Style Icons is a series examining how icons of our time defined style in a particular era. In our second edition, Popspoken curator CJ Ang finds out how R&B-soul’s current fashionable It girl, Janelle Monáe, made it from humble beginnings to become one of the music industry’s hottest talents.
Let’s get this point straight – the beauty, charm behind the occasionally, secretively addictive, or otherwise vexatious fun. track “We Are Young”, is in part due to the bridge of Janelle Monáe’s, offering to carry one’s troubled, drunken (and drugged – not legal in Singapore’s context though) soul back home when one is ‘getting higher than the empire state’. The irony is that from a mainstream perspective, that is the first time this name is heard of or ringing bells, despite initial contributions dated back to 2003 (“The Audition EP”) and debut LP “The ArchAndroid” in 2010.
Often seen with an androgynous front-hawk neatly coiffed, in a crisp combination of attires mostly blacks and whites, Janelle’s overall image package displays a unique and strong personality standpoint, together carrying the message of female empowerment in a male-dominated industry and in society as a whole. One of her goals? To rebel against sexism. In “Q.U.E.E.N.” – a song developed through a deep conversation about a woman’s place in the world, and her Erykah Badu-collaborated debut single from her sophomore LP follow-up, with feminism spilling all over, together with lyrics like, “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?”.
She further explained on her own personal experiences and beliefs in a video interview with NME: “I absolutely have encountered sexism in the music industry. I don’t look at myself as a victim. I think that some people are just not taught any better, and certain behaviour has been taught down and it has been accepted. I will not allow myself to be oppressed and I will not allow myself to be a slave or controlled by anybody’s own belief system.”
Growing up in a poor family in Kansas also help shaped who she is and what she wants to achieve and succeed, besides keeping herself humble, focused and grounded. Her mother was a janitor, while her father was a garbage truck driver who struggled with drug addiction throughout Monáe’s childhood. She said to The Pitch, “I’ve never forgotten where I come from. It’s crazy, but I really want to be the one to show everyone back home that it can be done. And not by selling drugs but by being passionate about the right thing — and the right things will come your way.” She further added on, “Under their (her mother’s and grandmother’s) guidance, I went from cleaning houses everyday in my maid outfit to the world-traveling performer I am today. A lot of folks think I work hard onstage because of James Brown. But they’ve never met my mother!”
It’s in this way and interesting how she was first discovered – after relocating to Atlanta, Georgia, she was chanced by OutKast’s Big Boi during an open mic night where she performed Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly With His Song”. It was him whom later introduced her to Sean Combs (otherwise known as Diddy) of Bad Boy Records, the latter liking what he heard and saw – of something new and fresh, of an artiste with a look, a way she dances, a vibe and the fact that she was not exposing her body in any sexual way to seek attention; of an artiste purely based on her own set of talents and goals that drawn him in, in an organic way.
Some of her influences include Michael Jackson, Prince, OutKast, Erykah Badu, James Brown, Grace Jones, Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, Jimi Hendrix, Bernard Herrmann, Funkadelic, The Incredible String Band and the fictional character of Dorothy from the film “The Wizard of Oz”. Fans of her include Bruno Mars, Nile Rodgers and – get this – President Barack Obama, whom called her “incredibly talented” after she performed at one of his re-election rallies. Her tour resume covers sharing the same stage with No Doubt, of Montreal, Erykah Badu, Gnarls Barkley, Brandi Carlile and come December end of this year, she will perform for a Prince-hosted U.S. tour called ‘Welcome 2 America’, amongst other feature acts.
Her new album, “The Electric Lady”, due for a September 10 2013 US release, and similar with “The ArchAndroid”, will be cross-genre experimental once again. It will consist of collaborations with Deep Cotton, Miguel, Roman GianArthur, Erykah Badu and the one and only, Prince, who is not exactly known for making guest appearances.