Janelle Monáe on Dirty Computer and the Music Industry’s #Time’sUp Reckoning

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Photo: Kevin Mazur/Getty Images

Janelle Monáe wrote a new national anthem. Not a “sort of” national anthem, or a “kinda” national anthem — not just a song generally understood to be infused with empowerment and freedom, a song that could fit someone’s American ideal. The finale of Dirty Computer, Monáe’s third studio album, is “Americans,” a rallying cry that feels like exploding fireworks and solidarity. It’s an American fantasy. Her single “Django Jane” name-checks black artists that escaped America and its oppression, in a rap about black excellence. How does “Americans” fit into that artistic legacy? “My ancestors literally built the White House that the leader of the free world sleeps in, but [Donald Trump] still disrespects immigrants and people who were forced to come over here,” Monáe says. “I don’t have to leave. This is just as much as my country as it is his, or those who are in the position of power. Why do I have to leave?”

Monáe needed to take time off in the five years between Electric Lady and this month’s Dirty Computer. “I needed to gather, to hunt, to bring back inspiration and life experiences in order to write about them, in order to let the album, in a sense, have the fuel and the gas to drive itself,” she says. Hidden Figures, Moonlight, and life had to happen to before Monáe could make sense of an ambitious album and accompanying visual film (the “emotion picture”) that she dreamed up even before most of the world knew who she was. “I feel like I had my whole life to make my first album,” she says. So with with Dirty Computer, she took her time. In an interview conducted before Monáe’s coming-out in a Rolling Stone profile, she spoke with Vulture about Dirty Computer, Donald Trump, and why the music industry has been slower to grapple with the Time’s Up reckoning.

When did you start writing Dirty Computer?
I’ve had the concept for Dirty Computer since before I did The ArchAndroid. I’ve always known that I was going to do this album, it was just about when, the timing, making myself emotionally available. This is not my most vulnerable or honest album. I’m being more vulnerable and more honest, but I knew that it was going to take another level. It’s important for artists — or, really, I’ll speak for me in particular — to take it to the next level in terms of how I communicate the messages that I want to communicate. When I decided that I was going to do Dirty Computer, it was according to my soul clock, and according to feeling like I had the time to live, and to experience, and to fully articulate what it is that I was trying to say.

Can you tell me about what was instructive in the years you took between the ArchAndroid and this new work?
When you are making music and creating art, especially in front of your new fans, your old fans, supporters, sometimes you don’t have time to have the experiences that you need. I feel like I had my whole life to make my first album. With Dirty Computer, I was in the middle of coming off from The Electric Lady, touring, getting a distribution deal for Wondaland Records, and I had more artists to help support. I also went to do Hidden Figures and Moonlight, and these were all amazing opportunities. But I needed to carve out time, though, to gather, to hunt, to bring back inspiration and life experiences in order to write about them, in order to let the album, in a sense, have the fuel and the gas to drive itself.

When did you know that Dirty Computer was done? Was that ever a struggle for you, figuring out when this work was finished?
I can tend to lean on my more perfectionist side, but I decided that’s it’s just a choice. It’s a choice to be a perfectionist, and I realized that I didn’t enjoy my experiences, or the experience of making the album when I was thinking in that mind-set. I allowed myself time to gather ideas. I allowed myself time to be upset, to not know how to articulate what it is that I was trying to say.

Figuring out the three chapters of Dirty Computer was important. The album’s broken up into three parts: the reckoning, the celebration, and the reclamation. Once I got out all the things that I wanted to talk about, I started to divide the songs into those three chapters. I felt like I had a really good framework to work within. You don’t turn it in until you feel like, If this was my last album, would I be satisfied? Or would I be proud of it? Did I do this? Did I give my all, as though this is my last album? And that’s when I walked away.

Did Prince get a chance to hear the final version of this album?
No.

I’m sorry to hear that. Dirty Computer becomes directly political in some songs: Both “Pynk” and “Juice” make direct references to Donald Trump and the Access Hollywood tape. I’m wondering how much the election impacted the album.
The election sped up the release of Dirty Computer. I was actually taking longer to do it, and then I felt a sense of urgency because of the election. When you elect a president and a vice-president who have been very clear about their Islamophobia, their racism, their sexism — leaders who’ve been very clear about how they feel about marginalized groups, people that I care about, groups that I feel a part of, it was important for me to figure out how I could celebrate [these communities]. How I could celebrate us during the time when the leader of the free world, and those of positions of power, made it very clear that we don’t give a fuck about you.

The election is when I knew it had to be done. My activism, and my job, and my purpose as an artist is to figure out how I can celebrate those who are marginalized, and who are oppressed, and I just feel like that’s been my calling throughout all of my work. I think Dirty Computer just does it in a more near-future sense. The previous albums did it in a further future tense — the year 2719 — and Dirty Computer deals with a nearer future.

This president is so obsessed with entertainment, and such a loose cannon on Twitter. Have you thought at all about what it would be like if he responds online?
I don’t care. Well, I do care — I hope that he listens to the album. I hope that he realizes the ways that he has been a divisive person for humanity, and I hope that he listens not to be defensive or to clap back, but listens to understand, these dirty computers are America and have the right to the American dream, and the pursuit of happiness.

I’m really struck by Dirty Computer functions as a work of political resistance and patriotism. In “Django Jane” you mention how black artists in the past — Baldwin, especially — emigrated to Europe because of the racism in this country. But the album also ends with an anthem celebrating this country. Can you talk to me about that duality?
My ancestors built this country. My ancestors literally built the White House that the leader of the free world sleeps in, but he still disrespects immigrants and people who were forced to come over here. I don’t have to leave. This is just as much as my country as it is his or those who are in the position of power. Why do I have to leave?

