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Janelle Monáe On Her Dirty, World-Dominating Year

Janelle Monae attends the Hollywood premiere of <em>Black Panther</em> in January 2018.
Emma McIntyre
Getty Images
Janelle Monae attends the Hollywood premiere of Black Panther in January 2018.

It has been a very big year for Janelle Monáe.

She was named trailblazer of the year at Billboard's Women in Music awards, woman of the year by Glamour. She came out as pansexual in a sprawling Rolling Stone cover story. And her album Dirty Computer, released this spring with a companion film — sorry, "emotion picture" — is Grammy-nominated for album of the year and can be found on practically every major list of the best albums of 2018, including ours.

Dirty Computer was named NPR Music's No. 1 album of 2018, in part because of its message. As one staffer wrote, the songs take place in "a vivid dystopian world where anyone deemed 'dirty' is hunted and chemically lobotomized, or 'cleaned.' In this totalitarian world of Dirty Computers, not unlike the divisive reality of 2018, nonconformity can spell extinction if you don't fight back. With every guitar riff, every interlude, every moment of loving, queer affection, Monáe fights."

Janelle Monáe joined NPR's Ailsa Chang from the Atlanta studios of her entertainment company, Wondaland Arts Society (whose film division recently entered into a production agreement with Universal), to talk about her process, her plans and why Dirty Computer could only have been written now. Hear the radio version at the audio link, and read on for highlights — including some moments that didn't make the broadcast.

Interview Highlights

On what Dirty Computer reveals about her career

Dirty Computer was supposed to be the album that came out before my first album, The ArchAndroid, [but] I felt like I needed to live more. It started to really make itself once I got my mind and my spirit fearless enough to dig deep and have conversations with myself.

One of the things that I felt was happening was, I was writing music only when I felt great. It was like, you go into the studio, and I want to go in when my heart is clear, when I know what I want to say. I got to point where it was crippling me, this idea of perfectionism, and it stopped me from writing for a minute. And what I decided to do was take some time. So when I wrote this album, it wasn't about perfection. It was about the imperfections. It was about embracing all those things that make you unique, even if it makes your own self uncomfortable.

On the song " So Afraid "

For me it was about my love and hate relationship with this country. I love being American, I love being born here and having roots here. But there are some really evil things that have happened and continue to happen. And it speaks to being afraid of forgiving. I think of being hurt again, or being manipulated, or not fully standing my ground. And forgiving myself, also — you know, it's two parts. It's about being able to love yourself through it all, being able to love where you are right now, and to give yourself permission to forgive yourself when you make mistakes, when you let other people down.

On the story told in the album's structure

The album is broken up into three parts. The first few songs represent the reckoning — reckoning with what it means to be called a n***** for the first time by a white person, or being called a b**** for the first time by a man. And then you have the middle section, where " Pynk" falls in, and songs like " Make Me Feel," that are celebratory of sexuality and of womanness. The latter part of the album deals with the reclamation: A song like " Americans" is about reclaiming what it means to be an American. My ancestors helped build the White House, helped build this country. And it's not time to run away, it's time to stand your ground and confront what I call the great divide — those who seek to divide us and highlight all our differences and make us fearful of each other.

On the mission of her film company, Wondaland Pictures

There's so many stories out there. If I look at a Moonlight -- a movie that I was extremely excited about being a part of — having a young, gay, black boy highlighted in the way that Moonlighthighlighted his voice and story, I'd never seen in cinema. Even with Hidden Figures , another film that I was really honored to be a part of, I didn't have any idea about those women who helped get John Glenn into orbit, or the human computers who were doing all the numbers that it took to get our astronauts into space. So I'm just looking for those unique stories. There are a lot of other people that I respect and admire, like Issa Rae and Lena Waithe and Jordan Peele, who are who are also pushing forward underrepresented voices. I just hope, and Wondaland hopes, to continue to push culture forward and and redefine how we are viewed. I want to make movies the dirty computers can feel proud of.

On being Janelle Monáe in 2018

It feels like when you get off from school early in the first grade and your grandmother takes you to get ice cream, and you eat ice cream all night and you don't have a tummy ache, and then you get to go to the amusement park all by yourself. It's unexplainable, but it's very humbling — that word keeps popping up in my mind, and in my heart.

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Ailsa Chang is an award-winning journalist who hosts All Things Considered along with Ari Shapiro, Audie Cornish, and Mary Louise Kelly. She landed in public radio after practicing law for a few years.
Christina Cala is a producer for Code Switch. Before that, she was at the TED Radio Hour where she piloted two new episode formats — the curator chat and the long interview. She's also reported on a movement to preserve African American cultural sites in Birmingham and followed youth climate activists in New York City.