Janelle Monáe Robinson is an American singer, songwriter, rapper, actress, and producer. Monáe is signed to Atlantic Records, as well as to her imprint, the Wondaland Arts Society. Monáe has received eight Grammy Award nominations. Monáe won an MTV Video Music Award and the ASCAP Vanguard Award in 2010. Monáe was also honored with the Billboard Women in Music Rising Star Award in 2015 and the Trailblazer of the Year Award in 2018. In 2012, Monáe became a CoverGirl spokesperson. Boston City Council named October 16, 2013 "Janelle Monáe Day" in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, in recognition of her artistry and social leadership.
Monáe's musical career began in 2003 upon releasing a demo album titled The Audition. In 2007, Monáe publicly debuted with a conceptual EP titled . It peaked at number two on the US Top Heatseekers chart, and in 2010, through Bad Boy Records, Monáe released a first full-length studio album, The ArchAndroid, a concept album and sequel to her first EP. In 2011, Monáe was featured as a guest vocalist on fun.'s single "We Are Young", which achieved major commercial success, topping the charts of over ten countries and garnering Monáe a wider audience. Her second studio album, The Electric Lady, was released in 2013 and debuted at number five on the Billboard 200, serving as the fourth and fifth installments of her seven-part Metropolis concept series.
In 2016, Monáe made her theatrical film debut in two high-profile productions; Monáe starred in Hidden Figures as NASA mathematician and aerospace engineer Mary Jackson, and also starred in Moonlight. Hidden Figures was a box office success, while Moonlight won the Academy Award for Best Picture at the 89th annual ceremony. Monáe's third studio album, Dirty Computer, also described as a concept album, was released in 2018 to widespread critical acclaim; it was chosen as the best album of the year by several publications and earned Monáe two nominations at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards, including Album of the Year. The album debuted at number six on the Billboard 200 and was further promoted by Monáe's Dirty Computer Tour, which lasted from June–August 2018.
Early lifeJanelle Monáe Robinson was born on December 1, 1985 in Kansas City, Kansas and was raised in a working-class community of Kansas City, Quindaro. Her mother, Janet, worked as a janitor and a hotel maid. Her father, Michael Robinson Summers, was a truck driver. Monáe's parents separated when Monáe was a toddler and her mother later married a postal worker. Monáe has a younger sister, Kimmy, from her mother's remarriage.
Monáe was raised Baptist and learned to sing at a local church. Her family members were musicians and performers at the local AME church, the Baptist church, and the Church of God in Christ. She dreamed of being a singer and a performer from a very young age, and has cited the fictional character of Dorothy Gale from The Wizard of Oz as a musical influence. The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, which Monáe bought two copies of with her first check, was another source of her inspiration. She performed songs from the album on Juneteenth talent shows, winning three years in a row.
As a teenager, Monáe was enrolled in a young playwrights’ program, the Coterie Theater's Young Playwrights' Round Table. She began writing musicals. One musical, completed when she was around the age of 12, was inspired by the 1979 Stevie Wonder album Journey Through "The Secret Life of Plants".
Monáe attended F. L. Schlagle High School. After high school, she moved to New York City to study musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, where she was the only black woman in her class. She enjoyed the experience, but feared that she might lose her edge and "sound, or look or feel like anybody else". In a 2010 interview Monáe explained, "I felt like that was a home but I wanted to write my own musicals. 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."
After a year and a half, Monáe dropped out of the academy and relocated to Atlanta, enrolling in Perimeter College at Georgia State University. She began writing her own music and performing around the campus. In 2003, Monáe self-released a demo album titled The Audition, which she sold out of the trunk of her Mitsubishi Galant. During this period, Monáe became acquainted with songwriters and producers Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder. The three would eventually form the Wondaland Arts Collective. She worked at an Office Depot but was fired for answering a fan’s e-mail using a company computer, an incident that inspired the song "Lettin' Go", which in turn attracted the attention of Big Boi.
