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Janelle Monáe Talks Coming Out: 'Nobody Tells Me What To Do'

Janelle Monáe looking beautiful in a black and white outfit

It's been four long years since the release of Janelle Monáe's career-defining album Dirty Computer and at last, the queer icon is now working on new music. 

In a new interview with the LGBTQ&A podcast, she opened up about being in a "celebratory space" and says that's being reflected in her music.

"I'm being super present, I'm laughing more, I'm partying with my friends more, I'm really more relaxed as an artist and so I think that my music is probably going to be, without giving too much away, less heady and less about fighting against opposition." 

Monáe, who came out as pansexual in 2018 and last month shared with the public that she's nonbinary, also said that when it comes to sharing details about her identity, "nobody tells me what to do."

"I mean, I knew that this was the time for me," she said. "I'd already talked to the necessary folks and I was at peace...I'm still a super private person. I have no interest in releasing who I'm dating or not dating, that's not important. But what I did feel was important that that representation of what it meant to live in your truth, regardless of friends or family supporting it, regardless of people having opinions, it was really more so for me."

You can listen to the full LGBTQ&A interview on Apple Podcasts and read excerpts below.

Jeffrey Masters: Your new book, The Memory Librarian, is set in the future, but this is not a future where queerness or gender nonconformity are broadly accepted. If you had to give a prediction, is that the future where you think we are most likely heading, a place where these still are issues?

Janelle Monáe: I think that in every generation if we look throughout history and if we study history, it informs our future. And I think that whenever you try to oppress marginalized groups, there's always going to be rebellion. There's always going to be an uprising. We're not going to sit back and just allow our freedom to be snatched out of our hands and I think that's what this project is about. It's about us prevailing in the face of this totalitarian society.

This book, The Memory Librarian was grown from the soils of my album, Dirty Computer, and my "Emotion Picture" short film, Dirty Computer. One of the main points that's super important is about the threat of censorship, memory censorship. Because as we know, memories are essentially our stories that we tell ourselves to survive.

I was pleasantly surprised by the number of queer love stories in the book. The first sex scene is between two women and one of them is trans. Why was that an important choice that you wanted to make?

When Alaya Dawn Johnson and I collaborated on this story together, we wanted to just normalize what it means to be trans, what it means to be in love, what it means to live in this world where it's not a big deal to the person that loves this person.

I'm a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. It's super normal for me to have trans women as my friends, to be attracted to and this love story is just about love. This is our community. It's not a big deal, but I think that when Alaya Dawn Johnson and I had worked on the story, we just thought, 'Wow, when do you really get an opportunity to just see people existing for being themselves?'

The memory librarian is a role that a person has and you write, “We lived in a nation that asked us to forget in order to find wholeness, but memory of who we’ve been — of who we’ve been punished for being — was always the only map into tomorrow.” Do you view yourself as a memory librarian?

I'm a storyteller. I grew up writing short stories, sci-fi short stories. I grew up obviously writing music and being involved as an actor and telling stories. So I think that my job is to be a fly on the wall. I have a front-row seat to history. I have a front-row seat to what the future could look like. And I do, as an artist, have the potential to shape what the future could look like through my storytelling. So I understand the power of that. Just like people I admired and looked up to from Octavia Butler to Stevie Wonder to David Bowie, to Isaac Asimov, storytelling is what can determine our future and what keeps our history from being erased. We have to keep reminding people of things that have happened and keep reminding people of where we can go, the potential that we have.

You also write songs and sing about these topics. How do you navigate that line of making a statement, but also not making it overly didactic?

Balance in all things. It's just like when you're cooking food, if you put too much salt in it, it's going to be too salty. If you put too much pepper in it, it's going to burn your mouth. You just have to say, 'Okay, where can I cut back?' And that's when each artist basically is giving you a balance of what they feel like is the perfect amount of strings on an album or a perfect amount of runs or ad-libs. For me, as it pertains to just storytelling, I always try to make sure that there's beauty, there's hope, there's context, that there's context of even no matter how bad it was, you need to know where we came from and it depends on the songs.

Some songs I have are just not heavy at all. It's meant for you to dance, to make love, to fuck, to have a good time, to embrace your sensuality, to party with your friends, all of it is important. I think that in the same way that I can protest against something, I should be able to love hard and be seen as somebody who lived life celebrating and enjoying the moments that were right in front of me.

One of the things that I try and do is go back as I start to work on a new project, whether it's music specifically, I'm like, 'What haven't I done? What's new?' I never want to repeat. It's not exciting to try to recreate a song that you feel like people might like. I've done that before and it's usually my worst work. And so what I'm doing now is being super objective and creating from a space of just not having anything to prove. I think when you first come out—I'll speak for myself—I felt like I had a lot to prove and a lot of internal pressure. And now I'm in a celebratory space this year.

I'm being super present. I'm laughing more, I'm partying with my friends more, I'm really more relaxed as an artist and so I think that my music is probably going to be, without giving too much away, less heady and less about fighting against opposition. In terms of what I want to listen to when I'm out with friends, I want to be able to curate that a little better than I have in the past.

On your 2013 album Electric Lady, you had a song called "Sally Ride," who was the first woman from the U.S. to go to space and she was also a lesbian who only came out in her obituary. 

