The singer who appears tonight at Essence defines herself in personal, private terms.

janelle monae photo

Janelle Monáe is noticeably still. I’m shown into a hotel room to interview her and she is poised in a chair, at rest but composed. She’s in her trademark black and white—black hat on the back of her head behind her pompadour, black leather motorcycle jacket, black pants with white stripes down the side, and black and white heels. In that outfit, the red broken heart on her white T-shirt and pistachio green nail polish on her toes might as well be searchlights. 

Monáe has become a household face if not name. During the World Cup, she has appeared in Pepsi commercials busking in Rio de Janiero singing David Bowie’s “Heroes” while strumming an acoustic guitar. Since 2012, she has appeared in television and print ads as one of the faces of CoverGirl, but while her music is critically well-received and popular—her videos get millions of views on YouTube—it has yet to cross generations. Last year when she played the main stage at Essence Festival, the high energy, sometimes frenetic set that showed the influence of James Brown, Prince, Michael Jackson as well as Bowie left the old school-leaning audience on the floor of the Superdome a little uncertain of what they were seeing. The spectacle of the diminutive Monáe working her way off the stage to dance her way out into the crowd wasn’t quite as easily processed as Trey Songz’ song-by-song shedding of his suit until he was finally shirtless. 

The variety of influences partly explains that, and in that way she’s like Prince, who invited her to be a part of Friday’s show at Essence. It wasn’t until his fifth album—1999—that his sexually ambiguous blend of funk, classic rock, and new wave reached beyond a large cult audience. Monáe heightened her challenge by writing science fiction concept albums. You don’t have to know the story to enjoy her songs, but unlike many of the artists at Essence, it’s hard know if the “I” in a song speaks for her or a character. As a result, it’s very easy to like Janelle Monáe, but it’s hard to feel like you know her.

The in-person experience is similar. Her background in theater left me wondering how much of the interview was a performance, and it’s tempting to read her self-possession as a calculated effort to stay on message. But it’s also possible that Monáe is a deliberate person, and her desire speak precisely isn’t unreasonable. When she remembers Prince sneaking on stage to drape her cape over her during her recreation of James Brown’s cape routine during a show in Denmark, she does so in a tone of voice that suggests her discomfort at with a moment that didn’t go as planned.

“I was so mad,” she says, then corrects herself. “I was so embarrassed, actually. The whole audience saw him do it. I thought it was my friend who usually puts it on me, so I didn’t look over there. I didn’t look behind me or turn around. It was him, and he was just out there. It was so embarrassing for me because the joke was on me. You didn’t know, Janelle Monáe. He thought it was so funny.”

Her signature style didn’t go quite as planned either. She chose the uniform look as a nod to working people like her parents. “It didn’t really start as a fashion,” she says. “I knew that it was cool, but I was trying to do the opposite. I wanted people to really pay attention to my music and my message and not focus on my clothes. It worked out, but I didn’t plan for it to be a fashionable statement. When I put on the uniform, I feel bigger than life. I feel like I have to go out and fight and stand up for so many people.”

Monáe knew from the start that she wanted a defined look. “Branding was always important to me,” she says, and she likes the way the looks of people as different as Karl Lagerfeld and Steve Jobs evokes their worlds and ideas. “I wanted to make sure that people associate my wardrobe with a lifestyle. When you think about me, you think about hard working people, you think about Wondaland Arts Society, arts, music, things that I’ve done, things that I’m doing, things that I think are important enough to promote.”

This afternoon, she’s promoting CoverGirl’s #GirlsCan initiative. The campaign to empower young women launched during the Winter Olympics, and Monáe is one of the faces of it. “Girls can redefine what it means to be a woman,” she says. “By being who we are as women and being bold enough to share our stories, we’re getting rid of the idea of girls can’t. We’re teaching girls early on that you have to break down those rules that people have instilled in your mind and your heart that you can’t do something because women don’t do this.”

It’s tempting hear those sentiments as the company line, but it’s consistent with Monáe’s music. Freedom is a theme in The ArchAndroid and The Electric Lady, and the latter specifically addresses women. In one chorus of “Q.U.E.E.N.” from The Electric Lady, she sings, “Even if it makes others uncomfortable / I will love who I am,” and in another she sings:

Am I a freak for dancing around?
Am I a freak for getting down?
I'm cutting up, don't cut me down
Yeah I wanna be, wanna be Q.U.E.E.N.

That chorus doesn’t simply reflect anxiety about self-expression. “Q.U.E.E.N.” stands for “The queer, the untouchables, the excommunicated, the emigrant, and the Negro. The Negroid—a combination of ‘Negro’ and ‘Android,’” Monáe says. Her art embraces cultural outsiders, so standing up for girls is in her conceptual wheelhouse. “I took a womanist approach; I took a feminist approach,” she says of The Electric Lady. “I wanted to make sure as many women’s stories were told as possible on the album. I wanted to make sure I was speaking for all different types of women, and the music that I put in there was a representation of our cries. Our sorrows. Our confidence. Our vulnerabilities. Our struggles.”

During our interview, I try to find ways to make it more of a conversation. I tell her how much I like her cover of “Heroes” hoping that the Bowie fan in her will step out, and maybe it does, but with equal reserve. Bowie’s an influence and she’s glad he likes the version, Monáe says. I mention my daughter to connect to the #GirlsCan concept on a less abstract level, but Monáe easily processes her place in the conversation and incorporates her in a genuine way. She doesn’t dismiss or gloss lightly over the constraining frameworks that are already in place for a one-year-old, but she doesn’t become any more animated when talking about them.

Or maybe that’s just who she is, and her career so far says she’s committed to being herself. I am also the first of a series of interviews, and she will spend the next hour in that seat having similar conversations. Later, she will go to a CoverGirl #GirlsCan dinner, so maybe she is just conserving her strength. And maybe the reserve I think I see has more to do with my desire to have an interview be more of a conversation. Maybe she just wants to do an interview.

After we say our goodbyes, I’m packing up to leave when she volunteers, “Give your daughter a hug for me.” Monáe doesn’t say it effusively, but she says it spontaneously, suggesting as so much of her art does that we need to be careful if we think we know her. 

For more, see my story on Monáe in USA Today.