Janelle Monae Funks Fiction
When you talk to an artist, sometimes you get the feeling that they are an alien, whether it be in space or time, simply another being. This perceptual phenomenon can go in multiple directions. The otherness pushes you away from it as the experiencer, distancing you from the alien, but the artist occasionally touches down to communicate, and you realize that they speak the same language – that of art within society.
Image courtesy of boldaslove.us
This past Friday I had the opportunity to interview Janelle Monae, the headliner of Clark’s fall concert. She speaks the conscious language of art with an alluring balance between massive pop and subtle, humble contemplation. A child born a marriage of James Brown and Andy Warhol, she is industry product with tasteful integrity.
SW: Can you tell me a little bit about your history, your family and where you’re from?
JM: I’m from Kansas City, Kansas, Wyandotte County. I come from a very hard working class family – a family that loves and cares about me – and was supportive of my dreams of being an artist from day one. I think that it’s because of their love that I am where I am today. I’ve learned the importance of staying connected to the people. My parents are very family-oriented, working class people, used to turning nothing into something, which inspired me to become an independent artist and own my own recording label.
SW: This group you started, which I understand is called the Wondaland Arts Society, what was your vision in it’s creation as a family as artists?
JM: I’ve wanted to have a family, a very strong support team that was organic. We genuinely love each other and support one another’s talents. It ranges from artists, producers, screenwriters, graphic novelists, actors… We just love the gift that god has blessed us with. We want it to help us form a collective. The next generation or people in our own generation could be inspired to create their own blueprint to how you spread a message to the world. We create a world where the imagination rules. We believe strongly that big ideas will take the world far.
SW: What do you interpret to be art’s role within a city, particularly its more disadvantaged neighborhoods? What opportunity does art offer to the individual?
JM: Something I plan to do as soon as the timing is right, is to build a performing arts school in my neighborhood, which is one of the poorest parts of Kansas City. I think that there are so many talented young people who need an outlet. They need different options other than working at the grocery store, which I think is fine and I used to do so, contributing to my household financially when I was a young person. I respect that and I admire people who take that responsibility, young and old. I could have easily gone the wrong way had I not been in performing arts school. I think it gives a chance to the kids who are in a disadvantaged environment. Just because you’re in that environment doesn’t mean you have to be of it. The talents that you know you have, you can spend time honing them versus selling drugs or doing activities that won’t benefit you in the long term. I think that it’s extremely important to give kids a choice.
SW: In your own art you identify as an android who is called Cindi Mayweather. Can you tell me about who she is and Metropolis, the place she is from?
JM: Cindi Mayweather is the uniter, she is an android, and I believe that androids represent a form of the “other.” A new form of the “other.” The rapid speed of technology and the progression of computers being able to map out the brain of a human. The future prominence of artificial intelligence is important to bringing up this subject of how we as humans, different species and genders all get along in the world when we have androids functioning. Will we oppress them, or try to enslave them, repeat history? The android parallels how the minority and a majority have been looked at. However, in all that chaos that could happen, or unity, there has to be a mediator, something has to bring is together. That’s what Cindi represents for metropolis. She is the uniter, the mediator between the mind and hand. She is very similar to Neo from The Matrix and the Arch Angel from the Bible. She has really been created to bring us together. That also parallels to my music and who I am as an artist. I have always wanted to bring people together. I love looking out into the audience when I’m performing, and seeing a very diverse crowd. The music we have created is bringing people together, and is a common language, the best grammatical rule.
SW: How does this personal mythology, that of Cindi Mayweather and the Metropolis, translate during your
JM: It translates into me discovering that I’m not just one thing, I’m not just a monolithic being. We’re heavily and always evolving, if we’re willing. As an artist I’m evolving. I love concept albums. Some of my favorite artists, from Stevie Wonder to David Bowie, have all created incredible concept albums, so I create an experience on stage that showcases the emotion picture, the ArchAndroid that we have created at the Wondaland Arts Society. It is very organic, and it’s one where the music brings us together. Cindi would not even be here if I had not created music.
SW: Can you explain your aesthetic choice in the uniform you wear? The tuxedo bares so much class and grace. How does this fit in to you as a public performer?
JM: It doesn’t try to fit in at all. That’s the thing about fashion and something you do. I don’t think it’s appropriate to talk about, but when I am in the tuxedo I feel very empowered. I feel like I can go anywhere in it and just be ahead of style. It’s transcendent, it’s very classy, you can time travel in it with no problem. It’s definitely one with me, almost like part of my DNA.
SW: After you finish this tour, what can we expect to see out of you on your next album, which is Suite IV in your concept?
JM: I’m working on music as we speak. I’m really excited about this album. Over the last couple of years since I released The ArchAndroid, I’ve become a much more evolved artist. The concept will be very strong. I think we will definitely reach a broader audience in a very organic way. We’re still into very big ideas, so we don’t plan on disbanding any of the formulas we used to create the Archandroid and Metropolis, but we do have a responsibility to creating a new formula as well. This will be for the people and will empower them, I’m praying and hoping that it will. Right now my album is unfinished, but it is already my favorite thing to listen to continue to listen to every day.
SW: Thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak with you. I really enjoy the fact that you’re a conceptual artist and so successful at it. You have a beautiful concept going on.
JM: Thank you. And, let the people know that when they come, or if they shall come, I am very confident that they will have an experience with me and the ArchOrchestra, which is the members that created the entire ArchAndroid. The experience will be something they will never forget. This is not just a concert or an artist just playing songs, this is an experience, it’s an emotion picture.
The emotional picture she presents is undeniably intriguing. On Monday, October 3rd, 2011, when she ascends to the stage of Atwood Hall, Clark University, she will bring her complex fiction to an audience of attentive college students. Within the context of campus shows, a certain profundity develops relating the performer to the values and vision of the institution. In the case of the pending Janelle Monae performance, I see a deep conflict in both the artist and the recipient institution.
The political tide Clark rides towards a more conservative and commercial philosophy parallels the beautiful moving voice of Janelle Monae. Year after year, students vote for the artists to come to perform, and we find ourselves at a difficult point of dialogue in her arrival, one of convergence.
Like all artists, she is subject to pop, history, and all that is the entertainment industry, but her artistic advocacy is an omnipotent voice against the concept of industry. The politics of the institution will always be of the utmost importance to its subjects, and I believe artistic choices to be the most indicative of politics; when the necessities are attended to, we then get to bring and make art. As Janelle descends upon Clark University, will she bring us the expensive symbol of the pop artist, that which is popularity as an industry, or will she refresh our memories as Clarkies, the liberal minded troubadours of change?