Janelle Monáe's Autobiographical Past

Rock Lit is where Hive discusses the intersection of literature and music.

Janelle Monáe’s first two offerings -- 2007's Metropolis EP and 2010's The ArchAndroid -- created a vast sci-fi narrative about a robot (and Monáe’s alter ego) named Cindi Mayweather. Told in three suites over the course of the two discs, the story’s comprehensive and imaginative, a product of someone familiar with narrative arcs. Monáe, who considers herself equal parts musician, writer and visual artist, says she drew inspiration from both science fiction literature and films like Metropolis and Blade Runner. In this edition of Rock Lit, Monáe discusses her history with the written word, finding inspiration in Android literature and why giving books to your record label can benefit your career.

What was your experience with books like as a child?

Books were very important to me because I had a very broad and vivid imagination. I’m a writer as well, so I was heavily involved at a young playwright roundtable in Kansas. I would write plays and actors at the theater would perform them. So, my nature is a writer, and I appreciate literature so very much. I write my songs, and I’m constantly writing in a journal and creating quotes, and trying to read as much as I possibly can. I believe knowledge is very empowering, especially in this day and age; you have to be aware and able to talk about or write music for what’s going on in the world. Part of being a writer is being a great reader.

What sort of books do you tend to gravitate toward?

I love autobiographies. As I’m shaping who I am as a person, I love understanding people’s stories. And I love science fiction because I live in my imagination. There’s so many possibilities and there’s so much room for fantasy, which I definitely believe an artist should be tapped into. The imagination inspires nations and if you can imagine something, I bet it’s possible.

Were there any specific science fiction books that inspired The ArchAndroid?

Yes, I started reading Wild Seed by Octavia Butler. I love the character Doro in there. She reminded me a lot of myself. She had so many dimensions -- we all do -- and there’s so many sides of me. The Bible was also something [I read]. The ArchAndroid is very similar to the Archangel from the Bible and Neo from The Matrix; the one who brings people together. The Singularity is Near is another book people should read, by Ray Kurzweil. I read it to understand the singularity and even think about a world of androids. It really did inspire me to think about what will happen when another race comes. We live in a world where you won’t be able to differentiate computers and androids from human beings.

Has there been a book that’s been particularly inspiring to you during the music writing process?

There’s a book called The Big Moo by Seth Godin. That, and [Godin’s] The Purple Cow helped me want to be more remarkable. In my industry, there’s a lot of the same recycled ideas because certain formulas work for artists. That book really got me in tune with the things that are the most remarkable about me. I felt more comfortable on capitalizing off those things. And I also gave everyone at Atlantic Record -- my partnering label -- a copy of it. I asked them to read it. It was one of the first things I did when I did the partnership with Bad Boy and Atlantic.

Did they read it?

Yeah, they did … you have to empower them, especially if you’re creating a movement and a team. Everybody needs to be on the same page and that’s the great thing about what we’re doing is that people are on the same page in terms of the goals, in terms of the message and core values.

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