To Nina Simone, freedom was a feeling. A state of “no fear” that, like love, can be described to others, but only truly understood by those who’ve experienced it. To James Baldwin, it was “not something that anybody can be given,” but rather something people take. But to Janelle Monáe, the award-winning singer-songwriter-actress and self-described “freeassmuthafucka,” freedom is a frequency.
“It starts with Janelle Monáe giving Janelle Monáe permission to discover something new about themself, to not rest on your laurels of what you’ve done in the past,” the Kansas City native tells me. “Appreciate it, respect it, honor it. But I’m more focused on being present and allowing myself to deconstruct everything I thought about what I could be, what I could do. To really, truly surprise myself. “That’s really what freedom is like. How can I surprise myself?”
We’re seated in Monáe’s home studio in Hollywood, just hours before their latest track, “Float,” debuts, which they play aloud over the speakers. More than a handful of guitars line the wall behind me, as do drums and a host of other instruments and music-making tools I can’t name to my left and right. It smells of incense and fresh air, care and creativity. Sunlight streams in from the peekaboo window of a wooden side door. As Monáe vibes to her own song, a rotating screen saver of inspiration plays on a large television screen above her head: renderings of skies, rushing waters and landscapes; photos of gorgeous models and majestic elephants and Black art; portraits of Prince and Michael and Janet and Jimi and Chaka. And Nina and James.
At one point, Monáe jumps up, the infectious horns of Seun Kuti and his father, Fela’s, former band Egypt 80 taking over Monáe’s body. It’s as if she’s been summoned, transported to a dancery of the mind where one is fully unfolded, their truest self. Or perhaps the horns are an announcement, a heralding of a new era in progress.
“Whether I’m in a suit, whether I’m in a dress, or whether I’m naked, it’s always about my decision. I’m giving myself permission to be a little more soft and to explore different sides of my energy.”
Much of Monáe’s career thus far has been driven by their alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, a character they created who represents and emboldens the “other” in an Afro-futuristic, alternative world. From the self-financed, self-released 2003 EP, The Audition, and its 2007 follow-up, Metropolis: Suite 1 (The Chase Suite), to 2010’s debut studio album, The ArchAndroid, and 2013’s The Electric Lady, Mayweather remained a central storytelling device through which audiences connected with Monáe.
Then came 2018’s culture-shifting Dirty Computer, at which time Monáe collapsed the distance between themself and Mayweather by sharing with the world that they’re queer and pansexual, meaning Monáe is sexually, romantically and/or emotionally attracted to people regardless of their sex or gender identity.
Describing their journey to self, which has been soundtracked by their own discography, Monáe says, “I like to look at it as everybody is watching an unfolding to a story that isn’t complete.”
As for where this current chapter finds them? “Float” is an anthem of liberation and possibility. No storytelling devices or complex metaphors. No imaginary or desired futures needed. Just the pure, unmasked confidence and audacity of now. “No I’m not the same nigga / I think that I done changed nigga,” she says on the track. “I used to walk into the room, head down / I don’t walk, now I float.”
We’re perhaps witnessing the queerest, and by association the Blackest, of Monáe’s eras yet. “Queer not as being about who you’re having sex with—[though] that can be a dimension of it,” as bell hooks reminds us, “but queer as being about the self that is at odds with everything around it and that has to invent and create and find a place to speak and to thrive and to live.”
And Monáe is doing so with their whole chest: “I’m at a point in my life where it’s the frequency that I’m on, that I’m graciously sharing. You are either on that frequency or you’re not. And both are absolutely okay.”
“Freedom ain’t free, meaning you still have to deprogram yourself. We’re working in a world where the first response to queerness, or to trans, or to nonbinary is to question its existence or if it’s real, because [people have] been taught heteronormative ways of living.”
Janelle wears a Bronx & Banco dress and Bottega Veneta earrings. Photo by Keith Major for EBONY Media.
EBONY: Talk to me about the inspiration behind “Float” and what it says about the space you’re in musically and creatively.
