It seems like every 3 out of 5 people you encounter now-a-days say the same thing about music, which is and quote “we need something different, everything sounds the same.” Say no more, Janelle Monae is here to save the music. As the first lady of Purple Ribbon Entertainment, signed in 2005, Janelle Monae has the flavor and essence we’ve been longing for. With a fusion of R&B, pop, soul, and rock, this well educated singer has created her own air space. Singersroom got a chance to sit down with this glowing butterfly, get ready to be schooled?
Where are you originally from and when did you get into music?
Janelle Monae: I’m from Kansas City, Kansasâ¦I basically created my own little world. I started singing and getting involved in music and theater. I would perform all the musicals in high school and middle school. I kind of stayed on the stage, it was my outlet and my way of getting away from coming home and having to deal with people stealing from us. We went through a lot, drugs really got to my family really really badly, mentally and physically. So to keep from going insane and to stay sane, performing was all I did. I sang and I competed in a lot of talent shows. One of my best friends, Kinshasa Smith, and I formed a duo named “ShasJa” and we would perform and win five hundred dollars at talent shows. Shoot, to two 12-year-olds that was a lot of money! I would help my mom pay rent sometimes and the other half we used to buy the music we needed to perform with. Then I started getting heavily involved in musical theater in high school, I was Cinderella in Rodgers & Hammerstein’s version of “Cinderella”, I was in the ‘Wiz’ and I auditioned for the American Musical and Dramatics Academy in New York. I lived in New York and I studied musical theater, Jazz, Tap (dancing), and Ballet.
Mentally I had to leave my environment, because if I paid attention to all the people that were dying around me, the people in my family who were strung out on drugs, selling dope, having sex and my friends getting pregnant at an early age, I could have easily been depressed by everything and gone the same route. I mean I love my family and the people of my city, no disrespect, but that life was not for me. God was really with me. God kept me using my voice in church, onstage, and kept me being one of the top performers in my high school. I always kept my eye on the prize. I didn’t know I would be in Atlanta, but I knew in my heart, that someday, my career would climb to the next level and that somebody would see what type of impact I was trying to make and join me.
How did studying Jazz, Tap dancing, Drama at American Musical and Dramatics incorporate into your artistic style?
Janelle Monae: It helped me out a lot because now-a-days you have people who may not be trained in the musical theater world; they just sing and focus on singing, but with me I incorporate elements of Broadway and musical theater in my music heavily. The only reason why I didn’t pursue my career in musical theater and being on Broadway was because when I thought about auditioning for the leading roles in musicals like the ‘The Wiz’, ‘Aida’, ‘Lion King’, or other shows, people would be too happy saying to me, “You would be perfect for those productions.” In my mind, I’m thinking everybody and their mama has done all those roles and “what’s new.” I wanted to be the first to do something. I wanted to create my own characters.
So, what I do now is take everything I was taught at AMDA and on Broadway and incorporate it into my music. I love classical strings and with me being classically trained I may sing operatic in certain songs and create skits. Musical theater is most definitely apart of my soundâ¦ I make sure my songs have plenty of character in them. I’m just able to combine musical theater with Soul, R&B and Classical music because with all my influences I’m able to be as innovative as possible. I am not constricted to any one thing. When I perform, I may tap dance, I may do ballet or have people doing it in the background; I get really creative, I get really theatrical with everything that I’m doing. I try to make everything seem bigger than life so I can help other artists and aspiring artists really capitalize on promoting diversity and being innovative.
What is it like at one of your shows?
Janelle Monae: I perform by myself, but sometimes I call in six other individuals who are trained in musical theater. They actually have very unique personalities. They all play different characters. So when I’m performing to my song ‘Lettin Go’ just imagine me and three girls and three boysâ¦it looks kind of like ’21 Jump Street’ meets Janelle Monae. We just do what we wanna do, we’re very free. We talk to each other on stage; you can see that we are
coming from somewhere. I don’t just get up and sing in front of a mic. When you come to my performances I want you to leave remembering the show. I’m gonna give it my all, I be sweating, I run up and down the stage. Recently I almost passed out. Sometimes I loose control and can’t turn my energy down.
People compare me a lot to little young Michael Jackson from the Jackson 5 and James Brown and even Elvis; I like that. Those people didn’t hold back and I don’t hold back either. With my dancers, I mean friends, I don’t ever make them learn choreography, I want them to come on stage and improvise. We don’t get caught up in trying to be cute, me dancing to the left and them dancing to the right. I mean that’s cool, kind of half way dancing, but I just feel like you have to give your all, that’s cooler. You have to really really make people believe that this is what I’m doing and I’m passionate about it. I mean hopefully in doing that, I inspire you do what you need do and be passionate that too. I think this way in everything I am doing, whenever I’m singing, whenever I’m dancing, whenever. I make sure I give over 199%; I know that is a little clichÃ© but I just make sure I give it my all. Or atleast I try to. I also try to get really creative with my shows. Sometimes I may have a band, only if it’s “Jaspects” who are an exceptional jazz and hip hop band here in Atlanta. I definitely incorporate something to throw it off though. I might use them for one song and tell them to leave and then have my four to six actors come in and we do skits and I start performing. It’s genuinely theatrical; I want you to feel like you are at a Broadway show.
How did you get signed to Big Boi’s Purple Ribbion label?
Janelle Monae: Well my management team Maytone Management thought it was a good idea for me to go to Justin’s (Diddy’s restaurant) for Kim Porter’s (Diddy’s baby mother) “Lip Service”; she hosted a Sunday night open mic night with her company “Three Brown Girls.” My management team thought it would be good for me to go down there and sing. So I went and to my surprise I got an ovation when I got finished. As soon as I jumped down off stage Big Boi immediately grabbed my arm and was like, “I want to sign you, you are “amazing and phenomenal” those were his words. But of course, in my mind, I felt like I could have done better.
