Janelle Monáe speaks her mind. Through her art, and in her off-camera life, she gives voice to the voiceless and comfort to the afflicted. And she does it to a funky beat. With the release of her new album, Dirty Computer, Monáe talks to Ashley C. Ford about visibility, about fighting for love, and about always choosing freedom over fear. Here is Ford’s recount of their confrontation:
Monáe is thoughtful for a moment. She rests her hand against her face, her index finger hovering just above her top lip. “I will say that after this election, I dealt with a lot of anger. I dealt with a lot of frustrations, like many of us, when it came to the nonleader of the free world and that particular regime.” Like most artists over the past few years, the social and political strife currently rocking the United States hasn’t gone unnoticed by Monáe. In fact, for a while, it directly affected her capacity to create.
“I felt it was a direct attack on us, on black women, on women, on women’s rights, on the LGBTQIA community, on poor folks. I felt like it was a direct attack saying, ‘You’re not important. You’re not valuable and we’re going to make laws and regulations that make it official and make it legal for us to devalue you and treat you like second-class citizens or worse.’ I got to the point where I stopped recording because I was just like, ‘I’m going to make an angry album.’ ”
Quite a few conservatives and right-wingers have called for artists, athletes, and other black public figures to “stick to what they do,” or be “grateful” for their careers. However, people like Monáe know wealth and celebrity are not, nor have they ever been, enough to blind someone to the truth of their own oppression. Money only goes so far when solving a problem like racism or misogyny. “This is real-life shit that I’m having to deal with. You strip away the makeup, the costumes, and everything you know about Janelle Monáe the artist, and I’m still the African-American, queer woman who grew up with poor, working-class parents. When I walk off a stage, I have to deal with these confrontations. I have to deal with being afraid for my family.”
Monáe mentions two things that helped her deal with her anger and start recording again: 1) Therapy. 2) A bit of advice from Stevie Wonder. In therapy, she was able to unpack a lot of emotional weight and affirm the validity of her feelings. “I didn’t want to censor them,” she says. “It was impossible to.” Then there was a dinner with Stevie Wonder. After listening to Monáe’s feelings and frustrations, the music giant asked her to pull out her phone and record what he said next:
Even when you’re upset, use words of love / ’Cause God is love / Allah is love / Jehovah is love / So don’t let your expressions, even of anger / Be confused or misconstrued / Turn them into words of expression / That can be understood by using words of love
To say Monáe took Wonder’s words to heart would be an understatement. She made that recording into an interlude on Dirty Computer called “Stevie’s Dream.” “I was challenged,” she says. “It’s easy for me to just stay angry, but it’s harder for me to choose love.” So how does one construct an album “rooted in love” for the people who need it most? Monáe did it in three parts, or movements. “I like to call that first movement the reckoning. Realizing what you represent to society, that you’re a dirty computer. It’s the sting of being called a nigger for the first time by your oppressor. The sting of being called bitch for the first time by a man. You’re like, ‘OK, this is how I’m viewed in this society.’ ”
Despite the black woman’s history of being dismissed or thrown under the bus, Monáe wants us to know that we’re baked into the foundation of this country, and no progress can or will be made without us. Over the course of our conversation, she repeatedly states that she does not speak for all black people or all black women. But she does speak in support of us. And she won’t be leaving us to fight for our freedom alone. It’s not that she isn’t afraid of speaking out sometimes.
“There’s lots of fears that I have about just living openly and freely and criticizing those who are in the position of power,” she says. “You just never know. You never know what could happen when you are outspoken. It’s a risk. It’s a risk that I’ve prayed on and I’m willing to take.” It’s easy to believe these words sitting across from her, and perhaps even easier if you’ve listened to the album. Once you do that, there can be no denying that Monáe truly believes the future belongs to us — the marginalized — in all the ways it always should have. It’s easy to believe she’ll help us find our footing along the way. I am reminded that this is a person who knows who she is. And what she represents. Janelle Monáe is down for the dirty computers.
“I’m not running to Canada. I’m not leaving. I’m standing here, and I am gonna fight for love.”
Read more on allure.com.