Janelle Monáe on stereotypes, the female rock star and ‘The Electric Lady’

August 15, 2013

Janelle Monáe recently released her new single “Dance Apocalyptic” off her fourth album, “The Electric Lady,” which comes out in September. However, rather than promote the release through morning talk-show performances, she’s hosting what she calls “listening sessions” around the country. Her latest was Tuesday night in D.C.


Janelle Monae (Covergirl)

While her name still draws raised eyebrows from those unfamiliar with R&B’s brightest young things, a simple mention of the bouffant hair, the “Monáe,” the black and white outfits, the red lips or the fact that she’s the female voice featured in fun.’s anthem “We Are Young,” and suddenly she’s very familiar.

“Welcome, take a pair of socks take off your shoes and play in the grass,” an assistant instructs as people exit the elevator. Guitars line the walls of the space, propped on the piano is a black-and-white painting that is an abstract likeness of Monáe, in the corner an artist is painting a portrait of the singer, and in the middle of the room is a patch of grass.


“The Electric Lady” listening session. (Veronica Toney/The Washington Post via Instagram)

When Monáe enters the room an hour later wearing a crisp white shirt, black pants and bare feet, she explains: “Do you like the grass? I have it all over my studio. I love the familiarity. I never wear shoes in my studio.”

Familiarity is the theme of the night as she skips from track to track on her new album, encourages those sitting in the grass to get up and do the electric slide and shares the stories behind each song she plays.


Janelle Monae performs during a Washington listening session for “The Electric Lady.” (Veronica Toney/The Washington Post via Instagram)

Before the listening session, she sat down to talk with The Washington Post to talk about her style, her music, her art and what she does when she’s in Washington:

Q: What was the evolution you took to get to your signature style?

I see things through the lens of being an artist. I love minimalism –  strong, bold, robust statements. William Klein was a huge inspiration for the black and white. So I look at the palette of black and white as moving art.

I also wanted to combine my roots, from Kansas City, which was to pay homage to the working-class woman and man, like my mom and dad, which is why I wear the uniform. I call it “my uniform” to pay homage to them.

Q: You maintain a strong femininity despite your menswear-inspired wardrobe, how do you achieve that?

I don’t believe in menswear. I don’t purposely say, “Hey, I want to look like a man.” And so with that said, I think that, you know, I am a woman, and enjoy being a woman. I enjoy pushing the stereotypes on the ground and beating them up on what women should wear and how women should dress and what’s considered femininity.

So I think with that said, I just don’t believe in those labels. I don’t believe in the marginalization of woman. As you know, we have to wear dresses and heels because we’re women. I love dresses. I love skirts. I own all of it. However, I think there’s a point to be made that somebody has to call to question our judgments and our stereotypes and the marginalization that we are all guilty of partaking in as it comes to women.

Q: What are some of the most memorable responses you’ve gotten from fans or different people when it comes to the topic of your style?

I’ve definitely seen people dressed to pay homage to me, and I’ve always found that to be really flattering. I’m honored. I’ve been featured in a lot of magazines, from “Vogue” to “Elle” to “Essence” to so many different amazing women’s magazines. So I just don’t take that for granted that my simple style has been catching on and causing more women to want to dress this way and more men to want to dress this way. It’s great. It’s uniting. It’s a unity uniform. I just came up with that.

Q: What is the one thing you don’t leave the house without, whether it’s your uniform or your Saturday-bumming-around outfit?

Well, one, I don’t leave the house without my ID. I love lip gloss or CoverGirl lipstick. Hot 305 Red is my favorite color. It’s what I’m wearing now. I also just don’t leave the house without meditating or getting my spirit in order, making sure that I’ve prayed and that I’m centered and balanced as I go out into the world.

Q: How do you stay trendy without losing your signature look? For instance, in the “Dance Apocalyptic” video your hair is down?

It’s all according to my soul clock, whenever I want to change, whenever my soul clock says try this or try that, that’s when I do it. A bold red lip mixed with black and white, I try to keep that.

