Janelle Monae: Meet the new queen of pop

Obama's got her on his iPod, Prince is a fan and she's about to give Lady Gaga a run for her money in the style stakes.

Click to follow
The Independent Culture

If you're not yet acquainted with Janelle Monáe, it's time to get with the programme. She is, if cultural commentators are to be believed, 21st-century music's saviour, a singer and performer who is redefining the possibilities of pop stardom. A precocious 24-year-old from Atlanta, Georgia, Monáe is a woman with a singular vision who is very much in the driving seat of her career; asked what she does for a living, she replies, "artist and businesswoman".

She takes as her inspiration James Brown, Salvador Dali, Rodgers and Hammerstein and The Wizard of Oz. Her first EP was nominated for a Grammy, and she has already notched up some startlingly famous fans. Prince was so impressed by her music he invited her to his house for a jam. When she made her debut on David Letterman earlier this year, her host emerged from behind his desk to kiss her hand, while Sean "Diddy" Combs, a man not exactly famed for his humility, came on and bowed down at her feet. Even Barack Obama is said to have her on his iPod.

One look at Monáe and it's obvious she's no fly-by-night popstrel. Channelling the spirits of Fred Astaire, Katharine Hepburn and Elvis, she favours a monochrome aesthetic that takes in blazers and blouses, tailcoats and trilbies, pinstripes, pussy bows, bow ties and spats. And there's her crowning glory, a pompadour so unyielding and magnificent that it seems to cast a shadow over all around her. She's quite a dancer, too: during her performances, she showcases a wholly unchoreographed and hyperactive set of moves that frequently culminate in an electrifying sideways moonwalk.

Then, of course, there's the music, a bewitching blend of soul, funk, old-style R'n'B with operatic flourishes. Listen to her album The ArchAndroid and you'll hear echoes of music legends past and present: Prince, James Brown, Michael Jackson, David Bowie, George Clinton, Sun Ra, Outkast. There are film references, too, most notably in the LP's cover art that alludes to the 1927 film Metropolis, via an Art Deco cityscape that she wears, Cleopatra-style, as a headpiece.

I meet Monáe in the lobby of her hotel in London. At five-foot-nothing, she is teeny, and with her flawless complexion, button nose and bright white teeth, is so doll-like I want to wrap her up and give her to a child for Christmas. She is also disarmingly serious and self-contained. Pronouncements such as "I believe things are pre-destined so this [success] has been waiting for me for a while" and "I've spent a lot of time tapping into myself. My music comes to me in my dreams" are delivered with the solemnity of a person reading the last rites.

Monáe may be just 24, but her poise is that of a woman twice her age and experience. When I ask about her musical ambitions, her reply emerges as a socio-political manifesto: "I want to be a leader in a new movement and redefine what it is to be a performer in music today. I think it's important for there to be someone representing individuality and redefining how a woman can dress and the kind of music a woman can make.

"It's important for us to celebrate our differences while being united. There are too many forces in our lives that keep us segregated. When I look out into audiences I want to see different shades and religions. I want rabbis, priests, nuns, atheists. I'm looking for all that."

If it all sounds a little nuts, consider it a sign of the times. Since the rise of Lady Gaga, the template for the female pop star has changed: rock chicks and wafty-haired divas are out and crazily-coiffed, high-minded misfits are in. Like Gaga, Monáe sees herself as more than merely a singer. She is a conceptual artist and performer complete with a musical alter ego, a messianic heroine named Cindy Mayweather who, on her album, sets out to liberate enslaved androids. It's no wonder Monáe's outré ways have raised a few eyebrows, most notably from the NME which, on coming face to face with her, concluded that she was "a little bit batshit".

In an age where celebrities' every banal thought is posted on Twitter, mystery is an increasingly rare quality in pop. Few understand this better than Monáe. Even at this early stage in her career, she has perfected the art of saying a lot while revealing very little. Over the course of an hour, my efforts to break through the polished façade are met with expressions of kindly tolerance. I try every trick in the book: playing the fool, cajoling and, in the end, pleading with her to drop her armour, but she won't budge.

Quiz her about her famous friends, for instance, and she is infuriatingly discreet. I bring up her visit to Prince's house. Did she, I wonder, have a snoop?

"Did I snoop?" she replies, aghast. "No, I didn't need to snoop. He was very inviting. He's very inspired by what we're doing and when he can he comes to our shows. He's a very good, down-to-earth guy. He's a good friend. I can't tell you much more than that."

