Janelle Monae Is Back From the Future and Ready to Play
J anelle Monae slides down the front zipper on her onesie, slings the suit down her back, and wiggles her bare ass toward about 20 of her dear friends.
It's game night at Wondaland West, the homey Los Angeles campus where Janelle works and communes, complete with a studio, living quarters, and an immaculate teal pool nestled within a grove of tropical flora. Janelle's butt makes its appearance via Consequences, a game she requested we play. Her friends Stephanie and Tree invented it when they were visiting Janelle in Greece as she filmed Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, the 2022 murder-mystery comedy in which she plays essentially four starring roles. (It went on to be one of the most popular Netflix movies ever.)
Josh Dean, a musician and friend of Janelle, has to sightlessly let someone else put a body part in his mouth and guess what it is, so Laura, who I'm told works on game shows, puts her knee on his lips. I elect to moan for the group rather than give them my iMessages to search through.
"Fuck!" yells Janelle, whose cards direct her to either take a body part in her mouth or show us the goods. The decision comes quickly: "I'm 'bout to moon the group!" Loud cheers follow.
"We need some music!" someone shouts.
"Phenomenal," a track from The Age of Pleasure, Janelle's upcoming album (due June 9) and first in five years, reverberates through the room. "I'm looking at a thousand versions of myself," she announces over a creeping bass line. "And we're all. Fine. As fuck."
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"Phenomenal" Janelle is confident. Game-night Janelle is wavering. "Wait, I have to see if I'm ashy!" she says before running into a bathroom beyond the marble wall. She returns, shimmies out of her pink-and-white striped jumpsuit, adorned with Disney's original Cheshire Cat's stuffed face on the hood and long tail on the back, and shakes her booty shyly. As her friends roar in support and delight, her jitters seem to melt away. The quick wiggle turns into a bit of twerking, and the crowd goes wild.
"Y'all saw that li'l ashy booty!" she shouts.
In 2023, Janelle Monae Robinson is a singular force: a musician, writer, and actor who's parlayed those triple-threat achievements into culture-shifting, Black feminist, pro-queer stances -- and action. She grew up in a working-class, devoutly Baptist family in Kansas City, Kansas, before beginning to make music in Atlanta with people who've become her best friends, like Nate Wonder and Chuck Lightning. Her vision was so clear that Diddy, an admitted control freak, vowed not to interfere with her ideas when he signed her to his label.
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On her early albums, Janelle built a fictional Afrofuturist dreamscape that -- in the tradition of the genre's great storytellers, like author Octavia Butler -- allowed her to contemplate the traumas and possibilities of her own life on Earth. While those works were earning her eight Grammy nominations, she starred in films like Moonlight and Hidden Figures -- both of which were nominated for Best Picture at the Oscars in 2017, with Moonlight taking home the gold. "She's extremely gifted," says friend and Oscar winner Lupita Nyong'o. "It's built into her spirit. Her openness creates intimacy onscreen. It's really cool to see her move from one thing to another and do it with such mastery." Along the way, Janelle publicly shared her pansexuality for the first time, in this magazine in 2018, and came out as nonbinary last year, becoming the kind of queer icon many of us wish we'd had more of growing up.
Especially as of late -- and this is important -- Janelle is also fun as hell, determined to savor the fruits of her labor. She seems positively buoyant these days: the life of the party at enviable bacchanals (many of them hosted at Wondaland West), the centerpiece of this year's NBA All-Star Weekend (scoring several head-turning looks, despite scoring no points in the Celebrity Game), and the most enthusiastic fan in the sprawl of Coachella VIPs. She explains how things have changed on her new single "Float": "I had to protect all my energy/I'm feelin' much lighter now."
Still, prioritizing pleasure has its challenges, especially when a world of anxiety lurks somewhere underneath.
AS GAME NIGHT winds down, an impromptu group performance to SWV's 1992 hit "Weak" begins with Janelle belting out the song atop an ottoman, and ends with her and Wonder tucked in a corner of the sectional sofa seriously working out new harmonies for the song. "Weak," of course, is Nineties R&B at its best, but it's particularly special to Janelle. "I remember being in the basement singing with my seven best friends," Janelle notes from atop the furniture. "I didn't know if I could sing, but when I motherfucking mastered that song, I knew I could motherfucking sing."