2005: Career beginningsMonáe appeared on the Purple Ribbon All-Stars album Got Purp? Vol. 2 as well as on OutKast's 2006 album Idlewild, where she is featured on the songs "Call the Law" and "In Your Dreams". Big Boi told his friend Sean Combs about Monáe, whom at the time Combs had not yet heard. Combs soon visited Monáe's MySpace page and according to a HitQuarters interview with Bad Boy Records A&R person Daniel 'Skid' Mitchell, Combs loved it right away: " loved her look, loved that you couldn't see her body, loved the way she was dancing, and just loved the vibe. He felt like she has something that was different – something new and fresh."
Monáe signed to Bad Boy in 2006. The label's chief role was in facilitating her exposure on a much broader scale rather than developing the artist and her music, because in the words of Mitchell, "She was already moving, she already had her records – she had a self-contained movement." Combs and Big Boi wanted to take their time and build her profile organically and allow the music to grow rather than put out "a hot single which everyone jumps on, and then they fade because it's just something of the moment".
2007–2011: ''Metropolis'' and ''The ArchAndroid''In 2007, Monáe released her first solo work, Metropolis. It was originally conceived as a concept album in four parts, or "suites", which were to be released through her website and mp3 download sites. After the release of the first part of the series, in mid-2007, these plans were altered following her signing with Sean Combs's label, Bad Boy Records, later in the year. The label gave an official and physical release to the first suite in August 2008, which was retitled Metropolis: The Chase Suite and included two new tracks. The EP was critically acclaimed, garnering Monáe a 51st Annual Grammy Awards Grammy nomination for Best Urban/Alternative Performance for her single "Many Moons", festival appearances and opening slots for indie pop band of Montreal. Monáe also toured as the opening act for band No Doubt on their summer 2009 tour. Her single "Open Happiness" was featured in the 2009 season finale of American Idol. Monáe told MTV about her concept for her new album and also discussed her alter-ego named Cindi Mayweather, she said:
Cindi is an android and I love speaking about the android because they are the new "other". People are afraid of the other and I believe we're going to live in a world with androids because of technology and the way it advances. The first album she was running because she had fallen in love with a human and she was being disassembled for that.
In a November 2009 interview, Monáe revealed the title and concept behind her album, The ArchAndroid. The album was released on May 18, 2010. The second and third suites of Metropolis are combined into this full-length release, in which Monáe's alter-ego, Cindi Mayweather – also the protagonist of Metropolis: The Chase Suite – becomes a messianic figure to the android community of Metropolis. Monáe noted that she plans to shoot a video for each song on The ArchAndroid and create a film, graphic novel and a touring Broadway musical based on the album. The Metropolis concept series draws inspiration from a wide range of musical, cinematic and other sources, ranging from Alfred Hitchcock to Debussy to Philip K. Dick. However, the series puts Fritz Lang's 1927 silent film Metropolis, which Monáe referred to as "the godfather of science-fiction movies", in special regard. Aside from sharing a name, they also share visual styles, conceptual themes and political goals, using expressionistic future scenarios to examine and explore contemporary ideas of prejudice and class. Both also include a performing female android, though to very different effect. Where Metropolis android Maria is the evil, havoc-sowing double of the messianic figure to the city's strictly segregated working class, Monáe's messianic android muse Cindi Mayweather represents an interpretation of androids as that segregated minority, which Monáe describes as "... the Other. And I feel like all of us, whether in the majority or the minority, felt like the Other at some point."
Monáe received the Vanguard Award from the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers at the Rhythm & Soul Music Awards in 2010. Monáe covered Charlie Chaplin's Smile on Billboard.com in June 2010. In an NPR interview in September 2010, Monáe stated that she is a believer in, and a proponent of, time travel. Monáe performed "Tightrope" during the second elimination episode of the 11th Season of Dancing with the Stars on September 28, 2010. Monáe performed at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards in 2011 alongside artists Bruno Mars and B.o.B; She performed the synth section of B.o.B's song "Nothin' on You" and she then performed her track "Cold War" with B.o.B on the guitar and Mars on the drums. The performance received a standing ovation. Monáe's single "Tightrope" was also featured on the American Idols LIVE! Tour 2011, performed by Pia Toscano, Haley Reinhart, Naima Adedapo, and Thia Megia.
