Janelle Monáe explores masculine and feminine energies on 'The Age of Pleasure'
TONYA MOSLEY, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. To celebrate the July 4 holiday, we're reaching into our archives for an interview Terry Gross recorded with singer, songwriter and actor Janelle Monae. Her music is an eclectic and unique blend of Afrofuturist funk, soul and hip-hop, filled with sci-fi and gender-bending imagery. In recent years, Monae has been more public about her own gender identity, coming out as nonbinary and choosing the pronouns they/them as well as she/her. She's also established herself as an actor, co-starring in the film "Hidden Figures," which was nominated for an Oscar in 2017, and in the film that won best picture that year, "Moonlight." Last year, she co-starred in the popular Netflix film "The Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery." Last month, Monae released her fourth album, "The Age Of Pleasure." Before we hear our interview with Monae, rock critic Ken Tucker has a review of her latest album.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RUSH")
JANELLE MONAE: (Singing) I look into your eyes, and I get that rush, maybe 'cause tonight you're going to be my crush. I look around, and I get that rush, maybe cause tonight you're going to be my - oh. Skin to skin...
KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: From the moment Janelle Monae began her new album by rapping, I'm feeling much lighter, I float, I was drawn in by this completely disarming collection called "The Age Of Pleasure." No matter what mood you're in, it dissolves any resistance you may have about giving in to its joy, its seductiveness, its glowing positivity.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PAID IN PLEASURE")
MONAE: (Singing) I want my love made to your measure. I want to feel how you fit around me. I don't need money or treasure. Spend your quality time on me. Spend it all on me, all on me, all on me, all on me. Spend it all on me, all on me, all on me, all on me. Baby, if you pay me in pleasure, I'ma keep it coming forever. Baby, if you pay me in pleasure, I'ma keep it coming, coming, come, come, coming. Pleasure, pleasure, pleasure, pleasure. Yeah, baby, pay me in pleasure, pleasure, pleasure, pleasure.
TUCKER: Monae's previous album, the grandly ambitious "Dirty Computer," came out in 2018, the same year as the first "Black Panther" movie, and filled with a similar kind of Afrofuturism. Monae's version crossed the science fiction of Octavia Butler with the pop eclecticism of Stevie Wonder. In contrast to this, "The Age Of Pleasure" is intentionally smaller-scaled, more intimate, in some ways more low-key and low-fi. Listen to the use of an acoustic piano on this song called "Only Have Eyes 42." It's as though Thelonious Monk walked in to plink out a couple of chords to provide the song with its hook.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY HAVE EYES 42")
MONAE: (Singing) I like to love with my eyes closed. I try not to lead with my ego. Everything happened in slo-mo. But we all smiled and said, it's all right 'cause you're the one. You're the one. Double the fun. Triple the time for love. You're the one. You're the one. You suck the words from my tongue. That's when I knew I only (I only), I only (I only), I only have eyes for two. (I only have eyes for two). I only (I only), I only (I only), I only have eyes for two.
TUCKER: The undulating rhythm of that song is typical of the range of sounds and styles Monae uses with such serene confidence. She taps into genres native to Africa and the Caribbean, as well as American R&B. Listen to the way she deploys a punchy Afrobeat horn section to jumpstart the song "Know Better."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KNOW BETTER")
MONAE: (Singing) You met your match, and there ain't no better. I know you tried hard, but there's no better. Nobody love you like me, and you know better. Nobody do it like me, and you know better. You try the fast wine, but the slow better. I know you fast wine, but the slow better. Na, na, na, na. Na, na, na, na.
TUCKER: As the title "The Age Of Pleasure" suggests, the songs here describe the life of a sybarite engaged in the pursuit of sensual happiness. That sounds simple, but it's not. Monae knows that as a nonbinary person of color, the seeking of pleasure is always complicated or even impeded by cultural and political history. Thus, this album serves as a kind of affirmative aggression, an insistence that the artist is going to live and make her art exactly as she pleases. You can come along, but don't get in her way.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LIPSTICK LOVER")
MONAE: (Singing) Lipstick lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover, lover. My lipstick lover, lover, lover. I like lipstick on my neck. It let me know I'm your No. 1 select. I like lipstick on my neck. Hands around my waist so you know what's coming next. I want to feel your lips on mine. I just want to feel...
