News Column

The Kansas City Star Jene Osterheldt column

November 13, 2013

YellowBrix

Nov. 13--Are we a lost generation of our people?

Add us to equations but they'll never make us equal

She who writes the movie owns the script and the sequel

So why ain't the stealing of my rights made illegal?

They keep us underground working hard for the greedy

But when it's time pay they turn around and call us needy

My crown too heavy like the Queen Nefertiti

Gimme back my pyramid, I'm trying to free Kansas City.

-- "Q.U.E.E.N.," by Janelle Monae

Janelle Monae, no matter how high her spaceship flies, never forgets where she comes from. And on Friday, she and her android alter ego, Cindi Mayweather, are landing at the Uptown Theater.

"The Electric Lady" tour has been selling out. She's been singing so hard she had to postpone a few tour dates last week. Maybe she's saving those sweet powerhouse vocals for her hometown show.

It's no surprise everyone wants to hear her sing. The album of the same title charted at No. 5 on the Billboard Top 200 and at No. 3 on Billboard's Top R&B and Hip-Hop albums in September. Come December, she will be honored with Billboard's Rising Star Award.

The world is falling in love with the tuxedo, the perfect pompadour and all that empowering music. Her fandroids might think she's out of this world, but she credits all of who she is to growing up in Kansas City, Kan. She wears the tux as a uniform to pay tribute to her parents who worked hard, and to all working-class people. But it's more than that.

"I come straight from KCK, Wyandotte County, a small town," Monae, 27, says over the phone, as she geared up for her L.A. tour stop. "I am fortunate to have these opportunities. I feel I owe a lot of it to my community, attending church, my aunties." She starts listing the families who helped her along.

"All of these people told me I can be anything I wanted to be. My parents never tried to tell me that I couldn't perform, that I couldn't do talent shows. My family backed me 125 percent. I am a product of the city. My community in KCK invested a lot in me and gave me the confidence I needed to go out in the world."

She's come a long way since her days starring in "Cinderella" and other plays at F.L. Schlagle High School and competing in talent shows at the old Indian Springs Shopping Center and at the Blue Room.

Back then, she wasn't just excited to win $500, she was happy to pour herself into acting, music, writing, dance and song. The arts were a distraction for her, growing up near 21st and Quindaro. So was sci-fi -- hence all her robotic muses. She was always watching "Star Trek" and "The Twilight Zone" with her grandmother.

"I really have a deep appreciation and love for science fiction, the storytelling and the great writing. That is where my heart is. I love the arts and I honestly believe it's part of my DNA," she says. "It's how God made me. I came into this industry to make a difference and bring a different perspective to pop culture. I want to be that change I didn't see and make my community proud."

She chose the androids from the very jump because to her, the robots represent "the other." They're designed to be controlled, to be homogenized, and in science fiction they often have to fight for freedom. For Monae, the androids represent those communities that are put down. Black communities, gay communities, women. She wants to uplift them through unity. And you can hear it in her music. In the self-empowering "Q.U.E.E.N." she sings about dismissing judgments and being yourself:

Am I a freak because I love watching Mary?

Hey sister am I good enough for your heaven?

Say will your God accept me in my black and white?

Will he approve the way I'm made?

Or should I reprogram, deprogram and get down?

She will not allow the industry to break her core values, she says. Self-empowerment, respect, equality -- these are things that are not just important in her life but a message she sends. Her mother, her aunties, her grandmothers helped nurture that within her.

"There are women who helped me believe in myself, and all of these incredible female protagonists like Dorothy Dandridge that are often skipped over. But they are our past, present and future. We have to continue to tell our story in universal and unforgettable ways."

She's dedicated to sisterhood, often collaborating with strong, female artists: Solange, Erykah Badu and Esperanza Spalding are on her latest project.

"I am blessed to have this outlet to express myself, and I get fulfilled bringing happiness to people. I hold myself responsible to continue to set an example for young girls and redefine what it means to be a musician to me, to define myself and to have my own label in a male-dominated industry. I am in control of my ideas and I am not afraid to be sensitive, compassionate and nice. But I mean business. It's important to have a female voice."

