The ambiguity of Janelle Monáe can be summed up in her own two words: “top secret.”
That – and, “I’m sorry, I can’t tell you” – is all she says about her pompadour when asked how it stays in a perfect pouf. It’s the kind of James Bond elusiveness that’s left a lot to the imagination since the Kansas City native spawned her fembot alter ego.
The Electric Lady, the third in the saga, is designed to be a prequel to the narrative of 2010’s The ArchAndroid. It’s very gay – but it doesn’t mean she is.
People have speculated that the album’s first single, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” alludes to your attraction to women. And on “Givin Em What They Love,” you refer to a woman who follows you back to the lobby for some “undercover love.” Are people reading too much into the lesbian themes of this album and applying them to you?
I actually have never heard that. This is the first time I’m hearing it. But I will say that a lot of my work always comes from an authoritative stance, so it may not be about me; it may just be about a story, or something that I’ve witnessed, or my imagination. You just never know.
A lot of people are relating this music directly to you.
And that’s fine. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with being gay or lesbian or straight or black or green or purple, so I’m OK with that.
“Q.U.E.E.N.” uses phrases like “throwing shade” and “serving face,” which are often heard in drag culture. Has the drag world influenced your style and how you present yourself and your music?
Yes. I think it is an art form that’s so funny and so inspiring, so I use it in my lyrics. I have gay friends who speak in this language, and it’s just hilarious and entertaining and I thought it would be cool to, you know, give them something to kiki about.
Because of your fondness for suits, people have described you in some ways as being a drag king.
How do you feel about the term “gender bender” as it’s applied to you?
I think it’s awesome. I think it’s uniting; I’m a uniter. I won’t allow myself to be a slave to my own interpretation of myself nor the interpretations that people may have of me. I just live my life, and people can feel free to discuss whatever it is that they think and use whatever adjectives they feel. It’s a free country.
You’ve said The Electric Lady was inspired by a female silhouette you were painting. You saw her as a new 21st century woman who’s not marginalized. Are there any real-life women you would call “electric ladies”?
Absolutely. They’re walking all around every day. You can find a lot of them in the community, nurturing the community. Electric ladies don’t have the same shape or hair color or background, but our number one commonality is the ability to want to be the change that we want to see. We want to see positivity. We want to see the community cleaned up. We know that we have to go out and be leaders and take action and make it happen.
Can the electric lady be a lesbian or transgender woman?
Oh, absolutely. Absolutely!
Is the android an artifice that allows you to be more earnest, especially politically and even sexually, than you would be otherwise?
No, no. The android represents the form of the new other. You can parallel the android to someone who has been ostracized or discriminated against or marginalized, like you would of a gay man or woman. Or African-Americans during slaveries, even post-slavery. Immigrants. The excommunicated. The untouchables. And the negroids. There are so many parallels to the android – and it’s important to speak about the future, as well – so it’s just my way of communicating to my audience and anyone listening that these people, they walk amongst us. As an artist and as a human rights activist, I feel it’s my duty to speak out against any discrimination or marginalization of people who might not have the power to gain control of their rights.
Why is standing up for the oppressed, particularly the gay community, important to you?
Because I can relate. I can relate being a woman and being African-American. There are definitely stereotypes that I am fighting against. There is marginalization. There is sexism. So many things that I think we’re mutually having to go through. And I have parents, I have friends, I have loved ones who come from working-class backgrounds and who have oftentimes definitely felt oppressed. And I have friends who are gay. I have people I love and care about, and I feel like I want to use my platform to bring awareness and talk about that. “Q.U.E.E.N.” was written for those who are oftentimes marginalized. I mention the word “marginalized” a lot, but it’s important that people understand what that word means and what we can do to get rid of it.
Do you feel that artists have a responsibility to stand up for causes they believe in, or is doing so simply a personal choice you’ve made?
It’s a personal choice. I don’t think the world should put any pressure on artists to be leaders; it’s just been a personal choice of mine. Your heart has to feel propelled to want to be a leader. If that’s your calling, you go after it.
From the beginning, your hope was to unite people and bridge gaps among various communities, including the LGBT community. How is The Electric Lady an extension of that career mission?
I think that The Electric Lady is interested in a purple state – not a red one or a blue one, but mixing those colors together and creating something that everyone can believe in. With more compassion for one another, we will be more united and able to look past our religious beliefs and sexual preferences and realize that we came into this world together and we’ll leave together, and so we have to protect each other and protect ourselves while we’re here.
I have songs on The Electric Lady – from “Sally Ride” to “Electric Lady” to “Q.U.E.E.N.,” and the list goes on – where I definitely thought of the gay community in terms of a community that is oftentimes discriminated against and marginalized. Again, when I speak about the android, it’s the other. And I think, again, you can parallel that to the gay community, to the black community, to women – we have so many things in common, and we sometimes don’t know it when we allow small things to get in the way. So this music is meant to inspire and bring wings to those who are weak and grace to those when they are strong.
You’ve told Rolling Stone that “the lesbian community has tried to claim me.” How did they try to claim you?
I was just making an observation. You know, the straight community has tried to claim me as well – sorry, maybe that didn’t get written in the article. But the straight community tried to claim me, the android community tried to claim me, the Hispanic community tried to claim me. We can go on and on. (Laughs) It just feels good to be loved. And no disrespect to anybody.
You have challenged and redefined the concepts of masculine and feminine fashion in a way that really resonates with the queer community. How do you personally think our society can begin to encourage healthy self-expression and self-image for future generations?
By just allowing your kids and the people around you to be themselves. We have so many different ways to live marketed to us in the media – what we should look like, what beauty is – and it’s so important to embrace the things that make you unique, even if it makes other people uncomfortable. You never know whom you’ll free by just being yourself – flaws and all.
I just think it’s so important that at a young age we teach our kids and those whose future we’re nurturing that it’s OK to love whomever it is that you love and whom you’re attracted to – and it’s OK to like a dress if you’re a boy and to like a pantsuit if you’re a girl. These are just fears that previous generations have placed upon us, or people who’ve tried to control us and make us believe that this is just bad. But I think whenever you stop the true essence of a person loving who they are – the God-given person that they’ve been blessed to be – that is a crime.
What does being part of the queer community mean to you?
It means everything. I feel like I have a community to continue to write music for and inspire and empower. There are so many people in the queer community who have committed suicide for being shunned by their families, there have been hate crimes – and I’m just about love. I’m ready to unite. I want to make sure that I’m living on Dr. King’s dream. I feel like it is my job as a descendant of that dream to stand up for other civil rights and human rights.
Chris Azzopardi is the editor of Q Syndicate, the international LGBT wire service. Reach him via his website at www.chris-azzopardi.com.