TUCKER: At one point, Janelle Monae name-checks David Bowie, and I suspect she may be thinking of his "Let's Dance" period, that moment in the 1980s when he teamed up with producer Nile Rodgers to say, in effect, the world is going crazy, so let's dance. Monae is refashioning that sentiment to fit our current moment. She's made a party record that takes pleasure seriously.
MOSLEY: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed Janelle Monae's album, "The Age Of Pleasure." The first time Terry interviewed Janelle Monae was in 2009 after Monae's first studio album, "Metropolis: The Chase Suite," was released. The music is eclectic, influenced by hip-hop with multiple sci-fi references. It's also very theatrical, which makes sense because Monae's original ambition was to be on Broadway. Several of the songs on this album were about a fictional character, an android named Cindi Mayweather, who lives in the year 2719. This track is called "Violet Stars, Happy Hunting!!!"
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "VIOLET STARS, HAPPY HUNTING!!!")
MONAE: (Singing) I'm an alien from outer space (outer space). I'm a cyber girl without a face, heart or a mind (I'm a product of the metal, I'm a product of metal, I'm a product of the man). See, see, see, see, see. I'm a slave girl without a race (without a race), on the run 'cause they're here to erase and chase out my kind. They've come to destroy me. They've come to destroy me. And I think to myself, impossibly, wait, it's impossible. They're gunning for me (that they're gunning for you), and now the Army's after you (and now they're after you) for loving too. And all the sirens go doo, doo. Sirens go doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, roo, roo, roo, roo, roo, roo, roo. Oh, baby, oh, you know the rules. I love you, and I won't take no for an answer.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: That's my guest, Janelle Monae, from her new album, "Metropolis." Janelle Monae, welcome to FRESH AIR. I really like your music. Now, what we're hearing is a very theatrical production, and it's all about a character. You have this whole, like, cyborg fantasy. You have this whole futuristic fantasy that's enacted on your album, and in your videos, you were in costumes. And, I mean, it's theater. And in fact, your idea was to be in theater. You wanted to be in Broadway musicals. And before ending up in Atlanta, where you live now, you went to New York after high school to study music there and hope to get onto Broadway. Why did - why was Broadway your first ambition?
MONAE: Well, I've always loved, you know, music and theater, so the first thing was to combine those two. But in high school, I was heavily involved in musical theater productions, and it was a time where I felt most free, on stage. I really did have lots of ideas in my own mind. I had lots of musical theater ideas myself, and I wanted to connect with other people who I thought were similar to me. There are times when I'd just be in Walgreen's or the doctor's office or somewhere, you know, normal, in a natural environment, and I'd just break out into song and come up with characters and go home and write about it. And so I wanted to meet others like myself so I didn't feel so odd or weird. I wanted to interpret art and music the way that I saw it in my own mind.
GROSS: Now, I want to play another track from your new CD, "Metropolis."
GROSS: And this is called "Sincerely, Jane." And this isn't about being in outer space. This is about being in the inner city, where there's problems with crack and gangbanging. And is there a story behind writing this song?
MONAE: Well, it was a letter written to me from my mother. I had left, you know, Kansas. I grew up in Wyandotte County, one of the poorest counties in Kansas. And, you know, at an early age, I was exposed to those, you know, around me who had gone to really dark places in their lives because of drugs. One of the lines that I've written - are we really living or just walking dead? And that's just a question that I've asked myself and I've challenged people in my life to ask themselves, too, 'cause there's a big difference, of course.
You know, a song can change your life. And I was - I've always hoped that whoever listened to that tune, they were able to really self-evaluate and figure out a way to live. And so, yeah, the lyrics are pretty self-explanatory, but they come from a true experience and a place that my mom, you know, told me to just stay away, you know, 'cause this is what's going on in your neighborhood. So...
GROSS: One more thing before we hear "Sincerely, Jane" - the arrangement on this is fantastic. There's, like, French horns and timpani.
GROSS: Can you talk about the arrangement and why you wanted something this big behind you?
