Janelle Monáe: Futurist R&B Singer and Activist (2024)

Jump to:

  • Who Is Janelle Monáe?
  • Quick Facts
  • Early Life
  • Career Breakthrough
  • Musical Success with "Metropolis"
  • "The ArchAndroid"
  • "The Electric Lady" and Acting Career
  • "Dirty Computer"
  • Speaking Out and Coming Out
  • Additional Projects
  • Quotes
1985-present

Who Is Janelle Monáe?

Grammy-nominated singer Janelle Monáe began performing as a child and got her big break in 2005 when she was invited by Big Boi to perform on several OutKast tracks. She was later signed by producer Sean “Diddy” Combs to his Bad Boy Records label. In 2010, her debut full-length album, The ArchAndroid, rose to No. 17 on the Billboard 200 album chart. Her subsequent albums—The Electric Lady (2013), which featured Prince, and Dirty Computer (2018), which received a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year—were even big commercial hits. Monáe has also branched into acting, appearing in films like Hidden Figures, Harriet, and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery. Monáe has been praised for her artistic style and expressions, her social activism, and her outspoken support for the LGBTQ community.

Quick Facts

FULL NAME: Janelle Monáe Robinson
BORN: December 1, 1985
BIRTHPLACE: Kansas City, Kansas
ASTROLOGICAL SIGN: Sagittarius

Early Life

Janelle Monáe Robinson was born on December 1, 1985, in Kansas City, Kansas. Her mother was a janitor and her father was a garbage truck driver who struggled with drug addiction throughout Monáe’s childhood. “I come from a very hard working-class family who make nothing into something,” she told The Guardian. Monáe’s hardscrabble background and early understanding of the perils of drug addiction inspired her intense drive to succeed. She pays homage to her parents with a signature black-and-white tuxedo she wears for every performance. “I call it my uniform,” she explained. “My mother was a janitor, and my father collected trash, so I wear a uniform too.”

Monae dreamed of becoming a singer and actor since her childhood, citing Dorothy Gale in The Wizard of Oz as one of her earliest influences. From a very young age, Monáe distinguished herself as a highly artistic and intelligent child. She stood out as a singer at the local Baptist church and appeared in local productions of musicals such as The Wiz and Cinderella. In addition to singing and performing, Monáe was also a precocious young writer. She joined Kansas City’s Coterie Theater Young Playwrights’ Round Table and wrote several full-length plays and musicals. One script, completed when she was only 12 years old, told the story of a boy and girl who compete for the love of a plant—an idea inspired by Stevie Wonder’s 1979 album Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants. “I was infatuated with photosynthesis,” she offered by way of explanation.

After graduating from F.L. Schlagle High School in Kansas City, Monáe received a scholarship to study musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City, where she was the only Black woman in her class. However, Monáe quickly dropped out of the Academy because she felt creatively stifled. “I wanted to write my own musicals,” she recalled. “I didn’t want to have to live vicariously through a character that had been played thousands of times—in a line with everybody wanting to play the same person.”

Career Breakthrough

After dropping out of school, Monáe moved to Atlanta where she lived in a boarding house with five other women and took a job working at an Office Depot. She self-produced a demo CD entitled Janelle Monáe: The Audition and relentlessly toured local colleges to perform and promote her music. It was on one such tour that Monáe met two like-minded young songwriters, Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder. The three of them soon founded the Wondaland Arts Society, a record label and artists’ collective to promote innovative music and art.

Janelle Monáe: Futurist R&B Singer and Activist (1)

A 2007 photo of Janelle Monáe and rapper Big Boi, who helped launch her career

Monáe’s big break came in 2005, at the age of 20, when she performed Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song” at an open mic night. Big Boi, one half of the famous hip-hop duo OutKast, was in the audience and was thoroughly impressed with Monáe’s performance, approaching her afterward and saying “Man, that was inspiring!” He featured Monáe on two tracks, “Time Will Reveal” and “Lettin’ Go,” from the hip-hop group Purple Ribbon All-Stars’ album Got Purp? Vol. II, released later that year. A year later, in 2006, OutKast featured Monáe on two more songs, “Call the Law” and “In Your Dreams,” from its popular and acclaimed album Idlewild.

