Recording artist, political activist, and now in-demand actress: The supercharged Janelle Monáe lights up Hollywood in not one but two Best Picture noms.
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Janelle Monáe, the music sensation turned actress who stars in awards-season heavyweights Moonlight and Hidden Figures, almost got her Hollywood start in space. “I don’t know if a lot of people know this,” she says, “but I auditioned for Star Trek prior to Moonlight. The casting director saw my tape and told [Moonlight director] Barry Jenkins about me. I didn’t get the part in Star Trek, but that’s why Barry reached out to me. And the rest is history.” Once a Hollywood rejection, Monáe can now count her very first films as two of 2016’s best. Talk about an entrance.
While the 31-year-old originally wanted her film debut to be in science fiction—her music reflects sci-fi inspirations, and her Metropolis album series is named after Fritz Lang’s 1927 cinema masterpiece—it’s fitting that an artist who’s spent the last decade writing and performing messages of self-love, inclusion, and equality would find her Hollywood start in projects confronting civil rights: Moonlight, which took home the Golden Globe for best drama, follows the maturation of a black boy into adulthood as he tries to reconcile his harsh, masculine surroundings with the secret shame of his homosexuality; Hidden Figures spotlights three black women whose work at a racially segregated NASA, in the Jim Crow South, allowed the first American astronaut to orbit the Earth, in 1962.
“I love telling these sorts of stories that give voice to those who are oftentimes uncelebrated, to those who don’t feel like they have a voice in America,” says Monáe of the characters central to both films—Moonlight’s Chiron, whom Monáe’s Teresa supports as a mother figure, and Hidden Figures’ Katherine Johnson, played by Taraji P. Henson; Octavia Spencer’s Dorothy Vaughn; and the high-voltage Mary Jackson, Monáe’s first starring film role. “These are characters who are considered to be outcast in society because of their sexual identity, gender, or race,” she says. “I think that these two movies have opened up a new door to the possibilities of telling more unique stories.”
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Transferring the values she espouses in her music to the silver screen is an immense source of pride for Monáe. “I say this with so much humility, but I’m also saying this so loud, because I never thought that I would see the day where three African American female protagonists are in a film about math and space and we’d be number one in the box office. We beat out Star Wars!” she says, referring to the Felicity Jones–fronted Rogue One, the latest in that other storied sci-fi franchise. “The people have spoken, and we’re all waiting for stories that transcend race and gender and all that. The world is ever-changing, and Hollywood is just going to have to adapt.”
Besides, she adds, “Hidden Figures is the original space movie.”
Monáe knows a thing or two about rising up. She was born in Kansas City, Kansas, in one of the state’s poorest counties—where some 22 percent of the population lives in poverty (the national average is 13.5 percent), including one-quarter of children—as the eldest of three sisters. (Although, she says, “Sometimes they’re the oldest. It just depends on what mood we’re in.”) Her mother, who left school early to give birth to Monáe, worked as a janitor. Her father drove a garbage truck. The weight of an underprivileged childhood was counterbalanced by Monáe’s large and supportive family, which includes more than 50 first cousins. At home, an early knack for performance was nourished, and she enrolled in after-school Shakespeare classes and performed in school plays. “I grew up navigating through both [music and acting]. It was a cappella choir, religious talent showcases, then it was writing short stories for the Coterie Theatre and being involved in middle school and high school theatrical productions,” she says. “My family was the first to help build my self-esteem and confidence as a performer. They were at all the musicals and all my plays encouraging me. They are just my biggest champions.”
“I’m a time traveler,” says pop queen, sci-fi nut, and now A-list actress Janelle Monáe, here rocking a dress by Thom Browne ($15,500). Barneys New York, 9570 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310-276-4400. Encore earrings, Tacori (price on request). Icing on the Ring, 607 S. Hill St., LA, 888-565-6150. 18k white-gold diamond bracelet, Yeprem ($40,000). Neiman Marcus, 9700 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310-550-5900. 18k white-gold and white-diamond Festival Cover ring, Stéfére ($7,350). Saks Fifth Avenue, 9600 Wilshire Blvd., Beverly Hills, 310-275-4211
After high school, Monáe worked alongside her mother as a maid, raising the money to go to New York and study acting. But once she got to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy, in Manhattan, she began to feel like “the other.” Sensing her creativity stifled, she left the conservatory after a few semesters and moved to Atlanta, Georgia. In an unlikely, Hollywood twist, it was not in a New York performing arts school but at an Atlanta Office Depot where Monáe’s talents were discovered. Living in a boarding house with a half-dozen other girls, and often performing spontaneous shows on the library steps of Morehouse College, Monáe would spend parts of her shift at Office Depot updating her MySpace musical profile on the showroom’s computers. As a result, she attracted the attention of hometown hip-hop hero Big Boi, of the Atlanta duo OutKast, who, after a few collaborations, introduced her to Sean “Diddy” Combs, in 2006. Combs offered her a record contract, and just in time—the MySpace antics had gotten her fired from Office Depot. Her debut EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), was released the following year.
