Janelle Monáe: The Billboard Women In Music 'Rising Star' Q&A
Marc Baptiste

Billboard Rising Star honoree Janelle Monáe celebrates ‘unconventional, universal stories’

You’ve always been forthright about your support of women, but with "The Electric Lady," you seemed to ramp it up a bit. Even in the “Dance Apocalyptic” video, you have, like, 100 badass women as your audience. Do you feel this album has strengthened your idea of supporting women?
I try to lead by example, and this time I wanted females to own it themselves. I look at myself as an architect and a builder—someone who’s trying to build and cultivate a movement, someone who’s trying to push forward revolution and new politics and ideas. I just want to orchestrate the change we want to see in our community, to build on the incredible instinct and [be] unafraid to be compassionate and strong and loving and endearing and sexy and intelligent, all these different things.

So I tried with each horn note, each string arrangement, each synthesizer, to get out our stories, our cries and our wars, all the things that I felt emotionally connected to.

Now that you’ve been performing the songs on "The Electric Lady," are they changing for you artistically? Do the meanings change as you work through them? What does it mean to you as an artist, as you’re seeing people react to them in real time?
It’s encouraging. It keeps me motivated. People come up to me—there was actually a young girl recently who came up to me and told me she had come out to her parents two days before the show. She said that it was the first time she felt like everything was going to be OK. It brought tears to my eyes. People deal with these issues, feeling they can’t show female appreciation without people calling them weird or gay or whatever it may be. What I want to do, always with the music, is show people that it’s OK to show female appreciation, to admire other women.

At the shows, I don’t just see women, I see men coming with their girls, showing support. These shows have been like none other. I have been unable to even hear myself on some songs because the audience is so loud, they know every word. They know the rap in “Q.U.E.E.N.” These are inspirational words. They’re words that I have to look to for healing when I’m going through things. To know that we’re really trying to empower and enrich their lives, it’s a great feeling that they’re gravitating and hearing it. It’s just so encouraging. It lets me know that when I get tired that there’s somebody there who appreciates you going the extra mile.

The great thing about being an artist is that it gives you the opportunity to truly speak from your heart, and to speak unfiltered. I wouldn’t feel this strong or feel like a community leader if I hadn’t grown up in this community. I grew up in Kansas, I grew up in a working-class family, I grew up with people who have been discriminated against. I have been through so many different things, so that’s why I feel such a strong obligation.


Order This IssueSubscribe
Billboard on iPad

Janelle Monae Named Billboard's 'Rising Star'
Pink Woman of the Year Q&A
P!nk's 20 Biggest Billboard Hits

The last time we spoke, you showed me the storyboards for the Cindi Mayweather feature-length film. How close are you to getting that out?
It’s already written. But I’m thinking of going and being a part of NASA, joining their tech team, so I can get a free ride to space. So that’s my next move. Who knows what we’re going to do next. We’re definitely in talks and have had people reach out, but we’ll see.

Well then, for 2014, what’s your next move? What do you hope for?
For now, we’re just going to tour. We’ve had an incredible time. I go out with my band, we’ve been selling out pretty much all of our shows, so I’m focused on the present right now. I try not to travel to the future or into the past. Now we’re in the present and we’re live and in color. We’re having one of the most visceral experiences. I don’t generally speak on what 2014 holds, because for 2013, I couldn’t have imagined that I would have been recognized by Billboard, so who knows what will happen.

But that’s the great thing about life: It takes so many unexpected turns. I’m just going to roll with it, and fully invest myself in every experience 2014 has to offer.