Janelle Monáe discussed her decade-long progression as an artist and public voice for social equity in a new profile for The New York Times Magazine.
The article, written by journalist Jenna Wortham and published online yesterday (April 19), starts with a review of a concert in which Monáe previewed her upcoming album, "Dirty Computer." Wortham described a moment in which the musician and actress shifted the show’s focus to her social responsibility:
Monáe took a bow and picked up a microphone. “I just had a lot of fun,” she said. “I’m very excited about where we’re going this time.” Then she took a beat to breathe. Her body was still heaving from the dancing, but she suddenly looked grim, transformed from artist to activist. “This is the first time I’ve felt threatened and unsafe as a young Black woman, growing up in America,” she said. “This is the first time that I released something with a lot of emotion. The people I love feel threatened. I’ve always understood the responsibility of an artist—but I feel it even greater now. And I don’t want to stay angry, but write and feel triumphant.”
Wortham noted that "Dirty Computer," which debuts next Friday (April 27), celebrates Black women and LGBTQ identity more explicitly than her previous releases. For instance, her debut 2007 EP, "Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase)," primarily explored injustice through the metaphorical story of an android’s forbidden love with a human. While the songs and music videos for "Make Me Feel," "Django Jane" and "PYNK" still use allegories, Monáe said that her new work approaches identity issues with more transparency:
“Dirty Computer,” a celebratory ode to femininity and queer people, seems to signal a new era in her career: If in the past she seemed distant, using [protagonist Cindi] Mayweather to stand in for the real Monáe, she now seems ready to present herself to the public. “Right now I’m escaping the gravity of the labels that people have tried to place on me that have stopped my evolution,” she told me. “You have to go ahead and soar, and not be afraid to jump—and I’m jumping right now.”
Both the music video for "Make Me Feel" and a companion short film star Tessa Thompson ("Thor: Ragnarok") as a love interest for Monáe’s character. Monáe, dismissing questions about her own sexual identity, said that "Dirty Computer" speaks directly to Black and LGBTQ women:
Already much of social media has speculated on the nature of Monáe and Thompson’s relationship, and this film—especially with scenes like Thompson poking her head from between the legs of Monae’s pink vagina pantsuit—is certain to only inflame those rumors. The first time I saw the video for “Make Me Feel,” months before its YouTube release, I found it so sexually suggestive (Thompson appears throughout the song, fawning over Monáe, dancing with her, almost kissing her) that I immediately texted the woman I was dating at the time, “omg janelle might really be gay.” It felt as declarative as a coming-out could. And yet in person, Monáe would say only that she felt this was her coming-out as an advocate of women and queer issues. “I want it to be very clear that I’m an advocate for women,” she said. “I’m a girl’s girl, meaning I support women no matter what they choose to do. I’m proud when everybody is taking agency over their image and their bodies.” She told me that she wanted the album to be especially relevant to Black women and queer women, for them to feel seen and heard in this album. “I felt that way when I listened to Lauryn Hill, as I was trying to find myself as a young woman, I felt that way when I listened to Stevie Wonder when I was trying to understand God more.”
Monáe also discussed her turn toward more public activism, including when she spoke at the Women’s March last year:
Monáe had heard that Lucia McBath, the mother of Jordan Davis; Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin; and Gwen Carr, the mother of Eric Garner, were going to be there, too, and she wanted to offer support. She herself was still reeling from the election, she added. “I just wanted to come and not only uplift, but I wanted to be uplifted, too.” As she made her way backstage, she got a sense of the crowd for the first time. “I saw, like, tens of thousands—hundreds of thousands of women and men and people from all around the world, babies and Muslims and trans and LGBT folks,” she recalled. “I was like, Oh, my God.” She hadn’t expected such a tremendous turnout, for so many people to care about what happens to women. The importance of the task hit her. But there was no privacy backstage, no place to prepare or gather her thoughts—just a communal room where the speakers were chatting and taking photographs. Monáe had no choice but to wing it. “That was just one of those moments where I was just, like, It might not come out right, but as long as your intentions are pure, as long as you’re honest,” she told me. She drew from the mixture of emotions stirred up by her recent role in “Hidden Figures,” about female African-American mathematicians suffering from discrimination even as they performed pivotal jobs for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration during the American space race of the 1960s. “Everything that was going on in January felt like that era, when we’re talking about a blatant war on women’s rights.”
Read more from Wortham’s article at NYTimes.com.