Janelle Monáe: With each project, I’m always trying to discover something new about who I am as an artist, as a writer, as a musician, what it is that I want to say. I think this time, I’m present. A lot of these songs I’m recording are inspired by the experiences we were having with [the live music event experience and culture platform] Everyday People and with [the storytelling and creative enterprise] Wondaland.during COVID. It started with Everyday People not being able to find a spot to host their parties [due to the pandemic]. I said, “Hey, why don’t you guys just come here?” It was there that I saw all of this beautiful Blackness dancing in the moment. People not knowing each other, but smiling at each other. If somebody was about to throw up, a complete stranger that had never met them would run up and pull their hair up so the vomit wouldn’t get in it. It was seeing us in our most joyful, loving spaces that made me want to create a soundtrack to those sorts of experiences.
“We fight to have those moments where we can exist, where we can feel free to discover something new about who we are and feel safe amongst each other.”
That is what we fight for. We fight to have those moments where we can exist, we can feel free to discover something new about who we are, feel safe amongst each other. And being able to curate that experience is the highest honor as an artist, as somebody that, when I’m in these spaces, I’m not looked at as, “Oh, that’s Janelle Monáe.” I was able to actually be my most vulnerable, fun, loving, carefree self at these parties and with my folks, from Ghana to Atlanta to Brazil, all appreciating this frequency. There’s no classism. There’s no rich; there’s no poor. There’s people coming in understanding that this is the energy and the frequency that we have missed, that we appreciate, that we want to nurture and take care of, and let’s have this experience together.
How has creating music for those types of experiences changed you?
I used to think that if I’m going through a trial or a tribulation or something heavy, that my happiness has to stop. I would let that experience dictate how I acted, how I moved. I would allow that to get in the way of me appreciating being present and being alive and having life to even be able to have a trial or a tribulation. So I think it took training, and it takes training, to say, even in spite of what I might be going through that is heavy, I’m going to pick joy. I’m going to still be present. I’m not going to be thinking about all of the negative things that could happen or what I didn’t do in the past, the mistakes I’ve made. I’m choosing to actively focus on what is in front of me right now and enjoy this moment. I’m not going to allow anybody outside of me to steal my moment.
That realization, that joy doesn’t have to stop while we are going through whatever it is we are going through, what has it unlocked for you?
It’s made me more radical in appreciating life. The best way to sum it up, honestly, is a quote by Maurice White from Earth, Wind & Fire [on their album] That’s the Way of the World. I was listening to it as a meditation, and he says [on “All About Love”], “I want you to stop whatever you’re doing, just stop… They say there’s beauty in the eyes [of the beholder], which I say is a [natural] fact, because you are as beautiful as your thoughts… You gotta love you. Gotta [learn] all the beautiful things around you, [the] trees and [the] birds, and if there ain’t no beauty, you gotta make some beauty.” That, to me, was a sermon that preached to me, and [“Float”] was really my attempt at capturing the beauty around me. These are the moments that I felt were beautiful that I had with myself. These are the secret moments that we have with each other, and I just tried my best to capture them.
“My inner voice has to be the loudest voice in the room.”
Photo by Keith Major for EBONY Media.
How do you stay centered in this freedom, in this unapologetic—this frequency, when there are so many outside forces that attempt to take our focus away from ourselves?
It’s so funny you use the word “unapologetic,” because I think a freeassmuthafucka has to be willing to apologize. I remind myself that I’m not above making a mistake, or offending a loved one, or misspeaking. I freed up my mind enough to remind myself that I’m not above making a mistake. Sometimes we have the talking points and get boxed into those, versus, in reality, the vulnerability and the power of us acknowledging when we’ve hurt ourselves or hurt others by the ideologies we’ve held. You have to be ready to say, “I’m letting that go. That actually does not serve me in the best way for me to even be my highest self. I am performing a version of myself that must evolve; it has to evolve, or my earth experience is not going to be good.”
So I think in terms of centering myself, I’m open to recalibrating when it doesn’t work. I am not so powerful that I can’t be corrected.
