The queer icon talks ‘too on the nose’ pandemic, LGBTQ representation and Pride plans
By Chris Azzopardi
I really hadn’t planned on telling queer powerhouse singer-actress-activist Janelle Monáe that I made food for my boyfriend the night before I got on Zoom with her.
That afternoon, Monáe was feeling it all. This global pandemic, the quarantining. She told me she can’t even create right now because she doesn’t have the mental bandwidth. When we linked up, her mind was understandably heavy and momentarily adrift. While talking about Amazon’s second season of its thriller Homecoming, Monáe accidentally called her character – a war vet who we first meet on a boat, alone and drifting, unsure of how she got there – an “ex-veterinarian.” “I said veterinarian,” she started, realizing her slip-up. “It’s that quarantine mind!”
Then I diverted her attention to her neo-soul album Dirty Computer, a life-affirming celebration of queerness released in 2018.
I began by telling her about my night before we Zoomed, when my spiraling mind happened to find a rare moment of pure, unencumbered joy within that album as I prepared for our virtual chat. Songs from Dirty Computer had my boyfriend and I bopping in the kitchen. Emerging from her face was a smile so wide I could almost see my reflection in it. It was like I’d cracked a code. A pandemic-era topic universal enough that it got even Janelle Monáe curious that she, during a promo tour for a TV show, couldn’t help but ask me a question everybody is asking everybody because all we do is cook now: “What were y’all eatin’?”
Monáe’s in isolation too, of course, trying to navigate not merely _how_ to be an artist but _if_ that’s even possible for her right now. From lockdown, she at least looks put together. Greeting me like the bots she sings about, she says, “Hi, I’m Janelle and I don’t know who I am today.” She appears to be reclining on a couch, a white top hat perched on her head; her virtual backdrop is appropriately one for Homecoming. In August, Monáe leads the cast of the slavery-themed horror film _Antebellum_, which was initially scheduled to be released in April.
And though it was just in February, it seems like another life when Monáe opened the Oscars and celebrated diversity and being, as she proclaimed on national TV during her performance, a “black queer artist.” Previously, in 2018, she came out as pansexual, after years of telling the press she was dating androids.
So, no wonder she was looking forward to headlining NYC Pride Island on June 27. In a statement, she called it a “dream.” But summer gatherings, including NYC Pride Island, have been canceled.
Monáe is still doing what she can; recently, she took part in a special performance for Verizon’s Pay It Forward Live, when she and Verizon made donations to small businesses owned by those in the LGBTQ community and other minorities affected by COVID-19.
“Stay up, Chris,” she gently consoles as we wrap, offering the same kind of bright-eyed hopefulness contained in “Americans,” one of the songs that, for a few dazzling minutes, took me out of life as we now currently know it. She continues: “And send my love to your boyfriend.” Even in a pandemic, even when she’s not creating, Monáe has so much to give.
How are you coping with everything that’s happening right now?
I don’t know. I probably won’t know until, like, next month. Time is not real to me. I feel like I’m in a warped, alternate universe, especially watching everybody walking around with masks and avoiding each other, and dealing with an administration who hides information and is putting capitalism above the health and well-being of our people. I have no grasp of reality right now.
It’s like living in the twilight zone.
Yeah. I write too much science-fiction to be dealing with this shit right now. It’s too on the nose. (Laughs.)
How does Homecoming fit into the kind of stories you want to be telling?
We’re on a journey with her as she discovers her identity, and I think when you go back into her past there are some decisions that she makes that I just would not make as a human. But when I was creating her backstory and understanding her motivation, I realized that this person could have been dealing with a lot of childhood trauma, and it gave reason to why she is the way she is. I think that this show has a lot to say about capitalism over citizenship and community, and the well-being of our citizens. I think it has a lot to say about how we treat ex-vets and mental health. And it’s a character study on minorities and those who are marginalized and how they go on their rise to being powerful and having their freedom through living in their truth, so that was super important to me.
And the show’s queer representation – how is the fact that your character just happens to be in a relationship with a woman meaningful to you?
Like you said: representation. It always matters. You think about the number of shows that are greenlit and films that are greenlit, and we’re still in that minority. It’s still not equal in terms of storytelling. There are so many cis, het-normative stories, and that’s not a reflection of the real world. I don’t want to give away too much, but there is a strong presence of (queerness) in Homecoming. I hope the folks feel seen.
How would this kind of representation have changed your life as a young woman growing up in Kansas City?
I would probably feel less alone. I’d be more intrigued. When you grow up in small towns and you have large families, and when being Baptist and going to church is the center of your family and your household – in addition to going through that and trying to love yourself and finding out who you are and what you want to be and deciding how you want to live your life – I think that having that representation would have made things easier for a lot of us.
