouse and Clark Atlanta University, and Morris Brown College, the first Historic Black College or University founded by black people in Georgia.
Today, Monáe is front and center, but her dedication to Atlanta remains as clear as ever. I sat down with the singer in front of an intimate audience of Recording Academy members for an Up Close and Personal program at the Marquee Club inside The Fox Theatre on Oct. 2. The conversation spanned about thirty minutes and delved into Monáe’s artistry, as well as the Wondaland collective she helms.
Early in the discussion, Monáe told attendees she would often get escorted to the children’s church as a kid because she’d break out singing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” during the Baptist church service. She said she was always inspired by her musically inclined family, including her father and grandmother, but there was one moment in particular that still stands out to her today.
“I remember the first time I got goosebumps when one of my aunts was singing in the church. She was just recovering from drugs and she had an amazing voice,” Monáe said. “When she got out of rehab, she came to church and my grandmother played the organ and I just remember getting chills. I remember her having this testimony and her speaking her truth and that feeling just stayed with me. It felt very magical. It felt transformative.” Throughout her career, this is a feeling she’s strived to give fans with her art.
Citing the quote “culture eats strategy for breakfast,” Monáe said she’s always focused on walking in her truth and contributing something unique to the ever-changing music industry. One of the first times she remembered feeling like she’d achieved this was the day she simultaneously released “Cold War” and “Tightrope” back in 2010.
“I felt in my zone and no matter if it was on the radio and no matter if it got the number of downloads from a business perspective that everyone was hoping for, I felt like I was being very honest and true to where I was,” she said of the two singles from The ArchAndroid.
This authenticity has long flowed through Monáe’s work, from the time she was a child writing sci-fi-based short stories at the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City to when she was performing at the Atlanta University Center (AUC).
“I started my career right here in Atlanta performing on the library steps of Club Woody, shout out to the AUC,” Monáe said. “I probably had like three fans. I loved them and it was a connection. They helped me feel like, ‘Man, I can really do this. People are listening.’”
It’s at the AUC that Monáe also teamed up with several Wondaland leaders, including her creative partners Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder.
“We challenge each other. They’re amazing at what they do,” she said. “Obviously it starts with me but once we all get into the room I think that’s when the innovation happens. That’s when the magic starts.”
Monáe said she doesn’t have a go-to songwriting or production method, although she says she loves collaborating and getting feedback from Wondaland artists such as Jidenna and St. Beauty, who sat in the front row during the Up Close & Personal program. Monáe says she recorded much of her latest album, Dirty Computer, by herself in Atlanta, however.
“With this particular album, I actually recorded a lot of it by myself because I knew that it was going to take me going to some different dimensions of who I am as an artist and I just felt more safe doing it first and then letting everyone hear it,” she said, nodding to songs such as “Dirty Computer” and “So Afraid.”
“It’s all about growth and trying new things and being unafraid to fail in front of people, too,” she added. “I force myself to let people watch me sometimes.”
The collaborative spirit Monáe enjoys is also one of her favorite things about Atlanta’s music scene. When asked why it was important for her to set a company like Wondaland in the city, she responded “Atlanta is the s***” to cheers.
“I love that Atlanta is a collaborative place,” Monáe said. “As an artist who is on the rise has one hand up, they’re taking the other hand and they’re reaching back and pulling up the next artist. That’s what I love and respect about Atlanta.”
Monáe said Atlanta-based LaFace Records, which launched the careers of major artists including OutKast, TLC, Toni Braxton and Usher, was a huge inspiration for her. But, she’s also inspired by the college students in the city who are graduating and building companies in Atlanta. Monáe hopes Wondaland can contribute to the creative atmosphere that’s already thriving in Atlanta. Her goal is to work with artists who have something to say and aren’t afraid of being open and honest. “The real juice is through your vulnerability,” she said.
The recording process for Dirty Computer may have been mostly isolated, but Monáe said her latest album was created with “community” in mind. When I said her recent Atlanta concert reminded me of a “rally,” the singer said that’s exactly what she was striving for.
“It’s funny that you mentioned [the word] ‘rally’ because that was one of the words I wrote [down]. If you go to Wondaland now it’s on the whiteboard,” she said. “We wanted it to feel like a rally. We wanted it to be fun. We wanted it to feel like a party. We wanted [concert goers] to walk away feeling better about life.”
In order to do achieve this goal, Monáe said she knew she had to be clear about who she wanted to celebrate with this project (“Those of us who want this country to work for all of us and not just some”) and who she wasn’t afraid to “piss off, with love.”
Monáe wants to pass the clarity she has as an artist on to other people in the industry, especially women. She started the organization Femme the Future to create more opportunities for women in entertainment.
“[Creatives] have the power to create the culture and shape it to what we want it to be,” she said. “And we also have the power to undo the culture if it does not serve us well.”
Monáe said she learned early on in her career that, “We don’t all have to take the same coordinates to reach the same destination,” but she also hopes to pass along the importance of self-assuredness to anyone hoping to follow in her footsteps.
“Know what you want to say because if you don’t know what you want to say, somebody else is going to put words in your mouth,” she said. “You’re going to be living someone else’s story until you figure it out.”
“In those moments of fear, choose freedom over fear,” she said. “That’s something else I try to tell myself. I don’t always listen, to be quite honest.”
Getting it right isn’t the point, though. For Monáe, being unafraid to take the risk is what ultimately yields the best results.
Jewel Wicker is an Atlanta-based entertainment and culture reporter who has written for Billboard, The Hollywood Reporter, The Fader, Atlanta Magazine, and more.