“Daydreamers, please wake up / We can’t sleep no more”
—Janelle Monáe, “Sincerely, Jane”
Polaris is a powerful navigational force. Illuminated high above earth in the Ursa Minor constellation, its orientation in the night sky is indicative of its more commonly known alias, the North Star. During the 18th and 19th centuries, escaped slaves used Polaris to chart their course north along the Underground Railroad, away from the oppressive conditions of southern plantations. In the shadows of swamps and woods, these fearless men and women risked their lives to obtain their freedom.
Despite the social progress the United States has made since slavery was abolished in 1865, people are now fighting the enslavement of conservative ideology. Discrimination permeates our culture even with laws allegedly protecting the individual. Same-sex couples are considered second-class citizens without the same rights as their heterosexual counterparts. Heated discussion about the influx of immigrants to the US is bringing the melting pot to a boil while the plight of Native Americans is all but forgotten. A young woman from Kansas might help us find our way out of this maelstrom and it’s not Dorothy with her ruby red slippers. I’m talking about Janelle Monáe and her “violet stars”.
Before she greets you with a warm hug and a smile, the first thing you notice about Monáe is her pompadour, a symmetrically styled coif piled on top of her diminutive frame. Her outfit consists of a pinstriped shirt, black high-waist pants, and a pair of black and white saddle shoes. Beneath the style, though, is a whole lot of substance, a quality she shares with one of her idols, Katharine Hepburn, who, Monáe says, was the first woman to wear high-waist pants on the red carpet. While Monáe might be the first woman to wear high-waist pants while bodysurfing through a crowd in Brooklyn, the similarity to Hepburn is more than sartorial. They both challenge the traditional categories ascribed to women in their work, whether it’s Hepburn’s controversial title role in Sylvia Scarlett (1935) or Monáe criticizing how women are depicted in music videos. “I think it is very important to exercise your rights and also not play into any stereotype because you are a woman,” Monáe explains. “Women are very strong. As a young lady I’m free to wear and conduct my life the way that I feel it should be conducted”.
Monáe has always sought the freest forms of expression. Growing up in Kansas City, she gravitated towards a wide variety of music and reveled in opportunities to meet individuals of different cultural backgrounds. Her thirst for creative and personal growth steered her towards New York City, where she pursued music and theater, but the dearth of roles for young black women prompted a move to Atlanta. It was there that Antwan “Big Boi” Patton discovered Monáe. He brought her talent to a national audience, featuring her on his Big Boi Presents Got Purp? Volume II (2005) compilation. She sang “Letting Go” on the album, which quickly became an underground favorite, and appeared in OutKast’s Idlewild film the following year.
The exposure to such a wide swath of creativity nurtured Monáe’s own artistic pursuits. She met like-minded “thrivals”, which she defines as “a young person who takes advantage of all the opportunities their parents didn’t get a chance to have”. With a coterie of thrivals at her side, Monáe embarked on the journey of establishing a record label for artists who, above all, wanted to help shape history with their art.
“I’m not the type of person to sit around and wait on anything to come my way,” she notes. “I knew that if I had a concept, I knew that if I had all these ideas, the time was now. It wasn’t, ‘When am I going to be signed?’ The days of the puppet are over, in my mind. I’m not interested in that. I think it’s important for people to have their own company and their own foundation and have their own thoughts and be able to be creative in their environment. For me, I needed to create that solid foundation, that team who’s going to really push what I believe in”.
Creating the Wondaland Arts Society brought Monáe’s vision of the ideal independent record label to fruition. Based in Atlanta, Wondaland is home to Monáe’s projects as well as the duo Deep Cotton. “We’re just a company who basically believes in art, will fight for it, and we want to make sure that we are helping alter history through positive change, through exercising our rights of freedom, by making sure we’re helping save the future”.
Saving the future may sound like a daunting ambition but Monáe is vigorously intent towards achieving it and is using the allegorical Metropolis, Suite I of IV: The Chase (2007) to illustrate how. Inspired by Fritz Lang’s Metropolis (1927), The suite is set in 2179, a time on earth that’s witnessed five world wars and mass ecological destruction. Under rule by the evil Wolfmasters, Metropolis is the last standing city. Debauchery and decadence paint the city’s walls.
When Wondaland Arts Society released Monáe’s five-song Metropolis EP last year, listeners were introduced to Cindi Mayweather, an Alpha Platinum 9000 android whose voice is the forefront of the cybersoul music movement in Metropolis. Androids co-exist with humans but are governed by a rule that stipulates no android can ever know love. To her peril, Cindi Mayweather falls in love with a human named Anthony Greedown. The “Droid Control” of Metropolis leads a campaign to hunt her down and disassemble her with chainsaws and electro-daggers.
This makes for one of the most imaginative fusions of funk, rock, and theater ever recorded.
Monáe maintains that she is a vessel through which Cindi Mayweather’s story is told. “Cindi Mayweather is one of a kind. She is like the Judy Garland-Elvis-James Brown-Janelle Monáe of her day, if you will,” she explains with a small dose of coy self-idolization. Indeed, the singer and the song are one in the same with Monáe’s musical influences rounding out the overall sound. Though Monáee inhabits the steel skin of Mayweather, each has a different story to tell that is united by the overlapping theme of freedom.