MONAE: Sure. Well, I've always had a deep admiration for the orchestra, and I visit here in Atlanta, as often as I possibly can, the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra. You know, we've been a huge supporter, too, of "James Bond" and Shirley Bassey. She's one of my favorite vocalists. And what we wanted to do - we wanted to make the French horn cry because, you know, the letter was so touching. And I wanted people, when they listen to it, to actually hear those French horns crying and those strings, you know, pleading, you know? And with my voice, I wanted it to touch the corners of their heart.
GROSS: OK. Well, let's hear it. This is "Sincerely, Jane" from Janelle Monae's new CD, "Metropolis."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINCERELY, JANE")
MONAE: (Singing) Left the city. My mama, she said, don't come back home. These kids around killing each other, they lost they minds. They gone. They quitting school, making babies and can barely read. Some gone off to their fall. Lord have mercy on them. One, two, three, four. Your cousins is round here selling dope while they daddy, your uncle, is walking round strung out. Babies with babies - and they tears keep burning while their dreams go down the drain now, while their dreams go down the drain now.
Are we really living or just walking dead now? Are we walking dead now? Or dreaming of a hope riding the wings of angels? The way we live, the way we die, what a tragedy. I'm so terrified. Daydreamers, please wake up. We can't sleep no more.
Love don't make no sense. Ask your neighbor. The winds of change, it seems that they've abandoned us. The truth hurts, and so does yesterday. What good is love if it burns bright and explodes in flames? I thought every living thing had love.
But are we really living or just walking dead now? Are we walking dead now? Or dreaming of a hope riding the wings of angels? The way we live, the way we die, what a tragedy. I'm so terrified. Daydreamers, please wake up. We can't sleep no more.
I've seen them shooting up funerals in they Sunday clothes, yeah, and spending money on spinners but won't pay college loans, yeah. And all you gangers and bangers rolling dice and taking lives in the smoky dark, Lord have mercy on them, yeah. Teacher, Teacher, please reach those girls in them videos. Live your life. The little girl's just broke, and queens confusing bling for soul. Danger - there's danger when you take off your clothes. All your dreams go down the drain, girl.
GROSS: That's Janelle Monae from her new CD, "Metropolis." So how did you actually get out from your neighborhood in Kansas City to study in New York? Did you get a scholarship?
MONAE: Yeah, I did. I did. I got a really cool scholarship for the American Musical and Dramatics Academy. And it was the only school I had applied to, so, I mean, I was really like, OK, hopefully this works. You know, this would be my golden ticket. And to make it into that program, you know, was really a defining moment for my life. And my life really depended on that moment.
GROSS: Did you have an audition? And if so, what did you sing for the audition?
MONAE: Wow. I did. I had an audition, and I sang - what did I sing? I was - I want to say I was Cinderella in the production in my high school. And so there was a song called "In My Own Little Corner," which I really connected to emotionally for some strange reason. But, yeah, it was from Rodgers and Hammerstein's "Cinderella." And I've always loved them two, you know? They gave me my first real connection with strings because of the songs, the tunes that they would compose. That's when I first fell in love with strings, was when I was in that production.
GROSS: Can you sing a few bars of that song?
MONAE: I think it was
(Singing) In my own little corner, in my own little chair, I can be whatever I want to be. On the wing of my fancy, I can fly anywhere, and the world will open its arms to me.
GROSS: Well, I can see why you related to that. That sounds exactly like the story you've been telling us about your life (laughter).
MONAE: Yeah, it's really, really true.
MOSLEY: Janelle Monae in 2009, speaking with Terry Gross.
We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. On today's show, we're listening to interviews Terry Gross recorded with singer, songwriter and actor Janelle Monae. Let's get back to their conversation, recorded in 2009.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: Now I want to play another song, and this is from an album that you released. I don't know if it was on your own label or what, but it was before your new album. And it's called, Janelle Monae, "The Audition." And this track is called "Cindi," and it sounds a little like the story you're telling us about somebody who wants to sing and who wants to be a star and doesn't really find a place for herself.