What are some of your mantras?
What I think about myself is, my inner voice has to be the loudest voice in the room. How I feel about me has to be the alpha, the omega. I cannot allow words written about me or other people’s perceptions of me control the way that I operate. I give myself permission to change my mind. I give myself permission to change my thoughts. I have autonomy. I have agency, and I’m a powerful-ass muthafucka.
How has coming out as nonbinary and pansexual intersected with the work, the music and this moment you’re in?
It’s made me more free in the way that I create music and how I even live my life. My music ascends or elevates or evolves, because I evolve. If I’m not growing, if I’m not evolving, that’ll show. I wouldn’t have been able to make a song like “Float” without reimagining who I can be, getting rid of certain systems that don’t serve me well. Living my life in a binary [sic] isn’t sustainable to my creativity. So it allowed me to question everything, and because I did that, that opened up freer space that allowed me to discover something new about who I can be and how I can say it and how I can do it.
To me, gender nonconformity, nonbinary identity, trans identity are super-Black identities. But others in our community don’t necessarily feel that way—maybe some people reading this interview. I just wonder how that’s been for you, talking to Black folks about this space that you’re in identity-wise and creatively.
I think that it’s a wonderful conversation that we’re having, and I’m so happy we can have it with our people, with EBONY. I don’t think there’s anything new about Black folks identifying as nonbinary. I think that maybe the language has shifted, but we can see throughout history who was living their lives as freeassmuthafuckas and who did not conform to gender norms. We can see that.
For me, we have to keep having the conversation. We do. It’s so important, because our next generations of people who are having these conversations at school or around their circles, they need to be able to be as educated as they possibly can and not speak out of ignorance, out of not knowing. There’s always going to be some sort of campaign that is anti-nonbinary, anti-trans, anti-Black. Because as we know, Black folks, we are not monolithic. And I’ve been saying this since the beginning of my career: We are not all the same. We all hold different views. We all come from different walks of life. And there are some things that we have in common and some things we just don’t.
But what I love is that, by being Black, we can at least lend each other an ear, or that’s my hope. I could be naive thinking that way, but I have felt real community in the Black community, even if others have been just ignorant or chose to be hateful. That’s not everybody. For the folks who are purposefully trying to erase nonbinary or trans folks, it’s not my job to keep educating you. I will continue to stand with nonbinary and trans folks in my community, in my family, and fight back against that.
“It takes training, to say, ‘even in spite of what I might be going through that is heavy, I’m going to pick joy’. I’m choosing to actively focus on what is in front of me right now and enjoy this moment.”
Despite the evolutions of self that will happen throughout your career, what do you hope is the throughline of everything?
That’s a really powerful question. I don’t know if I’ve thought that far into the future about it all. I think that I’m a uniter. Through my music, I try my best to unite us and bring us together and allow a space to explore parts of who we are safely, to have a soundtrack that affirms us, to have music that is a soundtrack to freeassmuthafuckas in our community. I think my story of who I’ll even become is unfolding. I’m staying present, and I’m allowing myself to discover new things about who I am.
The last few years, acting has seemed to take center stage in your career. You’re fresh off of a National Board of Review Best Supporting Actress honor for your role in last year’s Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. And you wrote a book, The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer. How does it feel to come back to music and focus on that?
Well, I move according to my soul clock. I never give myself pressure to be on a cycle to release music. Because, again, I like to be a bit more evolved before I put out music. I don’t ever want to say the same thing twice. That is boring to me. It also is disrespectful to my own evolution and why I’ve been put here and what I feel like I’ve been put here to do. So I waited until I had something to say. I’m actually thankful that I went to shoot Glass Onion, because I kind of got plucked, in a sense, into a different world, which—it’s all storytelling to me. Whenever I go shoot something, I get hungrier about music. It’s so interesting. I’m so locked in on the role and the film that by the time it’s time to leave, I can’t wait. Like, “Ah, now I know what I want to say in music!” So it all helps. It’s like an ecosystem that really helps the music side.
