THOUGH AN EIGHT-TIME Grammy-nominated artist, Janelle Monáe speaks more like a friend you’ve lost touch with than the A-list star she is. Chatting via Zoom from the Atlanta office at her production company Wondaland Arts Society, Ms. Monáe brimmed with the energy of someone with exciting news she can’t wait to share. “I’m a time traveler,” she said matter-of-factly early in our conversation.
Take her most recent album, 2018’s “Dirty Computer,” on which she mixes influences from several eras—as diverse as old-school soul, progressive rock and 1980s and ‘90s pop—to tell a story rooted in the technology at our disposal today. The result: music that brings the past to life but sounds futuristic. Her acting performances, as both historical figures (“Harriet,” “Hidden Figures”) and those history forgets (“Moonlight”), often pull off the same creative trick.
As she prepared for the release of her first book, the newly published short-story collection “The Memory Librarian” (Harper Voyager), and her upcoming appearance in “Knives Out 2,” Ms. Monáe recalled the piece of tech from her childhood that seemed to make all things possible, ruminated on how the best art gets created and shared what her conception of time travel has taught her.
When I was growing up, my favorite gadget was: my Mickey Mouse telephone. I slept with it. I sang into it like it was a microphone. I talked to imaginary characters through it. It helped me to have conversations with people before I could actually have conversations with people.
I think of myself as: a kid, but also a Futurist. I’m also a time traveler. I move through space. I move through time. What is time, anyway? It’s whatever we say it is. It’s wherever we say it is.
The tech I can’t live without: is my studio equipment. As long as I have water, shelter and my amazing friends and family, I don’t need anything else. But I can record anywhere as long as I have Logic and Sonar.
If I was on a desert island, I could make do with: my voice recorder, to capture my thoughts, poems and songs. Not being able to record my ideas would drive me insane. Even if they never got fleshed out, I would still be able to wake up in the middle of the night and record a melody that I had in a dream.
I don’t collect much, except: I have a soft spot for books and art and music. It is all vintage and it is my pride and joy.
In fact, my favorite way to listen to music is: on vinyl. I have a collection of 8,500 vinyl records. I have a Victrola turntable.
I disagree with people who say: electric cars are the future. They are now! I have an Audi RS e-Tron GT. I love that it is both electric and designed beautifully.
My favorite place to relax is: my secret hideaway spots in Mexico and Greece, where I recently shot a film. I have my little nooks and crannies, and I am not going to give them away.
One of my silver linings during lockdown was: the game club my friends and I started once we were all tested and vaccinated and boosted up. One of my favorite games is a murder mystery game—people call it “Assassin” or “Werewolf.” We dress up in character and try to figure out who the killer is.
When I want to get my creative juices going: I play Rummikub. It keeps my mind sharp. It deals with numbers, and we play fast: 15 seconds to move. I love listening to new music while we play.
I consider myself: an android that has tapped into its human side. I’m a computer-human. Sometimes, the human part of me tends to make things too complicated. As Lauryn Hill said, “It could all be so simple, but you would rather make it hard.” But over the past few years, we’ve all been forced to simplify. Because of this, I feel closer to humanity than I ever have. I’m enjoying being present a lot more, and actively choosing to not time travel. I’m staying right where I am, and not allowing these moments to pass me by.
I’m fascinated by: the intersection between androids and Black folks and the LGBTQIA+ communities. The android represents the new Other. Will we discriminate against the android? Technology is moving at an exponential rate, so these questions will need to be asked in our day-to-day lives. We are going to have to figure out how we coexist in balance.
I believe the future: is still up to all of us to decide. Like Andre 3000 said, “You can plan a pretty picnic, but you can’t predict the weather.” Ultimately, our fate is going to come down to whether those who are in the positions of power will use their power to help those who are marginalized. And I’m not just talking about rich, privileged, white men. All of us who are more privileged than our brothers and sisters must listen and do more. Very literally, we’re a civilization that depends on each other for survival.
My favorite genre of music: doesn’t really exist. I listen to everything from rock to Jodeci, strip-club music to Stevie Wonder’s “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.” After “Girl Blue,” “Living for the City” and “Innervisions,” for him to say, “I’m going to create the soundtrack to plant life,” was amazing. It was super experimental and so patient and full of growth. Stevie didn’t really care about being commercially successful. He did that for the love of it.
I believe that the best art: is ultimately about human connection. It is about experiences. It is about making memories.
A genre I think is important is: Afrofuturism. It’s more than an aesthetic. It’s about Black and brown folks seeing ourselves thriving in the future, seeing ourselves as protagonists. Of course, there is struggle. You can’t erase the past. But it is us defining what our futures look like on our own terms.
I’d be lying if I said: I didn’t sometimes feel constrained by what my audience or my team or my label expects. Of course, I always consider feedback. But good feedback is especially dangerous, because you’re like, “Well, I can easily just do more of that.” And that usually produces a watered-down version of what I did before.
My advice to anybody starting out in the entertainment industry is: to avoid looking or sounding like anybody else. People will always try to figure out what category to put you in. Resist that. I spent a lot of time fighting to not sound like this or not sound like that, protecting my image and my ideas. That can be a prison within itself. But now, I don’t have anything to prove. I don’t have to be weird for weird’s sake. I can just enjoy the experience.
Every artist must learn that: it is OK to create something that people don’t immediately embrace. Because, if you believe in what you’re doing, and put everything you have into it, you’re creating the future. Someday everyone will catch up with you.
My advice to aspiring artists of any kind is to: make more love, have more sex and stay present. Then write about the experiences around you. Do that.
—Edited from an interview by Jeff Slate
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