I wanted to have more fun in the videos. I wanted to pay homage to the female rock star and create her. I created this strong woman in the videos, and that was a part of her character, having her hair down.

Q: How did you come up with the album title “The Electric Lady”?

I was painting on stage day and night, painting the image of a female silhouette, and I would sing as I would paint in front of my audience. I was painting the silhouette of this woman in these reds, greens and visceral colors – vibrant colors – and I didn’t quite understand why I was doing it. So I spoke to my therapist in Atlanta and she encouraged me to name the series, like, “name this woman so you can deal with it and talk about it.”

As I began to go through all these paintings that I had done, the Electric Lady came to my mind. Came to my heart. Came to my spirit. I started to dream of a world where there were millions of electric ladies and new bread. A new 21st-century woman. I started to ask myself, well what does the Electric Lady think about love, think about politics? What does she think about religion, spirituality, sexuality?  You know, I started asking myself these questions and it really helped me write as I started to ask these questions.

Q: Did you have the name and this epiphany before you started working on the songs or did you already have the songs?

Well I was sort of in between. I was still working and being very honest and open about my life, but as I got to the title, I was like, wow, now I can really just go everywhere and bring up topics that I may have not necessarily been able to speak about in previous work. With this album, I definitely did not want to recreate or reprocess ideas. I wanted to go into uncharted territories and places that I hadn’t explored necessarily.

I then started to connect the dots on the story of Cindi Mayweather [Monáe’s alter ego and the protagonist of her debut album, “The ArchAndroid."] which is, you know, a huge part of who I am. I’ve lived through her, she’s helped me write a lot of the music that I have today, and she’s the story of the future and she is definitely, you know, a part of my DNA and who I see in my dreams, she is so a part of who I am. As I was speaking about the Electric Lady, I started to ask myself those questions. I started to think of her and her story, and I wanted to go back to the origin of why she’s going to be disassembled. Before she became the archangel and received her crown.

Q: “Dance Apocalyptic” has a retro feel, yet is very current. How do you manage to achieve a sound that transcends time with this and earlier songs?

Bo Diddley inspired that song. He’s an American innovator, and he’s a black man, he inspired the Rolling Stones, he inspired that vintage sound, he inspired Little Richard, the Beatles, and so many different people. With this album I wanted to do kind of a music history and to expose these great American heroes, these great musical heroes of mine that don’t often get spoken about in history books. He is R&B. With “The Electric Lady,” I wanted to stay deeply rooted in R&B and soul, but it is such a wide genre. You can go from songs sounding like “Dance Apocalyptic,” which I consider R&B in the root of it, to songs that pay homage to Jimi Hendrix or futuristic-sounding songs. Being classic and transcendent, never going out of style, has always been my inspiration, musically and fashion-wise.

 Q: What is your song of the summer?

“Q.U.E.E.N.,” by me and Erykah Badu. The song represents where we are as women. And my next song, “Dance Apocalyptic,” I released it now because I want it to remain a summer banger. It’s positive, uplifting and enriching.

Q: What do you like to do when you’re in a new city, such as Washington, D.C.?

I go to a museum or eat; I want to experience the culture. Museums are where artists meet. When in D.C., I go to the White House. I’ve been lucky to perform for the first lady and the president many times.

And what tracks did Monáe choose to play for the small crowd Tuesday night? Here is her “The Electric Lady” playlist and her thoughts about each song: 

  1. “Q.U.E.E.N.”
  2. “Electric Lady”: It’s for everyone, whether you want to be one or be with one.
  3. “Primetime”: Miguel featuring me. It reminds you to make time for love.
  4. “Victory”: It’s a reminder that to be victorious. You must find the glory in the little things.
  5. “We Were Rock and Roll”: I had a past love that reminded me of rock and roll. I don’t talk about past loves much.
  6. “What an experience”: I want you to remember you were in this room experiencing this with me.

 

 

Veronica Toney is a writer and digital editor at The Washington Post.
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