In September 2011, Monáe was featured as a guest vocalist on fun.'s single, "We Are Young", which achieved major commercial success, topping the charts of over ten countries and selling more than ten million units worldwide. The song garnered Monáe three Grammy nominations at the 55th Annual Grammy Awards, including Record of the Year. Nate Ruess, the lead singer of fun., performed an acoustic version of "We Are Young" with Monáe.
2012–2014: ''The Electric Lady'' and other projectsMonáe was also featured on "Do My Thing" for Estelle's studio album, All of Me. In June 2012, Monáe performed two new songs, "Electric Lady" and "Dorothy Dandridge Eyes" – from her then-upcoming sophomore studio album, The Electric Lady – at the Toronto Jazz Festival. In July 2012, for the second year in a row, she appeared at the North Sea Jazz Festival in Europe as well as in the 46th edition of the Montreux Jazz Festival in Switzerland on the 14th.
In August 2012, Monáe was chosen as CoverGirl's newest spokeswoman. In September 2012, Monáe performed at CarolinaFest in support of President Obama, just before the 2012 Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina. In October 2012, Monáe starred in a commercial for the Sonos Wireless HiFi home audio system, and appeared in a Sonos commercial in 2012 with Deep Cotton. Boston City Council named October 16, 2013 "Janelle Monáe Day" in the city of Boston, Massachusetts, in recognition of her artistry and social leadership.
Monáe's first single from The Electric Lady, "Q.U.E.E.N.", featuring Erykah Badu, premiered on SoundCloud and made available for download purchase at the iTunes Store on April 23, 2013. "Q.U.E.E.N." garnered 31,000 digital sales according to Nielsen Soundscan with the accompanying music video gaining four million YouTube views within its first week of release. In her 2013 interview with fuse, Monáe states that "Q.U.E.E.N." was inspired by conversations she shared with Erykah Badu about the treatment of marginalized people, especially African-American women, and the title is an acronym "for those who are marginalized"; Q standing for the queer community, U standing for the "untouchables", the first E standing for "emigrants", the latter standing for "excommunicated" and N standing for "negroid". Thematically, The Electric Lady continues the utopian cyborg concepts of its predecessors, while presenting itself in more plainspoken, introspective territory in addition to experimenting with genres beyond conventional funk and soul such as jazz, pop-punk, gospel and woozy, sensual vocal ballads. The album features guest appearances by Prince, Solange Knowles, aforementioned Miguel and Esperanza Spalding with production from previous collaborator Deep Cotton and Roman GianArthur, and was released to critical acclaim on September 10, 2013.
On September 14, 2013, Monáe performed along with Chic at the iTunes Festival in London. On September 28, Monáe performed at the Global Citizens Festival in Central Park alongside Stevie Wonder. Monáe performed as the featured musical guest on Saturday Night Live October 26 with host Edward Norton.
Her voice is heard as veterinarian Dr. Monáe in the movie Rio 2, released in the U.S. on April 11, 2014, and her song "What Is Love" was featured on the soundtrack. In April 2014, Monáe was invited to perform along with Tessanne Chin, Patti LaBelle, Aretha Franklin, Jill Scott, Ariana Grande, and Melissa Etheridge at the White House as a part of their PBS-broadcast "Women of Soul" event, which celebrated American women artists whose work has left an indelible and profound impact on American national musical culture. She performed "Goldfinger", "Tightrope", and joined in on the all-inclusive performance of "Proud Mary".
On April 14, 2014, Monáe was the recipient of the inaugural Harvard College Women's Center Award for Achievement in Arts and Media for her achievements as an artist, advocate and feminist. She tweeted earlier that day, "Headed to #Harvard to meet the beautiful ladies in the Women's Center. Can't believe I'm the honoree today. Just So thankful". She was also recognized as the 2014 Woman of the Year by the Harvard College Black Men's Forum at their annual Celebration of Black Women gala.