It's not about an album anymore," Janelle says. "I've changed my whole fucking lifestyle.
Game night at Wondaland is soundtracked by all sorts of music: Afropop hits, "Losing You," by Janelle's old friend Solange (Janelle helped match-make Solange's last marriage), "Persuasive," by Janelle's new friend Doechii. Janelle catches a groove and freestyles some bars to an Afrobeats edit of "Work," by Rihanna, a remix so vibrant and unfamiliar it catches me off guard. Later, Wonder tells me he made the remix that day, especially for the gathering, right before it started. "I've gotten used to right before we [have] a night, making new songs to play. See what people think," he says. That instinct -- we're having a party, so we've got to make some music -- is exactly how The Age of Pleasure came to be.
Janelle, Wonder, and Lightning's Wondaland Records began in Atlanta as an indie label and artist collective before it grew into a partnership with Epic Records. But in 2020, as the pandemic began to unravel, Janelle recalls, "We were like, 'Do we want to be in Atlanta writing indoors, or do we want to be around nature and stuff?' " Atlanta had practically raised Janelle; Los Angeles was just a place of business. She decided to take Wondaland to California, but she wasn't sold on L.A. until a brand-new community coalesced around her in the uncertainty of a global crisis.
In the years BC (Before Covid), Janelle attended Everyday People, one of the hottest globe-trekking parties of the Black diaspora. At these parties, the music spans innovative mixes of Afropop, Caribbean gems, house, and hip-hop, the drinks flow, and everyone is getting down on a massive floor. When Everyday People was locked out of venues during the pandemic, Janelle offered it space at Wondaland West. Its courtyard is magnificent, with its tranquil pool in the center and troves of nooks, crannies, outdoor baths, and citrus trees (Janelle insisted on having an orange picked for me the afternoon after game night). With Covid raging, their teams were careful to test partygoers and remain outside.
Janelle caught the itch to make new music while filming Glass Onion through the summer of 2021. Having finally escaped lockdown to stretch her comedic muscle across Greece and Serbia, she was inspired. She knew she wanted to tap into the frequency of her pandemic parties. So she had her producers Wonder and Kwabena send her instrumentals to mull over while she was away. "I just kept dreaming," says Janelle. "I was like, 'When I get back, I cannot wait to have a party again.'"
Nyong'o attended one in 2021. "It was lit," she says matter-of-factly. "It was just a different world once you walked through the doors. Everybody's outfits were extremely well thought out and expressive, and the music was delicious. It felt like we were all craving this kind of event, this kind of ... I want to say just reckless abandon." Nyong'o danced until her feet were sore.
After Janelle settled back in the States after filming, the parties became more strategic -- a place to test out new material. "I was like, 'OK, if we have a party in spring of 2022, I want to have records ready,' " Janelle explains. " 'I want to honor this experience, and be really specific about it.' The best way to figure it out? 'Let's play that shit at the party.'"
Once there, they never called attention to Janelle's new music, slipping it into Kwabena's DJ sets as seamlessly as they could. "We were super specific around tempo," says Janelle. "We were like, 'Nana, you're at that 82 BPM, or that at 92 BPM,' the songs have to start there." Were there any lulls when she worked her stuff in? "Not really."
The Age of Pleasure is a Blackity-Blackass album. It traverses the realms of music that are indisputably ours. This time, instead of sci-fi metropolises, Janelle leans into the worlds we live in. "It was inspired by all of my friends, my community of folks who are from South Africa, Ghana, Nigeria, the Caribbean, Atlanta, L.A., Chicago," Janelle says. "Seeing all of us together in our Blackness, in the love that we had in our eyes for each other. People from the continent fuck around with trap from Atlanta. You know what I'm saying? I love how the diaspora -- we talk to each other."
"I want things to feel so true to my life," Janelle explains. "I used to consider myself a futurist. I know what that means, to obsess about the next thing. A present tourist is what I'm calling myself right now. I'm actively focusing on being present."
