ELLE Canada sits down with indie artist Janelle Monáe to talk about confidence, feminism and ambition.
There is a socialite clapping thunderously in my ear. I can't blame her. Janelle Monáe just put on a cape while spinning like a top onstage and singing her smash hit "Tightrope."
It's like the second coming of James Brown. The crowd - a mixed bag of hipsters, drag queens and ladies who lunch - at Toronto's Fashion Cares gala in September is pulsing with delight.
Then Monáe drops the cape and walks offstage. The energy follows her, sucked out of the room like a vacuum. When I meet the 26-year-old singer the next day, I'm surprised by how slight she is.
During her show, it felt like the sheer force of her performance would rip the paint off the walls. Now she's curled up, like a cat, on a loveseat with a hat pulled over her signature bouffant.
"I am naturally shy," she says softly. "That's what people are most surprised by, because when I'm onstage there's nothing shy. It's all electricity. I feel fearless."
She inherited her "crazy side" from her outspoken mother while growing up in one of the grittiest neighbourhoods in Kansas City.
She's speaking matter-of-factly about how poor they were and what it felt like to watch her older cousins get into trouble.
Then her face lights up and she starts swiping through her phone.
"I got this Facebook message and it really just touched my heart and reminded me where I came from and how I can never complain. I'll show you," she says, scrolling down her wall, which is bursting with exclamation points from fans.
The message is from a girl whom Monáe worked alongside as a maid, cleaning houses while trying to make money for college; she's congratulating Monáe on her success and reminiscing about listening to her sing while they cleaned. There are a lot of emoticons. There are a lot of actual emotions too.
"A lot of the women I worked with had rough lives," says Monáe. "They were recovering addicts or getting out of jail." The cleaning service hired desperate women who couldn't get a job anywhere else. Monáe herself was desperate to leave her hometown and attend the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York.
She'd always wanted to be a musician. (In fact, she told The Guardian that she wrote her first musical when she was 11. It was about plants, and it was inspired by Stevie Wonder's Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.)
Monáe made it to the academy, but she eventually dropped out and moved to Atlanta. It was there that she co-founded the Wondaland Arts Society, a co-operative of artists, musicians, writers and performers.
"We were literally just going from campus to campus, performing and selling CDs out of our trunk. We were doing it grassroots," she says with a smile. It wasn't long before Monáe's powerful funky vocals, spellbinding dancing and regular stage dives caught the attention of Outkast's Big Boi.
He introduced her to his friend Diddy, and, in a flash, Monáe was signed to Bad Boy Records and working on her debut album, The ArchAndroid. Released in 2010, the record introduced her patented blend of soulful, funky R&B.
By the following summer, she was nominated for a Grammy and performing onstage with Stevie Wonder. (This year, she's up for multiple Grammy awards for her guest vocals on Fun.'s hit track "We Are Young.")
Read more about Janelle Monae's inspirations and aspirations on the next page...