Women we love: Janelle Monáe – taking centre stage in Harriet Tubman biopic
As well as being one of the world’s most exciting recording artists, Janelle Monáe continues to be recognised for her acting. We’ll soon be seeing her on our screens in Harriet – a biopic of the iconic Harriet Tubman.
“Harriet Tubman is the original Django…” Monáe told Out. “She is an American hero and she deserved to have her story told. I have been waiting on an opportunity to support it, and to be asked to play a character in her story was an honour.”
Cynthia Erivo plays Harriet in the film, which charts Tubman’s life from slavery to freedom. Directed by Kasi Lemmons, the film also stars Leslie Odom Jr, Vanessa Bell Calloway, and Omar J. Dorsey. Monáe plays Marie Buchanon – a black woman born free who teaches Tubman how to arm herself on her journey to free other enslaved people. The character is an amalgamation of some of the people from that period who helped those trying to escape slavery.
“I felt like this was the right time to tell the Harriet Tubman story, even though I wish it would’ve happened decades ago…” Monáe told Out. “We need her and we need a reminder in the context of our history and American history and what happened and where we are now.”
“I wanted people to feel with this movie and with my character in particular, to just understand what we, as women, as allies of each other, have to go through to protect each other…” Monáe told Out. “And I feel like this is just so on time because you’re seeing a lot in the news. You’re seeing how we are on social media, even having to protect each other and not just as women, but as human beings.”
“We’re still dealing with patriarchy…” Monáe told Out. “We’re still dealing with white supremacy. We’re still dealing with white nationalists, and new ways of silencing us, and new ways of making us feel like our voices don’t deserve to be heard because we could, should continue to remain the minority in the majority. And I think that what this film does is it just reminds us how not long ago this happened. It’s like a constant reminder also about how far have we really come.”
“I love rebellious art…” Monáe told Out. “I love radical art and I think I’m just going to get even more radical. It just makes me want to keep pushing those stories to honour more folks in the LGBTQ community, honour black women, honour those voices that I get to talk to off-screen all the time. And the stories that I get to hear, but I don’t see them represented and I know we’re out there. But I’m really interested in radical art and art that maybe not a lot of people get it or love it but I feel it and I love it and I feel like it will resonate with the hearts and minds of the spirits that are absolutely supposed to resonate with and celebrate.”
Harriet will be released in the UK on 22 November
Who is Janelle Monáe?
The Kansas-born Atlanta-based triple-threat that is Janelle Monáe first hit our radars in 2010, as a pompadour-sporting, tap-dancing, androgynous belter.
Monáe could sing, she could dance and she could rap. She rocked an aesthetic that merged vintage Broadway heart with afro-futurist rebel vision. She wore a tuxedo-like ‘uniform’ to honour her working class lineage – her mother was a janitor, her father a refuse collector. She showed Prince-levels of ambition with her sound – a sound that is a cinematic, genre-defying opera of funk, soul, R&B, art-rock, doo-wop, and classical.
Two brilliantly inventive and deeply queer concept albums followed – The ArchAndroid in 2010, and Electric Lady in 2013. Both albums were released via Monáe’s own label, Wondaland, and centred on an alter-ego protagonist, Cindi Mayweather, a time-travelling cyborg loved by women and men alike, sent from the future to liberate the oppressed. Through Cindi, Monáe revealed an artist of vision and intent, an artist committed to centring the Other in her work.
That commitment transferred to the silver screen when Monáe moved into film, earning critical acclaim for her debut roles in Moonlight (2016) and Hidden Figures (2016) – films that re-framed hidden black experiences. Music, it seemed, was on the back burner.
Then, in February 2018, we were treated to not one but two new songs and videos, the first offerings from her album Dirty Computer.
What do people think of Janelle Monáe?
Django Jane, with its fierce, staccato “black girl magic”, was instantly quote-worthy. The influence of her late mentor, Prince, is immediately apparent on Make Me Feel, with its wild funk and bisexual lighting.