AHEAD OF GAME NIGHT, Janelle and I have our first one-on-one in Wondaland West's studio. It has its own living space beyond a wall, cozy but striking. Lush plants are set off against elegant wood accents, rustic floors, and floor-to-ceiling shelves full of vinyl: Prince's Controversy, David Bowie's Scary Monsters, and Aretha Franklin's Amazing Grace among them. I spot at least three guitars, a polished black upright piano next to a tasteful canvas of a topless, buxom woman sketched in black pencil, and another sheep for sitting.
Janelle sits at the recording desk in her onesie, her tuft of natural short black hair pulled back in a messy bun -- it's not hairstyle-messy, it's I-woke-up-like-this messy. About an hour into our conversation there, she excuses herself to dart out of the room and returns with a joint. "I just always wanted to be in an interview but be lit up," she says, playful and serious at once. She fidgets with the jay and begins to smoke, but something is missing.
"Do you need an ashtray?" I ask her.
"I do. See, you can tell I'm a rookie."
Janelle likes weed and she likes shrooms, the latter of which fits her as a pretty naturally trippy person, and also doesn't run the risk of ruining her voice. "I grew up fearful of marijuana because I had parents who were addicts," Janelle also explains, referring particularly to her dad's formerly debilitating crack-cocaine use. "They would always say, 'Weed is the gateway drug to being a crackhead,' and I grew up with that in my mind and heart."
Janelle recently diagnosed herself with OCD, which she connects to a lifelong pattern of perfectionism. She told the podcast TransLash, a show for and by transgender and gender-nonconforming people, that her perfectionism stems from struggling with abandonment and rejection from her father during his addiction (though the two are now close). "I started to have this unhealthy relationship with being perfect, so that nobody would leave me," she told the show.
She's doing a lot of work to heal those wounds. "I know how to coach myself if it comes up again," she says to me before ruminating on what lingers. "But all of that I think made me.... And in OCD ... if something isn't exactly how I see it, in my mind, it's trash." She started therapy as soon as she started making good money, and now works with an "emotional-support coach," a good friend who's delved into mental-wellness work. Janelle tries to meet with her once a week.
I want my Star Wars. As a writer, as a storyteller, as an actor, to be able to do the soundtrack that's rooted from works that I wrote.
There was a particularly taxing period last year when her extensive Glass Onion press run overlapped with work on The Age of Pleasure, spreading her thin. "In those moments, I have to have someone helping me work through my schedule, helping me not feel guilty about saying no to something, because all this affects your mental health," she explains. Janelle gets indignant when she thinks of how rare mental-health resources are for others. "Not a lot of people have the luxury of saying or doing what it is I'm doing. I think that therapy, life coaching included, should be free for every American," she says. "There's so many people walking around wounded emotionally. We would be better as a country, as a planet, if everybody had the access."
Some of the tools she's garnered from therapy help her manage the ADHD she was diagnosed with as an adult. There's darker stuff, too, that she's not ready to divulge yet, but has hinted at. When she accepted the Trevor Project's Suicide Prevention Advocate of the Year Award last September, she called herself "someone who has dealt with depression." "I think I'll have a moment where I will talk a little bit more freely about it," she says. "But I absolutely have had very tough times internally, even career-wise, that I've privately dealt with and had to come out of."
I get it. We talk about my own bouts of depression and subsequent periods of happiness. "I would be nervous," I told her. "Why do I feel good? And is something going to go wrong again?"
"Oh, my God, I swear you're in my head," she says. She gets it.
With an album on the way, she's fending off panic, for now. "The old me would be freaking out," she says. She's juggling visual treatments and rehearsing the new album -- she wants to perform it at pop-ups she's considering calling Pleasure Parties. Plus, with its new experiences with film and television, her production company, Wondaland Pictures, is exploring new ways to advance the sci-fi saga of Cindi Mayweather, the android character from several of Janelle's albums who falls in love with a human and is hunted for it. Cindi's defiance becomes messianic, inspiring hope and rebellion across the futuristic urban landscape Janelle created on the records. The Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture even recently came to her to borrow Cindi Mayweather relics for their new Afrofuturism exhibit. "I want my Star Wars," she says. "As a writer, as a storyteller, as an actor, to be able to do the soundtrack that's rooted from works that I wrote."
