From the print archives: INTRODUCING... Janelle Monáe

Interview by Sally A. Edwards

This feature first appeared in the printed edition of BLAG Vol.2 Nø 7 in 2006

Janelle Monáe Photographed by Dave Ellis
Photography: Dave Ellis

Singer, Janelle Monáe is rapidly becoming known as the first lady of Purple Ribbon – Big Boi of OutKast’s label. This Kansas native hasn’t gone down the normal (brick) road. She followed her dream to Broadway, rolled over and woke up in Atlanta where she is honing her completely individual skills as a very exciting solo artist, not only in sound but very much in style.

Please introduce yourself, including where you’re from and live, occupation and current best outfit. “My name is Janelle Monáe, and I am a recording artist from Kansas City, Ks (USA). I am now residing in Atlanta, GA. My best outfit is my vintage cub scout’s uniform.”

We were introduced to you through OutKast and many have seen you in the ‘Morris Brown’ video, but you have a really interesting story - studying at the American Musical and Dramatics Academy in New York where you prepared for a career on Broadway. How did you get into the performing arts? “Well, growing up around negativity, drug addicts and plenty of people who thought it was impossible to leave Kansas. I tuned everything out by staying involved in the performing arts. I felt most free on stage. I formed a duo with my best friend and we would help our parents out with household bills from the money we won in talent shows. Then I joined a local band called “The Weirdoz” and we would perform and tour all over Kansas promoting freedom of expression. We were crazy! “Broadway was cool. But I started to sneak to auditions after class to see what it was really like to be a working actor, and I was discouraged because of the many ways they limit African Americans and other nationalities by typecasting us. I got sick of feeling that I was only good enough for certain parts, so I left my school to pursue my music career. More than anything, I wanted to create my own characters – in my own world, and not be limited in the things I could do. I moved to Atlanta, GA ‘cause I knew that if Atlanta was big enough for OutKast it would be big enough for me.”

Can you fill us in on how you got to where you are? “Well, first I met my production team Wondaland Productions (N8 “Rocket” Wonder and Chuck Lightning) while I was singing at an event at Morehouse College’s campus (a private all male institution). I started out by recording my own CD’s and going from dorm to dorm, singing and building a fan base one dorm at a time. But after I met N8 and Chuck, things changed and we began working on my album Metropolis. “About six months later, I met Big Boi. I performed ‘Killing Me Softly’ at Justin’s, Sean “Diddy” Comb’s restaurant in Atlanta. Big was in the audience. He loved it and told me that he wanted me to be the ‘leading lady of Purple Ribbon.’ I thought he was kidding, but my lawyers received the paperwork that next week. In general, Big’s been real supportive. He knows my core values, the things I will not compromise for anybody, and loves the direction I am trying to take my music in. He was like, ‘Girl, as long as you keep being funky, you can be as free as you want to be with your music, style, whatever! Ya’ll just don’t lose that Funk!’”

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You feature heavily on ‘Call the Law’ on OutKast’s ‘Idlewild’ album. That must have been a lot of fun. “Yeah, it’s been great. I’ve learnt a lot working with Big and Dre, doing the “Morris Brown” video, cutting “Call the Law” for the OutKast album. It’s been an incredible experience.”

Can you describe your sound and vocal for those who haven’t heard you? “I always have a hard time describing my art with a short answer, mainly because I have a lot of dimensions to myself, like many others. So, free would be a great adjective. I never limit myself and am willing to experiment with loads of sounds and vocal arrangements.’

What can we expect from a live show from you?

“You can expect a rowdy ball of energy on stage! I never hold back on my performances! You don’t have to worry about me trying to be too cute, that’s not my style.”

We love the concept for your album, ‘Metropolis’ – how it’s about a world you’ve created, a place you’ve dreamt about for ages - can you explain it more for us? “Well, the name was inspired from Fritz Lang’s 1927 film ‘Metropolis’. It was a silent black and white film, but it spoke out to me. It reminded me so much of Kansas and how there’s this constant struggle between the haves and have nots. I created so many stories based around the future of the world and where it will be if we continue to ignore important issues. From robots... Aw man, I don’t want to talk too much about it. I don’t want anyone expecting anything but the unexpected.”

What was your reaction when your heard the final album in full? “Scared. I am not gonna lie, I am really nervous about my album. I know that it is gonna take open minded people to take in the things I am talking about. I totally feel like I don’t fit in with anything being played on radio. I just hope people like it.”

You have great style - can you tell us your principle rules? “Thank you sweetheart, but really to be honest, I don’t have any principle rules. I think clothes, are just another form of art and way to express yourself. From the colours to the garments. I try not to talk about my clothes either, because I do remember what it was like growing up not being able to have the latest Jordans or designer stuff, so I don’t ever want another girl to feel like she is not cool because she can’t afford, or wear what I have on. In my opinion, fashion is something you have a sense of, but don’t talk about too much. Name dropping is kinda tacky in my opinion.”

What are the ingredients to a great party?

“Black, white, purple, and green creative people with great energy! Music, a mic, and amp and lots of food, cotton candy, chocolate and juice would also fit the occasion! Oh and fish swimming in the tank! We, my production company Wondaland, have inspiration parties every month and we basically invite over lots of cool people and write music for them on the spot. We have like three or four different rooms with different genres of music playing too. We dance hard all morning, it’s so much fun!”

What are you listening to at the moment?

“This punk-rock band named Deep Cotton. They are bananas! Also, lots and lots of Judy Garland and audio history books.”

Do you have any plans to come and play in London and the UK? “YES! I am so ready to come over there! I have never been, but I hear I would really enjoy myself! I am just really waiting on a distribution deal for my album and when that‘s done, I will be planting my seeds all over London and the entire UK.”