The multi-hyphenate artist’s Red Bull Music Academy lecture offers tips for creating art with a vision
Janelle Monáe has been building universes for over a decade. The multi-hyphenate artist creates vivid, extended length visuals – what she calls “emotion pictures” – for her bold, forward-facing musical projects to exist in. In the past, she’s drawn on everything from Afrofuturism to German expressionism in her music videos, outfits, and album covers, while this year’s stellar album Dirty Computer uses a similarly high concept framework to explore ideas that are more personal in nature.
How she created these visuals is something that the singer, songwriter, producer, performer, actress, and Wondaland label head expanded on during a recent hour-long lecture for Red Bull Music Academy. The conversation was moderated by Christine Kakaire at the beautiful Delphi theatre in Berlin, an appropriate venue choice for Monáe – the Delphi is a former silent movie theatre, the sort of place that might have once played films like Fritz Lang’s masterpiece Metropolis, a major inspiration on Monáe’s own Metropolis: Suite I and The ArchAndroid releases.
While the lecture touched on everything from her roles acting in Moonlight and Hidden Figures to how she uses dance to fight the patriarchy, there were also plenty of lessons for new artists on how to create art with a vision. “I knew I wanted to become an independent artist,” Monáe said. “I knew that I wanted to contribute something unique to the music industry. I knew that I didn’t want to come and just create music that was just based off being famous. I had some shit I wanted to say.”
MAKE SURE YOUR VISUAL IDENTITY STANDS FOR SOMETHING
One of the reasons that Monáe’s looks are always so striking is that they don’t just look cool – the music, visuals, and outfits all express something more meaningful. In the video for this year’s “PYNK”, for example, Monáe wears a pair of trousers that the press (us included) was quick to call “pussy pants” – but as Monáe explained, developing this distinctive imagery was a long process, and one that started with the story of Dirty Computer itself.
“(Dirty Computer) takes place in this place called the House of the New Dawn, where they’re abducting dirty computers and they’re cleansing them, they’re stripping away their identity,” Monáe explained. On Dirty Computer, Monáe plays Jane 57821, and each of the album/emotion picture’s music videos are dreams of Jane fighting back as her memories are being deleted. “You know, ‘Django Jane’ – that’s her,” Monáe said. “PYNK” is deliberately placed alongside songs like “Make Me Feel” and “Django Jane” as a part of the album that celebrates “what it means to be a dirty computer”. “You have those songs that are really meant to empower Dirty Computer’s women,” she said. “It’s just being very unapologetic.”
The pussy pants, then, are part of this celebration – but Monáe also added that there was a lot of thought that went into the women in the video who weren’t wearing them. “I don’t believe that women... have to have a vagina to be a woman,” she said. “That’s why we had some women in there who did not have the pants on, because we wanted to make sure that it was being as inclusive as possible, while coming from a very personal place for me.”
KEEP YOURSELF GROUNDED
Monáe sat on-stage wearing a black and white striped suit, which she described as her “uniform”. It looked great, obviously, but as she explained during a discussion of her working class upbringing in Wyandot County, Kansas, there’s also a deeper meaning behind her choice of outfit. “My mom was a janitor, my biological father was a trash man, and my step-dad worked at the post office,” Monáe said. “I grew up watching them work their asses off wearing uniforms every day. I still wear my black and white to pay respect to them.”
In Monáe’s case, this uniform is a way for her to stay grounded. “Growing up understanding what it meant to work with the folks who were cleaning up the community and making nothing out of something has given me perspective,” she said. “When I walk into a venue that I’ve sold out, if it’s 8,000 seats, I’m speaking to every janitor. I’m speaking to every person who comes into my hotel room... I’m not above you.” Although Monáe’s life experiences are unique to herself, the lesson here is universal – don’t let success get to your head.