“I said I love my baby so!”, the crie de coeur on “Violet Stars/Happy Hunting”, might be the defiant words of Cindi Mayweather refusing to abide by the rules of Metropolis but there’s a deeper metaphorical context about emancipating oneself from oppression underneath the groove. Monáe cites the line, “Violet stars will set you free when you’re running lost and alone” as a representation of finding freedom. “That particular song has so many parallels to what it means to fight for your freedom in today’s society”, she explains. “It definitely has a powerful message behind it. I hope that people are able to read into it. It is similar to when the slaves were trying to get to the North Star. Now we’re dealing with some different issues, but they’re more in our face because people are refusing to be quiet and just in the closet about things”.
A Monáe concert is what one might call a freedom rally. The audience is comprised of “followers”, not fans. They wave signs inscribed with the message “Imagination Inspires Nations” next to Cindi Mayweather’s industrial grey visage. Many of them are dressed in variations of the Monáe fashion book, adding their own accessories to maintain a sense of individuality.
Witnessing Monáe perform for them as she vacillates between the robotic stares and poses of Cindi Mayweather and her own unhinged movements is a hypnotizing spectacle. Behind a haze of dry ice, Monáe cavorts left to right in jerk-like motions. Her pompadour shakes loose while she twists in place. She smashes a mic stand into the floor. She stands sphinx-like, her eyes frozen like a deer in headlights. The feelings shift constantly for Monáe as she sings and dances, “I’m never on one feeling too long,” she muses. “I don’t choreograph anything I do. Nothing’s planned except to just be as free as possible. My goal is to make each person feel differently than what they felt before. If they come in feeling one way, I want them to leave feeling better, so that’s my goal. Whenever I’m dancing or singing, it’s just to make them feel moved.”
Janelle Monáe with Christian Wikane
One of the most soul-stirring moments of Monáe’s show is her rendition of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile”. She first heard Stevie Wonder’s version on his With a Song in My Heart (1963) album, recorded when he was only 13 years old. The song shook Monáee to her core. “When I heard him, literally, I cried”, she remembers. “It was the purity in his voice. I just felt what it was that he was saying. I think the thing about being an artist is—I don’t want to say this arrogantly—having good taste or showing the audience what you think is cool. I felt the song was super-cool and I knew that if it made me feel that way, I wanted others to feel the same way.”
The number of those “others” continues to grow exponentially; at least that is the goal of Sean Combs when he re-releases Metropolis on his Bad Boy label. Though Combs saw Monáe perform around the time “Letting Go” was released, his visit to her MySpace page shortly before the release of Metropolis made even more of an impression on him. He pursued Monáe in earnest. “He just started freaking out, praying that nobody else had picked it up,” Monáe recalls. “He knew that we were an independent company and he wanted this to be his gift that he gave to the industry”. Combs e-mailed Monáe on MySpace to relay his enthusiasm about the Metropolis project. Doubting it was actually Combs, Monáe ignored the message until Big Boi called her at 6:30 a.m. one morning confirming that “Violet Stars” and the saga of Cindi Mayweather enthralled Combs. He flew down to Atlanta for Wondaland’s CD release of Metropolis and, like so many of Monáe’s followers, was captivated by the show.
After months of Wondaland’s successful grassroots marketing of Metropolis, Combs made an offer to be Wondaland’s partner for a major release through Atlantic Records. Because major label executives already told Monáe that they “didn’t know what to do” with her, she wanted to make sure Combs accepted the Metropolis project as is. She explains, “I wanted our partner to be extremely excited. They had to be able to accept that I’m obsessed with black and white right now. They had to accept this pompadour. They just had to love what they had seen versus the other way around.”
For his part, Monáe says, Combs was ready to evolve. She continues,
“He was ready to give something to the industry that he believed in without record sales. Now it’s a different thing because record sales have declined. There’s no incentive for you to make a radio hit because radio hits are not going to help you sell your records. For him, and I’m sure a lot of the other record execs, now it’s like they can go ahead and try out new things. I wanted to do the partnership to show other independent artists like myself that it can be done. It can happen. This division doesn’t have to exist. Mainstream changes everyday. Now they’re looking to us grassroots independent artists to help so it’s been a really big blessing and I’m excited about it. Of course, it’s a lot of work but I love doing this. This is what I was doing before I met Sean and I get a chance to do it more on a larger scale, for a broader audience.”
How successfully a broader audience will grasp Monáe and her kind of consciousness-raising funk-rock will be one of the more interesting dynamics to watch in 2008. While there is definitely a sense of fun and freedom in the music, the lyrics are embedded with Monáe’s cold, hard socio-cultural observations. “Sincerely, Jane”, for example, poses the question, “Are we really living or just walking dead now?” Among other issues, the song casts a critical eye on the skewed ideals of young women:
“Teacher, teacher please reach them girls in them videos
The little girls, just broken queens, confusing bling for soul
Danger, there’s danger when you take off your clothes
All your dreams go down the drain, girl”
With lyrics that enlighten the mind and music that moves the soul, Janelle Monáe wears her thrival badge proudly. She’s a freedom fighter, a daydreamer, a storyteller, and, above all, a fiercely independent artist whose music bridges the fringe with the mainstream. “I believe in growth,” she says. “I’ve always been the rock in my family, if you will, where adults twice my age would come to me and ask me for advice, so I’ve always felt like I’ve had to be a leader and I’ve had to grow up quickly. I hope that I haven’t finished growing. I have a lot more to learn and a lot of things to conquer.” With violet stars guiding the way, and well-worn saddle shoes on her feet, Janelle Monáe is prepared to lead listeners into the history books and save the future.