"I've told her I need a Janelle Monae-written and -directed sci-fi movie in my life, and I need it soon," says Rian Johnson, who directed Glass Onion. While making the film, Janelle's commitment to storytelling even shone off set -- like when Johnson would throw murder-mystery parties for the cast. "Janelle would show up," he says, "dressed in a top hat and monocle and a detective's cape. She invented a full character with a backstory and had an accent. She didn't drop the character for a long, long time into the evening. It would definitely hit a point in the night where [she'd be called 'Janelle'] and she'd be like, 'You mean Lord Wimplebody the Third? Yes? How may I help you?'"
Johnson is eager to collaborate with her again. "The next thing I'm doing is probably the next Benoit Blanc mystery," he says, referring to Daniel Craig's character in the Knives Out series. "I was about to say, 'I guess she can't be in that,' but I don't know, maybe she'll show up as Lord Pedigrew the Third."
Janelle was a vocal supporter of the Time's Up movement that spawned from revelations of assault, discrimination, and harassment across Hollywood; onstage at the Grammys in 2018, she helped shepherd Time's Up into the music industry. In March, her nonprofit supporting the personal and academic development of girls and nonbinary youth, Fem the Future, announced it would be expanding with a grant from Warner Music Group.
Even as the purview of Janelle's work has grown from music to movies to philanthropy and beyond, she most focused on being creative -- and being herself. "The old version of how I would do interviews is I would've been in some black and white, and maybe I would've put a little makeup on. But I was like, 'You know what? I actually don't have ...'" she trails off to get kindly blunt. "Not that I don't care about this interview. But I don't have the mental capacity to be anything other than who I am." She does, however, have small hexagons of translucent glitter pilled at the corners of her eyes. I ask her why. "I was like, 'I want to feel galactic today,' " she says. "A galactic gamer, because this is game night."
WHEN I COME BACK to the studio entrance the next afternoon, I mistake Janelle for a stuffed animal. Her back is to the sliding door, and her head is covered with the hood of a fuzzy onesie with pointed ears. From the front, she looks like a red panda -- a small, racoon-like mammal from the eastern Himalayas. I tell her as much. "You know what this is?" she says. "It's rare. Extinct. This is the last one of them. A Wondabear."
The Wondabear is choppily strumming an acoustic guitar. Janelle has worked to build about an hour and a half of guitar practice into her daily routine, which goes something like this: First thing in the morning, she avoids her phone, which she keeps by her bedside, though she "would prefer to keep it in the toilet." Then, she dives into what she calls her "fertilizer hours."
Once she's fertilized, she allots three hours to conference calls and questions from her array of collaborators. She often decompresses with a show -- Severance is a recent fave. (Janelle, a person of exquisite taste, also loves Bob's Burgers.)
When I find her on an acoustic guitar, Janelle is practicing a song called "Lipstick Lover." "I like lipstick on my neck," she sings coolly on it. "Leave a sticky hicky in a place I won't forget." The song is about queer intimacy and tinged with reggae, notable since reggae and its sister genre, dancehall, have a storied history of some homophobic hits -- like, murderously homophobic. Janelle wasn't considering that context when she made it, though. It didn't cross her mind. Her own memories did.
"I have a whole spreadsheet with 50 to almost 100 experiences that I had at this party," she says of her courtyard ragers. "I've been a Lipstick Lover," she tells me. "I wear red lipsticks at the parties. I've had moments where if me and a girl or an energy ..." she says, getting away from gender, "want to engage, you're going to see lipstick." Janelle would leave her mark, making it clear they had been kissing.
Sometimes it happens the other way around. "I remember how it felt when I got kissed on my neck with red lipstick. I remember how I went to bed feeling. It was a deep rouge. It wasn't matte. I remember the way the person looked. And I was like, 'That's a fucking song.' "
Janelle is notoriously mum about the specifics of her love life: "I have a policy and agreement with myself -- that is a part of my life that I want to keep private. I can talk about my identity, I can talk about my sexuality. I can talk about all things Janelle Monae without having to go into detail. You know what I mean? It's not necessary."