You mentioned James Baldwin — I’m a huge Baldwin fan. Josephine Baker, I referenced, “fled to Paris in the darkest hour, spoke truth to power,” on “Django Jane.” I wanted to pay homage to them. But also, I think it was a different time. The choice that they made was the right choice, but I think that there are new things at stake, and I feel that it’s important to reclaim what’s ours. And that’s why my song “Americans,” is in the reclamation section of Dirty Computer, you know? I’m not going to Canada. I’m staying right here. We built this shit.

Can you tell me more about plotting the visual side of Dirty Computer?
I wanted something that speaks about the erasure of oppressed people, and how it’s happening right now. The very color of my skin as a black woman, the color of your skin as a black woman — but especially darker skin — can get you killed. It can get you escorted out of a Starbucks, because you pose a threat to them just based off your complexion. Sandra Bland and Rekia Boyd were women who died at the hands of the abusers of power and police force. Our very existence as dirty computers makes a lot of folks uncomfortable, and I just wanted to make sure that I had a story that if you didn’t understand it on the album, that you visually and conceptually understood it with the motion picture.

I would like to talk more broadly about the music industry. Something else you touch on in “Django Jane” are awards and that validation. Why do you think this industry has been so slow to recognize and award the achievements of black women?
I’m satisfied with us recognizing ourselves. I love celebrating my peers. I love celebrating the success of Black Panther, the success of Beyoncé, the success of Cardi B, the success of Lena Waithe, the success of Issa Rae, the success of Yara Shahidi, the success of Wondaland Records’ artists. That’s enough. When my peers show up, like Lupita did to the “emotion picture” premiere, where we’re dancing in the aisles, that’s just as big as any accolade or award to me. Being seen by those people means the world to me, and is just as valid.

Your Time’s Up speech at the Grammys was a highlight of that show. Why do you think this reckoning has taken longer to gain traction in the music community?
That’s a really great question. I think there are a number of things, but I’ll start with one: This is a male-dominated industry, and I don’t think the men are having conversations about their own behavior. I’m not going to group all men and say that all men are guilty of sexual harassment or rape. But I do think that there are certain conversations that men have been privy to, and by speaking to some of them, they’ve felt very guilty about not addressing these issues when they had the opportunity to.

I also think that because this is a male-dominated industry, women are not being hired. We’re not in that powerful position to hire more women, because the people at the top are men. I won’t say that all men are doing this, but the majority of record-label execs, and the people in the position of power, are male. I think if women were in those positions, they would put more women in their Cabinets, in those conference rooms, in those meetings. And it’s already been proven that sexual harassment goes down immensely when a woman is in charge.

There need to be some systemic changes. We need to look to give women more opportunities to be in these discussions around hiring, and around the culture. Like I said when I was on that Grammys stage, we have the power to shape culture, and we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well, but we have to start with honesty. We have to start with listening not to respond, but listening to understand.

The film industry is embracing inclusion riders. Do you think that could be applied to music?
Absolutely. I think it’s a great idea. I am pro-inclusion rider.

As a woman with her own label, how many women are on your team right now?
Thirty-seven, across various teams from music, film, management, staff, and band.

There’s a spiritual quality to a lot of this music. You grew up in a Baptist church in Kansas City, but are you still religious?
I love religiously. I try to practice love. It’s hard sometimes, especially when you’re trying to love an enemy, or someone that you feel is threatening your livelihood or the people you love. Thinking about abusers of power, it’s hard to say I love them, but I try to do that. I try to learn from other religions, too. I have Muslim friends, I have atheist friends, I have Baptist friends.

I don’t think that I’m a person who is qualified to speak about religion. I know, and believe, that we’ve been put here to learn from each other. I also think that no one has the answer, on Earth. You can have faith, and you can believe, and that’s great, and I also believe that if your religion makes you a better person, a more loving person, a more giving person, I think you should choose that religion.

I also grew up in a Baptist community, and sometimes it was hard explaining those ideas.
You feel this way? Like, how I’m feeling?

Yes, completely. Religion doesn’t always happen in a church, it can happen in reading, in writing, in secular music, anything.
I think you just have to be careful about making sure your religion doesn’t get in the way of you connecting with other human beings because of their own religious beliefs.

I’ve read that you really inherited this love of science fiction from your grandmother. Can you tell me more about that relationship?
Me and my grandmother used to watch Alfred Hitchcock, Twilight Zone, ET — I can go on, and on, and on. I didn’t get into writing my own sci-fi until I was in high school. I was a part of the Coterie Theatre’s Young Playwrights Roundtable, and I started to write short stories. If they were great enough, the local actors there would perform them.

I would write short stories about alien attacks in Kansas City, and my family thought that I had really, really lost my mind, and they were like, you need to go to church and pray, you know. And, so, prayer didn’t work, and here you have it. I am still a science-fiction nerd, and geek, and Octavia Butler is one of my favorite science-fiction writers. She’s one of my favorite, then Philip K. Dick, then Isaac Asimov.

Has your family come around to seeing the larger vision now?
I’ve always stuck out in my family, but they’ve always been supportive. They knew that my heart was in music, and in entertaining, and being an artist, that’s all. They supported me through the arts. My parents have been very supportive of me as a writer, as an artist, and the arts kept me out of a lot of trouble. I grew up in Kansas City, Kansas. During the summertime at least two of my male friends would be killed due to gun violence. You’d come back that next year and you have to just pretend like you’re not hurt by what has happened.

I know you’re a big Scandal fan — have you watched the series finale?
Don’t spoil it for me! I don’t go online. I never like for people to know my favorite shows, either. I’m really, really possessive about Scandal and How to Get Away With Murder. I have to watch them alone, like it’s my meditation.

Janelle Monáe on Dirty Computer and Music’s Time’s Up Moment