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date: 27 January 2020

Monáe (Robinson), Janellefree

  • Micaela L. Bottari

(b Kansas City, KS, Dec 1, 1985). Singer, songwriter, rapper, actress, and producer. Monáe was born and raised in Kansas City to a working family who, in her words, ‘make nothing into something’. As a child she composed her own musicals inspired by albums like Stevie Wonder’s Journey through the Secret Life of Plants, and after high school left Kansas for New York City to attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy (AMDA) on scholarship. Feeling creatively stifled however, she soon dropped out and moved to Atlanta, Georgia, in 2003, where she performed at local colleges and self-produced a demo, Janelle Monáe: the Audition. Once in the Atlanta circuit she met Big Boi of OutKast – featuring on the hip-hop duo’s album Idlewild in 2006 – and Sean Combs. She also met Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder, two artists who would go on to be co-founders of her label and vision, Wondaland Arts Society.

Monáe is a multimedia artist and entertainer whose style is marked by her ability to combine theatricality with funk, rock, soul, and hip-hop. Dirty Computer, a 2018 Grammy nominee for Album of the Year, is complemented by what she called an ‘emotion picture’, or a 48-minute extended music video, that explores themes on race, sexuality, religion, Afrofuturism, and anti-authoritarianism. The album and emotion picture follow the same narrative arc: the journey from reckoning with an abusive and stifling society to a celebration of women, sexuality, and their place in America. Monáe’s breadth of musical style is wide; she has clear roots in rock and funk (‘Make Me Feel’, ‘Screwed’), incorporates Afro-Caribbean-style beats (‘I Got the Juice’), and is unapologetic as a rapper (‘Django Jane’). The emotion picture ends triumphantly with the song ‘Americans’ (a reclaiming of that identity) as Monáe and her two lovers escape the oppressive institution whose agenda is to erase all evidence of individuality – i.e., to erase bugs from a dirty computer. ‘Freedom’, of the individual and more broadly, is the framework for the music and the performance of Dirty Computer.

Prior to Dirty Computer Monáe often operated artistically under her alter ego, an android named Cindi Mayweather. Two of her earlier releases, Metropolis, Suite I: the Chase (2007 EP) and The ArchAndroid (2010), paint the story of Mayweather charged with liberating her 28th-century society from oppressors. Monáe’s breadth of musical style is similarly vast with these earlier projects, though she seems to pivot towards theatre and rock more than the funk and hip-hop vibes present in Dirty Computer. The ArchAndroid, her début full length album, hit no.17 on the Billboard U.S. album chart and earned her a Grammy nomination for Best Contemporary R&B Album. It was quickly followed by The Electric Lady in 2013, which features appearances by Prince, Solange, Miguel, and Erykah Badu, and peaked at no.5 on the Billboard Top 200. Monáe identifies Prince as a major artistic influence and mentor throughout her career. Characteristics of his sound and presence are in much of her work, and Monáe has said that his passing in 2016 caused her to reassess her vulnerability and presentation as an artist. Also in 2016, Monáe made her acting début in the critically acclaimed film drama Moonlight, which won Best Picture at the 2017 Oscars, and as Mary Winston-Jackson in Hidden Figures.

Artist’s website: https://www.jmonae.com/

Bibliography

  • S.L. Redmond: ‘This Safer Space: Janelle Monáe’s “Cold War”’, Journal of Popular Music Studies, vol.23/4 (2011), 393–411
  • D.K. English and A. Kim: ‘Now we want our Funk Cut: Janelle Monáe’s Neo-Afrofuturism’, American Studies, vol.52/4 (2013), 217–30
  • M.L. Miller: ‘All Hail the Q.U.E.E.N.: Janelle Monáe and a Tale of the Tux’, Nka: Journal of Contemporary African Art, vol.37, (2015) 62–9
  • M. Valnes: ‘Janelle Monáe and Afro-Sonic Feminist Funk’, Journal of Popular Music Studies, vol.29/3 (2017)
  • J. Wortham: ‘How Janelle Monáe Found her Voice’, New York Times (April 19, 2018), https://www.nytimes.com/2018/04/19/magazine/how-janelle-monae-found-her-voice.html
  • B. Spanos: ‘Janelle Monáe Frees Herself’, Rolling Stone (April 26, 2018), https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/janelle-monae-frees-herself-629204/