Magazine Feature

Janelle Monae on Her Oscar-Buzzy Film Debut, Dating 'Androids' & That Long-Awaited Next Album

Janelle Monae
Alexandra Gavillet

Janelle Monae photographed Oct. 4 at Tijuana Picnic in New York.

“I’ve always spoken out about what it means to be ‘the other,’ ” says Janelle Monae, seated on a plush vintage couch in the New York offices of A24, the film studio that’s releasing her first feature film, Moonlight, later this month. “As a black woman who has experienced sexism and racism, I feel obligated to say something,” she says of her attraction to the role of Teresa, the de facto surrogate mother of a black boy grappling with his sexuality in Miami. “I have to say something.”

Monae has historically used psychedelic R&B to redefine the feeling of being “young, black, wild and free,” and, fittingly, her first forays into Hollywood come in Academy Award contenders that challenge the #OscarsSoWhite trend. In Moonlight (Oct. 21), Monae is an advocate determined to protect a loved one, while in the Pharrell Williams-produced Hidden Figures (Fox 2000 Pictures, Dec. 25), she’s one of a group of black female mathematicians helping America win the Space Race. “The themes that we tackle in Moonlight and Hidden Figures are in my music,” says the 30-year-old, who’s wearing a T-shirt adorned by one of her heroes, David Bowie. “To me, feeling like the other as a woman or as a member of the LGBTQ community is parallel to what it will be like for androids in the future.”

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
Monae with President Barack Obama at the White House on July 4, 2016.

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.”

2017 Academy Awards

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.”

David Bornfriend/Courtesy of A24
Monae as Teresa in her first feature film, Moonlight.

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.