For those who were thus far unfamiliar with crafty singer Janelle Monae before her performance at the 53rd Annual Grammy Awards, their introduction was likened to a sonic explosion. With an instrument-playing assist from label mates Bruno Mars and B.O.B., Monae energetically and emphatically belted her Billboard Top 20 hit “Cold War”; a rousing performance which brought the entire audience to their feet with a thunderous standing ovation.
Yet the Kanas City-born, Atlanta resident is out to achieve far more than rounds of applause, or even the fleet of positive critical reception received for her Wondaland Arts Society/Bad Boy/Atlantic Records debut album The ArchAndroid (Suites II and III). While Janelle Monae’s talent may continue to jolt spectators to their feet, she is concerned they know exactly what she stands for.
Soul Train: Janelle you’ve been in the music industry for some time now. You’ve been critically acclaimed and also criticized. What advice would you give to inspire a new artist coming into the industry?
Janelle Monae: My advice to other aspiring artists is to embrace your uniqueness. Find what it is about you that sets you apart from everyone else – and go with that! What that does is help so many other artists bring out their own uniqueness. It keeps the diversity in the music industry alive. We’re not all alike, and I don’t know why we all feel we need to be alike.
Soul Train: In your opinion what is the biggest repercussion of this behavior?
Janelle Monae: It makes it harder for artists trying to get into the music industry because they feel they have to fit this certain model to be successful. That’s a lie! It’s been done before. If everybody said I’m going to be myself and I’m going to bring out what’s special about me, I think we’d be a lot better. We’d accept each other for who we are, and we’d support each other’s music – not because it sounds the same, but because it’s different and we’re trying to promote diversity.
Soul Train: What tools are missing to fix these artist-related diversity issues throughout the recording industry?
Janelle Monae: Right now I see there’s not enough leaders. That may have to do with who the artists surround themselves with; someone telling them “In order to be successful you need to do this. To be successful in the music industry, this is what works.”
Soul Train:You appear to be doing well by not doing this.
Janelle Monae: I live by the saying, “People don’t know what they want to hear until they hear it.” Nobody would have been able to ask Michael Jackson to do the moonwalk, or ask Andre 3000 to do “Hey Ya”. But after it happened people fell in love with it. I don’t think enough artists are taking risks, musically. They’re either scared or somebody is telling them this is what you need to do.
Soul Train: There are a lot of similarities in popular music today. Do think the music industry is losing its creative balance?
Janelle Monae: There is no balance of people actually saying what they believe in, and what’s true and what’s false. It would be nice if more artists would choose to talk about some social issues. People don’t want to hear nonsense all the time – that includes killing and shooting, or how much money you have. We all know what makes us cringe and say, “Why are they talking about this right now?” Nobody cares. There’s so much to talk about.
Soul Train: What’s something you think artists should discuss more through their music?
Janelle Monae: There is a struggle I think every artist has dealt with. I wish they’d talk more about their struggles than just things that are not meaningful or helpful to the next person. I really wish more females would choose to talk about things that matter.
Soul Train: So you have entirely different desire for women in the recording industry?
Janelle Monae: My thing is I just wish as women, female recording artists, we would stand up for what we believe in. Stand up for our core values; the things we were taught by other powerful and strong women. I think if we all stood up and said we’re not trying to sell sex, we’re trying to be the voice for the next generation, and do something positive or inspiring or creative instead of sexy, I think we could go so much further in life. I’m not trying to knock any other artist; to each his own. Hopefully I can be a light for somebody else who may define success in another way. They’ll see they don’t have to talk about sex or talk about things that are not worth talking about to be successful. Once they see that in another artist, that’ll inspire them to get away from whoever is telling them to go this route in the music industry.
Soul Train: Who was the most unique and inspirational person to touch your life?
Janelle Monae: I look up to people like Coretta Scott King, I look up to people like Oprah Winfrey, I look up to people who started giving back before they even had. You can be famous all you want to, but what do you do with your fame? What are you trying to do to help other people? I can’t get down with people who have a lot of fame but keep it to themselves, or are not trying to give back to their community. I look up to people who give back to their community.