It wasn’t just a fairy tale like that either. I told myself if I ever got signed or whenever I thought of being signed as a professional recording artist, I said that I would never sign with a label that doesn’t believe in me or support what I’m doing. I told myself I would never sign with a label that tries to change me or make me into an artist I’m not. I told Big we needed to have a creative meeting and in that creative meeting I made him listen to all my songs, I told him my vision for myself as an artist; I told him all my core values like how I have a big responsibility to my community, especially young girls. I try to make sure I’m not leading them the wrong way or promoting anything that would make them more screwed up than things that are already going on in today’s society. I have a big responsibility to Kansas City and where I live now. I let him know my responsibility for creating quality music and giving quality performances and that means just giving my all and not doing anything disrespectful to music. I also have a big responsibility to being innovative and creative, making sure I’m constantly coming up with new concepts and ideas and setting new trends. I just let him knowâ¦what I’m not trying to do and what I’m trying to do and he was with it. He was like I respect you as a young woman and if you don’t want to wear certain clothes you don’t have to, if you don’t want to be in certain videos you don’t have to. I respect you, I respect your music, I love it and let’s go forward with it. Once I realized he respected me as a young lady, loved my music and we were on one accord, that’s when I signed that dotted line.
You were living in New York but you moved to Atlanta to pursue your music career, that is weird because most people move to New York to further their music careers. Why did you pick Atlanta?
Janelle Monae: Well, I have always wanted to explore the world especially with me being free now, and slavery being abolished. When I was in New York it was strictly for my schooling and to be on Broadway, but in Atlanta we had this friend of our family living there, and she really believed Atlanta’s music scene had broadened and was gonna be the next place to be recognized musically. So my mama talked to her and she was like Atlanta would be a great place to showcase Janelle and her talent. With me being a risk taker, a trait I need to monitor at times, that is when I moved down here and enrolled in college. I actually tested my music out in the AUC; I started going to the all the lounges of the dorms â¦all the dorm lounges at Morehouse (College), Spelman (College) and Clark (Atlanta University). I really wanted to know what kids in college, kids around my age thought about my music. Since I personally know how hard it is trying to find yourself, I wanted my music to help them get through their daily stresses too. I had an album release party, but didn’t have a lot of money, so I pressed up about two hundred CD’s and to my surprise that night I sold out of all two hundred CD’s and I was signing autographs, it was just crazy! I knew then and there, that my voice mattered and I knew I had to take it seriously. I pressed up four hundred more and sold out in like two days. That really helped in motivating me. Shortly after that I was at the Kim Porter’s event at Justin’s and that’s when Big Boi saw me and I got signed. I already had a big fan base in all the AUC from singing and performing for them. They would be walking, better yet running to class and I would be out there just singing my little heart out. I mattered to them and they stuck by me and most definitely I want to let it be known that the AUC really supported me before I got a contract. They have been with me since day one. And I don’t ever take that for granted.
You wear a lot of hats as a producer, songwriter and actress, do you find it difficult wearing all those hats and which one do you like the most?
Janelle Monae: Well right now I’m focusing on writing music, of course there is no limit to the things I’m doing. I am constantly reading, striving to grow more, and watching the news. I mean there is so much stuff going on around me that I feel like I have to be a messenger for. I really believe I have been called to do that. Right now I’m mainly focused on writing music. I know how to work all the programs and I can produce music. I have a viola, I have a
cello, I have a flute, I have all these instruments around and I’m constantly playing with them and trying to make sure that I’m still excelling in those areas. But I like writing and speaking out for my country and speaking out for my community for other young girls across the map. That is really what I like doing the most. I like being able to inspire as many people as I possibly can. I want to inspire them to figure out what their goals and aspirations are and be passionate about the right things and really follow your dreams. I think anything can happen, the impossible is possible. As far as theater is concerned I’m actually working on my own screen play.
You describe your album as “Like a daring epic film, the album concern a cybergirl’s struggle to love in the futuristic city of Metropolis.
Janelle Monae: My album is entitled ‘Metropolis’ after Fritz Lang’s version (of Metropolis). The reason why I am naming my album ‘Metropolis’ after Fritz Lang’s, 1927 black and white silent film is because when I watched it, even though there was no sound, I was still able to identify with the characters in the movie. They reminded me a lot of the people back home. In the movie, you have the underworld, the people who live underground who struggle from day to day and are slaves to the people that live in Metropolis. The people of Metropolis live this worry-free and carefree life, their rich and they don’t have any worries. Those characters reminded me a lot of some of the Kansas City people and the environment I grew up in, so I wanted to name it after that so people can really pay attention and know that even though the movie was made in 1927 we are still dealing with those same issues. People underground are trying to come up and other people, situations, and things are holding us back for what ever reason.
When do you expect your album to come out?
Janelle Monae: I will be on the Outkast ‘Idlewild’ movie soundtrack which will hit stores on August 22nd! I am still working on my album right now. We are trying to shoot for September of this year. I am just really trying to find a distribution company that believes in my project as much as Big Boi believes in it. I don’t want to go to any distribution company that is gonna try to change Janelle Monae. You can expect the unexpected from me. I am really working on something that I hope will change people’s lives. Man, I am trying to change the world and whoever wants to help me, I’m ready to rock n’ roll!!!
—— By: Interview by: Adeniyi Omisore