Big Boi also brought Monáe to the attention of rapper and producer Sean “Diddy” Combs, who then visited her MySpace page and was inmpressed by the musician, according to Rolling Stone. Diddy flew to Atlanta to see one of her gigs and shortly thereafter signed her to a distribution deal with Bad Boy Records. The normally controlling Diddy said he was so confident in Monáe’s talent that he let her music and profile grow organically, telling The Hollywood Reporter, “I wasn’t such a control freak, and it was time for me to recognize that other people maybe had ideas that I didn’t understand and I would still be able to support it and play my position.”

Musical Success with "Metropolis"

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Janelle Monáe performs at the Sugarhill Nightclub in Atlanta on August 25, 2007.

After her work on Idlewild, Monáe set out to create her own music. Her 2007 EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), was released through Diddy’s Bad Boy Records label. Suite I (The Chase) was the first installment of Monáe’s multi-part Metropolis series, about a fictional android named Cindi Mayweather (portrayed by Monáe) in the years 2719, who falls in love with a human and pushes back against a dystopian society that suppresses freedom and love. The series was partially influenced by the classic German silent film Metropolis (1927) by Fritz Lang.

Diddy called the EP “different and innovative” and said he wanted to support it because “if you’re a leader in this industry you want to be helping to push it forward, and she’s an artist that would help to push it forward.” Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase) reached No. 115 on the Billboard 200 album chart, and its lead single, “Many Moons,” received a Grammy nomination for Best Urban/Alternative Performance. The single “Open Happiness” was featured in the season finale of American Idol in 2009, the same year that Monáe opened for No Doubt during their summer tour.

"The ArchAndroid"

In 2010, Monáe released her debut full-length album, The ArchAndroid, which peaked at No. 17 on the Billboard 200 and featured the singles “Cold War” and “Tightrope,” the latter of which featured Big Boi. The ArchAndroid continued Monáe’s Metropolis concept, whose futurist sci-fi story also served as an allegory of African American history. In the new album, Cindi Mayweather learns she is a Messiah-like figure named the ArchAndroid, who is destined to fight oppression and save the world. “I believe we’re going to be living in a world of androids by 2029,” Monáe said. “How will we all get along? Will we treat the android humanely? What type of society will it be when we’re integrated?”

The ArchAndroid received rave reviews and earned Monáe two more Grammy nominations for Best Contemporary R&B Album and Best Urban/Alternative Performance of “Tightrope.” With her powerful voice and boundless creativity, Monáe became a rising star in contemporary R&B. She performed at the Grammys ceremony with artists Bruno Mars and B.o.B., and Monae counted Mars, Diddy, Big Boi, Prince, and President Barack Obama among her admirers.

"The Electric Lady" and Acting Career

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Prince and Janelle Monáe perform in Uncasville, Connecticut, on December 29, 2013.

In 2013, Monáe released her second album, The Electric Lady, which also received rave reviews. The album continued the Metropolis theme and featured appearances by fellow R&B artists such as Prince, Miguel, Solange, and Erykah Badu. Her single “Q.U.E.E.N.” with Badu, stylized in the form of question and response, received particular acclaim. Prince declared the music video for “Q.U.E.E.N.” the best music video of the year and called The Electric Lady the best album of the year. The album performed better than its popular predecessor, peaking at No. 5 on the Billboard 200. Monáe also gained recognition at the 2013 Billboard Women in Music event, having been given Billboard’s Rising Star Award.

Monáe continued to gain popularity in the subsequent years. She made her debut as a musical guest on Saturday Night Live in October 2013 and was honored as the 2014 Woman of the Year by the Harvard College Black Men’s Forum’s annual Celebration of Black Women gala. In February 2015, Monáe’s label Wondaland Arts Society announced a joint venture with L.A. Reid’s Epic Records to promote her artists, starting with the March release of Wondaland Presents: The Eephus, which featured tracks by Jidenna, Roman, St. Beauty, Deep Cotton, and Monáe. In August of that year, Monáe and the Wondaland Arts Society collective performed the protest song “Hell You Talmbout” about police brutality against Black people. It came to be described as an anthem for the Black Lives Matter movement.

