How Janelle Monáe Found Her Voice (Published 2018) (2024)

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How Janelle Monáe Found Her Voice (Published 2018) (1)

Credit...Photo illustration by Bráulio Amado. Source photo: C Flanigan/Getty Images.

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On a hot December afternoon, the sky hazy from wildfires that raged just beyond the Los Angeles city limits, a handful of people gathered outside a nondescript Super 8 motel off Sunset Boulevard. Nearly all were dressed head to toe in black: elegant crepe shirts, fitted leather pants, wide-brimmed hats. The group made their way inside to the Girl at the White Horse, a discreet bar nestled in the space below the motel. Here, the air was still hazy — the synthetic kind, from a machine — and lights tinted the room pink and red, colors of the heart. Low vibrational tones, not unlike those coaxed out of Tibetan singing bowls, droned in the background. Most of the invitees worked for radio stations, record labels or awards shows, and while they waited, they ordered co*cktails created for the event: “Pynk” (rosé, gin, aperol and grapefruit) or “Screwed” (pineapple-infused tequila, lime, agave with a touch of pepper).

As the sounds faded, the guests turned their attention to the eight women marching into the bar. Each wore aviators, leather jackets over black bodysuits and brightly colored tights. They struck dramatic poses — an arm flung over an eye, a hand on a co*cked hip, a leg held askew — and paused as the singer Janelle Monáe strolled into the room and took her place in the middle. She was dressed in a studded motorcycle jacket over a white crop top, black palazzo pants, suspenders, a derby wool hat and mirrored sunglasses. A navel-length ombré rattail snaked over her shoulder. For a moment, she stood perfectly still, letting the room drink her in.

Monáe was presenting a preview of “Dirty Computer,” her first solo studio album in five years, and the anticipation was as palpable as the smoke filling the room. On an indiscernible cue, an apocalyptic electropop bop about partying in a dystopian world began to play: “I hear the sirens calling, and the bombs start falling, but it feels so good.” The women broke into choreographed moves — toe stands, neck rolls, Michael Jackson spins, footwork that summoned the Charleston and James Brown. Many artists now share new music via encrypted downloads, but Monáe insisted on introducing her songs live. After watching her for a few minutes, it became clear why. The room was mesmerized, feeding off the energy emitted by Monáe and her backup dancers. An oversize man in loafers aggressively played air guitar. Others bounced their shoulders, nodded their heads, shuffled their feet in a two-step. Few stood still.

The performance reached its peak on a song called “I Got the Juice.” During the chorus — a percussive trap riff that will be best appreciated blasting out of an expensive car stereo — Monáe dropped to her knees below a disco ball as her dancers swarmed around her, fanning her with large exaggerated motions, less to cool her off than to emphasize the white-hot intensity of her moves. While she gyrated on the ground, the women danced around her in a circular “Soul Train” line: They did the Milly Rock, spun in tight twirls, snapped their fingers, fanned themselves and their own behinds. As the song trilled its last few beats, Monáe and her dancers slowed, laughing and wiping their brows. The room burst into applause.

Monáe took a bow and picked up a microphone. “I just had a lot of fun,” she said. “I’m very excited about where we’re going this time.” Then she took a beat to breathe. Her body was still heaving from the dancing, but she suddenly looked grim, transformed from artist to activist. “This is the first time I’ve felt threatened and unsafe as a young black woman, growing up in America,” she said. “This is the first time that I released something with a lot of emotion. The people I love feel threatened. I’ve always understood the responsibility of an artist — but I feel it even greater now. And I don’t want to stay angry, but write and feel triumphant.”

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How Janelle Monáe Found Her Voice (Published 2018) (2024)
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