Famous Bis: Janelle Monáe

By Jennie Roberson

February 02, 2020



Photo credit: Image of a video still of her music video Pynk, where she and several other women of color are wearing pink outfits in choreograph.

There's a young and innovative musician and actress who has been repping queer greatness lately, and it’s past time we took a closer look into her. I speak, of course, of the fabulous, black-and-white-toting, tightrope-dancing, dirty computer herself, Janelle Monáe.

Born on December 1, 1985 to working-class parents (her father drove a garbage truck and her mother was a janitor), Janelle Monáe Robinson observed her father’s struggle with drug addiction and channeled her frustrations and drive into creative outlets. Growing up in Kansas City, Monáe was not immune to cultural influences and often cites Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz (1939) as an early influence on her music. This proved to be fitting, because as Monáe matured, she often performed in Baptist church productions, singing and acting in shows such as Cinderella.

Not satisfied with merely performing onstage, she also wrote multiple plays after joining a local repertory company, putting pen to paper as young as 12 years old. Determined to prove herself to her family and community, Monáe parlayed her multiple talents into a scholarship to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and packed her bags to study in New York City.

But art school in the Big Apple wasn’t the fertile creative ground she had hoped for. Not only was Monáe the only black female in her class, but she found herself competing for the same parts and roles as her classmates instead of creating, which was her greatest drive. Frustrated with what the school had to offer, Monáe dropped out and moved to Atlanta to pursue a musical career of her own. Things were hard-going at first, as she struggled to make a name for herself. During the early 2000s, she took a job at a box store and shared a house with half a dozen roommates, scraping together enough money to create her first demo CD, Janelle Monáe: The Audition, which she produced herself.

Monáe used the album to play at local colleges in her spare time. During these tours, she did a few things that would later pay off: putting together a MySpace page for her music (remember those?!), and collaborating with two other artists — Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder — in order to create her own record label and art collective, Wondaland Arts Society.

One performance at an open mic night, Monáe’s soulful interpretation of a famous Roberta Flack ditty caught the attention of Big Boi — better known as one half of the hitmaker duo OutKast. Impressed with what he heard, Big Boi invited to feature on a handful of hip-hop tracks.

A few years later, the rapper Sean Combs — best known by his old moniker “Puff Daddy” — came across her MySpace page and liked her sound. In fact, he liked it so much he signed her onto his label and worked to promote and distribute her newly created EP, Metropolis: Suite I. The move yielded great results, as Monáe’s EP hit the Billboard charts and her single led to her first Grammy nomination.

This is a great moment to talk about why I’m profiling Monáe for the Famous Bis column in the first place. As you can tell from the name of her first EP, Monáe is fascinated with androids, which have become a recurring theme in her work, often referring to them as an “other” that reflects her experience as a black person in American society. She considers all four of her albums (to date) concept albums dealing with the narrative of an android named Cindi Mayweather, who often cites elusive lyrics about a romantic subject, Mary.

It was around this time (the mid-2000s) that rumors started to swirl about her sexual orientation, rumors that Monáe did not move to dispel. She often glibly replied to questions about her sexuality with, “I only date androids.” The uncertainty persisted well into the 2010s and through the making of her first studio album, The Electric Lady (2013), which featured performances with other luminaries such as Erykah Badu. It wasn’t until the release of her third studio album, Dirty Computer (2018), which Prince worked on with her prior to his death in 2016, that Monáe addressed her sexuality. In a 2018 interview with Rolling Stone magazine, Monáe opened up about dating both men and women in her past, noting she had initially identified as bisexual but felt closer to the term pansexual, which falls under the bi umbrella.

Monáe’s queerness was on display in one of Dirty Computer’s first singles, “Make Me Feel”. The song was accompanied by a very bi music video where the artist flirts and flits back and forth between male and female love interests, one of them played by Tessa Thompson (#Bi2).

This video is a selection from a narrative film project, which Monáe refers to as an “emotion picture.” Dirty Computer also includes footage from her women-celebrating music video, “Pynk”.

Not satisfied with limiting her talents to the recording studio, Monáe also began acting. She drew on her past experiences performing and AMDA training as she moved onto acting in large-scale projects, including roles in the Best Picture Oscar-winning Moonlight (2016) as well as a main role in the critically acclaimed Hidden Figures (2016), among others.

On stage, Monáe is known for her electrifying performances, including dance moves such as the tightrope and a concert energy inspired by legends such as James Brown. She tends to wear a tuxedo, referring to it as her “uniform” and as a way to honor her parents who both had to wear uniforms throughout their respective careers.

Monáe started off the new decade making waves. In 2020, she dropped a well-received Netflix documentary called Sex, Explained, where she narrates educational episodes exploring sex education in approachable ways for younger audiences who may not have access to comprehensive sex ed. Monáe also played the lead role in Jordan Peele’s Antebellum (2020). That same year, Monáe hinted on social media that she was non-binary. In 2022, she clarified any doubt when she directly came out as non-binary, saying she is happy with either they/them or she/her pronouns. In an interview with The Cut, she expounded, saying, “I feel my feminine energy, my masculine energy, and energy I can’t even explain.”

While Monáe has accomplished a lot, her career is in many ways only just getting started. According to IMDB, she has nearly 20 film and TV appearances under her belt, with more on the way, as well as continued plans to create music and tour. Considering her amount of creative output set for release, she shows no signs of slowing down.

This awesome queer lady has a bright future ahead of her — and I can’t wait to see where she tightropes to next.