MONAE: Cindi is a song that is just about appreciating oneself. There was a point in time in my life where I searched. And even when I got into the recording industry, there was a way that people, you know, would try to get me to go because it was the most safe and conventional. And I've always had a burning fire heart, like, you know, James Brown. And I know that. And I knew that, you know, my gift isn't and was not going to be easy, you know, to just - for people to to accept, which is fine. And I had to come to grips with that. So in writing Cindi, I just talked about that journey - that small journey in which I pondered and I really, you know, toyed with the idea of blending in. But at the end of the day, you know, that wasn't going to work out.
GROSS: Well, let's hear it. And this is from Janelle Monae's first album, a self-released CD called "The Audition." And this is "Cindi."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "CINDI")
MONAE: (Singing) As I search for a home and a place to belong, I find it hard to fit in. I meet lots of pretty girls in this fantasy world, waiting for their turn to shine. So I try to be Cindi in hopes that they'd notice, but I wasn't their cup of tea. It's so lonely when I'm only being me.
GROSS: That's "Cindi" from Janelle Monae's first self-released CD called "The Audition."
Now, as as we can hear, you have a voice that really could have made it on Broadway. Like, you have a beautiful, you know, legit-sounding voice. But what you're singing now is - in a beautiful voice - is, like, your own breed of hip-hop. Did you feel like you had to change your voice in any way to - when you changed your aspirations from Broadway to hip-hop?
MONAE: Well, you know, no, I actually didn't. You know, I don't really categorize anything that I do or say, oh, you know, this is the genre that I'm trying to go into. And, you know, still, to this day, I don't have a name for necessarily what I call my sound or what it is that we're doing. It's one of those things where, you know, I don't have - I don't force anything. And, by nature, I think that I've always been been drawn to women like Judy Garland, who always kept a very classic and timeless voice. Even Anita Baker at times - I love her voice as well. So, you know, taking those out would just be taking a part of me away.
GROSS: Janelle Monae, thank you so much for talking with us.
MONAE: Oh, thank you again, Terry. It was my pleasure.
MOSLEY: Janelle Monae speaking to Terry Gross in 2009.
Coming up - their second conversation recorded in 2020 about her album "Dirty Computer," her early ambitions to star in Broadway musicals and getting an unexpected call from Prince.
Last month, Monae released her latest album, "The Age Of Pleasure." Here's a track from it. I'm Tonya Mosley. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE RUSH")
MONAE: (Singing) Feel your ocean come to my moon. Let our rain become a monsoon. I want the rush. Mmm, I want the rush. I look into your eyes, and I get that rush. Maybe 'cause tonight you're going to be my crush. I look around, and I get that rush. Maybe 'cause tonight you're going to be my - skin to skin, I want to take my time. Break it in. I want to make you mine. I look around, and I get that rush. Baby, 'cause tonight I'm trying to catch that feeling. Mmm, you're just my type. I really want to feel it. I want your leg against my thigh. I want the rush, want the rush, want the rush. Mmm, I want the rush, want the rush, want the rush. Yeah, I want the rush.
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Tonya Mosley. Janelle Monae is a singer, songwriter and actor. And when she performed the opening song at the 2020 Oscars, she electrified the audience. It was an acknowledgement of her growing importance in the worlds of movies and music, and she used that appearance as an opportunity to describe her own identity, saying she was proud to be there as a queer, Black artist. Monae first became known as her alter ego, an android named Cindi Mayweather. She often appeared in a tuxedo, wearing her hair in a high pompadour. Her album "Dirty Computer" was nominated for two Grammys in 2018, including album of the year. Terry spoke with Monae about that album and the android character she created.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: In "Dirty Computer" - your 2018 album "Dirty Computer" - you play Jane 57821 in a futuristic society where people who don't conform are considered dirty computers, and they have to be cleaned, which means, like, their memories are cleaned, too. So did you feel some resonance with that aspect of the story?
MONAE: Sure. You know, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to live in a world where you are the minority, where you are, you know, part of a marginalized group of people and what happens when those in the position of power strip you of your identity and strip you of the things that make you special and that helped make this country special and this world special.
