Janelle Monáe in her Shape September 2020 cover shoot

Janelle Monáe Is Blurring the Lines Between Actor and Activist—and She's Not Stopping Anytime Soon

This boundary-bending singer, songwriter, and actor remains unstoppable, even during a standstill. Here, Janelle talks to Farai Chideya, a writer and broadcaster on pop and politics, about moving forward, starring in the timely Antebellum, and why she’s taking on a new role as a social activist.
By Farai Chideya
August 10, 2020

When you see Janelle Monáe onstage, she is working. Flowing. Singing and moving as if she inherited the hips of James Brown. Working it out emotionally, where no topics are off-limits, with lyrics covering class-based ostracism and woman-to-woman romance. Her concerts hold a multitude of audiences in one space, and her eight Grammy nominations speak to a star whose appeal is universal—even as she defies convention.

"Early on, I realized that I had something to write. I had my own musical instead of trying to be in musical theater or on Broadway," says Janelle. "There was an artist in me that was looking to be developed. And only I could develop that artist." This is a woman who knows the power and path of staying true to oneself, and in a time of great national trauma, we would do well to learn from what she is doing to thrive: physically, emotionally, artistically, and ethically.

Speaking from Los Angeles—where she's mostly been since the pandemic put the world on pause—three weeks after the video of George Floyd's killing at the hands of Minneapolis police ignited global outrage, Janelle's voice holds the solemn resonance of someone who has seen too much.

"So I've been spending a lot of time organizing behind the scenes with peers, with my Wondaland Arts Society family," says says Janelle, 34, a longtime activist for the Black Lives Matter movement. "We hosted a Zoom where everybody had an opportunity to get on and just vent and cry and talk about how we're feeling. These were white folks, Asian folks, Black folks, straight, gay—like a full spectrum of people and perspectives."

Wondaland is Janelle's company, and it does whatever it wants: film, TV, music, branding, activism, and when the pandemic wasn't a thing, in-person events. Lately, as quarantine has laid bare the inequalities in American society, her working-class roots have been on the CEO's mind. "I grew up with parents who were essential workers—maids, catering, trashmen, post office workers—so it's always been instilled in me to work hard," she says. "As soon as I could work, I was working. When I was 13, 14, I was working as a waitress or scrubbing floors with my mom. My family always encouraged us to work, and work hard."

For Janelle, that work has rapidly expanded to Hollywood, starting with her supporting roles in two Academy Award–caliber films in 2016: Moonlight and Hidden Figures. She's currently starring in the psychological-thriller series Homecoming (Amazon Prime), and she will play the civil rights activist Dorothy Pitman Hughes in The Glorias, the forthcoming biopic of feminist trailblazer Gloria Steinem. ("Gloria personally sent me a letter, so I couldn't say no to Gloria Steinem," she says.) Her next project is the intense, time-shifting Antebellum, a film that could be described as an Octavia Butler–esque revenge fantasy, complete with Confederate dress and hatchets, which has a particularly meaningful message about racial injustice for our times.

In this issue celebrating strong women, we asked Janelle what empowers her to stay healthy, what propels her as a change maker, and how we can all learn the art of living well.

Janelle Monáe in her Shape September 2020 cover shoot
Credit: Dana Scruggs

How are you recharging these days?

"I find James Baldwin books have been super helpful. Reading has been comforting. I'm an introvert. So I have to charge in my room, by myself, most times. And you would think, we already can social distance, so shouldn't I want to be out? But I actually enjoy the solitude because I've been really going nonstop.

I think self-care is important, and it shifts with your growth. It used to be making sure that I take a vacation because I had been working 11 months out of the year. I needed time to play, to let my hair down, and run around naked. All of that is still important. And if I also want to drink, I'm drinking. You know what I'm saying?"

Janelle Monáe in her Shape September 2020 cover shoot
Credit: Dana Scruggs

Where else are you drawing motivation? What fuels your work for social change?

"[Author-activists] Sonya Renee Taylor and Kimberly Latrice Jones, [former Women's March co-chair] Tamika Mallory, and all those women who started Black Lives Matter. Listening to them fight—they keep my cup full whenever I'm in a drought. I try to give credit to those who are doing this work every single day, and they really do keep me inspired."

Janelle Monáe in her Shape September 2020 cover shoot
Credit: Dana Scruggs

You've always been a risk taker creatively. What makes you choose your projects?

"I can never as an artist think about, 'are people going to be moved by this?' I have to be moved first. One of the things I've made a conscious effort to do, specifically with Antebellum, is to shed light on racial injustice.

I've made it a thing to face discomfort. I think discomfort is part of everyone's reality right now. White people are feeling discomfort in one way, Black people are feeling discomfort in one way, and I didn't want to shy away from that. It's time for us to get uncomfortable, because the real change requires an upsetting and a rerouting and a real commitment to look at ourselves. In this instance,I hope that more white people see this film and fix the systems that their ancestors created that continue to oppress." (Related: Tools to Help You Uncover Implicit Bias—Plus, What That Actually Means)

Janelle Monáe in her Shape September 2020 cover shoot
Credit: Dana Scruggs

Let's talk a little about how you're staying strong mentally.

"I realized that I was dealing with abandonment issues, and just last year, I started to really deal with it. My dad was in and out of my life growing up, and other instances where I felt abandoned were coming up to the surface.

I started to write these things down, and I remember just crying like a baby. I will say that it is so freeing when you can identify your trauma. Knowing why you feel a certain way or why these feelings of being upset or angry or sad—why they're happening, what the root of it is. It's just so empowering."

Janelle Monáe in her Shape September 2020 cover shoot
Credit: Dana Scruggs

And what about physically?

"Being in quarantine, it's been difficult for me to exercise because I like exercising when I don't know I'm exercising. I love being onstage and dancing. I love going out dancing. I don't like doing things in a gym.

But mental and physical health is a journey, not a destination. I don't have to be the most thin person. My shape doesn't have to be what you think it should be. I am on a journey, and the journey itself is the reward. The journey is the lesson."

Photographer: Dana Scruggs, @danascruggs // Stylist: Alexandra Mandelkorn, @mandelkorn // Hair: Nikki Nelms, @nikkinelms // Makeup: Jessica Smalls, @JessicaSmalls // Set Stylist: Wooden-Ladder, @woodenladder // Creative Director: Noah Dreier, @noahdreier // Photo Director: Toni Loggia, @toniloggia