Did you mean to come out as gender non-binary?
(Yes, rubber duckies can be scary!) I can barely see on a good day, and it was so dark that I had to squint to read the clues — even listening to the recording the proprietors graciously allowed me to make, there’s a lot of me saying, “I can’t see.” The room was creepy AF: serial killer verité, with eerie music and terrifying rubber duckies. In the Escape Room, we played private investigators on the hunt for the Zodiac killer, who had clearly messed up somehow, and ended up locked in his basement.
I looked at it today, and someone has changed all your pronouns to "they." [Note: Monae’s Wikipedia page now alternates between “they” and “she.”] I think the last time I looked at your Wikipedia page was before the photoshoot and video interview last month.
Then I got into vintage shopping. So I was a busy arts student, expressing myself through art, and I started to really use fashion as a way to express that. I was very artsy. I was also in the acapella choir, was doing talent shows — this is in high school. I was an international thespian, I would compete in monologue competitions.
Have you directed?
We did escape, with quite a bit of help from our game master, Josh. And we may have been given extra time on the clock (we so were). But a victory is a victory!
I want people to look at me as an artist that speaks truth based off my experience, and based off what my core values are. I think having more access to rooms — and having more interviews — has just amplified that message.
Your business is in Atlanta, at least for now?
We actually solved endless puzzles; simultaneously screamed at one particularly effective jump-scare; and at one point, Monáe had to lie down in a coffin while I raced around trying to free her. We began the room handcuffed to pipes, searching for the keys that would free us (as I awkwardly tried to ask about the Oscars). Because it was just the two of us, I couldn’t do my usual Escape Room thing of wandering around while picking up objects to look at intently, while praying for the hour to pass. Once we figured out how to get out of the cuffs, we tackled the larger mystery. “I love my family, and I love being an artist, and I had a great life!” she said as she lay down.
Looking back, it feels like this night happened in a different universe. But it was still a month before the global pandemic shut down most of the country, and 115,000 Americans (and counting) died. And it was months before national protests over the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor would inspire a cathartic reckoning about racism and police brutality. I had brought hand sanitizer because of my growing fear of coronavirus, and used it liberally.
And you just pray and hope that what you saw is able to be edited to something that you love even more. I have respect for the directors that I've worked with.
I feel my feminine, I feel my masculine, I feel energy that I can't really explain. That's me.” You know, in the same way when Prince said, “I'm not a woman/ I'm not a man/ I'm something that you'll never understand” in “I Would Die 4 U" — that resonated with me. When I retweeted I'm nonbinary, it was "I'm not binary day," and so I did a hashtag to show support to the community. The meme is what resonated with me, from “Steven Universe:” “I'm not a woman, I'm not a man, I'm an experience.” And I said, “F— yes!
And what it means to step on screen and take a character and make you empathize with the complexity of us as human beings. What it means to go into the music industry and make statements with your music and with your image and with your performances. I feel like my calling is to do that. Whether it's in fashion, to tell a story through my armor — there's a story there. You do that on the music side when you work with different producers, or you're collaborating with different artists. I look at myself as a polymath, as well — you know, I'm not monolithic.
We have a film and TV company, Wondaland Pictures. So I haven't really been able to find one within the price range. Half. I'm looking for a place here, but it's so hard, because I'm looking for something that has a space where I can have a studio and keep my business separate from my living space. I'm making plans to be bicoastal.
Do you consider yourself a political artist?
Luckily, Monáe is an expert reader of teeny, tiny type, an intuitive solver of puzzles, and an optimistic, encouraging teammate.
But I will say this: I'm so happy that people are learning more about what it means to be gender non-conforming, and what it means to be non-binary.
Because I am, in addition to just acting and staying in the moment, looking at it from a director's lens. Because I am very objective about my acting. That's what makes me realize that I think that I'm meant to direct. And I'm really fast. Let me tell you, I watch all my takes when I do film and TV.