GROSS: And in "Dirty Computer," you were dirty if you looked different, showed any form of opposition at all. If you were dirty, it was only a matter of time. And you're told to recite, I am a dirty computer. I am ready to be clean. And I know you've said you relate to this idea that you created because you felt so marginalized. You felt like such an outsider for so much of your life. I'm wondering how it felt to open the Oscars - to have the opening song on the Oscars and declare your pride to be standing there as a Black queer artist?
MONAE: Well, I mean, I think I made the statement, you know, throughout the music in "Dirty Computer" - and if, you know, you listen, even, to my first album, I have a song on there called "Mushrooms & Roses." Second album - you know, I spoke about it. I think one of the things that I was dealing with was abandonment issues. And my dad, you know, growing up - and we're very close, you know, now, and he's like, you know, my best friend, and he's doing so much better. But one of the things that I dealt with growing up was my father was in and out of my life, you know, on drugs, in and out of prison. And he was really sick. And, as I mentioned, he's healthy now. We are in a much better space.
And I didn't realize that all of my, I guess, lack of not opening up was tied to having these abandonment issues, that perhaps if I, you know, told my family - which, ultimately, if you make statements like that, your family's going to hear, you know, and they're going to be like, what? We didn't know. And, as loving as my family was, I thought, well, what if they abandon me? You know, because I come from a Baptist family who's very religious. You know, I grew up listening to certain pastors say to me and say to the congregation, you know, if you are not heterosexual or if you're gay or bisexual or queer, you know, you're going to hell. And for me, a lot of it had to do with, well, what would my family think? Well, like, I don't want my family to abandon me in the same way that I felt like my dad did growing up.
And what about - you know, you start thinking about your fans, and you start thinking about, well, what if people say that I'm opening up now because I want to sell albums? People have said that, and they said that about other folks. And what if people, you know - if I open up, what if they say, I don't want to buy her albums anymore, you know? You know, it was this need of just - I needed to heal, and I did. And I healed through therapy. I healed through conversations. You know, it turns out not everybody in my family understands, you know, what it means to be me and what it means to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ communities. But I'm educating them, and they're finding out. And, you know, it just - it took having those conversations for me to feel comfortable enough to stand up on the Oscars, to stand on the records that I made and to stand for what I represent right now, you know, in this point in time in my life.
GROSS: Was it also an issue for you earlier, though, to talk about your own story and your own issues? I mean, talking about your father's story and his addiction and - I don't know, I'm thinking maybe you didn't want to draw him into that, that maybe he wanted more privacy. And it's hard when your story is so intimately intersecting with somebody else's story, and that story doesn't want to be public.
GROSS: And it limits your ability to tell your own story.
MONAE: For sure. I think you're right about that. I think I'm always trying to protect, you know, people that I love and care about because they didn't ask to be famous. They didn't ask to have this life. And it's never been about me even being famous. I just love being an artist, and I love telling stories, and I love connecting with people and sharing. And I think that this is a part of the game.
MOSLEY: Janelle Monae speaking with Terry Gross in 2020. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALPHABET ST.")
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening to Terry's interview with singer, songwriter and actor Janelle Monae. Monae has earned eight Grammy nominations for her albums, and she's appeared in films like "Moonlight," "Hidden Figures" and the recent Netflix film "Knives Out: Glass Onion." Terry Gross spoke to Monae in 2020.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
MOSLEY: Let's hear some of your music. A great track from your 2018 album "Dirty Computer" is called "Make Me Feel." Is there a story behind this song?
MONAE: (Laughter) A story behind the song - I mean, I wanted to make sure that if anyone felt like because they saw me in my tuxedo or saw me fully clothed and used me for, like, respectability politics, this was the song that I wanted to piss them off with.
GROSS: That's really funny.
GROSS: You know, I have to say, when you say anybody who would confuse your tuxedo with the politics of respectability, like, I never would have thought of that tuxedo - I think, like, when a woman wears a tuxedo, it's a little different from when a man wears a tuxedo. And you're wearing a tuxedo with this kind of off-kilter pompadour doing James Brown moves. So I just think it would - most people would find it hard to equate that with the politics of respectability.
