The “android” reference makes perfect sense for those familiar with Monae’s work: Since breaking through with 2010’s Grammy-nominated The ArchAndroid, Monae has been on a mission to reconstruct the modern female pop star. Critics deemed her the love child of Prince and Octavia Butler, with soulful tunes that combined swagger and sci-fi; the singer was soon performing at the White House, appearing in a Super Bowl spot for Pepsi and attending couture shows with Chanel’s Karl Lagerfeld. “Janelle doesn’t like anyone trying to normalize her,” says Jidenna, a signee to Wondaland Records, the Atlanta-based Epic imprint she launched in 2015. “She’s always in my ear like, ‘Don’t try to fit in anywhere. People respect authenticity more than anything.’ ”
Growing up poor in Kansas City, Kan., fitting in was next to impossible for Monae. “I was in rooms where I was the only minority,” she recalls. “In those situations, people won’t take the time to understand you.” She found solace in fantasy flicks (Edward Scissorhands and The Matrix are favorites) and learned to channel her angst in school theater productions, eventually earning a scholarship to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. New York proved stifling, so Monae moved to Atlanta where she was discovered at an open-mic night by Outkast’s Big Boi. By 2008, she was signed to Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Records. Two albums and eight years later, Monae’s big-screen debut feels less like a detour and more like a 360. “I don’t look at myself as just an actor or just a singer. I’m a storyteller.”
In conversation, Monae is more subdued than the wide-eyed whirling dervish she conjures onstage. She speaks in measured tones, rarely veers from her talking points and continues to be as circumspect as she always has been about her sexuality. “I only date androids” is all she’ll offer, unsurprisingly cryptic and with a sly giggle. “Androids will embrace the unique even if it makes others uncomfortable. That’s what I’m looking for: uniqueness.”
She found it in Moonlight, a likely Oscar contender in which challenges of “fitting in” are taken to their darkest extremes. “The script had me crying as soon as I read it — I knew these characters,” says Monae, who co-stars alongside Trevante Rhodes and Andre Holland and drew on memories of an older cousin for a performance Vanity Fair called “warm and effective.” Stepping on set Monae was nervous, until director Barry Jenkins assured her there was no such thing as a bad mistake. “Working with her was like getting to know an old friend,” says Jenkins. “No hype, no entourage. As she put it, she was there to work.”
Her film education continued with Hidden Figures co-stars Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer — who, like Monae, were unaware of the true story chronicled in Margot Lee Shetterly’s book Hidden Figures: The Story of the African American Women Who Helped Win the Space Race. “We were flabbergasted,” she says. “These women were so important, but when it was time to tell the story, their male counterparts took credit. Who hid this from us?” Adds Williams, one of the film’s executive producers: “Janelle poured her heart and soul into this role — this story was important for her to get right.”
Lately, Monae has lent her voice to the Black Lives Matter movement, marching with protesters. She also released the neo-spiritual “Hell You Talmbout,” which urges listeners to recite the names of African-Americans killed by vigilantes and police. “I’m tired of the constant judgment we have to deal with. I want to do all I can to bring us together.” The sentiment aligns with her candidate for president: Hillary Clinton. “Donald Trump is trying to build a wall. I’m trying to burn walls down and build more bridges,” she says. “By not voting or not voting for Hillary, you’re voting for Trump. Do I think she’s perfect? No. But we didn’t ask previous presidents to be perfect.”
Protest anthems aside, Monae acknowledges fans are antsy for new music (her last full-length release was 2013’s The Electric Lady, which debuted at No. 5 on the Billboard 200) and, despite recent rumors, insists she isn’t abandoning singing. “I will never stop making music,” she says. “There will be a new album, I don’t know when.” Monae is positive she can do it all, with activism first and foremost: Her latest venture is the nonprofit Fem the Future, which creates career opportunities for women in the arts. “If you walk into a room that’s bro’d up and you’re in power, bring more women into the room,” she says. “We can do so much at the same damn time.”
This article originally appeared in the Oct. 29 issue of Billboard.