Monáe also began her acting career around this time, After voicing a character for the animated feature Rio 2 (2014), Monáe appeared in a supporting role in the critically acclaimed drama Moonlight (2016), which went on to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. She then starred as Mary Winston-Jackson in the 2016 biopic Hidden Figures, which follows the lives of a small group of Black women who worked at NASA during the Space Age. Monáe remained musically active during this time as well, appearing in the song “Venus Fly” with Grimes for her album Art Angels (2015). Billboard magazine called Monáe “a mini-mogul,” recognizing her business acumen and artistry in running her own label.

"Dirty Computer"

In late February 2018, Monáe released two new singles, the Prince-influenced “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane.” Her next single, “PYNK,” a collaboration with Grimes, debuted in April. A few weeks later, her long-awaited third studio album, Dirty Computer, was released and accompanied by a short film she called an “emotion picture.” The album, which did not continue her Metropolis storyline, featured an eclectic mix of genres, including pop, R&B, rap, space rock, and neo soul.

Dirty Computer debuted at No. 6 on the Billboard 200 and received positive reviews from critics. The New York Times called it an “a homage to women and the spectrum of sexual identities,” while NME described it as “a fluid celebration of freedom, raging, and raving against the oppressors.” Monáe earned a Best Music Video Grammy nomination for “PYNK,” as well as an Album of the Year nod. Although she didn’t win in either category, she delivered one of the standout performances of the night at the 2019 awards ceremony.

Speaking Out and Coming Out

Underscoring her anti-oppression body of work, Monáe delivered a powerful speech at the 2018 Grammys. “We come in peace, but we mean business. And to those who would dare try to silence us. We offer two words: Time’s up,” she said, referencing the movement for women’s equality that rose in the wake of sexual assault allegations roiling Hollywood. She continued:

“We say time’s up for pay inequality. Time’s up for discrimination. Time’s up for harassment of any kind. And time’s up for the abuse of power because you see it’s not just going on in Hollywood, it’s not just going on in Washington, it’s right here in our industry. And just as know that we have the power to shape culture, we are committed to creating more safe work environments, equal pay, and access for all women.”

Weeks later, Monáe addressed the longstanding rumors about her sexuality in an interview with Rolling Stone. She said that she considers herself to be pansexual, attracted to people regardless of gender identity: “Being a queer Black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women, I consider myself to be a free-ass motherf––r.” She later confirmed that her pronouns are they/them and she/her.

Additional Projects

Monáe was named the Trailblazer of the Year at the 2018 Billboard Women in Music event that December. She also continued to advance her acting career, appearing alongside Steve Carrell in the fantasy drama film Welcome to Marwen (2018) and providing voice work for two 2019 films UglyDolls and Lady and the Tramp. She also had a supporting role in Harriet (2019), a biopic film about Harriet Tubman, and replaced Julia Roberts as the lead in the second season of the Amazon Prime television series Homecoming in 2020.

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Janelle Monáe performs during the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony on February 9, 2020, in Hollywood, California.

Monáe continued to perform music during this time, delivering the musical introduction to the 92nd Academy Awards ceremony in February 2020, a performance that celebrated diversity and sought to highlight underrepresented voices. She delivered her most critically-acclaimed acting performance to date in the mystery film Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery (2022), starring alongside Daniel Craig’s master detective character Benoit Blanc. The website Den of Geek wrote that Monáe’s performance was “widely considered to be one of the best aspects of the film.”

Monáe’s next album, The Age of Pleasure, will be released on June 9, 2023. She co-directed the music video for “Lipstick Lover,” a song that will be included on the album.

Quotes

  • I feel like I do have a responsibility to the community. The music that we create is to help free their minds and, whenever they feel oppressed, to keep them uplifted.
  • I’ve never forgotten where I come from. It’s crazy, but I really want to be the one to show everyone back home that it can be done. And not by selling drugs but by being passionate about the right thing—and the right things will come your way.
  • The android represents a new form of the Other. And I believe we’re going to be living in a world of androids by 2029. How will we all get along? Will we treat the android humanely? What type of society will it be when we’re integrated? I’ve felt like the Other at certain points in my life. I felt like it was a universal language that we could all understand.
  • I want to redefine beauty and goals for young women. It’s about breaking down stereotypes, fighting against oppression, trying to save the world.
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Janelle Monáe: Futurist R&B Singer and Activist (2024)
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