“I’m a little intense about how much I love them. It’s intimidating my friends, and particularly my partner…” says Toby, 25, from London. “I have about thirty stills from both videos saved to my phone for whenever I feel tired. I barely listen to anything else.”
Toby has been a fan since first sight, when he saw the televised performance of her 2010 Glastonbury set. It included this “totally unhinged” performance of Come Alive.
“The first videos I saw of hers were Tightrope and Many Moons, on the same day. I was completely hooked, instantly…” he says. “I spent ages pausing them and analysing them. The combination of this magical realism, Philip K Dick type sci-fi, afro-futurism – which I only read about because of her – then the themes of slavery, sex trade, liberation and sexism, it just totally blew my mind.”
Rachel, 36, from London, had a similarly immediate reaction.
“All I remember is seeing the video for Tightrope. I watched it pretty much on repeat for a week…” she says. “That was it for me. I was fairly freshly out of a long-term relationship, and in a pretty intense and challenging phase of my career when I first saw the video. I couldn’t get the song out of my head. The idea of walking that line, keeping your balance and holding onto yourself and who you are in the midst of all the shit all really spoke to me. Plus, how incredibly hot and strong she looked in a suit!”
As Toby points out, that now-iconic uniform was frequently misread by the straight mainstream.
“You know the line in Django Jane where she says ‘runnin out of space in my damn bandwagon, remember when they used to say I looked too mannish?’?” asks Toby. “It made me, like, dry sob – because I do!”
“I remember being so angry in those early years that people kept denying her womanhood…” continues Toby. “People acted confused because she had short hair – even when I was experimenting with my own gender by presenting in a similar style. These white reviewers kept going on and on about how ‘ambiguous’ she looked. I felt she was very clearly asserting herself as a woman. It obviously wouldn’t make her any less beautiful to be non-binary. I felt like they wanted to call her a man because they didn’t want to admit that beautiful women of colour could dress that way – for themselves.”
While Monáe’s aesthetic is undoubtedly part of her appeal, her lyrics are equally noteworthy.
“Q.U.E.E.N still makes me cry sometimes…” says Toby. “That line she says twice: ‘Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am.’ God, I needed to hear that so badly. I kept saying it and saying it and touching my lips like I’d just been kissed very softly when I first heard it.”
Also part of Monáe’s appeal is her openly politicised stance around gender, race and feminism. She’s been a powerful and vocal supporter of the Black Lives Matter movement in recent years.
“Her face should be on money and stamps…” believes Rachel. “I love that she’s out there, creating and fighting for change, and being part of it. She’s really come into her power. I can’t wait to see what she does with.”
“Her music gives me a lot of strength and a lot of sensitivity…” says Toby. “I’m very proud and inspired by myself when I listen to her music. She makes me a better feminist, more sensitive about kinds of racism I don’t experience. I learn a lot. I get emotional because of some of the things she’s saying and that’s good. Men should cry about this stuff.”
What does Janelle Monáe say about her sexuality?
Over a year since she talked publicly about identifying as pansexual, Monáe has told In Style that some of her family members have not accepted her sexuality.
During the interview, Monáe spoke about being a queer black woman in America and how she initially identified as bisexual, having been in relationships with both men and women but then discovered pansexuality.
While she’s received a lot of support for her decision to come out from fans and friends, Monáe has revealed that not all of her family have been as understanding, but she doesn’t hold it against them.
“The majority of my family grew up Baptist, and the sermons would all be around how if you are a homosexual or if you’re gay and you don’t repent and live a hetero-normative life and get married, then hell is your final destination…” Monáe explained to In Style.
“I talked to my mom and dad first, and my mom, in particular, had a lot of questions…” continued Monáe. “I said – Mama, the only way that I can create art is to truthfully tell my story. It has to come from an honest place, and this is who I honestly am. I don’t know any other way. I have to talk about my sexuality. I have to talk about my blackness. I have to talk about my womanness. I have to talk about these things. This is who I am as a person.”