Instantly. For us to be represented in this way in the film industry, regardless of how big it gets or how small it remains, I want to be a part of it. If the song doesn't touch my spirit, I'm not gonna sing it. This is important for culture." This is important for little black boys, girls, non-binary — little humans all around the world to see this film. If the lyrics don't make me want to dance, I'm not going to record them. It resonated with me. So when I read that script, I cried. That's how I've always worked. It wasn't anything but the spirit of that script, and me saying, "This is important.
I'm sure you think of yourself as both a singer and an actor. But how do you see the relationship between those things complementing each other?
As a human, as an android, as somebody who has felt othered in this society — I speak up for myself, and for folks that I feel like look like me that may not have the platform. I think people have tried to understand me for a very long time. I don't! It's just about sharing the mic.
This interview — which, again, took place on Feb. 12 — has been edited and condensed.” />
That's good for me, but also can be nerve-racking — because I don't get that final cut on a film or TV show. So that means if you guys love “Antebellum,” and love “Homecoming,” just know my hand was in it. And I consider myself a storyteller. But for the most part, you're bringing to life a story that someone else has written. Music is a lot more personal, because I'm drawing from stories of who I am, and what has happened to me and where I am in the world. With film, you're doing what you can for that character. There’s not as much control. But if you don't love it, it's not my fault!
I try to make magic with whatever I touch. So if I’m doing a film, I wouldn't try to write an album at the same time. That requires hard work, that requires a certain amount of focus and attention to whatever it is that I'm doing. I look at myself as a magician. I need to have the mental headspace to stay fully committed to whatever role I agreed to do.
Once I got to high school, that's when I started to have my own money, because I started working. I couldn't afford a lot of stuff, but I think it went from lots of menswear — whatever you would consider sports menswear: the tennis shoes, baggy clothes. I was a maid, I was babysitting, and worked at Foot Locker. I was working at Ponderosa Steakhouse, I was a waitress.
I have fought against gender norms, and what it means to be a woman and what it means to be a man. I'm so open to what the universe is teaching me, and teaching all of us about gender. I'm exploring, you know? I definitely don't live my life in a binary way. I've always pushed, as you can see from the way that I dress to the things that I’ve said since the beginning of my career. I'm a fucking android.
Were you always a kid who dressed a certain way, or did that come later? Tell me about expressing yourself through fashion.
I think so, too.
So we're moving in that space now. My music business is in Atlanta, our record label is in Atlanta — but our film company is here in L.A. We have a first-look deal with Universal, with Donna Langley. We'll have Wondaland also doing the music for a lot of the films, and then we'll be producing films.
Are you still Atlanta-based?
I think people can call me whatever it is they want to call me. And I don't have to declare anything. I know my journey. I know who I am. That was not me.
I think my uniform — that's when that came. What is something that I always feel comfortable in? And honestly, I just couldn't afford to keep up when I started to sing and perform, and I went to a performing arts school in New York, and I went to Atlanta and I was living in a boarding house, I did not have time to find a new costume every single show. So it was like, what is my uniform, what is my outfit going to be? As an homage to the working class, and my working class parents. It's been the androgynous look that matched my energy. It's been black and white.
This is a dumb question. When you were doing "Moonlight," did you know it was going to be the most beautiful and best movie ever? Is that something that one is aware of at the time?
I have pretty much directed along with Chuck Lightning, who was one of my creative directors at Wondaland on this last project. But I do want to do direct — I think that I'm meant to be a director.
Afterward, we sat down to discuss her politics and art.
At the West Hollywood establishment, she was greeted as a regular by the staff, who knew which rooms she had already done. Since I am categorically terrible at Escape Rooms, the venue choice was all hers — never would I have suggested such a setting. In February, in order to interview Janelle Monáe for Variety’s Power of Women issue, the two of us did an Escape Room together. We were both feeling the aftereffects of the Oscars. 12, and a few days before, Monáe had delivered a rousing performance to open the Academy Awards. It was intimidating, like I needed to be more intimidated before interviewing Janelle Monáe. It was the night of Feb.
Did you mean to come out as gender non-binary?