You released that song before you came out publicly and at the time, I remember thinking, 'Oh no, is Janelle Monae going to use that as an example and also wait that long?' 

Well, I just want to just say Sally Ride is an icon and who knows if she wanted to even come out in her obituary, who knows what those behind-the-scenes conversations are. So who am I to say, we to say, that she came out in her obituary. People have the right to not talk about their sexuality.

For me, I knew that I needed to have the necessary conversations with my family, with my friends before I did something like that publicly and sometimes that takes time. Sometimes you don't want to be finding out or healing with the world before you've worked it through with your partners or just your family. I think because I'm such a public figure, I was finding out things about myself after I had become famous.

Did you then feel rushed by the public to declare sexuality?

No. Nobody tells me what to do. I mean, I knew that this was the time for me. I'd already talked to the necessary folks and I was at peace. I knew what I wanted to say. I'm still a super private person. I have no interest in releasing who I'm dating or not dating, that's not important. But what I did feel was important that that representation of what it meant to live in your truth, regardless of friends or family supporting it, regardless of people having opinions, it was really more so for me, it was like, I need to say this out loud. I need to say this. This is therapy for me. This was a cathartic experience and I know that I'm not the only one. So that album represented community. Like myself, if their own upbringing or their church didn't take them in, then I would, we would. This is our church. This is our community. This is where we can feel safe.

It sounds like you were still figuring it out and having those necessary conversations up until that point, or am I getting that wrong? 

No, no, no, no. I mean the thing is, I don't actually feel like 2019 was my...like, I've had songs like "Q.U.E.E.N." where I just didn't make it a big thing. You know what I'm saying? Meaning, like when I came out with "Q.U.E.E.N." it was always in my lyrics from my first album. I just didn't feel a need to go do an interview. But I knew when I was releasing Dirty Computer, I was like, 'Oh, this is so much honesty in this project that I'm going to have to just figure out on the front end, what I want to talk about and what I don't.'

And I just felt more comfortable with diving deeper into what it meant to be queer, what it meant to also have community that you wanted to feel seen and be heard. So there was a lot of vulnerability. It wasn't easy because I'm a super private person, but if you look back, if you look at my first album, my second album, I always talked about my attraction to whatever I'm attracted to. I've always done it. I think this though, this project was more declarative.

I will say, in Electric Lady, one of the love interests you sing about is a person named Mary.

Is that in "Q.U.E.E.N.?" Probably in "Q.U.E.E.N.," yeah.

In "Q.U.E.E.N." but also towards the end of the "Sally Ride" song. I didn't automatically clock that as queerness because you grew up Baptist and I thought it could have been referring to the Virgin Mary. 

Oh wow. That's deep. Oh, me and the Virgin Mary, that's kind of sexy. I'm into it.

When you did come out, Merriam-Webster dictionary said that "pansexual" was the most searched word of the day. And then Google came out and said that in the top five searches for the day three of them were "pansexual," "pansexual definition," and "Janelle Monáe." Were those searches and numbers things you'd heard?

I did. Yeah, it was trending for a while. I even had people calling me like, 'What is a pansexual? Okay, I think I might be pansexual.' The conversations that we were having, even people thinking that I literally slept with pans and pots in my kitchen. I was like, what kind of...oh my goodness. But it was great that people were learning.

That is powerful, that kind of effect. Did that change how you thought about your position and the power you can wield?

I didn't put a lot of pressure on myself because I know with...we're still living, we're growing and once I find out new things about myself and discover what I'm into, what I'm not, I have the power to say what that is or not say what that is. So I don't even put pressure when it comes to my personal identity and how I identify. I think that it's different for each person and one should not feel pressured to declare anything or not to declare anything. 

Looking at your trajectory, your first EP came out in 2007. Did you think it would've been an option in your career to be out at that time?

In 2007, I think I was still discovering a lot about myself during that time. I think like any person, you have phases where you're just still, you're discovering who you are, you're coming into your own. And I think that for me, I always, wherever I am in my life, it's going to seep through in my music and it's going to inform the things I want to talk about or not talk about.

Did coming out change your music in your eyes or your writing process?

Yeah, I think so. Yeah. But I like to say coming in. I invited graciously people to a part of my life and who I was. I didn't need to be accepted. I didn't need to feel supported even. I was already good with that and I invited everybody in to where I was at that time.

Just with growth, you just feel more free. I think that people can look back and be like, 'Oh.' From when I first started doing this to now, most people are just like, they don't care what they say at this point. They're just like, 'I'm so good with not trying to fit in or be loved by the outside world. I'm so good with my friends and my family and who I am that none of that matters.'

Before I let you go, do you have a timeline for when people will be able to hear the new music you mentioned? 

In my heart, according to my soul clock.

Does that mean not in 2022?

I said, according to my soul clock. My soul could say, 'Ah, we are ready.' Who knows?

But I'm in such a good space. It's going to be fun. I'm excited.

Click here to listen to the full interview on LGBTQ&A. 

LGBTQ&A is The Advocate's weekly interview podcast hosted by Jeffrey Masters. Past guests include Pete Buttigieg, Laverne Cox, Brandi Carlile, Billie Jean King, and Roxane Gay. New episodes come out every Tuesday.

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