Soul Train: Even though you’re a good singer and performer, it’s not simply about those things for you. It’s about giving?
Janelle Monae: That’s what I’m about. I’m using the gift and talent God has given me and blessed me with, and using it to give back. I know I’ve gotten a lot of exposure, and I want to use it, use my voice and all the energy I have in music to help other people. I want to help communities, the people from my background. The people who have not but desire to have more, I want to be that light for them. I get inspired by situations, and get compelled to write a lot of music when I go to these environments where people are struggling. And they’re taking out all their stress and frustrations on each other! I want to encourage them to use their gifts and their talents, and to be passionate about something positive. There are a lot of people I look up to who set trends, but I really look up to people who are giving back and are trying to help out their communities.
Soul Train: There appears to be a number of people looking up to you thanks to your Wondaland Arts Society organization. What is your goal with that?
Janelle Monae: If you’re not surrounded by people who are smarter than you or constantly pushing you to be the best you, then you’re around people who are pulling you down or keeping you at the same level. It’s really about growth as a person before growth as an artist. If you’re around persons who want you to grow and be the best you can be, then I think you’re in good hands. I surround myself with dreamers – people who think big. All the people I hang around are trying to change the world. That’s our goal.
Soul Train: What is the ultimate gift you could give back to your community?
Janelle Monae: I want to build a performing arts school in Kansas. We didn’t have that. When I was coming up I did all the musicals in high school. I was Cinderella, I did a lot of theater, but I did that because there was so much chaos going on around me that I had to create my own little world that I felt comfortable in. I had to really dig into the arts. The arts are really what kept me from going the wrong way, steering myself in the wrong direction. I feel like right now what’s going on in these little towns is these people get bored and start getting into drugs and all types of things. But I feel like if I could give a performing arts school, and could build one in my home town, I feel like these kids won’t be acting out. They’d get into whatever gifts and talents they have and just focus on that. They’ll dream like me.
Soul Train: You were a big dreamer back when you were performing in high school?
Janelle Monae: I was a big dreamer, and it was because of the arts that I dreamt. I knew there was a bigger picture for me, and it landed me in Atlanta. All because of me performing in high school and doing talent shows across Kansas, now I’m here! Now I have a deal. Now I’m able to be the voice, and be put in a position to give back to them. With this performing arts school they’ll have something to look forward to everyday. It’ll help them to leave their stress or whatever they’re going through, and come and feel safe on stage – singing, acting, and digging into the theater and the world of art. Everybody wants something to look forward to, so…that would be cool.
Soul Train: I’ve heard your style and the way you dress be described as cool. What does it mean to you to be cool?
Janelle Monae: It’s not what type of clothes you have on; to be considered cool to me is someone who reads a lot, who yearns to be smarter, and wants to help their community out. Artists are going around making songs talking about things people would kill for. They want to kill people when they don’t have money, or want to get the latest shoes or bag or whatever. They want to steal and do bad thing because they think that’s cool to have all these materialistic items. By me letting them know it’s more to life than clothes or being famous, I feel like I’ve done my job.
Soul Train: Janelle, aside from recording music that garners critical acclaim and giving performances that receive standing ovations; simply put, what are you trying to do with the attention you’re getting throughout the recording industry?
Janelle Monae: I’m trying to lead by example. That’s all.
Visit Janelle Monae online at www.jmonae.com and follow her on Twitter @janellemonae. Learn more about the Wondaland Arts Foundation at www.wondalandarts.com. Listen to “Cold War” the song that rocked the Grammy Awards.
– Mr. Joe Walker
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Mr. Joe Walker is an acclaimed journalist published over 2,000 times in more than 30 different regional, national, international and online entertainment and news publications. He’s likely writing something as you’re reading this. While also Editor In Chief/Creative Director of The Ultimate Interactive Magazine (TheUIM.com), he contributes to Hear/Say Now, Muskegon Tribune, Kalamazoo Gazette, and SoulTrain.com. Follow him on Twitter @mrjoewalker.