Straight Out Kansas City
I wish Janelle Monáe a happy Pride as I begin our phone call. It’s her first Pride as an out woman, after all, and she’s been celebrating — she just performed in San Francisco, the country’s gay capital. With the open and affirming music off her new album, the concert became an unofficial pre-party for the following weekend’s Pride celebrations.
“The love in that room was just powerful, and it was like no other show that we’ve done in the past,” Monáe tells me two days afterward. “The songs are resonating and connecting with people because of the time we're living in. To hear them singing them louder than I'm singing them while performing has never really happened to me on tour.”
About two months before that San Francisco show, life changed for the R&B singer-songwriter from Kansas City, Kansas. In an April 26 cover story, she told Rolling Stone that she identifies as pansexual, or attracted to people regardless of gender. The following day, she released the visual album Dirty Computer, lauded by critics and fans as revolutionary.
Through it all, the performer has never shied away from her roots. “Monáe is never more relaxed during our time together than when she's in Kansas City,” Rolling Stone’s writer notes in the story. Like she raps on "Dirty Computer" single “Django Jane,” she’s “straight out Kansas City.”
Kansas City has always been home for Janelle Monáe Robinson, since she was born in the industrial neighborhood of Quindaro in 1985. Her father struggled with a crack addition, and her working-class parents divorced before her first birthday. So, her large extended family — grandparents, aunts, uncles and many cousins — helped to raise her. She went to F.L. Schlagle High School, where an English teacher encouraged her writing, and she got involved at the nearby Coterie Theater. By senior year, she had a scholarship to the American Musical and Dramatic Academy and left for New York City.
A school year passed, and when Monáe came back home for the summer, she had her sights set on somewhere new: Atlanta. Her father, Michael Robinson-Summers, remembers supporting her when he found out the news, just as he did when she visited him in prison the year before to tell him about New York.
“I knew for her to fulfill her dreams, she needed to leave here,” says Robinson-Summers, now 14 years sober and reconciled with his daughter. “As long as I knew she would be safe, I felt great about it. And of course, the rest is history.”
That history begins with Monáe performing for college students and handing out copies of a self-recorded album, “The Audition.” Big Boi, of the rap duo Outkast, eventually came across her music and featured her on two tracks from his group’s last album, “Idlewild.” He introduced her to Sean Combs, then known as Diddy, who signed Monáe to his Bad Boy Records. She released “Metropolis: The Chase Suite”in 2007, and the extended play led to her first of six Grammy nominations.
From there, she released two full-length albums, 2010’s “The ArchAndroid”and 2013’s “The Electric Lady,” and became a critical darling in the process. Between records, she collaborated with fun on the breakout hit “We Are Young,” which spent six weeks at No. 1. Monáe released a few songs in the years after “The Electric Lady.”
Her prior releases, starting with “The Chase Suite,” follow a concept storyline about Cindi Mayweather, her android alter-ego sent from the future to save the citizens of Metropolis. “Dirty Computer”is her first full-length recording to break from the unfinished “Metropolis Suites” — and this was Monáe’s plan all along.
“To get even more vulnerable and honest on this project was scary — it was frightening, I felt alone,” she says. “I think there's a level of unsureness whenever you're embarking on something for the first time … and it's close to your heart, and you don't know how your previous supporters will react.”
The album’s release quickly solved that question. “Dirty Computer”is a brave unveiling of the pride, loves, fears, and concerns beneath Cindi Mayweather’s metallic chassis,” New York magazine said in its review. “Fans of Monáe’s ‘Metropolis’ story will latch onto the techno-fascist themes and dramatic headpieces of ‘Dirty Computer’s’ visual component.”
Spanning R&B, rock, pop, hip-hop and electronic, “Dirty Computer”features icons like Brian Wilson and Pharrell, along with an interlude that Monáe recorded during a conversation with Stevie Wonder. Before his death, her longtime friend Prince worked on the record as well — listen to one of the lead singles, “Make Me Feel,” and it’ll be obvious. In content, the album continues Monáe’s coming out, through sections she calls reckoning, celebration and reclamation. Taken as a whole, “Dirty Computer”a journey, and one of the most compelling releases I’ve listened to this year.
Monáe is not just a singer, but a performer — from her acting to her crafted Metropolis storyline — and this project emphasizes that with its visual component. In the 46-minute “emotion picture,” Monáe plays another android named Jane 57821. When she wants to love a woman, Che, along with a man, Zen, she faces her society’s backlash and must fight for freedom.
While making “Dirty Computer,” Monáe faced that same fight often. “I had to just go back to a mantra that I use, freedom over fear,” she says. “It was important to me to live my whole truth and to not put out a project where I could not be my complicated, complex self, and I think that that is freedom to me.”
Her choice for freedom resonated, especially back home. Tailor Made, who co-hosts “The Night Jam” on Hot 103.3 Jamz, tells me she’s looked up to Monáe for years as an example of a successful black woman from Kansas City. She thinks people can learn from Monáe’s recent vulnerability. “You can't represent something if you don't know how to represent yourself,” Made says.
But in the album’s press buildup, Monáe said she was nervous about how some family members would react to her opening up. While her close family has been supportive, she can’t say the same about every family member and friend. “I love them all the same,” Monáe says. “I'm fighting for love, and I think that that's the most important thing and that's what I keep my eye on.”
That doesn’t erase the difficulties Monáe faces, either. “I felt very terrified of walking in my truth as a black, queer woman in Kansas City,” she adds later. “Kansas City [is] a very Christian-based place, which I love and appreciate, but not everybody remembers the story and the reason why Jesus Christ was just this incredible person.”
I’ve had some similar experiences with Christian people in the Kansas City area during my still-ongoing coming out as a gay man, I tell Monáe.
“How has that experience been for you?” she asks.
I reply that the biggest struggle was feeling like I could tell my family, which I did last year. “They received it better than they would’ve maybe a few years ago,” I say, “but it was still definitely hard to get to that point.”
“You just have to understand that over years and years and years, people have been programmed to believe that we should let our differences divide us,” Monáe responds. “It's important for us to just come and be an example of what it means to love people despite our differences.”
I still think about her advice a few days later, speaking to her father. “When you hear her speak, your mouth literally drops,” Robinson-Summers says, and I add that I was struck by her thoughtful responses. “She's a very unique and genuine, different person.”
Monáe wants to celebrate uniqueness and difference in Kansas City just as much as in San Francisco. She’s performing October 13 at the Open Spaces Festival at Starlight Theatre.
Toward the end of our conversation, I ask about the people looking up to her in Kansas City: young women, people of color and queer people who will pack that concert to see someone from their city being unapologetically female, black and pansexual. In a way, I’m asking about myself too. What does she hope they — we — will get from “Dirty Computer?”
“I just want them to know that I come from the same place as you, and if I can do it, you can do it,” Monáe says. “This album is for you. I hope you feel seen, I hope you feel heard, I hope you feel celebrated.”
Monáe will perform in Kansas City on Oct.13 as part of the three-day” Open Spaces” concert at the Starlight Theatre. OpenSpacesKC.com