Artist Spotlight: Janelle

Janelle Monae is my favourite artist. Not because I love her voice, style, attitude or music which I do (reminder: I never claimed she was my favourite singer). As such, my inaugural Artist Spotlight belongs to her. This one is not a profile, plug or attempt to convert you. I’m just going to try to show her to you as I see her: f*#king brilliant.

(Valentines day is as good a time as any to drop an artistic love letter)

I should start by saying that Janelle’s discography has garnered mixed feelings from me: I won’t claim to always like everything she puts out. I’m not sure I can remember which metropolis suite did what But: she’s always had something to say and even if I didn’t like the way she chose to say it, I would always want to listen. She has a single-mindedness concerning her craft that I find moving. Say what you want about Janelle, she’s got VISION.

Another in her position would leverage her considerable good looks or status as Big Boi, Diddy AND Prince’s longtime mentee (simultaneously) to propel her towards fame and fortune. Not Janelle. Instead she embarked on a 11 year (15, if you count her self released debut album) 7-part Metropolis series centered around Cindi Mayweather, the archandroid from the year 2719. A character not only created for public consumption but for her own artistic purposes (representing “the other”) album after album. She wears what she likes (Tightrope music video (for control)), first considering her own body as a distraction from her message until she decided the opposite and proceeded unperturbed with the new normal. She experiments as she sees fit and doesn’t apologise, charts be damned. She’s inspiring, intoxicating and plays the game only if and when she feels it absolutely necessary and even then, on her terms.

I spent the better part of the first evening I saw the Yoga music video refreshing. It was jarring seeing her outside of her carefully crafted black and white suits, strange hearing her music take such a turn and refreshing. Refreshing watching her announce her liberation from boxes: both those that she’d built and everybody else’s. Then I asked myself: where is Cindi? To which the reply was: Janelle is literally announcing herself as a boss. The CEO to be exact.

The girl has pulled a Jay Z and owns herself. As the CEO of Wondaland Records, her collection of creatives blows my mind: St Beauty, Deep Cotton, Jidenna, Roman (all featured on The Eephus EP, but we’ll get there). There seem to be no rules over there: no rigid image, no clear power structure, a genuine cameraderie, a kinship and a nourishing atmosphere that might see me risking it all and leaving my (only sometimes stable) government job to commune in their… Erm, commune (if they were ever to invite me). They crafted Jidenna’s classic man suits in house. There are rooms just meant to facilitate conversation; instruments strewn about everywhere, inviting impromptu jam sessions and books on culture, history and probably People magazines because why the hell not? It would seem pretentious or high-minded if weren’t so damn earnest. If there wasn’t a sincerity underpinning it all. The clear message being that they serve the art first above all, a surprisingly rare take in the middle of a cash cow. Given their leadership I’m unsurprised. They are lead by a A 1.5m sci-fi, funk and blues loving force nerd from Kansas City: Janelle: A Revolution Of Love BTS.

What do all Janelle Monae videos have in common? Every single flesh and blood woman (maybe less so the robots and androids) looks like they want to be there. They’re having FUN. My takeaway from Yoga (and there were many, including but not limited to: “How can a man look so clean yet so dirty?” ) was how every woman there looked so comfortable. I wanted to be there. And she stays using her platform to elevate other women: as far back as Electric Lady she was paying respect to those who came before and spotlighting those newcomers (plugging Esperanza Spalding pre-Gramny winning album right next to a heavyweight) often simultaneously. Assigning them equal importance. Erykah Badu gets a literal interlude in the middle of her song Q. U. E. E. N to be herself in all of her Badoula-ness instead of fulfilling the custom [insert featured artist here] role. Janelle is magical guys. I Stan an underrated genius.

Now that I’m done wishing she were my boss and gushing, I’ll bring it back to the music; reminding you that, not only was Yoga an anthem (for me at least) it was also a SINGLE. And no, not from a long overdue album but from The Eephus: an EP showcasing her Wondaland artists. No new album in sight. No hurry to supply the demand. No rushing the process. Then, ignoring the Album Demand frenzy that inevitably follows after dropping the first new single in years, she blue-ticked all us of by taking another 2 years and deciding to act. Your girl was in two Best Picture Academy Award nominated films (one of which WON) in the same year .

Then the Queen of the long game, the concept album curator of our time, finally dropped her Emotion Picture/Album: Dirty Computer and blew my mind (and the internet for that matter). This coincided with her coming out as a queer woman (Rolling Stone Interview). Apart from the wonderfuI Tessa Mae Thompson Twitter Investigation of 2017/18, I wasn’t really following but did it matter? Probably more than I know. As always I admire the way she did it: on her terms, in her own sweet time and, most powerfully: In. Her. Art. Need I remind you that this is the same woman who’s stock answer to questions about her sexuality replied: “I date androids”.

I watch THE Dirty Computer Emotion Picture whenever I’m sad or uninspired, when working on something or am moved and it has always done me wonders. I watched it while I was creating this very blog, needing to know that I could be a creative publicly and be OK whether I was embraced or not. I needed to be reminded that if I serviced the art, I’d always be free. That experimentation and natural expression feed each despite appearing opposites. Wind and flame. Whether money followed or not, art will bloom and blaze all the same. When I needed permission to be myself, Janelle was there. She’d always been there and I’m so glad she exists.

The album is literally stunning. By crafting the visual accompaniment she gives us a walking tour through her vision. My question isn’t whether she’ll win a Grammy this year given that she now has a career total of 8 nominations but rather what took them so long? As a Stan, I rest my case having thoroughly proven that a) I would follow her into an (artistic) storm and b) that we should all be asking ourselves: What on earth (or beyond) did we do to deserve her?

Editors note: at the time of publishing, the Grammy awards have happened and our favourite genius went home empty handed having absolutely killed during her performance. Let us shed a tear or 3 for her archetypal ‘Not Recognised While Alive’ brand of genius.


2018 Rolling Stone interview: Janelle Monae frees herself

Yoga music video

Tightrope music video (for control)

THE Dirty Computer Emotion Picture

Her Iconic Essence: Black Girls Rock Speech

Janelle: A Revolution Of Love BTS

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