Janelle Monáe's debut album, The ArchAndroid, came out in 2010, and ever since, fans watched her develop not only as a musician and actor but as a cultural icon, too. For women everywhere, and particularly Black women, Monáe is proof that you can be exactly who you are, even in an industry that's constantly trying to tell you who to be. In a recent interview with InStyle, the artist opened up about her career goals, the importance of expressing her sexuality and blackness through art, and being a badass trailblazer in music. And yeah, it's extremely powerful.
"I've always wanted to redefine what a cool young black woman looks like in the music industry," she told the outlet. For Monáe, making music was never about achieving a certain level of fame. Instead, it was about rebuilding a broken system that tried to place her into a neat little box. "I was never interested in fitting into a system that wasn't built for me or with me in mind. I'm interested in burning that shit down and building something new."
Monáe's desire to blaze trails has extended far beyond making music. In 2016, she dove into acting headfirst with performances in Moonlight and Hidden Figures. This year, she'll also be in a Harriet Tubman biopic and The Glorias: A Life on the Road, based on Gloria Steinem's autobiography. Like her music, Monáe's choice in movie roles reflects the responsibility she feels to bring awareness to cultural issues and historical truths.
Her most recent album, 2018's Dirty Computer, did the same by including less ambiguous lyrics about her sexuality; she also came out as pansexual a day before its release. "I don't look at myself as just an actor or a musician," she revealed. "I am an artist, and I have a responsibility to tell the truth. I use different mediums, but it's all storytelling to me."
But this intense feeling of responsibility didn't come about on its own. In fact, it was largely sparked by attending church with her family. "The majority of [my family] grew up Baptist, and the sermons would all be around how if you are a homosexual or if you're gay and you don't repent and live a heteronormative life and get married, well... hell is your final destination," she said. Still, these messages didn't stop her from speaking her truth to her parents and the rest of the world in a 2018 Rolling Stone interview. "I talked to my mom and dad first, and my mom, in particular, had a lot of questions. I said, 'Mama, the only way that I can create art is to truthfully tell my story. It has to come from an honest place, and this is who I honestly am. I don't know any other way. I have to talk about my sexuality. I have to talk about my blackness. I have to talk about my womanness. I have to talk about these things. This is who I am as a person.'"
These days, Monáe completely embraces every facet of who she is; but even that doesn't come without its challenges. For her, wholeheartedly loving the things that make her different is something she has to choose to do every day when she wakes up. "Embracing your uniqueness is an active choice," she said. "I don't wake up looking flawless every morning. I don't wake up feeling empowered. I don't wake up feeling fearless. I have to actively choose to feel that way."
And the things that used to make her feel small? Well, they don't bother her anymore. "... if I walk in [a room] and I'm the only black woman in a room of white folks and they are making decisions, there is a power dynamic there where I feel like I may have to assert myself more, or I may be a little uncomfortable, depending on what's on the table for me to own," she said. "That used to intimidate me, but now when I walk in, I realize that I am an important piece of the puzzle. My ideas matter. What I have to create has the potential to shape the world, to change the narrative, to be more inclusive."