Janelle Monáe's performance in the 2016 film "Hidden Figures" earned rave reviews. But it was her music that first put her on the path to stardom ... a path that started with family, as she explains to our Tony Dokoupil, For The Record:
It's been a while since Janelle Monáe was just a singer in a living room choir. "This is where I had all my earliest memories of just being a performer, and wanting to sing, and wanting to entertain," she said.
Her family in Kansas City never doubted she was headed to a larger stage, though her movies might have surprised them.
Monáe was a co-star of 2016's Best Picture Oscar-nominee "Hidden Figures," and Best Picture winner "Moonlight."
But music is where she's made her mark. The six-time Grammy-nominee infuses her music with a heady blend of genres -- a retro groove with a futuristic vibe.
To watch Janelle Monáe perform "Tightrope" click on the video player below:
It's an exuberant ride, which she takes in a new direction on her latest album, "Dirty Computer." The title reflects Monáe's long fascination with science fiction.
The latest example: her "emotion picture," as she calls it, a mini-movie about, well, a "dirty computer":
"This album deals with what it means to reckon with how you're viewed in society," she said. "Dirty computers are taught that who they love or their race or where they come from, their class, all those things are bugs and are viruses, and you should be cleansed of those."
"Have you felt like, in your life or in your career, that you are a nonconformist, a dirty computer?"
"I am absolutely a dirty computer," she replied. "Absolutely."
To watch Janelle Monáe perform "I Like That" from "Dirty Computer" click on the video player below:
Her songs are part protest and part celebration, she says, with a nod to her own journey from Kansas City and the working class block where Janelle Monáe Robinson grew up.
"This neighborhood has definitely seen better times. When drugs came, crack in particular, it ruined a lot of families," she said.
Monáe's own father, Michael -- now sober -- was lost for most of Monáe's childhood.
He told Dokouopil, "If I'm the perfect father, then she might just be just regular. But since I was who I was, since I had the downfall that I had, it caused her to move forward and to say, 'I'm never gonna be like that.' So it worked out for the positive."
Dokoupil asked Monáe, "Do you think that's true?"
"I think that my parents were examples," she said. "Sometimes good examples, sometimes bad examples."
Monáe's maternal grandmother was the matriarch of the family. "She was the closest person to God to me," she said. "When you say God is love, my grandmother, she represented that every day."
She says her grandmother taught her the value of hard work. "She came from sharecropping. She made something out of nothing."
That's why Monáe decided early on to honor her roots through her style.
"I wanted black and white to be my uniform," she said. "I wanted people, when they saw me in a tuxedo or in black and white, to remember that this is where I come from. I come from a mother and a father who were custodian workers."
It was Monáe's mother, Janice, who first saw in her daughter echoes of greatness, from James Brown to Elvis: "People say, 'Oh, your daughter's music is really, really different,' And I say, 'You know why it's different? She got 'em all wrapped in one ball!'"
"I'm from the future," Monáe explained to her. "I'm futuristic!"
Monáe cleaned up at local talent contests. She was 14 the first year she won.
"What's goin' on with that hair?" Dokoupil asked.
"I don't know!" she laughed. "Here, you get a close-up. All right, that's enough. Oh, my goodness!"
And with eleven aunts and uncles, she always had plenty of fans.
With a lot of love behind her, if not a lot of money, Monáe won a scholarship to study musical theater in New York City. But she didn't see a future in it, and dropped out. "My family was so upset with me," she laughed. "Oh my goodness, they're like, 'You wasted our prayers! All you talked about was New York, New York, New York. And you mean to tell me you're going to leave?'"
Rather than face her family back home, Monáe crashed with friends in Atlanta, and for the first time started writing and performing her own original songs. "I had to make it work," she said.
"As hard as it was going to be, it was gonna be easier than going back home and feeling like, what, a failure?" Dokoupil asked.
"Feelin' like I failed, yeah. I did not want to go home for people to say, 'Man, you really let us down.'"
But she was soon signed by hip hop mogul Sean Combs, and mentored by Prince, whose death, she says, left her at a loss and delayed her work on "Dirty Computer." "I could always call Prince, he was always there. He really was a believer in what we were doing," she said.
"I couldn't call my mentor. He's been around since my first full-length album. If this was 'Star Wars,' he was kinda like Yoda to my Han Solo," she laughed. "I could talk to him about anything."
Monáe's provacative video for her new song, "Pynk," would no doubt have won purple approval.
"Prince was a straight black man, but throughout his career, he reveled in playing a fluid role; he never really settled the question," Dokoupil said. "Is it fair to say, him being your mentor and you doing the kind of work that you're doing with this latest video, that you're not gonna settle the question, either?"
"I think that it is important for people to be proud of their identity," Monáe said. "I am very proud to be a queer, young black woman in America. I'm proud of who I am. I love myself and I want for all the dirty computers around the world to feel seen and to be heard and to feel celebrated, and to know that I'm right there with you."
With her new album, Janelle Monáe, the cool kid from the future with all that style from the past, is finally feeling at home in the present.
She told Dokoupil, "I wanted to give Janelle Monáe Robinson, the girl from Kansas, who left New York, who went to Atlanta, where she is in life, an opportunity to speak. This is her time right now."
For more info:
- Follow @JanelleMonae on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and Youtube
- "Dirty Computer" by Janelle Monáe (Bad Boy Records/WEA), available on CD (Amazon, Barnes & Noble), Digital Download (Amazon, iTunes) and Streaming (Amazon, Spotify)
Story produced by Reid Orvedahl.