“The table ‘bout to turn,” Janelle Monáe decrees in her recent anthem “Turntables.” The video features Monáe clad in ‘40s neo-military garb while archival images of civil rights battles converge with modern-day Black Lives Matter protests, illuminating the through-line from the past to the present. History repeats, but in “Turntables,” Monáe declares, “We kicking out the old regime.”
At a time when so many artists were sidelined, Monáe’s timely projects kept coming. In May, she starred in the acclaimed second season of Homecoming as a queer military veteran caught up in a sinister deal between big pharma and the U.S. government. The modern horror Antebellum (released in September) starred Monáe as an empowerment author terrorized by America’s continued refusal to reckon with its roots in white supremacy. She also appeared as the legendary activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes in The Glorias.
But it was in early February, just before 2020 went sideways, when Monáe set a mood.
“I’m so proud to stand here as a Black queer artist telling stories,” Monáe said on the Academy Awards’ stage. She was in the middle of singing “Come Alive,” from 2010’s The ArchAndroid when she made the declaration. She’d already captivated the audience when she entered, donning a cardigan reminiscent of Fred Rogers and singing the theme song from his beloved kids’ show, before launching into a meteoric rendition of Elton John’s “I’m Still Standing” with Pose’s Billy Porter.
The five-minute-plus performance was a masterclass in artistry and empathy. She shouted out to Black History Month, the queer community, and women directors the Academy voters snubbed. But as Monáe tells Out, “I don’t think I did anything super unique.”
“[There are] so many people who have graced stages, who are out protesting and who are fighting to have their voices heard. I just happened to have a mic,” Monáe says. “To get on that stage and do anything other than that, would not have felt right to my spirit.”
While the pandemic pressed pause, Monáe’s finely-crafted, perfectly-timed, culturally-essential projects kept the world turning. “We are in the middle of watching tables turn, boomerangs booming back, and the rooster coming home to roost,” she says. “White supremacy and racism, and those who abuse their power, we’re seeing the people tearing it down...to see something new. ‘Turntables’ is just adding energy to the movement. There’s a lot of fatigue emotionally around protesting, around going online and asking people to vote, or asking people to sign a petition. There’s fatigue that happens, but we’re not giving up.”
To fight that fatigue, Monáe would like the narrative about Black experiences to include more joy. She’s ready for stories that have yet to be told.
“My hope is that we can continue to showcase the spectrum of storytelling around Black voices and around Black human beings, stories that humanize us. We can go beyond trauma, showing how powerful we are as Black people to persevere through trauma. I’m ready to see us in the past, the present, the future truly experiencing joy on screen and what it means to just exist.”
While Monáe proclaimed her identity as a “Black queer artist” on the Oscars’ stage earlier this year, she first gave an interview about her identity in 2018.
“I knew because of my art, I would have to talk about these things,” she says. “So that put more pressure on me. The most important thing was me having conversations with my family. It was important that my family be reintroduced, not to the little girl they grew up knowing that they called ‘pumpkin’ or they knew was into this or into that, but they knew who I was today — that they knew that I was a free-ass motherfucker.”
Still, not all subjects are up for public scrutiny. “I don’t talk about who I’m dating. That’s not anybody’s business,” she says. “There are certain things that I feel artists, human beings should not feel pressured to talk about.”
That notion of respecting a person’s public and private life extends to others, and Monáe would like to see us moving away from a focus on public announcements of personal truths. “[Something] I identify with more than ever is the concept of coming in — and people coming into your life — and not coming out. I think there’s so much pressure put on people that can’t afford to announce to the world that, ‘I am queer’ or ‘I’m gay.’”
Monáe hopes that when people “talk about their sexuality and being queer, being gay, or being who they are, they can talk about it, not out of fear, but out of love and celebration for who they are. If people look at me as that beacon of hope, that’s great, but I always tell people don’t feel any pressure to be me. Take your time.”
Janelle Monáe is one of four cover stories for 2020's Out100 issue, which is comprised of 100 of the most influential LGBTQ+ names in music, fashion, culture, advocacy, and more. More covers will be revealed as the week goes on. The full list will be released Thursday, November 19, 2020 and the issue is out on newsstands on December 1, 2020. The first-ever Out100 Virtual Honoree Induction Ceremony will be Saturday, November 21, 2020 at 8 p.m. EST. You can watch live on the Out100 Live landing page.
Photography by Danielle Levitt | Styled by Sean Knight | Hair: Vernon Francois at The Visionaries Agency | Makeup: Jessica Smalls at The Wall Group | Prop stylist: Carl Hopgood at Celestine Agency | Nails: Sreynin Peng | Production: The Pull Inc
Clothing: Earrings by Alison Lou | Coat by Helmut Lang | Hat by Stetson | Shoes by Kenneth Cole