We’re not in Kansas City anymore. Truth be told, Janelle Monáe couldn’t be happier that the yellow brick road got her out of there. Unlike the idyllic, tranquil farm setting Dorothy loved, Monae’s Midwest was as far a cry from a fairytale as you could imagine.
“I grew up in an environment, to be politically correct, that was a little disadvantaged,” says Monáe, who sang and danced in grade school. “There were not a lot of resources at my disposal. Drugs really took over my family. We lost a lot of things, a lot of material things—as well as a lot of time. My parents lost a lot of time to certain drugs. I grew up around all those things. Music was my escapism. I knew music could take me out of Kansas, and it did.”
And look at where it led her—the dirty, often-unforgiving land of label execs and first-week sales. (You thought witches and flying monkeys were scary?) Yet when you hear Monáe share her thoughts on the industry’s ups and downs, bitterness never rears its head. In fact, the only things in her voice more apparent than genuine talent are a belief in a higher power and a generally optimistic take on life.
“Well, I’m really not in control of when people are ready to hear something or ready to be exposed to something this different,” begins Monáe, when asked how the masses will receive her 22nd century rock/soul mesh Metropolis Suite, a fascinating concept EP about a time-jumping robot named Cindi Mayweather coming in June. “I just feel like it’s that time. I feel like 2008 is a time—you can see it in politics and I think you’ll see it in music—for different voices to be heard and more diverse things to be promoted.”
Next stop, Wondaland
Monáe’s movement is one some thought might have happened sooner. Tied for a time to rapper Big Boi’s Purple Ribbon imprint, the former music theater student with Andre 3000’s spunk, Tina Turner’s energy and George Lucas’ imagination actually generated a mild buzz. An album never materialized, though. Instead, Janelle got with some like-minded free spirits and started the ambitious label Wondaland Arts Society. She adds: “We’ve been able to, as a company and a team of creative artists, stay true to our innovative ideas and challenge ourselves and remember it’s up to us to inspire and influence as many people as we come in contact with.”
But who exactly are the people that’ll appreciate a charismatic artist who gets up and doesn’t stop tapping her saddle shoes and clapping her hands ’til the set’s over? “That’s a good question,” Monáe, who recently signed to Sean “Diddy” Combs’ Bad Boy Records and will release a full-length debut this fall, says. “It’s one I don’t think I can answer really. Every time someone says—and I do it myself—this person isn’t gonna be really into what we’re doing or isn’t going to like the way I dance on stage, I get proven wrong. I have fans from 78-year-old white, Jewish men to nine-year-old little girls whose fathers are executives at record labels. It’s very broad.”
One group she’d like to see more of is the teenage black female set. With pervasive images of scantily clad music-video dancers African American girls don’t have a lot of positive direction in pop culture. Janelle Monáe aims to change that, one unbelievably vibrant number at a time. A humble upbringing “motivated me to ensure that I was being a strong leader. For me, there are so many young girls that were just headed for self-destruction. I always knew I had to do something slightly different to show them that we don’t all have to take the same routes to become successful.”