"I'm part android, but I’ve been digging a lot more into my human side these days,” says Janelle Monáe. On her early albums, the singer-songwriter employed an alter ego, the sentient robot, Cindi Mayweather, as a stand-in for herself. But on 2018’s Dirty Computer -- her first No. 1 on Billboard’s Top R&B Albums chart -- the 32-year-old revealed more of Janelle Monáe, human, than ever before. This year’s Trailblazer is plenty inspiring simply as herself: a nimble vocalist and rapper; a producer and founder of her own label, Wondaland Records; a magnetic actress in Academy Award-nominated films (Moonlight, Hidden Figures) who’ll next star in a much-anticipated Harriet Tubman biopic; and an activist, whether eloquently introducing Kesha at the 2018 Grammys, speaking at the Women’s March in 2017 or advocating for LGBTQ inclusion and, in April, coming out as pansexual. Dirty Computer, she says, “gave us all a home that said, ‘Despite what the world says about you, you matter. I see you, I hear you, and I celebrate you.'”
Dirty Computer feels grounded in current reality, and therefore more personal. Was that your intention?
I started writing it during the Obama era. After November 2016, I had to process where our country was going. I felt a big responsibility to create a community with this album, my concerts and my film [the “emotion picture” paired with the album]. It felt like people I care about and groups I’m in -- from the LGBT community to being a black woman to being from working-class parents -- were being pushed to the margins of society. With songs like “Django Jane” and “Make Me Feel” and “PYNK,” I wanted to be as bold as possible in making statements around agency, around women’s bodies and rights -- us taking back the mic and letting you know that you don’t own us and we won’t be controlled.
What did it feel like when your own story -- particularly your sexuality and relationships -- became part of the conversation around this album?
It was very scary for me to do interviews after I released the project. I leave my experiences in my music and my visuals -- that’s therapy for me. I’ve always spoken about my experiences with sexuality in my music: I did on my first album and Electric Lady, from “Q.U.E.E.N.” to “Mushrooms & Roses.” But after people saw the Dirty Computer visuals [like the “Make Me Feel” video, in which Monáe flirts with a man and a woman], I knew they would start asking more questions. I wasn't looking forward to people trying to figure out how much of this is my real life. But, for the most part, I’m happy that people have felt more comfortable being who they are as a result of reading about me walking in my truth.
It seems like creative freedom has always been your top priority.
Even when I was an independent artist selling CDs out of my trunk and working for my cousin doing taxes or at Office Depot and Sam’s Club, I was still saying no. There were opportunities that even some of my closest family members and friends would look at me like, “Girl, you are crazy. You need to get in that music video. Be an extra in this film. You need to become famous.” But I have always kept at my core the ability to have creative control.
It’s one thing to commit to never compromising; it’s another to follow through. The music industry can have a narrow idea of what a female artist can be. How were you able to establish, and maintain, control of your career?
It starts with you knowing your vision first. Have a perspective. Because if you don't, then somebody is going to have it for you. I'm happy that now when I take meetings, I feel like people understand my vision and perspective as an artist. It used to be, “Well, can you change your hair or your look or do these types of songs?” Now it's, “We've seen what you've done with this album and your visuals. We don't want to get in the way of your artistic expression. How can we help and organically work together?”
Diddy was an early supporter, and you could have easily been molded into his protégée and whatever image that meant. Did you have to push to ensure that didn't happen?
I got to say, I was scared to be partnering with a major label after a few years of being independent. I met Puff at a time I had decided to live frugally. Like a lot of people, I thought, “OK, he's going to have a conversation around how he can groom me into being another sort of artist.” But when I spoke to him, his words were, “I love what you and Wondaland are doing. I don't want to be creatively involved. I just want people to know who you are and what you guys are doing. You guys are down here in this basement in Atlanta, and the rest of the world deserves to hear you.” It was so humbling and beautiful. We're still close. In fact, I just saw him at a Halloween party.
Speaking of Halloween -- I must know all about your amazing Willy Wonka costume.
Oh, my goodness. I was obsessed with [Gene Wilder]. I cried when he passed on. I remember lighting up whenever I would watch Willy Wonka. That was the world I wanted to live and be in. I have a saying at Wondaland: “Imagination inspires nations.” I don't think I could've done any of my music without surrendering to my imagination in a world full of cynics. Last year, I was the Joker, and I was trying to figure out an outfit to top that. I get so excited about Halloween, but I didn't even get my outfit until the day of. But things come together when they're supposed to happen.