Combs agreed to never interfere with the creative control of her work, a rare luxury for the recording industry, but a condition paramount to Monáe. She had been exercising that control already at her “creative nucleus,” the Wondaland Arts Society, a collective of musicians, actors, and visual artists that Monáe put together shortly after moving to Atlanta, and which has subsequently established an eponymous record company and a film studio called Emotion Pictures.
Despite often flying between New York and LA—“I’m never in one spot mentally”— Monáe still calls Atlanta home. “It gives me balance, and a reconnection to my creative thoughts,” she says. “But I love Los Angeles. I can go to LA and be inspired and recharged and excited about the future.” Having traveled to the city often for her music—not least for six Grammy Award nominations—she’s had even more reason to be on the red carpet lately, what with Moonlight and Hidden Figures lapping up awards at the Golden Globes, the People’s Choice Awards, and the SAG Awards. She’ll be back in town shortly for the Oscars, where Moonlight and Hidden Figures are both up for Best Picture.
After the ceremonies, Monáe typically grabs her friends and heads to Hot N Juicy Crawfish, a locals’ favorite seafood spot in a mall on the corner of La Brea and Santa Monica—and a place that feels a world away from the glitz and glamour of the Hollywood spotlight. “Like, I’m literally in a ball gown, a custom black-and-white ball gown, straight from the People’s Choice Awards or the Golden Globes,” she says. “And I go into this place, sit down, put on a bib, and eat. And that’s what I love about LA, that you can come straight from a red carpet event and go to a place like that.”
“I FEEL SO HONORED TO HAVE HAD SUCH DYNAMIC COSTARS. TARAJI P. HENSON AND OCTAVIA SPENCER WERE SO EXCITED THAT I WAS A PART OF THIS FILM, WHICH GAVE ME SO MUCH CONFIDENCE.” —Janelle Monáe
Her style—mostly black and white, often some tuxedo-like ensemble—has made Monáe a fixture on the red carpet. But the pomp and circumstance doesn’t always come easily. With cameras and interviewers in her face, “I just try to remain humble, remain myself,” she says. “Early on in my career I decided I was going to wear black and white, a kind of uniform, to honor and pay homage to my working-class parents,” who wore uniforms every day to work. “I’m so proud to be from Wyandotte County, one of the poorest counties in Kansas. I’m so happy that I serve as a reminder of that. You know, there is a quote that says you don’t have to be a part of your environment, but your environment can be a part of you,” she adds. “I’m in Hollywood but I’m not of it. I love just remaining an artist.”
It’s a duality—being in and out—that also extends to politics. Monáe, who has always remained vague about her personal life (“I only date androids,” she once told Rolling Stone), finds herself at home in a Hollywood increasingly outspoken about inclusion and equality, messages she’s been championing in her music for years, and which echo in her Moonlight and Hidden Figures performances. “I want to bring people together, and now that I have your attention, I think it is important to use every ounce of whatever platform you can to remind us all, remind each other, that it’s about a shared humanity,” says Monáe, who has led Black Lives Matter protests. “We need art and we need music to uplift us and to remind us that we all bleed the same color. If we’re going to coexist in this world, it’s going to be important that we just keep that in perspective.”
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To support those coming behind her, and to “really pay it forward,” Monáe will be spending much of the year focusing on her new women’s organization, Fem the Future, which provides mentorship opportunities for young women interested in the arts by pairing them up with Monáe’s A-list friends. “It’s a grassroots-led movement by millennials who want to help advance opportunities and careers for more young women in music and film and TV and media,” says Monáe. The organization’s inaugural event took place during the Afropunk Festival in Brooklyn last year, where Monáe delivered an impassioned speech about the importance of unity. Later this year, Fem the Future will stage its first conference—“like Lilith Fair meets SXSW”—which will feature seminars and performances.
“We need to allow our collective voices to be heard as one. I think what we see in this election should be a reminder that women are stronger together,” says Monáe, who performed at the Women’s March on Washington in January. “An injustice done to my sister or my brother is one done to me.”
Whether with film, music, fashion, or politics, she says, “I’m always going to choose freedom over fear.”
PHOTOGRAPHY BY TONY DURAN