“We are helping make STEM cool again.”
Not the words you’d expect to hear from Janelle Monáe, who is known more for her sci-fi-soul musical style than an expertise in science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But there is a good reason for Monáe’s sudden interest in these subjects, and it has to do with an equally sudden career leap. “I allow the universe to rearrange and reinvent me,” she says. “I have had a gathering phase.”
That’s more like it.
I’m speaking to the 31-year-old singer a decade after I’d first seen her perform live, at an event in Atlanta. She’d stormed the stage that night wide-eyed and jubilant, her multi-octave voice recalling the whimsy of Judy Garland’s Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz, her happy-feet choreography conjuring the disco-tinged spirit of Michael Jackson’s Scarecrow in The Wiz.
Beyond her undeniable musical talent, Monáe had an otherworldly, mesmerizing presence, one that is now thrusting her into a new medium: cinema. She has roles in two recent movies, Moonlight and Hidden Figures, both of which earned multiple nominations at this month’s Academy Awards. It’s the latter film, though, that has piqued Monáe’s interest in the field of astrophysics. “Science, math, technology and engineering is seen as nerdy,” she says. “In fact, it’s the coolest thing to be able to send an astronaut into space for the first time.”
In Hidden Figures, Monáe plays Mary Jackson, part of a group of real-life African-American female mathematicians—Monáe describes them as “superheroes”—who helped NASA propel astronaut John Glenn into orbit in 1962. In scientific terms, this was a complex and difficult task, but there were even tougher obstacles to overcome. We could put a man in space, it seems, but we had a really hard time allowing a black woman in front of a chalkboard.
Monáe was four years into a new album when she was invited to audition for the role of Mary, and had no intention of interrupting that work. But then she read the script. “I was a bit puzzled and upset that, as a young woman of color, I had no clue who these women were,” she says. “I knew that I needed to drop what I was doing and make sure that no other young girl or boy would go on without knowing about these brilliant women who helped get America into space.”
While Monáe has limited acting experience—her only role of note until recently was as a voice in Rio 2—her music has been hugely influenced by film. The day after I watched her perform in 2006, we golfed nine holes at Atlanta’s Bobby Jones Golf Course. As we cruised along in our cart, Monáe spoke about Fritz Lang’s 1927 classic, Metropolis, which was the name of her debut EP the following year. “Even though it was silent, it spoke to me,” she said. “You have the ‘Haves’—who continuously make money—and the ‘Have Nots’—who clock in each day and never fulfill their dreams. It reminded me of what I saw growing up.”
She had a similar response to Golden Globe-winning Moonlight, in which she made her true big-screen debut last fall. In that film, a coming-of-age story set in a rough section of Miami, Monáe plays Teresa, a drug dealer’s girlfriend and a source of consolation for the troubled protagonist, Chiron. “I empathize with her,” she says of Teresa. “I felt like I knew all these characters. These are people in my community—from the drug dealer to the addict to the nurturing surrogate mom figure that I played to Chiron, who was still discovering his sexual identity. I knew all these people.”
Monáe was born Janelle Monáe Robinson in Kansas City, Kansas, on December 1, 1985. Her mother was a janitor and her father a garbage truck driver, but it wasn’t long before Janelle started to show higher ambitions. When she was four, on the way to church one day, she started belting out Michael Jackson’s “Bad.” Her grandmother told her that wasn’t the kind of thing they sang in church, but Janelle couldn’t help herself, and in the middle of the service burst out singing, “I’m baaad!”
Monáe’s mother later gave Janelle permission to express herself on one of those cheesy audition hotlines popular in the 1980s. “I sang an Anita Baker song,” she recalls of her audition. But her shot at celebrity didn’t end there. Unaware that only the first minute of the service was free, Janelle called back and auditioned every day (“The phone bill was $400 that month,” she says). And then, having been prohibited from calling on the home phone, “I just skipped down the street to my uncle’s house and started calling again.”
That’s a happy memory, but there are darker ones. Her father’s struggle with substance abuse, and periodic stints in jail, led to her parent’s divorce, after which Monáe, her sister and mother lived with friends and family. Her mother eventually remarried, but when that relationship also fell apart, the female Robinsons were back on the move. “We had to store our furniture, and my cousins sold it for drugs.”
After graduating high school, Monáe made her way to New York City to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, where she tackled jazz, tap, ballet, musical theater, acting and classical voice. In 2003, discouraged by New York’s cutthroat audition circuit, she moved to Atlanta, which was known for its progressive music scene. After a few years of playing mainly college gigs, she attracted the attention of Outkast’s Big Boi and rap mogul Sean “Puffy” Combs, who signed her to his Bad Boy Records label.
Three albums, over a dozen singles and six Grammy nominations later, Monáe is taking the somewhat risky leap into movies—though she wouldn’t necessarily see it like that. “I’ve never considered myself to just be a singer,” she says. “I have always considered myself to be an artist and storyteller. I want to continue to tell unique, untold and universal stories in unconventional ways. With both Moonlight and Hidden Figures, black people are presented as layered, complete human beings, not one-dimensional and not monolithic.”
In a moment of candor, Monáe allows that putting her unfinished album on hold was not solely inspired by her affinity for Mary Jackson. “I had reached a block,” she says. And while she declines to discuss what form the album will take—“I don’t think it’s time”—she insists that she harbors no doubts about it. “The universe has a way of making sure that I have enough inspiration,” she says. “I will be releasing music in 2017.”
Monáe is also keenly aware that her transformation from out-there music-maker to front-and-center movie star might be perceived as the result of whimsy, frustration or sheer boredom. “I did not want it to seem that I am just a musician-artist who was sent a script. I had to audition,” she says. “I wanted to honor these three women to the best of my ability.” She also collaborated with an acting coach to bring gravitas to her portrayals, and did extensive research, particularly with regards to her role in Hidden Figures.
But, again, the power of Monáe’s performance in this film rises mainly from a personal element, a sense of empathy for, and identification with, her character. “I know what it’s like for people to tell you that you are not good enough because you are a woman or a minority,” she says. “I tapped into what it feels like to be looked at as the outcast, the other, the marginalized.”
While Monáe has taken her movie roles seriously, she has by no means lost her sense of fun, the puckish spark and oddball individuality that has propelled her above the ranks of mere pop star. She has also retained her sense of style—Monáe’s exuberantly quirky appearance combines weirdly tailored tuxedos and bundled bouffants, a hodge-podge of Afrofuturism, David Bowie, Grace Jones and 1980s ska. Not surprisingly, then, she took an interest in the ’60s outfits she was required to wear in Hidden Figures.
“I hate the politics of that era,” she says with a wry smile, “but I love the clothes.”
THE RIGHT STUFF
A few of the things on Janelle Monáe’s radar right now
Solange, A Seat at the Table “It’s been amazing to see her grow. With this album, she captured this moment, this time and this movement so beautifully.”
A Tribe Called Quest, We Got It From Here...Thank You 4 Your Service “Their latest album is incredible. They came back as if they had never left. It’s been my daily soundtrack since it came out.”
Atlanta, FX “We’ve had The Real Housewives and so many other sides of Atlanta. Being someone who lives here, I think it is important to show the full experience.”
Insecure, HBO “Issa Rae is killing it right now. She is smart, hilarious and just out of control. The show is magic.”
“Prince, Madonna and Bowie were unafraid to experiment with style. I want to bring that fun, creative element to my style—free of people’s opinions.”