A couple of years back, Nyong'o was tickled by rumors that she and Janelle were an item. "She has magnetism that they were obviously picking up on. She is that enigmatic," Nyong'o tells me. "People are curious about enigmatic people. I was not surprised. And I don't mind being associated with her in any capacity."
When Nyong'o was first ascending the heights of Hollywood after winning the Oscar for Best Supporting Actress in 12 Years a Slave, she met Janelle at her first Met Gala. "This world is still extremely new to me and unbelievable," she remembers. "[Janelle] came up to me and just gave me the realest hug. I think we may have swayed to the music. She was just like, 'I'm so proud of you, and just thank you for being you.'"
Celebrity interactions can feel shallow and ephemeral. This one was not: "At some point, [Janelle] asked me for my phone, put her number in and said, 'Let's stay in touch.' She was like, 'I really mean it. If you need anything, I'm here for you.'" Ever since, Janelle's been someone Nyong'o can rely on, whether for advice in a moment of crisis or a party invite.
Even so, Nyong'o doesn't feel like she knows Janelle inside and out. "Just because you're a close friend of hers doesn't mean you get to know everything about her," she says. "I think that's what makes her interesting as an artist."
IN THE FIVE YEARS since Janelle came out as pansexual, there's been a groundswell of representation of and support for LGBTQ and gender-diverse people. Bad Bunny has openly embodied sexual fluidity in his art and interviews. Beyonce's latest album, Renaissance, is proudly indebted to and inclusive of queer tastemakers. Insider.com found that even the rate of confirmed LGBTQ characters in animated children's shows increased by 222 percent from 2017 to 2019.
There's also been a fierce backlash to this budding sexual revolution. From Florida's "Don't Say Gay" law to dozens of bills targeting drag shows across the country, we've seen more than 400 anti-LGBTQ bills introduced so far this year. That's a record.
I ask Janelle if she's keeping up with the growing scroll of queerphobic legislation. "I am," she says. "It's infuriating, it's cruel." Last spring, Janelle released an anthology of Afrofuturist short stories in collaboration with several other authors. The book, The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer, would likely be banned in states like Florida for centering queer and trans characters -- an example, she says, of "us not being able to talk about ourselves, as though we're not real people."
She's dedicated much of her career to championing the people this kind of bigotry affects, herself among them. But when I ask if there's a weight of expectation, to being embraced as an emblem of queer advocacy or queerness itself, she emphasizes her freedom to be a person and not just a symbol. "You cannot project onto artists," she says to no one in particular. "You have to understand that experiences will be had and people will change and evolve and not be the person you look up to. As much as you love and care about me, I'm on my own journey that has nothing to do with music, has nothing to do with art."
There was a time, she adds, "where I felt like I should put pressure on myself to live up to expectations of what I feel like a majority of people would want me to do. But that time isn't now."
Earlier this month, what Janelle Monae publicly wears -- or rather, doesn't -- became a trending topic on Twitter. On May 11, she debuted "Lipstick Lover" as a single, replete with an NSFW music video shot at Wondaland West. It follows what may or may not be an exaggeration of the sensual bacchanalia of their parties, filled with scantily clad women writhing rhythmically on her, a plethora of sex toys, a mild orgy in the water, and Janelle in a Pokemon onesie.
Janelle had previewed the video with a 16-second clip of her sauntering out of the pool in tiny Champion shorts and a cropped T-shirt with "Pleasure" written across the chest and soaked transparent. The image called upon that of a popular 1972 poster for Jamaican tourism featuring Trinidadian model Sintra Bronte. (A vinyl cover featuring that photo had caught my eye at her studio, displayed among her walls of records.)
Her tweet of the clip has since been viewed more than 22 million times, with more than 30,000 retweets and more than 147,000 likes. While much of the hubbub surrounding the clip was in praise of Janelle's alluring physique and decision to share it in this way, there was also debate -- and backlash. She was accused of becoming classless, of being degenerate, dishonoring her body, and seeking attention. "What made Jonelle Monae [sic] wake up one day and go 'I got some titties to show you bitches?'" one person wrote. "Very weird & came out of nowhere for her to sell music."