In mid-2014, Monáe had an interview with Fuse where she teased a follow up to The Electric Lady. "I'm working on a new, cool creative project called 'Eephus, she said. "It's a big concept and you're not going to see it coming. It'll just land." Later in 2014, Monáe was featured on Sérgio Mendes' album, Magic. She sings on the track titled "Visions of You".
2015–2017: ''The Eephus'', ''Moonlight'', and ''Hidden Figures''In February 2015, Monáe along with Epic Records and its CEO and chairman L.A. Reid announced that Monáe's independent label Wondaland Arts Society has signed a "landmark joint venture partnership" to revamp the label, now known as Wondaland Records, and to promote the artists on the label. Jem Aswad of Billboard called Monáe a "mini-mogul" because of the deal and revealed that "the partnership will bow in May with a 5-song compilation EP called The Eephus, including tracks from rapper Jidenna , Roman, St. Beauty, Deep Cotton and Monáe herself." With this move, Monáe has become one of the few black women who run their own independent record label in conjunction with a major record label.
In late March 2015, Monáe released the single "Yoga" from the album . The album debuted at number 22 of the Billboard 200 and at number 5 of the top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums with an equivalent album sales of 47,000 units.
In mid-2015 Monáe attended various fashion events including London Fashion Week and the 2015 Met Gala. She began collaborating with Nile Rodgers for a new Chic album and Duran Duran for the album Paper Gods, their first album in over five years, and their single called "Pressure Off".
On August 14, 2015, Monáe, alongside the body of her Atlanta-based Wondaland Arts Society collective, performed her protest song "Hell You Talmbout", that raised awareness of the many black lives that were taken as a result of police brutality, with lyrics such as "Walter Scott, say his name. Jerame Reid, say his name. Philip White, say his name...Eric Garner, say his name. Trayvon Martin, say his name…. Sandra Bland, say her name. Sharondra Singleton, say her name." She also gave a speech about police brutality after her performance on NBC's Today Show, "Yes Lord! God bless America! God bless all the lost lives to police brutality. We want white America to know that we stand tall today. We want black America to know we stand tall today. We will not be silenced…"
By March 15, 2016, First Lady Michelle Obama proclaimed that she had assembled a collaborative track featuring vocals from Monáe, Kelly Clarkson, Zendaya and Missy Elliott, alongside production credit from pop songwriter Diane Warren and Elliott, titled "This Is for My Girls". The iTunes-exclusive record was used to both coincide with Obama's Texan SXSW speech and to promote the First Lady's third-world educational initiative Let Girls Learn.
In October 2016, Monáe made her big screen acting debut in the critically acclaimed film Moonlight, alongside Naomie Harris, André Holland, and Mahershala Ali. Monáe also starred in the film Hidden Figures, alongside actresses Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer; the film was released in December 2016.
2017–present: ''Dirty Computer'' and continued actingWhile filming her two movie roles, Monáe remained active in music with features on Grimes' "Venus Fly" from her Art Angels album and also the soundtrack for the Netflix series The Get Down with a song titled, "Hum Along and Dance ". She was also on the tracks "Isn't This the World" and "Jalapeño" for the Hidden Figures soundtrack.
In an interview with People, Monáe revealed that she was already working on her third studio album when she received the scripts for her two first acting roles; therefore, she put the album on hold. She also revealed in the interview that she would be releasing new music sometime in 2017, although by the end of the year no album or single was announced. On February 16, 2018, Monáe revealed her third studio album, entitled Dirty Computer, through a teaser video released on YouTube. The album was accompanied by a narrative film project, and the teaser video aired nationwide in select theaters prior to screenings of Black Panther. Monáe recently held a series of "top-secret" listening sessions in Los Angeles and New York in support of the album. On February 22, 2018, Monáe released "Make Me Feel" and "Django Jane" as the first two singles from Dirty Computer, both accompanied by their respective music videos and announced that the album would follow on April 27, 2018. She stated in an interview with BBC Radio 1: "Prince was actually working on the album with me before he passed on to another frequency, and helped me come up with some sounds. And I really miss him, you know, it's hard for me to talk about him. But I do miss him, and his spirit will never leave me."