And even with all that girl power, some of the most respected men in the industry champion her. Prince has invited her to perform alongside him on stage, and he collaborated with her on "Givin' Em What They Love." His Purple Majesty doesn't duet often, so when he does, it's as if he's signaling their genius for us all to recognize. And Sean "Diddy" Combs signed her Wondaland Arts Society imprint to his Bad Boy Records.

Monae, despite her tiny stature, has become a big force since her 2005 debut on the Big Boi (one half of OutKast) "Got Purp? Volume 2" mixtape. Last year, she became a Cover Girl, reflecting the beauty of little brown girls everywhere. And she also was part of one the biggest hits of the year: "We Are Young," by Fun. She recently rocked "Saturday Night Live," opened the "Black Girls Rock" awards show, she's all over the Target commercials and kids love to dress up as her. She's everywhere. I can't even buy a Pumpkin Spice Latte at Starbucks without seeing a copy of "The Electric Lady" on display.

So what's next? Her music, her android theme rooted in the life of Cindi Mayweather, it all sounds like a movie. She's a fan of George Lucas and Steven Spielberg. Will Monae, like other musicians, make the jump from the stage to the silver screen?

"I am excited about this phase in my life right now," she says. "I am heavily working on music. I am inside of my music. My albums feel like movies performed on audio, my motion picture told through song. I have always wanted to be a part of great productions and great storytelling."

One of her partners at Wondaland Arts Society, Chuck Lightning, is working on a screenplay she describes as "Romeo and Juliet" meets "Star Wars." She says when the right opportunity comes and her heart is fully focused in it, she hopes they can get it off the ground.

But Monae's dreams are bigger than the movies. In time, she wants to bring a school of the performing arts to KCK.

"It's an ultimate goal," she says. "I have always felt like it would be a great service to our community. Schlagel was great; it was so much help and cultivation. But to go to a performing arts school that is dedicated to that? I feel it is my destiny.

"There's a lot of people I lost growing up, great friends who were amazing and talented that just didn't have those avenues, those classes, the short-term goals to help them get to those long-term goals. I think a school could help the inner city, distract from the drugs and the violence. If you have something you feel that you can wake up and go to and commit to, if you can be nurtured and hone your craft, you can be better."

Before her people pull her off the phone in an effort to get to her next engagement, she rushes to tell me one last thing: "Send my love to Kansas City."

It's clear that Janelle Monae isn't just a Q.U.E.E.N. She's also the Electric Lady.

Whether in Savannah, K-Kansas or in Atlanta

She'll walk in any room, have you raising up your antennas

She can fly you straight to the moon or to the ghettos

Wearing tennis shoes or in flats or in stilettos

Illuminating all that she touches, eye on the sparrow

A modern day Joan of her Arc or Mia Farrow

Factoids for the fandroids

Favorite KC eats: "Go Chicken Go. I don't eat the G-sauce, but I love the rolls and the chicken sandwich with extra mayo and lettuce. It's awesome. I also enjoy Gates BBQ, the beef on bun. I love eating at Peachtree, too. That's really good soul food, and my family cooks very well. I love their food; my mom's macaroni and cheese is amazing."

Career highlight: "Working with Prince was a dream of mine. I am honored and humbled to have him as part of my life, as a mentor and friend and collaborator. To be on stage and perform with him at Madison Square Garden and to work with him in the studio -- his sense of humor and his trust in me -- it's a mind-blowing and incredible experience. I am forever indebted. I look forward to the future, but right now I am basking in this."

On Friday she looks forward to: "So far we have been selling out all of our shows. I want to come to my hometown and sell out. I'm ready to jam, to give you an experience. I am a product of Kansas City and it would be great to celebrate with everyone."

Friday

Janelle Monae performs at 7 p.m. Friday at the Uptown Theater, 3700 Broadway. Tickets, $24-$33.25, are available through Ticketmaster.com.

Jene Osterheldt's column runs on Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday. To reach her, call 816-234-4380 or send email to josterheldt@kcstar.com. "Like" her page on Facebook and never miss a column. You also can follow her at Twitter.com/jeneeinkc.

___

(c)2013 The Kansas City Star (Kansas City, Mo.)

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