Of course, this ignores the past decade, during which Janelle expanded her look and shed more fabric. "Even when I was really, really wearing only suits," she tells me, "I was either in a suit or you would find me at my own parties naked. It was no in-between." She's reiterated over the years that her more conservative clothing was not a statement about how anyone else should be. "Some people, who have their own agendas and are respectability politicians may have been misled into believing that I was covering up to be an example of how to be proper," she said in 2018. "I didn't like that. I never took that as a compliment."
I stumble through some of my questions on her gender and sexuality, because I understand how weird it can be to talk publicly about who you are and like to fuck. I have some friends with whom I'm pretty queer, and way more with whom I never acknowledge that part of me. "I'm not obligated to share my story," says Janelle. "Nobody's obligated. But I do think it's powerful for me to talk and give a name to some of these things."
As Janelle sees it, the fact that we can live a real life and tell its full story is what separates us from the artificial-intelligence engines in the headlines when we meet: "The way in which we have had sets of experiences together in real time, in person, will be the thing that makes us special."
Janelle, of course, foresaw the surge in AI. "When Metropolis came out, The ArchAndroid came out, I was saying that this is the moment where this is going to happen," she says.
This, she says, is akin to Ray Kurzweil's Singularity Is Near, a nonfiction book that influenced her androids, and popularized the idea that one day distinguishing between AI and humanity may be impossible. "So the age of pleasure that I'm in, that we are in," she says, "is the last of life before we're fully integrated."
When Janelle and I catch up on Zoom a few weeks after Wondaland, she's just returned from a robotics conference in Santa Barbara. "I was invited," she says. "With everything happening with AI, people are wanting to know my thoughts." She says she got to see machines made by Boston Dynamics, the Hyundai-owned company that produces a viral robotic dog that has caused controversy across the country after being embraced by law enforcement. Janelle didn't speak there. "I was just listening," she says. "It's not going away, and I think that a lot of it has to do with who's programming and what are the values and the morals -- what are we teaching it? It's complicated. It's nuanced."
With her prior albums, Janelle concocted dystopian futures to reflect current problems and illustrate resistance, using a rift between androids and humans to illuminate issues of bigotry. The Age of Pleasure, by contrast, is about relishing what's already been achieved. It's celebratory. It's dancing on ashes until they fertilize new life. It's insular, a clearer portrait of her life rather than a defense of it. "I also shouldn't have to teach anybody why it's important to protect queer Black life, trans Black life, nonbinary Black life. I shouldn't have to make an album about it," she says after I note that building empathy was a goal of hers in the Dirty Computer era. "I don't even think that anybody should have to tell a story of empathy for you to get that," she says now.
"This album is not about a fight," she says of The Age of Pleasure. "It's about living in an oasis created by us for us. Even with everything going on in the world, this is our moment to breathe together, unapologetically taking this beat to enjoy -- to hurry up and live."
A week and a half later, when I see Janelle one last time, she's in the throes of a very different kind of event -- it's one of the Met Gala's most storied afterparties, atop New York's Standard hotel, and she's the host. Billie Eilish, Olivia Rodrigo, and Lil Nas X are among the slate of entertainment elite who come by.
Janelle shape-shifts from MC to performer, serenading the crowd atop the horseshoe-shaped bar -- once again singing on the furniture. Earlier in the evening, she wore a Thom Browne coat inflated by a circular tent of a dress to the Gala. Now, she strips down to the sparkling black-and-white bikini she had underneath to belt "Float," a look that's a bit of her tuxedo past and a lot of her bare-body present. She enlists us all in a toast. "I've been in the age of uncertainty," she says. "But tonight, this year, we are in the age of motherfuckin' pleasure!"
Her DJ, Kwabena, plays a reggae remix of Beyonce's "Party" before Janelle performs "Lipstick Lover" publicly for one of the first times. The two songs are a perfect match in bounce and BPM, just like they've practiced poolside at Wondaland West. The same friends from Janelle's game night sing and gyrate beside her, drawing the crowd deeper into the moment and their new world.
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