Janelle Monáe Talks New Album 'Dirty Computer' & Her Artistic Responsibilities
"From the way that I dressed to the stories I wanted to tell, all of that was very purposeful - it wasn’t passive," says the singer.
Thursday (April 26), the night before its official release, Janelle Monáe quietly debuted Dirty Computer to a select group of Los Angeles fans at Mack Sennett Studios. The evening featured four interactive rooms inspired by Monáe’s deeply avant-garde vision, and a special performance of six songs from the album, "Django Jane," "I Like That," "PYNK," "Make Me Feel," "Screwed" and "I Got the Juice." The next day, Monáe went on to premiere her 50-minute “emotion picture" that shires a title with the album at YouTube’s creators space.
In the midst of the celebratory atmosphere, Monáe took time to offer perspective -- both on the process of creating Dirty Computer and the album’s larger purpose. “I really wanted to start with empathy,” the singer told YouTube personality Ari Fitz during a Q&A session following the film screening. "I just hoped that I could create a story that would encourage us to further investigate each other before we judge."
The album and film have certainly resonated, beautifully juxtaposing joy and sadness against the backdrop of Afrofuturism in a way that feels simultaneously accessible and ethereal.
Billboard briefly caught up with the singer to discuss Dirty Computer, artistic responsibility and channeling emotion into action.
How did your relationship with science-fiction and Afrofuturism develop? Why is it so important to you and your work?
I have always loved science-fiction and Afrofuturism. Octavia Butler is a hero of mine. Watching films as recent as Black Panther made me feel even more hopeful about getting opportunities and funding to execute our Afrofuturist ideas and stories. Afrofuturism and sci-fi through the lens of black writers and directors deserve support. These studios respond to money, and they respond to whether an idea is viable for their company.
I feel like it’s a great time to be presenting the projects that you have in your heart. If you grew up being rejected or teased for being a science-fiction nerd or geek and you were black, to me this is the time you would be celebrated. I love the fact that we are telling our stories from our mouths and through our own eyes. I think that if we don’t they will be erased. Representation matters, and we should make sure that we’re doing all that we can to get our stories out.
There’s always conversations about the responsibility of an artist. Artists of color and women often find this question more complex. Do you feel you have a special artistic responsibility?
I absolutely have special responsibilities. I didn’t always feel like that, but I do now. I’ve felt that way since I made the decision to be an artist on my own terms, and to redefine what it meant to be a young African-American artist. From the way that I dressed to the stories I wanted to tell, all of that was very purposeful -- it wasn’t passive. There have been times where people have tried to encourage me to go in another direction; to something that people could understand or that was more popular. For me, it’s never been about overnight fame: it’s about taking a journey that might not be often taken, and in doing so, being an example of the belief that we don’t all have to take the same coordinates to reach our destination.
I also don’t think that it’s wrong for other artists not to feel a responsibility. Some people’s responsibility is to write music that means something to them, and that’s it. Sometimes people feel like, well, it’s my responsibility to make people dance. I don’t think that there is any wrong or right way to be an artist. The great thing about being an artist is that nobody can really tell you what you’re supposed to do. Art is subjective. What’s great is subjective; what’s bad is subjective. I think that when you feel a calling and a purpose and a responsibility, it’s your job to be very clear in that -- and don’t apologize for it even if you’re the only one who is going hard for the things that you believe.
You called the film an emotion picture. Looking around the screening, quite a few people had very visceral reactions. What scenes made you emotional?
I have cried over it. Obviously, I’ve watched it a lot more than you because I’ve had to approve edits and make edits and it’s been a lot of back and forth. I’m really proud of the final and really proud of the decisions we’ve made. Even now there are certain moments that I still get choked up on. When Zen and Jane are walking down the hallway together and [Jane] goes in for her last treatment of nevermind, the string arrangements and nevermind hit her at the same time. Honestly, that pierces through my heart and it makes me really want to cry uncontrollably.
What about your collaborators? How did you choose them and what does each one bring to the project?
When I wrote Dirty Computer, I’d always heard Brian Wilson’s voice because I was really inspired by the Beach Boys’ “In My Room.” When I found out they had literally recorded their harmonies in their room because they didn’t want to wake up their parents, well, I just loved that story. I also just thought that was the kind of vocal energy I wanted on the opening track. “Dirty Computer” is a very introspective song -- it’s almost like you’re inside of my mind when I’m singing it.
I love Zoe Kravitz; she and I actually share the same birthday. She’s a friend, so I’ve had conversations with her about current affairs and what kind of country we’re living in. We’ve talked about women’s rights and minority rights, and it just felt fitting based off of our conversations for her to be a part of “Screwed.”
Pharrell Williams has been a musical hero to me for a very long time and we collaborated on the Hidden Figures soundtrack. He was one of the producers on the film and I was in the middle of writing Dirty Computer. I saw that he was trying to tell the story of these three black women that nobody knew helped get our first astronaut into space. Talking to him, I felt like he was a great ally for women, and black women in particular. When he heard what my album was going to be about he said, "Let me know what I can do." I called him for “I Got the Juice” so he could show his presence as an ally to women. I think it’s important that men and women work together to uplift women and fight for women’s rights, which are human rights.
Stevie Wonder has inspired me my entire life, ever since I was a little baby. It’s an honor and a pleasure to be able to have him as a mentor. We talk about a lot of things, from religion to politics. He actually asked me to record a conversation where he was giving some advice on how to deal with your oppressor. How do you deal with somebody who may not love you? How do you need to respond to that? What you heard is what I put on the project.
I worked with Grimes on her album. She’s a friend and we have lots of conversations. She’s all for LGBTQIA rights and all for women’s rights, so it felt fitting to have her on a song like “PYNK” which shows that intersectionality. I love that it also shows unique women coming together to create something magical. Honestly, a lot of this project was just me calling on a friend.
I also collaborated with Jon Brion who is an amazing composer. He helped us do some of the musical arrangements on the album and even in the film. I’ve been a huge fan of his for some time. Kevin Barnes (of Montreal frontman) is my friend. When I told him what was happening as a white, male ally he said, "I want to be a part of this project. I want to help and let everyone know that I support you as a black woman and as a human being."
Wynne Bennett is an amazing woman producer who helped score the film; she helped on the album as well. She actually produced "PYNK." I could go on and on and on with the list of people who contributed, but I just really have to say how thankful I am to have them. I’m grateful to have allies and friends show up for me when I needed them.