Famous Bis: Janelle Monáe
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.
It seemed like time to focus on a young and innovative musician and actress who has been repping queer greatness lately. I speak, of course, of the fabulous, black-and-white-toting, tightrope-dancing, dirty computer herself, Janelle Monáe.
Born December 1, 1985, to working-class parents (her father a garbage truck driver and her mother a janitor), Janelle Monáe Robinson observed her father’s drug addiction struggles and channeled her frustrations and drive to succeed into creative outlets. Growing up in Kansas City, Kansas, Monáe was not immune to cultural influences and often cites Dorothy Gale from the Wizard of Oz as an influence on her musical work. This proved to be fitting, for 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 twelve years old. Determined to show to both her family as well as her community that success is possible, Monáe parlayed her multiple talents into scoring a scholarship to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and packed her bags to move to New York City for her studies.
But it wasn’t the fertile creative ground she had hoped for. Not only was Monáe the only black woman 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 for Monáe as she struggled to get her name out there. During the early 2000s, she took a job at a box store and shared a house with almost half a dozen other people, scraping together enough money to create her first demo CD (Janelle Monáe: The Audition), which she produced herself. She used the album to embark on tours of local colleges in her spare time to build a name for herself. It was also during these tours that she did a few things that would later pay off: putting together a MySpace page (remember those?!) for her music, 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 night during 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 singer and producer 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 nabbed her her first Grammy nomination.
This may be 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 woman in American society. She considers all three 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 about the time of this EP release rumors started to swirl about her sexuality, which Monáe did not move to dispel, often glibly replying, “I only date androids.” The uncertainty persisted well into the 2010s and through the making of her second album, The ArchAndroid (2013), which featured performances with other luminaries such as Erykah Badu. It wasn’t until the release of her third studio album, Dirty Computer (which Prince worked on with her prior to his death in 2016) that Monáe opened up about her sexuality in an interview with Rolling Stone magazine. Monáe admitted to dating both men and women in her past, noting she had played with self-labeling herself as bisexual but felt closer to the term pansexual. However, through the rest of the interview, she ultimately refers to herself as queer. Since pan and queer are terms that fall under the bi umbrella, I thought it was important to include her in this section — with no means of mislabeling her.
Monáe’s queerness is on display from one of that studio album’s first singles “Make Me Feel”, 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 talent to the recording studio, Monáe turned to 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 as well as a main role in the well-reviewed Hidden Figures.
Monáe is known for being an electrifying performer, including dance moves such as the tightrope and pulling from the performance energy of such legends as James Brown for her concerts. 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 January 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 retweeted during a Twitter trending topic #IAmNonbinary, seeming to publicly disclose her gender identity. (Please note that, as of press time, the artist has not disclosed any new pronouns for herself, so I have used she/hers as she has in the past. But if she changes them, we will respect her pronouns). Monáe also turned in a performance as the lead in Jordan Peele’s Antebellum.
#IAmNonbinary 🪐 https://t.co/9TN13XAAra— Janelle Monáe, Cindi (@JanelleMonae) January 10, 2020
Editor's Note 7/14/2020: Janelle Monae clarified her tweet in an interview with Roxane Gay saying, “I tweeted the #IAmNonbinary hashtag in support of Nonbinary Day and to bring more awareness to the community. I retweeted the Steven Universe meme ‘Are you a boy or a girl? I’m an experience’ because it resonated with me, especially as someone who has pushed boundaries of gender since the beginning of my career. I feel my feminine energy, my masculine energy, and energy I can’t even explain.”
While Monáe has accomplished a lot, she is not done yet. According to IMDb, she has at least two more films in post-production 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.