News Column

She Wants to Inspire a Fire

October 10, 2013


Oct. 10--Lady Gaga and Nicki Minaj, meet your classier and more talented counterpart, Janelle Monae.

With a flair for bizarre performance, a soulful voice and an eclectic style that combines R&B, jazz and funk with retro overtones, the only thing that's surprising about Monae's recent number-five slot on the Billboard Top 200 is that it's taken her more than a decade to get there.

You may know her from indie-pop band fun.'s hit music video for "We Are Young." She is the "carry me home tonight" girl, sporting her signature tuxedo and Little Richard pompadour. Or you might recognize her Michael Jackson-esque performance in a CoverGirl commercial.

But this is just the tip of the Janelle Monae iceberg. Her music is even more nonconformist than her look, and she hopes listeners get the message.

"Instead of working 9 to 5, [I hope] they want to burn their cubicles," Monae said.

Her YouTube channel reveals the unique theatrical and artistic elements that go into Monae's "emotion picture" music videos--outlandish scenes from android love stories to an "American Bandstand"-themed zombie apocalypse.

Monae describes her style as retro-futuristic, a contradictory label that captures her character perfectly.

She grew up listening to Simon & Garfunkel and named Salvador Dali and Steven Spielberg among her artistic influences.

"I created everything you see, image-wise," Monae explained when asked if she's ever had to fight to keep her individual style in her performance. "I do what I want to do."

Her off-kilter uniqueness is not confined to her performances. In the little free time she has, she enjoys gardening and ant watching. She likes to observe the tiny insects because she is intrigued by them and believes they are similar to humans, although Monae would never be content as another soldier marching through the pop machine.

It was particularly difficult for Monae to translate her personal vision into a public image when she was first starting out in the music industry in 2001 because, in her words, "there was no one that looked like me."

As a girl from Kansas City working as a maid, finding success was no easy task.

It wasn't until she moved to Atlanta that she was able to launch her career. Fellow musical rule-breaker and OutKast member Big Boi recognized her talent and eventually steered her to Sean Combs and Bad Boy Records.

Twelve years, two albums, multiple noteworthy collaborations and several Grammy and Soul Train Award nominations later, Monae has secured her place as a pop iconoclast with her latest album, "The Electric Lady."

Featuring guest appearances from Esperanza Spalding, Erykah Badu and Prince--one of Monae's obvious style and artistic idols--the album is full of upbeat dance numbers, soulful vocals and statement-making lyrics.

"Even if it makes others uncomfortable, I will love who I am," is the refrain from "Q.U.E.E.N.," one of the singles from the album.

"I encourage all individuals," Monae said. "Don't wait on anybody. You have all you need. Just do it yourself. I guarantee sooner or later you will have people wanting to support you."

Monae has taken up the banner of inspiring others to break out of the constricting definitions of "normal" and unleash their own individuality. She hopes her music and concerts motivate her listeners to break free.

"I pray that when people leave [my concert], that they feel better than they did when they came in, that it will have an impact on their lives that they will never forget," she said.

What: Janelle Monae

Where: Lincoln Theater, 1215 U St. NW, Washington, D.C.

When: Monday, Oct. 14, 7 p.m.

Cost: $40


Bridget Balch: 540/374-5417 --


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