ELLE interview: The musical stylings of Janelle Monáe

ELLE Canada sits down with indie artist Janelle Monáe to talk about confidence, feminism and ambition.

Jan 08, 2013
Kathryn Hudson
John van der schilden

interview-janelle-monae-2.jpgInstead, Monáe talks at length about the effect she wants her record to have on people.

"I want them to feel enlightened, I want them to feel heard," she says. "I want them to feel like they've been taken higher. I want them to feel loved, I want them to feel cared for."

Like much of what Monáe says, it's sweeping, grand and brave - but imprecise, somehow intangible. Listening to her can feel like trying to stand on a cloud before realizing it's made of mist.

I've plunked in my iPod to play some tunes while we mill about the studio waiting for the cover shoot to begin. I know what kind of music Monáe likes: artists like Stevie Wonder, Prince and Michael Jackson - all inspirations for her own music.

So I crank up a Michael Jackson tribute station and "Black or White" is soon washing over the racks of monochromatic wardrobe.Then the tribute portion of the station's programming kicks in.

Justin Timberlake and Ciara take over. Monáe's assistant, Kim, a friendly classically trained opera singer who loves French music, slides over with a smile and message that boils down to "Um, no."

She pops in one of Monáe's old iPods, and soon Stevie Wonder's "Superstition" is thumping and Nate is shimmying quietly across the room, humming, his dreads swaying like willow branches.

Standing among her team, who are also all clad in signature black and white, Monáe looks like a diminutive army officer. Today's uniform of white top, cropped black pants and patent Repetto slippers channels her unlikely roster of style icons, ranging from Karl Lagerfeld to Albert Einstein.

But, just as listening to the same two albums over and over would eventually make you blow your brains out, wouldn't dressing only in black and white - sharply tailored pantsuits for the most part - get a little dull?

"The colours come out in your music, the colours come out in your personality, the colours come out in performance," she starts to explain. Then she stops. "I started wearing this uniform, to be perfectly honest, because I have an amazing body."

I feel my expression shift into the facial equivalent of "WTF." Over the years, she has given many reasons for her sartorial choices - most often, she says the look is to pay homage to her parents, who wore uniforms while working as a janitor and a garbage-truck driver, respectively.

"I'm serious - I'm not playing," she maintains. "When I look at myself in the mirror, I'm attractive. I really have a nice body. And I had to pick: Do I want them to focus on my body? Do I want them to focus on how curvy and really, really gorgeous my figure is? Or do I want them to look at my music? What has more value? And I made that decision. I want them to focus on the message and the music because I feel like I have a higher calling."

This is not the kind of talk you hear very often. It's jarring. Especially for those of us who were raised in an era that served girl power with a heaping side of cleavage.

But Monáe is giving us a choice: to cringe, because, well, insecurity is much more socially acceptable - or to throw up our hands like believers at a Baptist church and praise the fact that a woman is willing to be outspoken about her self-confidence.

Learn what Monae loves to wear on the next page...


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