Monáe appeared in the episode "Autofac" of the 2017 anthology series based on the work of Philip K. Dick, Electric Dreams, that premiered on Channel 4 in the UK and on Amazon Video in the US.
On April 27, 2018, Monáe released a sci-fi film companion "emotion picture" to her new record Dirty Computer. The album debuted at the number six of the Billboard 200 with 54,000 equivalent units and on the top ten charts of Canada, United Kingdom and Ireland. It was chosen as the best album of the year by three publications: the Associated Press, New York Times, and NPR. The album received the nomination for Album of the Year at the 61st Annual Grammy Awards. She also contributed to the soundtrack to the dark comedy film Sorry to Bother You, collaborating with The Coup.
On November 15, 2018, it was announced that Monáe would receive the Trailblazer of the Year award at the 2018 Billboard Women in Music event, which was held on December 6, 2018. Also in 2018, Monáe co-starred in the fantasy drama feature film Welcome to Marwen, by filmmaker and screenwriter Robert Zemeckis alongside Steve Carell and Leslie Mann. On January 3, 2019, the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival announced that Monáe will co-headliner the stage with Childish Gambino. Glastonbury Festival also confimed her presence as headlining the West Holts stage of the festival. Four days after the Coachella setlist announcement, Monàe released a new music video for her song "Screwed". She replaced Julia Roberts in the second season of the Amazon Prime Video series, Homecoming, playing "a tenacious woman who finds herself floating in a canoe, with no memory of how she got there or who she is." Also in 2019, she co-starred in the film Harriet, about abolitionist Harriet Tubman. Monáe will return to the big screen twice in 2020, with her first lead role coming in August 2020 with horror film Antebellum, and another supporting role later in the year with biopic The Glorias.
On February 9, 2020, Monáe opened the 92nd Academy Awards with a performance featuring Billy Porter that highlighted the many films nominated as well as films that were snubbed by the Academy, including Dolemite Is My Name and Midsommar.
Musical styles and influencesMonáe possesses a mezzo-soprano voice. The Telegraph published an interview with Monáe, talking about her first studio album, in which the journalist Bernadette McNulty said, "I begin to worry for a moment that Monáe may not just be a humourless science-fiction nerd, but actually an android herself, created in a laboratory as a super-musical cross between James Brown, Judy Garland, André 3000 and Steve Jobs, invented to test the desperate incredulity of music journalists." She also compared Monáe to artists such as Annie Lennox, Lauryn Hill, and Corinne Bailey Rae. Her musical styles have been described as "a soaring orchestral trip enlivened with blockbuster vocals, mysterious imagery and notes of Sixties pop and jazz". The Guardian has noted some of her influences as: Michael Jackson, Janet Jackson, Prince, Outkast, Erykah Badu, James Brown, Grace Jones, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Bernard Herrmann, Funkadelic and the Incredible String Band. Matthew Valnes likens her dancing style in the music video for "Tightrope", to that of James Brown. In an opinion piece for The Quietus, John Calvert places Janelle Monáe within the Afrofuturism movement, pointing out her similarities to Sun Ra and George Clinton. He asserts that Janelle Monáe is innovating the genre. Monáe has stated that she has an alter-ego named Cindi Mayweather who according to Monáe is from the year 2719. In she gave her alter-ego a back-story stating that she was on the run after breaking the law in her home town of Metropolis by falling in love with a human named Anthony Greendown. Monáe explained about Cindi, saying "The Archandroid, Cindi, is the mediator, between the mind and the hand. She's the mediator between the haves and the have-nots, the oppressed and the oppressor. She's like the Archangel in the Bible, and what Neo represents to the Matrix." In her second album, Cindi Mayweather returned to Earth to liberate Metropolitans from the Great Divide, an oppressive oligarchy that used time travel to "suppress freedom and love". Chris Champion of The Observer described Metropolis and The ArchAndroid as "psychedelic soul with a sci-fi twist". Matthew Valnes describes Monáe as innovating a more contemporary Neo-Afrofuturism, where her android role is used as a tool to critique the representation of Black female musicians in the funk genre. Funk music of 1960s through 1980s is a prevalent music style influencing Monáe. On the website for Monáe's Wondaland Arts Society Collective, they assert "We believe there are only three forms of music; good music, bad music, and funk." Monáe has also referred to herself as a "funkstress".