MONAE: Well, you'd think. I mean, there is a category of folks who think because you're fully clothed - and not understanding my story, which was to wear a uniform, to pay homage to my working class parents who were janitors, and my mom served food. She did have to wear, you know, a tuxedo uniform when she was catering. And my dad, you know, was a trash man and drove trucks and helped clean up the city. You know, my parents were essential workers. And I early on wanted to pay homage to them and all those who were wearing uniforms, those who were serving in the country. So that was one reason why I was constantly wearing the black and white tuxedo.
And then I wanted to rebel against, you know, the gender norms and what it meant to dress like a woman or what it meant to dress like a man, you know. And I always rebel and rebuke - I've been this way since I've been a child - anybody trying to tell me, you know, who I should be and using me to be a poster child for all things pure and all things good. And one thing about me is, if the rest of the world was in tuxedos, I would be naked.
MONAE: You know? That's the philosophy.
GROSS: Right. Right.
GROSS: Yeah. And for anybody out there who thought that Janelle Monae's style of dressing was about the politics of respectability, this song, "Make Me Feel," is totally sexy and how you look in the film companion to your album when you do this song is also totally sexy. So here is Janelle Monae doing her own song, "Make Me Feel."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE ME FEEL")
MONAE: (Singing) Yeah, baby, don't make me spell it out for you. All of the feelings that I've got for you can't be explained, but I can try for you. Yeah, baby, don't make me spell it out for you. You keep on asking me the same questions - why? - and second-guessing all my intentions. Should know by the way I use my compression that you've got the answers to my confessions.
(Singing) It's like I'm powerful with a little bit of tender - an emotional, sexual bender. Mess me up, yeah, but no one does it better. There's nothing better. That's just the way you make me feel. That's just the way you make me feel. That's just the way you make me feel. That's just the way you make me feel. So good, so good, so good, so real. Uh-huh, that's just the way you make me feel. That's just the way you make me feel. That's just the way you make me feel. You know I love it, so please don't stop it. You got me...
GROSS: That's Janelle Monae doing her song "Make Me Feel" from her 2018 album, "Dirty Computer." And that's her latest album. There's definitely a Prince influence in that song. Did you sample him in that?
MONAE: No, I did not. I didn't sample him. Prince, however, was working with me on "Dirty Computer" before he transitioned on, and I was in the middle. It was difficult for me to finish the album because of that. And Prince was helping, sending me song inspirations, and we were going back and forth.
And so when he transitioned on, I felt that I had to continue, to finish that album. And I was always asking myself, what would Prince do, in these moments - whenever I couldn't figure out, you know, a lyric or music or instrumentation or melody.
GROSS: How did you get to meet him and work with him?
MONAE: I had a show, and this was around my first - before "The ArchAndroid" came out. I had done an EP called "Metropolis." I had just gotten finished performing. I opened up for Raphael Saadiq. And I had a sinus infection, and I was not feeling well.
And I went backstage, and I get this knock on the door, and I'm just like, oh, God, who is it? And it was DJ Rashida. She had a phone in her hand, and she was like, I have somebody who wants to talk to you. And I was like, OK, who are you, and why should I be getting a phone from you?
MONAE: She was like, no, just take the phone, take the phone. And I took the phone, and I'm all stuffy. I'm like, hello? And then I just hear on the other end of the phone this voice that says, hello, Janelle. And I said, hi. Who is this?
This is Prince. I'm sorry, who? Prince. I'm sorry I couldn't make your show. I got the times mixed up. Really? You were going to come and see my show? Oh, my God. Yeah, I wanted to come. I love your voice. I especially love your jazz voice. I love how you're taking control of your career. And, you know, I love watching you.
And at this point, I'm just like - I don't know what world I'm living in, if this is a prank or whatever. And I'm just like, thank you. Listen, would you like to come over tonight? You know, you and the band come over for a jam session. And I was just floored by then. And I was like, yes, yes, yes. So he ends up hanging up, and we all pile up in, like - we couldn't even afford a tour bus. We piled up in this white church van.
And that night, you know, we stayed up from maybe like midnight, 1 in the morning, to 7 in the morning. And he stood there on his rug with the rest of his band, and he played all of his hits, and he gave us the mic, and we played pool. I mean, it was - yeah. I'm just - I'm getting emotional just thinking about, how wonderful and beautiful that night was.