When was the first time you identified with someone from the LGBTQ community and what did that mean to you?
That’s a really good question. There were, of course, a lot of artists who have come before me that have walked in their truth, like (openly queer singer-songwriter and activist) Meshell Ndegeocello. Even if they didn’t say, “Hey, I’m gay,” there was just a certain freeness that I got when I looked at David Bowie, a freeness I got that blurred the lines of gender. And I’ve always felt a part of everything, and as I find out more about myself and who I am, I look at myself and all of us as experiences. I just don’t believe in those binaries. But I love identifying as a woman, and I’m not mad when I’m not called a woman. I feel so a part of everything, and I _am_ a part of everything.
Earlier this year, you tweeted #IAmNonBinary. Does that mean you’re using them and their pronouns now?
I use free-ass-motherfucker pronouns. That’s the pronoun that I use. Absolutely.
Over the years you’ve gradually taken on more of an activist role, both as a vocal advocate but also in the way you’ve chosen projects. Your art is clearly a conduit for your messaging of unity and empowerment. How do you see yourself evolving as an activist and artist?
I never considered myself an activist. I think there are really people out on the front lines who are doing that groundwork in our communities. I have a mic; I have a studio; I’m doing a film. I’m doing all those things. And I’ve never considered myself that.
People have a kind of place that label on me, but I don’t feel the pressure. I think I feel more pressure just as a citizen to lend my support and my voice. I think even if I never wrote another song in my life, if I saw something happening to someone who couldn’t protect themselves or take care of themselves and they were in a marginalized group, then I’m gonna say something about it.
That’s just been me since I’ve been little. I’ve never allowed people to bully my little sister or people who were helpless and couldn’t defend themselves. I’m just not gonna stand for that. I guess I look at myself as anti-bully, and I will whoop your ass in different ways if you try to oppress or harm other people that I love and I care about. And I care about my community.
How do you feel about where we’re at now with LGBTQ representation? And what do you hope is next in that regard?
I think it’s getting better. I think we have a long way to go. I think it’s a more nuanced conversation because we’re dealing with sexuality and we’re dealing with gender. A lot of it is a journey, it’s not just a destination. And there’s a new terminology that’s coming, and we have to be open and nonjudgmental within our community.
I’ve definitely received a lot of judgment, and I can’t say that I haven’t judged myself, but at this point, I think that life is a mystery. We are uncovering truths about us, just like this show does, and the more information we have, we should never feel ashamed to lean into that gray area. Don’t become a prisoner or a slave of your past. Move forward accordingly once you discover who you are and what it is that you want to be.
But I want to say that I think that we still have a lot more work to do in terms of allies. Folks who are more privileged, who are the majority and the minority, I think that they can share the mic.
Are you currently creating? And while I have Dirty Computer on my mind – will you make music with the queer community in mind for your next work?
I don’t know what kind of music I’m gonna make. I’m not in a musical space. I’m not inspired. I’m just not inspired right now. I mean, I want to be; I want to be using this time and come out with five albums. But my heart is just so broken right now with everything that’s going on. So I’ve been DJing; that’s been inspiring. Deconstructing songs, my favorite songs. And I’ve been listening to Childish Gambino, and I love Megan Thee Stallion’s Savage remix with Beyoncé. Been listening to that. But I’ve just been trying to figure out how to put my boots on the ground and how to thrive in a pandemic.
It’s affected me. I’m not a black, single mom with five kids or a single parent trying to make ends meet because she got laid off. I’m not in that position. We’re in this, but we’re not all in the same boat. And for me, I feel a sense of urgency to figure out how we can come together as citizens. Once I get that down pat and understand what this all means and I can get some foundation then maybe I can go to a creative space, but right now my mental real estate is dealing with this pandemic.
You were supposed to perform at NYC Pride Island this summer. What message would you like to send out to all the dirty computers of the world who will be celebrating Pride in a very different way this year?
I love you. I was looking forward to being there, but all of our health is important. I would hate to be irresponsible and hold a concert and bring people together and then people pass away as a result of us trying to have a concert right now. But I have a feeling that in the future I will come back. The organizers of Pride New York are trying to put together something special that I may be a part of, so just keep your ears glued. (On May 15, it was announced that Monáe would be among the performers taking part in NYC’s virtual pride celebration on June 28.)
And to answer your last question: I did say I wasn’t really inspired to make music, but because I am a dirty computer at heart, whatever I do is always going to be through the lens of being a part of the LGBTQIA+ communities. That is who I am, so I can’t help but have that perspective. So I’m sure whenever I start making music (laughs) I will still be a free-ass-motherfucker making music.