The Electric Lady: Janelle Monae

Don’t be fooled by her petite frame. Even at 5’0″, Janelle Monae is a powerhouse. JET chatted with the eclectic songstress during a visit to Chicago for her “The Electric Lady” listening party.

Her sophomore album, which features collaborations with Erykah Badu, Miguel and Prince, is slated for release on Sept. 10. During the listening party, she got down with her fans–literally. She ordered everyone to take off their shoes and really feel the music, often joining the crowd in dancing, vogueing and, yes, the electric slide.

JET: Congratulations on your VMA for “Best Art Direction,” how exciting! What was it like working with Erykah Badu?

Janelle Moane: It was incredible. She’s a great friend of mine. She was actually one of the first female artists to reach out and want to take me on tour with her. So I spent many nights opening up for her and we really formed this sisterhood and bond and we’ve always been advocates for uplifting and empowering our community and also fighting against the marginalization of women and social norms and all those things and we wanted to create “Q.U.E.E.N.,” which was inspired by our private conversations.

We wanted to create it for the community of those who are often marginalized and discriminated against and give the underdog something to feel empowered by. So to have her in the video and for us to win the award together, just really shows female empowerment and it shows the camaraderie that two strong women can have and what can come from it.

JET: I know you have quite a few collaborations on EL coming up, so do you have a favorite one or one that really means a lot to you?

JM: Each collaboration is very special, deeply special to me. All the artists were handpicked, so Erykah Badu having her on Q.U.E.E.N. represented something very special, important, unique and necessary in terms of getting out what it was that I wanted to say to the community and the perspective that I wanted to speak from.

Me and Miguel have a song called “Primetime” together and it’s about love and making time for love and fighting for love and going after it in the midst of our busy schedules or what we have that we go through daily sometimes, so that was important. Love is important.

So “Q.U.E.E.N.” to be socially aware and to want to empower the community. Love is extremely important, it’s the most precious thing that we can possess and give to each other. Solange Knowles is on the album, the title track, “Electric Lady” and that is empowering for Electric Ladies and just having a great time being in control of who we are and what we want to say and do.

Esperanza Spalding is on “Dorothy Dandridge Eyes.” It’s just paying homage to historic women of the past and of the future and making sure that we continue to show female admiration, I think it’s so important for people to see that.

And last, but not least, I got a chance to work with Prince, so this song I can’t talk too much about because I want you to really hear it. It was so special and so necessary. It’s just like rock and roll at its finest, so that’s a side of me I wanted to make sure that we explored and who other than Prince? I’m just humbled. You know, he doesn’t collaborate often–let alone allow others to produce him. So to have the opportunity to produce him and have him be part of the project, I’m still pinching myself in disbelief.

JET: Going back to as you mentioned “The Electric Lady,” the title song and also the name of the album, what was the inspiration for the name?

JM: The title was inspired by my paintings. I’d paint and sing at the same time. When I was on tour last year and the year before, I was painting and singing in front of thousands of people. So I would paint this female silhouette night after night and I didn’t quite understand why I was so drawn to this image, this silhouette.

I ended up going off tour and going to Atlanta, Georgia and speaking to my therapist and she encouraged me. She said you should name the painting, name this series. You have all these hundreds of these paintings, name it. Do a showing of it. And so I started to try to come up with these names and I was having a hard time.

I knew that whoever she was, she didn’t want to be marginalized. You could not put her in a fence or categorize her. She was so much bigger than that, you know. I just felt an energy, a very visceral feeling of energy from her, so the words came to my spirit: The Electric Lady…because that’s what it felt like when I looked at her and thought of the colors and the vibrant colors and how it made me feel. There was electricity. It was electric and she was electric.

And that made me think about a world where there were more electric ladies who transcended size and color and these were just women…a new breed of woman, a new 21st-century woman. And it made me think, what does The Electric Lady think about love? What doe she think about politics, sexuality, religion, community and that helped me write my entire album.

JET: It’s very interesting that you mentioned painting because one of your readers asked if you weren’t a singer, what would you be doing?

JM: I think I’d be an artist. I think I was born this way. It’s in my DNA to create art, so I would still be creating, whether it’d be as a teacher at an art school or a visual artist.

JET: How does “The Electric Lady” compare to your previous work?

JM: I never go into creating with the mindset to recreate my previous work. I’d just gotten off tour with Prince and Stevie Wonder and I was feeling very eclectic. It’s still conceptual. It’s a prequel to Cindi’s [Mayweather, her alter-ego] story, before becoming the ArchAndroid.

There are more collaborations and I had the opportunity to produce more. I worked with a full orchestra, so there’s live instrumentation. If you’re a music lover, you’re going to love this album. Other artists are making beats. We’re making music. I definitely wanted to create one of the most musical albums of the year.

JET: Another one of our readers wants to know, what was the last album you bought?

JM: I bought a John Coletrane album. I love listening to jazz when I’m waking up.

JET: How do you feel about being a role model?

JM: I think the title should be given by the kids themselves. I’m not pretentious, but I’m aware of the influence I have. As a Cover Girl, I knew I needed to show what it’s like to be comfortable in your own skin so others can be, too, and embrace what makes you different.

The only pressure I feel is pressure I put on myself. It’s about being a service to young girls and having people learn from your mistakes. I’m not perfect. But it can have an enormous effect to use a platform like Cover Girl. There needs to be less talk and more leading by example.

JET: Is there anything else you’d like to add, or you’d like our readers to know about you?

JM: If you’re an aspiring artist, write down things you want to stay try to and, if you have to, do it yourself. Be unafraid to fail. I want to create one million more electric ladies. There’s no shape, size or hair cut. Be aware of your superpowers.