I ask Monáe what her own house is like – as a colour-coded pop star, I imagine it to be entirely black and white – but it turns out she doesn't have one. "I'm a time traveller," she states, "because I don't want to pay a mortgage." So you mostly live in hotels? "Mostly, yes."

Little is known about Monáe's personal life. Her androgynous aesthetic has led to scrutiny as to whether she is gay, though, unsurprisingly, she isn't telling. "The lesbian community has tried to claim me," she told Rolling Stone. "But I only date androids. Nothing like an android – they don't cheat on you."

Given her commitment to her art, it's unlikely that relationships feature high on her to-do list. Buying suits, however, does. "I get them made and I buy in bulk. Once I find something I like, I stick with it. I'm not into trends. In the US they have a 'no white after Labour Day' rule. Give me a break. There's no way I'm not going to wear my white suit on 2 October."

It's no wonder the fashion world is currently falling at Monáe's feet. In America she has appeared in Vogue three times, performed at the Ralph Lauren store in New York and filmed a Christmas advert for Gap. At her live shows, you'll see countless copycat Monáes, all in buttoned-up blouses and sporting giant quiffs.

Her outfits, she says, are a homage to the "uniforms" imposed on her parents when she was growing up. Monáe's father drove a garbage truck, her mother was a janitor and her stepfather worked at the post office. Born in Wyandotte county, one of the poorest regions of Kansas, Monáe's existence was pretty hand-to-mouth. From an early age she was entered into talent showcases, and any prize money was used to help keep the family afloat. "But there were children worse off than me," she maintains. "There were kids who wore the same clothes every single day as their parents couldn't afford to buy more. My parents worked extremely hard and though we didn't own our own home, we made our duplex look the very best it could be."

In her early teens she joined the local Coterie Theatre's Young Playwrights' Round Table and, at 12, wrote her first musical. When Monáe was 16, she got a job cleaning the houses of the upper-classes. "I can't say I loved it, but it was money," she recalls. "I was the youngest one there. A lot of the women I was working with had just got out of jail, or were ex-drug addicts. I was the only one with a licence so I drove everyone home after work."

At 18, she went to New York to study theatre at the American Music and Dramatic Academy, where she was the only black woman in her class. She never completed the course. "I wasn't into the standardised teachings. I wasn't excited about playing characters that a thousand others had played before me. I was always about creating something new and fresh."

So Monáe upped sticks and moved to Atlanta, where she met the songwriters and producers Chuck Lightning and Nate Wonder, and with whom she started the Wondaland Arts Society, a group of artists, musicians and writers whose online manifesto proclaims: "We believe songs are spaceships. We believe music is the weapon of the future. We believe books are stars". Monáe resolved to write an album that would be "the full musical experience".

With little money, she lived in a boarding house with five other girls and got a job at an office supplies outlet. Her first EP, "The Audition", was self-financed – she recorded it at a friend's studio and sold copies from her boarding house. When it came to the release of her debut mini-album, 2007's Metropolis: Suite 1 The Chase, Monáe sat in the basement of the Wondaland studio packaging the CDs herself and folding promotional T-shirts.

A boost in profile came three years ago when she met Antwan "Big Boi" Patton, best known as one half of Outkast, who saw her perform at a local restaurant and begged her to work with him (she duly appeared on Outkast's Idlewild album and he made an appearance on her single "Tightrope"). Later she met Sean "Diddy" Combs whose label Bad Boy records signed a distribution deal with Wondaland. Now there are plans afoot for another album, a graphic novel and a Broadway musical.

I ask Monáe when she last had a holiday and she laughs for the first time. "Yeah, that hasn't happened yet. Which is as you'd expect at this point, though do I miss my family."

Monáe has a vast extended family – her mother was one of 13 children and she now has over 50 first cousins. She goes home to attend her nieces' and nephews' birthday parties and she frequently flies her mother and sister to her shows. She says she'd like children of her own one day and doesn't see why her career should preclude that.

Monáe puts her singular ambition down to her background. "I come from a family who create nothing into something, that's just in my blood," she says. "I don't want to take this for granted and act like it's not a big deal because a lot of people don't get to make it. My job right now is to reach as many people as possible. I believe in the greater cause. I see the freedom in what I'm doing and how great and life-changing it can be. So a holiday? Pfft! I'll do that later."