Janelle Monae Becomes a Mini-Mogul With Her Revamped Label

Marc Baptiste
Roman GianArthur, Alex Belle and Isis Valentino of St. Beauty, Jidenna, Janelle Monae and Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightening of Deep Cotton.

On the palatial 35th floor of the Sony building in Midtown Manhattan, two large conference rooms have been requisitioned for what stylist Maeve Reilly calls her "pop-up store." One room is circled with racks of sleek, high-fashion finery; a large table overflows with jewelry and accessories, the floor is littered with dozens of pairs of shoes. The artists signed to Wondaland -- Janelle Monae's Atlanta-based custom label, which recently entered a joint venture with Epic Records -- wait their turns for a photo shoot in the next room, dressed in outfits that aren't necessarily uniform, but share a Prince-esque theme. That consistency carries over to every aspect of the label, whose artists hew a bass-heavy fusion of R&B and hip-hop.

"It's not just one type of artist, but there's a connective tissue," says Monae manager Mikael Moore, who also heads up the five-person label. "It's about the collective rather than individuals -- Janelle is the proprietor, but they're partners with her."

The partnership will bow in May with a 5-song compilation EP called The Eephus, including tracks from rapper Jidenna (whose "Classic Man" hits radio Feb. 16), Roman, St. Beauty, Deep Cotton and Monae herself. The artists appear on each other's tracks, and they and the label staff have worked together under the Wondaland umbrella for years. Moore -- former chief of staff for Congresswoman Maxine Waters -- met Monae at Morehouse College in Atlanta a dozen years ago. He introduced her to his classmates Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder, who went on to become Monae collaborators Deep Cotton. Isis from St. Beauty was one of Monae's backing singers; Roman wrote the overtures on her albums The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady.

The label-as-family vibe is no accident. "We looked at what Puff and Jay Z have done, Jack White and Prince as well," Monae says. "But I'm also really inspired by strong women in business, like Mellody Hobson and Queen Latifah."

Branding Roundtable: Why Janelle Monae Walked Away From a Brand Deal

Monae has run Wondaland as an imprint for several years, but began to ramp up late in 2013. She and all the artists met with several majors and got interest from many -- including Monae's home label Atlantic -- but collectively made the decision to join forces with Epic after meeting with CEO L.A. Reid and president Sylvia Rhone.

"I walked into the studio and all of Janelle's acts were in there together, they all looked like stars and they were ready to go," Reid says. "I actually met her many years ago when she was a background singer for one of Big Boi's artists. I wasn't fortunate enough to sign her at the time, so I wasn't going to let Wondaland get away."

And while artist-run labels have an uneven track record -- and Monae, while widely recognized, is not a superstar, having sold 455,000 albums to date, according to Nielsen Music -- but Epic CEO LA Reid insists, "Janelle is a boss! She's the first female label boss that I've met who is like P. Diddy and Jay Z and Andre Harrell -- she's the first female cut from that cloth."

This article first appeared in the Feb. 21 issue of Billboard.