Janelle Monáe (1985 – ) Singer, Songwriter, Actress, Model, Rapper & Producer

“I feel like Harriet Tubman, except I am trying to free people through underground music, to free themselves creatively and inspirationally” a profound declaration made by the singer, songwriter, Covergirl Model,  and self-proclaimed Arch Android, Janelle Monáe.  She is the CEO of her own music label, in which her music garnered her eight Grammy Award nominations.  In addition, her film career has catapulted into ultra success, having landed major roles in four Oscar-nominated movies, to include Moonlight (2016) which won 3 Oscars and Hidden Figures (2016).  As an artist, she has un-sheepishly used her platform to highlight social issue such as police brutality.

Born Janelle Monáe Robinson, on Decemeber 1, 1985 to working class parents in Kansas City, Kansas.  Her mother, Janet, worked as a janitor and a hotel housekeeper.  Her father, Michael Robinson Summers,  worked as a truck driver. Janelle’s parents separated when she was a toddler.  However, her mother later re-married and gave birth to her younger sister, Kimmy.

Janelle was raised in a thriving community within Kansas City called Quindaro, a town enriched in historical roots. It was established by Native Americans on the lands of the Wyandot Tribe, which was forced to move to Kansas Territory in 1844 on the heel of the Trail of Tears.  The land was sold to abolitionists just prior to the Civil War, and became a refuge for black Americans escaping slavery via the Underground Railroad. After the Civil War, Quindaro evolved into a strong African American community, laying the foundation that would build and support one of America’s first all-black colleges and medical centers, such as Western University and Douglas Hospital.

Janelle’s family lineage is rooted in relentless matriarchy.  Her maternal grandmother owned several homes in a row that housed cousins, aunts, and uncles.  “My grandmother had 11 children and although we didn’t have a whole lot of money, what we did have was a lot of love. My grandmother was the matriarch. If you didn’t have a place to stay, if you needed food, if you were just coming out of jail or rehab, you went to her. Watching her in our family and our wider community was what inspired me and still does,” a statement from the Grammy-nominated singer.

Janelle was also very close to her paternal great-grandmother and spent a significant amount of time at her house.  Her great-grandmother was the main connection to her dad and his family, as he went in and out of prison.  Janelle’s relationship with her father was rocky until he became sober.

Her family members were musicians and performers.  At a very early age, Janelle had dreamed of being a singer and a performer.  She was bought up in the Baptist Church where her talent was reared and nurtured.   Her church would host talent shows for Juneteenth, where she covered “The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill” three years in a row and won each time. There was a time when she was escorted out of church for insisting on singing Michael Jackson’s “Beat It” in the middle of the service.  Yet, this incident did not deter her from her religious devotions or attendance.

As a teenager, she was enrolled in a young playwrights’ program, the Coterie Theater’s Young Playwrights’ Round Table, where she began writing musicals. One musical that she composed was inspired by  Stevie Wonder’s album Journey Through “The Secret Life of Plants”.  She achieved this around the age of 12.

She attended F. L. Schlagle High School.  Shortly after graduation, she moved to New York City to study musical theater at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy.  She was the only black woman in her class.  Although she had an enjoyable experience, she feared that she might lose her edge and “sound, or look or feel like anybody else,” according to the androgynous performer. 

After a year and a half, Janelle dropped out of the academy and relocated to Atlanta, enrolling in Perimeter College at Georgia State University. She began writing her own music and performing around the campus. In 2003, she self-released a demo album titled The Audition, which she sold out of the trunk of her car.

It was during this period Janelle became acquainted with songwriters and producers Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder. The three would eventually form the Wondaland Arts Society.

While juggling her musical ambitions, she worked at Office Depot and was eventually fired for using one of the company’s computers to respond to a fan’s e-mail.  That specific incident inspired the song “Lettin’ Go”  which caught the attention of Big Boi, a member of the Atlanta-based, hip-hop group Outkast.  Janelle was a feature on Outkast’s album Idlewild.  This opportunity led to her meeting Sean Combs and being signed to Bad Boy Record Label in 2006.

The rest is “virtual” history.  Her music, acting, and modeling careers have skyrocketed and she has become a popular mainstream entertainer. She currently resides in  Atlanta, where she enjoys practicing yoga and making music.

 

Quotes:

“Black history is part of American history, and it should be treated as such.”

“I will not be a slave to my image, nor will I be a slave to anyone else’s interpretations of me,”

“I love the mystery behind things.”

“I feel like Harriet Tubman, except I am trying to free people through underground music, to free themselves creatively and inspirationally.”

“I’m a believer that the more I’m giving, the happier I am, and the more beautiful my exterior will be.”

“I always think about the next generation and creating a different blueprint for them. That’s my goal: to let them know there’s another way.”

“Perfection is the enemy of greatness”

“Don’t get high off praises, and don’t get too low on critiques.”

“You are only as beautiful as the many beautiful things you do for others without expectation.”

“Even if it makes others comfortable, I will LOVE who I am”

“I take goldenseal, Echinacea and cod liver oil when flying to boost my immune system.”

 

Awards & Nominations:

 Grammy Awards
Year Nominee / work Award Result
2009 “Many Moons” Best Urban/Alternative Performance Nominated
2011 The ArchAndroid Best Contemporary R&B Album Nominated
“Tightrope” Best Urban/Alternative Performance Nominated
2013
Some Nights[10] Album of the Year (as a featured artist) Nominated
“We Are Young” Record of the Year Nominated
Best Pop Duo/Group Performance Nominated
2019 Dirty Computer Album of the Year Nominated
“Pynk” Best Music Video Nominated

 MTV Video Music Awards
Year Nominee / work Award Result
2010 “Tightrope” Best Choreography Nominated
2012 “We Are Young” (with Fun) Best Pop Video Nominated
2013 “Q.U.E.E.N.” Best Art Direction Won
2018 “Pynk” Best Video with a Message Nominated
“Make Me Feel” Best Art Direction Nominated
Best Editing Nominated

  NAACP Image Awards
Year Nominee / work Award Result
2014 Janelle Monáe Outstanding Female Artist Nominated
“Q.U.E.E.N.” Outstanding Music Video Won
Outstanding Song Nominated
The Electric Lady Outstanding Album Nominated
2019 Janelle Monáe Outstanding Female Artist Nominated
Dirty Computer Outstanding Album Nominated

  Screen Actors Guild Awards
Year Nominee / work Award Result
2017 Hidden Figures Outstanding Performance by a Cast in a Motion Picture Won
Moonlight Nominated

Sources:

Rolling Stone: https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-features/janelle-monae-frees-herself-629204/

IMDB: https://www.imdb.com/name/nm1847117/bio?ref_=nm_sa_1

Wikipedia: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Janelle_Mon%C3%A1e

Black Doctor: https://blackdoctor.org/janelle-monae-yoga-and-family/#:~:text=I%20live%20in%20Atlanta.,the%20music%20video%2C%20as%20well.

Kansas City Public Library: https://civilwaronthewesternborder.org/encyclopedia/quindaro-kansas

Black Past: https://www.blackpast.org/african-american-history/quindaro-kansas-territory-1857-1862/

 

ReCreate Model: Chelsea “Ollie” Tyson

ReCreate Photographer: Jasmine Y. Mallory