MOSLEY: Janelle Monae speaking with Terry Gross in 2020. More of their conversation after this break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "THE BEAUTIFUL ONES")
MOSLEY: This is FRESH AIR. We're listening back to an interview from our archives with singer and actor Janelle Monae, who released a new album this month. Terry interviewed Monae in 2020.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
GROSS: You know, I think some people were surprised, like, oh, Janelle Monae, like, a musician, a singer, she became an actress. But, really, that was always your goal. I mean, you went to New York. You grew up in Kansas City, Kan. You went to New York to study at The American Musical and Dramatics Academy. At the time, you wanted to be in Broadway musicals. So, I mean, your goal initially was to combine music and acting. So let's start with why Broadway musicals? Why was that what you were aiming for?
MONAE: Well, I knew I just didn't want to not sing. And, at that time, I was - before I went to study at AMDA, I was always in music - musicals and in music classes, the a cappella choir. And I was competing in talent showcases and doing cover songs of, you know, Destiny's Child and Lauryn Hill. And - you know, and then I was a thespian, an International Thespian, where I was monologue competing and driving two, three hours with my team, with my drama club.
GROSS: Oh, wow.
GROSS: What kind of monologue?
MONAE: It just depended on what we were reading at that time and what my teacher would help me pick. I was also into Shakespeare, so I would do after-school Shakespearean programs. And, you know, I was always doing that, and it - both. It was never only do music, only do acting. And so I just thought musical theater was a way to combine.
GROSS: Were you concerned that being Black would limit the roles you'd be considered for on Broadway?
MONAE: For sure. For sure. It was partly one of the reasons why I did not want to go forward with it anymore. And it was because I just - I didn't see a lot of those leading roles that I could sink my teeth into. And I'm also a writer. I was writing a lot growing up. I was in the Young Playwrights' Roundtable at the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, Mo., where you would write these short stories, and if your material was good enough, the local actors would perform it. And I actually ended up getting kicked out of that program because my mom and I were sharing a car at the time. And, you know, she was working, trying to put food on the table. And she sometimes would - like, her job would run over, which meant if she was picking me up and she was late, then I was late for the after-school program. And after so many times of being late, you know, because I was helping my mom and my mom couldn't come and pick me up on time because of her job, they kicked me out. And I remember being so...
GROSS: Didn't they understand that your mother was working, I mean, that it wasn't your issue?
MONAE: That didn't...
GROSS: It was that she...
MONAE: That didn't matter.
GROSS: Didn't matter. Wow.
MONAE: Yeah. It didn't matter. And I hold no hard feelings. So if anyone's listening - like, I've actually spoken to some of them. But it actually changed my life. It put me on a path of determination, you know? I wasn't going to let that stop me. I was crushed.
GROSS: So when you did start your movie career - I don't even know how this happened. You were in two films that were nominated for best picture, like "Hidden Figures" and "Moonlight," which actually won in that category. How did you go from not having an acting career to being in such - in films that had such a big impact?
MONAE: When I read "Moonlight," I knew that that was a special film. You know, I didn't know that it was going to win an Oscar because I just thought that - I don't know. I didn't think that, like, a cast of basically all Black people would get an opportunity to win best picture, especially, like, a small, indie, you know, feeling film like that. And, I mean, it was just so specific. It was undeniable, you know, the story. And my role, my character as Teresa, she represented so many aunts and motherlike figures who - I think she was a great example of how to nurture someone who is trying to uncover their identity and trying to understand more about their sexuality, you know, just how to listen.
GROSS: There's a song I want to play from your first album, and I played this the first time we talked, which was when your first album came out. And the song is called "Sincerely, Jane." And you had told me then that it was based on a letter that your mother wrote to you. Before we hear the song - and I really love this track - can you tell us about the letter that your mother wrote to you that inspired the song?