We’ve also seen you evolve fashion-wise. Whereas you used to stick with the black-and-white tuxedos, now you’re giving us more color, more skin, more sexy. Could you talk about that part of the journey?
I will admit, I am in my — what do they call it? — “soft girl” era, perhaps. That’s where I am. Just even my thoughts around feminine versus masculine, being nonbinary, I see everything. I know that it’s a spectrum. So I like to deal with energy in terms of softness and hardness. I think that perhaps, prior, there was a need to protect myself through fashion. The suit for me was my superhero [suit]. Obviously, I had my reasons for wearing it: my parents. [Monáe has said she wore it as an homage to the uniforms of working-class people. Her mother worked as a janitor and a maid; her father worked as a truck driver.] And I think right now I’m honoring the Janelle Monáe that is right here, right now. That looks a little bit more soft. Agency has always been a throughline. Whether I’m in a suit or whether I’m in a dress or whether I’m naked, it’s always about my decision. So I’m giving myself permission to be a little more soft and to explore different sides of my energy.
Being free, especially for many of us nonbinary people, isn’t easy, even though it might look like it is from the outside. What has your journey coming into freedom been like?
I always say freedom ain’t free, meaning you still have to deprogram yourself. We’re working in a world where the first response to queerness, or to trans, or to nonbinary is to question its existence or if it’s real, because [people have] been taught heteronormative ways of living. Traditional gender roles are what we see mostly in the media. It’s still shocking when a celebrity comes out as gay. We still live in that kind of world. We live in a world where they’re creating laws that even take out us talking about slavery, that take out us talking about LGBTQIA+ communities—like, literal erasure of our existence is continuing to happen. As upsetting as that is, I try not to allow that part of the world to make me hard, to make me cold, to make me evil. I have to actively give myself mantras and call my therapist about it, talk to people in my community. Community, for us, is everything. To peacefully deal with those sorts of obstacles and find joy, steal joy—it takes daily practice.
Janelle wears an Anna Quan top, We Love Colors tights, Flor de Maria shoes and Bottega Veneta earrings. Photo by Keith Major for EBONY Media. Collage by Bria Sterling.
You’ve mentioned community a few times, both the folks physically around you and the broader community of people who find connection in your work and your example. How important has community been in your journey toward freedom?
Community is my lifeline. As I discover new things about who I am, what I can be, it’s the community around me that affirms me and gives me support in that exploration. As I’m making decisions about how I want to show up in the world, it’s my community that is hugging me and telling me, “We’re going to be right there by you. We’re right there by your side.”
“I love that I’m in EBONY right now, because all I can think about is all my aunties who have an EBONY cover on their coffee table; my grandmother had it on her coffee table.”
I have my family, which was my first community to tell me, “Yes, you can sing. You can dance. You can act.” I love that I’m in EBONY right now, because all I can think about is all my aunties who have an EBONY cover on their coffee table; my grandmother had it on her coffee table. These were the same people encouraging me to soar, to fly. And yes, I am confident when I am [performing], and I’m vulnerable when I am, and I’m all these things, but there is nothing like your community to remind you of your why. To remind you of what you can do.
These are the people I want to create that music for. They’ve given so much to me, and I’ve watched them live their lives in such an inspiring way, that it’s my pleasure to have songs like “Float” that they can listen to and be reminded of their greatness, and be reminded to let things go. I mean, in order to float, you have got to let some things go and open up room for new possibilities and for a new version of who we can be. My hope is that Black people can listen to this as a soundtrack that elevates them—that in their happiest of times, they want to put it on and really ascend to the highest, most beautiful version of who they can be.
Tre’vell Anderson (@TrevellAnderson) is an award-winning journalist, social curator and world changer who always comes to slay! They’re the authoress of the forthcoming book, We See Each Other: A Black, Trans Journey Through TV and Film.
EDITOR-IN-CHIEF & SVP, PROGRAMMING: MARIELLE BOBO
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