Originally published in
April 2011
It’s the year 2719 in the megacity of Metropolis, where The ArchAndroid Cindi Mayweather travels to restore the love and balance between the haves and have nots, between the humans and androids. She is the chosen one and when she alone puts on The ArchAndroid crown will its joyful light, magical powers and pioneering technologies be unleashed. Welcome to the otherworldly sci-fi pop of Janelle Monáe.
How are we going to live with the other, are we going to treat them inhumanely, teach our children to fear them?
Photography: Matthew Brodie

It’s a high concept sound space where genres soar together into an intergalactic bop that is both daring and accomplished. R&B and rap, funk and soul, psychedelic and prog rock, musicals and soundtracks, 60s pop and orchestral overtures all comes into play to create Monáe’s supersonic story. Meanwhile her voice, equal parts Stevie Wonder, David Bowie, André 3000 and Judy Garland, sings, raps, preaches and whispers about the dazzling, time travelling adventures of her messianic muse Mayweather. On her debut album alone, she goes on the run, falls in love with a human (Sir Greendown) and escapes to Nirvana.

Mayweather is a powerful and intoxicating construct, but will the real Monáe please stand up?

Here she is today, in a photographic studio is north London. Polite. Petite. Cute as a button. Her signature quiff rises seemingly effortlessly out in front of her like a unicorn’s horn. And she’s dressed in her customary monochrome suit, bow tie and brogues: part Chuck Berry, part hotel lift operator. What she lacks in height she makes up for in persona as she leaps, salutes and does funny walks in front of the camera. Charlie Chaplin without the cane. Off camera though she resumes her calm, precise and professional manner.

The flesh and bones Janelle Monáe Robinson was born in Kansas City in the American Midwest roughly 25 years ago (she won’t personally confirm her age). It was a tough upbringing surrounded by loved ones tempted by crime, alcohol and drugs. “My mother was a janitor, my father drove trash trucks and my stepfather still works at the post office. So I came up with a family that was determined to make something out of nothing by working very hard,” says Monáe. “They inspired me to follow my dreams, to create music for the working men and women who are going through life’s obstacles and need to be uplifted. Music found me – this was my purpose. So when I was 11 years old I sat my parents down and told them what I wanted to do and that they must all get on board.”

Monáe studied at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York and dabbled in Broadway before moving to Atlanta, Georgia where she founded the Wondaland Arts Society record label. “It consists of thrivers who celebrate individuality and preserve art. We think it is important that people embrace the things that make them unique - use them as super powers, if you will. We have performance artists, screenwriters, visual artists, graphic novelists and musicians who all understand the power of music and want to create a different blueprint for the generations to come. And we all wear black and white uniforms to pay homage to the working people.”

Her ambition peaked the interest of Big Boi, who invited her to produce a track for Outkast’s 2006 soundtrack to Idlewild. “It was around this time I got fired from the Office Depot for checking my website at work,” Monáe says, allowing herself to smile. “That was one of the best things to happen to me.” Wondaland upped its musical output, the first EP Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), introducing Cindi Mayweather in 2007. Sean Combs flew down for the release party, liked what he heard, and re-released it in 2008 with five tracks including Many Moons, the expansive video for which received a 2009 Grammy award nomination. “He was inspired by Wondaland and wanted to champion our cause,” Monae says of her Bad Boy boss. “We remain the leaders but he is exposing what has been going on in the underground to the main circus.”

Her debut album The ArchAndroid was almost two years in the making and comprises of suites II and III of the four-part Metropolis series. Recorded in Atlanta, Prague, Turkey and a mysterious location Monáe refers to as “The Palace of The Dogs”, she’s worked with Wondaland’s Nate Wonder, Chuck Lightning and Deep Cotton, poet Saul Williams, indie outfit Of Montreal and Big Boi.

Heavily inspired by Fritz Lang’s 1927 German expressionist film Metropolis, which used an urban dystopia to berate capitalism, she too has invented a not too distant future in order to comment on the walls within which she is expected to perform and present herself as a black female artist. “As an African American woman, as an immigrant, wherever I am I’m always the minority,” she explains, carefully. “So I came up with the concept of the android as the other in society. I’ve been studying the theory of technological singularity, which predicts that as advances in technology becomes faster, there will be a point when robots will be able to map out the brainpower of humans and recreate our emotions. I’m posing the question - how are we going to live with the other, are we going to treat them inhumanely, teach our children to fear them?”

Monáe is following in the Afrofuturist footsteps of Sun Ra, Afrika Bambaataa, Herbie Hancock, Kool Keith and OutKast. She is beaming us up to another dimension where she battles racial and sexual prejudices closer to home. The music plunges the listener into a universe where we’re left to our own imaginations. “It’s an emotion picture for the mind. I believe that it evokes feelings that you haven’t been in touch with in a long time or that you even didn’t know existed. A lot of the songs came to me in my dreams. The music is transformative and when you listen to it from beginning to end there is an arch that you do not want to miss.”

Yet for all of Monáe’s references, messages and philosophies, nothing drowns out the simple fact that The ArchAndroid sounds finger clicking good. Not once does she lose sight of her main objective and that’s to make timeless music. The first single Tightrope might be a tutorial about having balance in one’s life but it’s the jazzy brass section, doo-wop beat and accompanying Tightrope dance – a cross between the crow and the moon walk – that has prompted legions of fans to post their own versions on YouTube. Likewise the next single Cold War is at once a rallying cry to stand up for your beliefs and a heart-stabbing slice of epic soul.

“For me it’s all about the music. It needs to be great. It needs to move you. The recording is what’s going to stay around after you pass on to a different frequency. I want my music to have the longevity of a Stevie Wonder or James Brown recording.”

The album reached the Billboard top 20 this summer, and since it’s release she’s appeared on Letterman, collaborated with Lupe Fiasco, received the Vanguard trophy at the Rhythm & Soul Music Awards and shared a Vibe magazine cover with Combs and Rick Ross. She’s also toured with Erykah Badu and on her own, electrifying audiences with her energetic and theatrical stage performances. To come is Dance Or Die, an 18-chapter music video to accompany The ArchAndroid, as well as a graphic novel called The Red Book and perhaps even a Broadway show. She’s also setting up a foundation to help young girls from disadvantaged backgrounds.

“I am excited for my future and the possibilities that are out there for me but I also want to stay in the moment and not rush things,” she says, glancing at the time. She’s due across town at BBC’s Radio 1 in 30 minutes. “I do everything with purpose and am enjoying the journey. This still feels like the beginning.”