MONAE: When I moved away - I want to say when I moved to New York for college, yeah, she had - we would write letters to each other, and she would just keep me posted on what was going on. And I'm from Wyandotte County, Kansas City, Kan., and Kansas City, Mo. is, like, five minutes away. It's - like, a bridge separates us. And a lot of my friends were being murdered. A lot of my friends, you know - from gun violence. And a lot of my cousins that I remember playing with growing up were, you know, unable to go to college. And if they did, some of them would just stay back home and kind of sell drugs. And some of my cousins were, in fact, selling drugs to our family members.
And this isn't, you know, unique to me. You know, it just happens. You know, everybody is hustling. And, you know, one of the lines in that song is, are we really living or just walking dead? And everything wasn't all bad, you know, growing up. Like, I just want to be clear about that. I had some of the best summers of my life with my family. And when you grow up in a big family like I have, you know, with over 50 first cousins...
GROSS: Whoa. Yeah.
MONAE: ...And lots of aunts and - you know what I'm saying?
MONAE: It's your own community. You're swimming together. You're singing together. You're popping fireworks together. You are watching movies together. I mean, I used to watch a lot of films - scary movies. Horror is one of my favorite genres. And I remember watching Freddy Krueger and "Child's Play" and "Halloween," you know, with my cousins, and my nose would be bleeding. Don't ask me why, but - and I loved every moment of it.
GROSS: Well, I want to play this song 'cause - I know it might not mean that much to you anymore, but I think it's really great. And another thing that's great about this song is the arrangement. I mean, you have timpani and French horns, and I remember you telling me when we had the first interview that you used to go to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra a lot and listen to them. And I think it's really great that as - you know, as a young artist, that you were ambitious enough to find a way to work all of that in.
MONAE: Yeah. Yeah. You know, I guess one of the things that I love - and then when I look back, I'm realizing that there were just, you know, hints of eclecticism and just, like, freedom, you know? Even though there were always folks, you know, in your community trying to keep you in a corner and control you, and sometimes people use religion to do that and certain things, there was still exploration in me, and I'm just thankful for that. And there's still wanting to bridge, you know, lots of different styles of music and figuring out how to learn from different cultures. And I love string arrangements. I love timpanis. I love watching the orchestra just as much as I love, you know, a grimy hip-hop song or a rap song. I love jazz. You know, we love all these different things. And I just - I don't believe in - I don't look at music in a binary way.
GROSS: Janelle Monae, thank you so much. And I look forward to hearing and seeing more of you. Thank you so much.
MONAE: Oh, likewise, Terry. Thank you so, so very much.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINCERELY, JANE")
MONAE: (Singing) Left the city. My mama, she said, don't come back home. These kids 'round killing each other, they lost their minds, they gone. They quitting school, making babies and can barely read. Some gone on to their fall. Lord, have mercy on them. One, two, three, four, your cousin's here 'round here selling dope while they daddy, your uncle, is walking round, strung out. Babies with babies, and their tears keep burning while their dreams go down the drain now, while their dreams go down the drain now. Are we really living or just walking dead now? Are we walking dead now? Or dreaming of a hope, riding the wings of angels? The way we live...
MOSLEY: The interview we just heard with Janelle Monae was recorded in 2020. Her new album, released last month, is called "The Age Of Pleasure." On the next FRESH AIR, we learn about gender from people who are intersex, born with both anatomical and/or chromosomal variations, some of which are typically defined as male, others as female. We'll talk with Alicia Roth Weigel, one of three intersex people profiled in the new film "Every Body," and Julie Cohen, the film's director. Join us.
To keep up with what's on the show and to get highlights of our interviews, follow us on Instagram @nprfreshair. FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our engineer today is Adam Staniszewski. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Susan Nyakundi. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. For Terry Gross, I'm Tonya Mosley.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ONLY HAVE EYES 42")
MONAE: (Singing) I like to love with my eyes closed. I try not to lead with my ego. Everything happened in slow-mo, but we all smiled and said, it's all right. 'Cause you're the one, you're the one. Double the fun, triple the time for love. You're the one, you're the one. You sucked the words from my tongue. That's when I knew I only, I only, I only have eyes for two. I only, I only, I only have eyes for two. Remember we sipped from the same glass. Then she bit your neck, and I liked that. We said some things we can't take back. I'm happy it's out in the open. Cause you're the one, you're the one. Double the fun, triple the time for love.
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