ALLOW YOUR ART TO EVOLVE, BUT DON’T FORCE IT
Monáe always seems to have a crystal clear vision for how she wants to present her music, but that doesn’t mean her ideas don’t change as she grows. On Dirty Computer, she used conceptual framing devices for her music and visuals that will have been familiar to anyone who followed her previous work, but she adapted it to explore something more personal. “With this project, it was important for me to embrace all of me,” she explained. “I told myself that this time around, I wanted to explore, publicly, all the many sides of me (that) some people privately get… It was freeing for me to tap into the dimensions that I have, that we have as women, as human beings.”
“I think that I’m evolving,” she added. “It’s important that I don’t become a slave to my own interpretations of who I am or what the public thinks about me. It’s important to not pigeonhole myself, to not get comfortable... but to make sure that I’m constantly creating art, and I’m experimenting and I’m unafraid to make art that folks may not understand at that time. It’s important as an artist that you’re stretching those muscles.” Still, it’s also vital that any sort of creative evolution is natural, not forced. “My favourite artists have always moved to their soul clock, moved when they felt the need to move, talked about certain things when they felt the need to talk about them,” Monáe said. “All of that was just me saying, ‘Hey, this is where I am at the time. This is important that you understand that I’m not a monolith. I have depth.’”
OWN YOUR IDEAS
For all of Monáe’s high concept ideas, she fundamentally understands that it’s her name on the album sleeve at the end of the day, and that any judgement will feel like it falls on you. “When you put out an album, it’s you,” she says. “Everything you say, every guitar riff, every lyric, every piece of the album, artwork, it’s all under your name. It’s under you, and these are your thoughts. People assume this is your story… I write and I collaborate as well, but it’s always this feeling of like, ‘Oh, I’m gonna be judged…’”
With this in mind, it’s important that you have confidence and belief in your own ideas. “If you’re not ready when it’s time to release the album – if you haven’t said like, ‘Hey, this is where I am’ – you really got to have a talk with yourself before you release a project, because it’ll seem more personal when critics makes comments,” Monáe said. “But it’s also exciting. It’s very exciting to be able to go out and do something bold. To say, ‘Yeah, I said it. I’m here. Let’s do this. We’re doing this. This is where I am, and I want to contribute. Come with me.’”
LEARN FROM THE PAST, BUT DON’T COPY IT
It’s important to find innovators throughout history that inspire you – not to imitate what they did, but to understand why they did it like that in the first place, and to create something new out of it. In Monáe’s case, one of those artists is Prince. The late musical icon influenced not just her musical and visual identity, but also the Wondaland Arts Society collective, which subscribes to similar ideals as Paisley Park. “Without Prince, without Paisley Park… I don’t think we would even know how far we could push art, and what we could do with music and with ideas,” Monáe said. “He was thinking outside the box for a very, very long time, and he was executing at an extremely high level.”
Before his death in 2016, Prince mentored Monáe, and during the lecture she talked about one of the important lessons she learned from him. “Prince was a giver,” she said. “He was a giver of his time to new and upcoming artists. When I first came out he was like, ‘I’m here for you. Whatever you need in your career..’ That’s what I feel most inspired by – that he didn’t allow his mystery to get in the way of his mentorship.” Monáe explains that she takes these guiding lessons she learned from Prince (as well lessons from other artists, like OutKast’s Big Boi) and applies that to her own mentorship of Wondaland’s artists.
DON’T BE AFRAID TO MAKE IT UP AS YOU GO ALONG
“I have my next 12 albums lined up,” Monáe confidently said towards the end of the lecture. “I know exactly what I’m going to say, everything is going to be just fine.” Then, she laughed. “No, I don’t know what the fuck I’m doing. I’m trying to make decisions as I go, just like everybody else. But I know I’m excited about it. I know that I want to continue to connect in this way.”
It’s fine to just work your creative ideas out along the way – the main thing is to just make sure you have a purpose in your art. “Those of us who have felt marginalised or ostracised because of where you come from, who you love, what class you’re from, I pray that when they watch Dirty Computer and they listen to Dirty Computer, that they feel seen, they feel heard, they feel accepted, they feel valued. And, they feel celebrated to be their free-ass motherfucking selves.”