Monáe's roots in Kansas City, Kansas, where she was born and raised, are evident in her lyrics and style. According to Carrie Battan's Pitchfork feature on Monáe, the song "Ghetto Woman" directly addresses Monáe's working-class K.C., Kansas mother – as well as the portrayal of working-class black women in U.S. culture – with the line "Carry on, ghetto woman, even when the news portrays you less than you could be." Monáe also told the London Evening Standard that she has internalized her KCK roots by wearing the working-class uniform of her parents and expressing concern that she cannot let "her community down". On her album The ArchAndroid, especially in songs like "Cold War" or "BabopbyeYa", Monáe relates "the dystopian cityscapes depicted in Metropolis to the boarded-up projects of poverty-wracked Kansas". Kansas City, therefore, represents not only Monáe's physical roots within her hometown, but also serves as an important influence on her lyrics and science-fictional setting.
Public imageMonáe's signature style is her tuxedo wardrobe. She said "I bathe in it, I swim in it, and I could be buried in it. A tux is such a standard uniform, it's so classy and it's a lifestyle I enjoy. The tux keeps me balanced. I look at myself as a canvas. I don't want to cloud myself with too many colors or I'll go crazy. It's an experiment I'm doing. I think I want to be in the Guinness Book of World Records." Monáe's signature look harkens back to dandyism. Citing Grace Jones and Josephine Baker as role models, Monáe takes the classical 18th-century look in the classical white and black pattern. Monáe's signature look can also be attributed to the early days in her career, when she was employed as a maid. She mentioned this in her acceptance speech for the "Young, Gifted, and Black" award at the 2012 Black Girls Rock! ceremony. Monáe has been known to distribute her Ten Droid Commandments which encourages her fans to be individuals. The Telegraph also commented on her image as an artist saying "Sitting in a grey, airless record company office, this slight, stiff young woman delivers her speech in slow, deliberate tones, utterly expressionless. Dressed in her trademark starched shirt and tuxedo, hair immaculately coiffed, Monáe's face is an opaque mask of perfection: all silken smooth skin, button nose and glassy brown eyes." She describes tuxedos as being a uniform for her career and wanting to redefine how women dress. She has been featured in the "Style 100" of InStyle magazine.
Personal lifeDuring a 2011 interview with London Evening Standard, Monáe said that she "only dates androids", a reference to her musical alter-ego found in many of her songs. She also said, "I speak about androids because I think the android represents the new 'other'. You can compare it to being a lesbian or being a gay man or being a black woman... what I want is for people who feel oppressed or feel like the 'other' to connect with the music and to feel like, 'She represents who I am. She added that she would talk about her sexual orientation "in due time". In 2013, Monáe stated that she wants both men and women to "still be attracted to " and expressed support for the LGBTQ community.
Monáe has stated that she identifies with both bisexuality and pansexuality. On January 10, 2020, she tweeted the hashtag #IAmNonbinary, along with a quoted tweet, which trended on Twitter that day. Monáe stated in an interview with The Cut a month after the tweet, that it was made "in support of Non-binary Day and to bring more awareness to the community." She did not explicitly confirm nor deny whether she is non-binary.
- The ArchAndroid
- The Electric Lady
- Dirty Computer
- Metropolis Tour
- The ArchAndroid Tour
- Hooligans in Wondaland Tour
- Campus Consciousness Tour
- Summer Soul Festival
- The Electric Lady Tour
- The Golden Electric Tour
- Dirty Computer Tour
As a supporting act
- No Doubt Summer Tour
- Out My Mind, Just in Time World Tour
- California Dreams Tour
- I'm with You World Tour
Awards and nominations