How singer-songwriter, actress-activist Janelle Monáe gets so much done

Organization, strategy, and a tight group of trusted collaborators keep Janelle Monáe’s artistic world spinning.

How singer-songwriter, actress-activist Janelle Monáe gets so much done
[Photo: Ramona Rosales; prop stylist: Justin Fry; stylist: Alexandra Mandelkorn at the Only Agency; hair: Nikki Nelms at Impaq Beauty; makeup: Jessica Smalls at the Wall Group; manicurist: Sreynin Peng]

Ask Janelle Monáe how she gets everything done—the critically acclaimed albums, the world tours, the film roles, the activism—and she’ll answer with a single, slightly unexpected word. “Slack!” she says, with a cheerful laugh. “Email used to stress me out. Now I can organize every conversation, and I go into the channel when I need to—I don’t check it every hour. Like, when I get up, the first thing I do is not look at my phone. The first thing I do is I take at least 10 deep breaths.” She demonstrates, seemingly shifting her mind from the cacophonous, dimly lit restaurant, where she’s occupying a prime corner table, to a mellower internal place: “Inhale . . . exhale; inhale . . . exhale. That really calms you down.”


Productivity software, it should be noted, is not the kind of thing most stars would dig into during a dinnertime conversation about work-life balance. But Monáe—wearing a high-collared houndstooth shirt and black beret on this September evening at the swanky Clocktower, in New York’s Madison Square Park neighborhood, is exceedingly practical. She’s also methodical (putting out only three albums in over a decade), selective (turning down nearly 30 offers before signing on to her first movie role, in 2017’s Oscar-winning Moonlight), and deliberate (helping steer corporate collaborators, like Belvedere Vodka, toward larger goals). Case in point: She’s performing tomorrow, so after considering a glass of wine, she decides to stick with water. She orders a dozen oysters—”I’m more of a West Coast [oyster] girl, I like the small ones”—and eats them with slabs of the house bread, which she carves from a small loaf. “I didn’t ever eat oysters until I got into the music business and started going out to dinners,” she says. “I thought they were this expensive thing, but you can get oysters for a dollar! Anyway, I just love them.”

Monáe is in New York to perform alongside Cardi B, Janet Jackson, Shawn Mendes, and the Weeknd at the annual Global Citizen Festival, which inspires fans to engage in a range of anti-poverty-related efforts in exchange for tickets. Today was mostly a travel day. Monáe is just off the plane from her home base in Atlanta, where she was recording some new music and speaking to students from the city’s three historically black colleges on behalf of Michelle Obama’s voter-registration campaign, When We All Vote. “Michelle, Mrs. Obama—well, my forever First Lady is what I call her,” says Monáe, 32, who has known the Obamas since they were in the White House. Monáe joined the effort to honor her grandmother, who passed away recently. “Our grandparents didn’t have the right to vote. My mother came up at the end of segregation.” Monáe, who picked the venue—Spelman College—aimed her pitch directly at black students who might be voting in their first election during the midterms. “I was speaking to that demographic and telling them that black voter turnout was down 7% between 2012 and 2016. We need to galvanize this generation and get them to vote.” (Says Obama of Monáe, “She never forgets where she came from.”)

This kind of targeted thinking also pervades Monáe’s artistic work, which she typically develops in conjunction with her longtime collaborators at the Wondaland Arts Society. Wondaland is a record label, a TV and film production company, a brand consultancy, a management firm, a hub for activism, and an actual place—the closest comparison being her late friend Prince’s Paisley Park, an inspiration for the enterprise. Its current physical manifestation is a grand suburban house outside Atlanta that has been converted into a supremely vibe-y complex of recording studios, offices, lounge spaces, and a communal kitchen.


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Wondaland has about 10 employees. At the top of the org chart is the Vision Board, which is Wondaland’s version of a board of directors. Monáe serves as CEO, alongside Wondaland creative director Chuck Lightning (né Charles Joseph II), and executive producer Nate Wonder (né Nathaniel Irvin III). This trio determines which projects Monáe and the rest of the outfit will pursue. “One of the reasons we created it,” says Mikael Moore, Wondaland’s managing partner and Monáe’s manager, “was to figure out how, in an artist-led enterprise, you allow for the visionary leadership of someone like Janelle, while still giving her the space to be, you know, Janelle.”

Job descriptions at Wondaland are blurry. Everyone is encouraged to weigh in with ideas; even Wonder’s father, a well-known futurist and professor at the University of Louisville College of Business, is Wondaland’s chief learning officer. Still, Wonder tends to specialize in songwriting and music production, while Lightning’s focus is screenwriting and fleshing out the heady, often sci-fi-inflected concepts that typically underpin Wondaland projects. (The pair also perform together under the name Deep Cotton.) “We’re all involved in the music side and the film side and the endorsement side and the activism side,” Monáe says. But “it starts with the Vision Board. If I have an idea, I bring it to Chuck and Nate, and vice versa. Say it’s an album, or a movie—we [then] bring that to the management team and say, ‘Help us execute, keep us on schedule. All I want is to make sure the creative part of the enterprise is protected from people who don’t understand the metamorphosis—the many stages it takes to create art.” It helps, adds Kelli Andrews, Wondaland’s operations manager and Monáe’s day-to-day manager, that “we’re candid with each other.”

Monáe’s Wondaland collaborators (from left): Kelli Andrews, Nate Wonder, Chuck Lightning, and Mikael Moore. [Photo: Ramona Rosales; Prop stylist: Justin Fry; hair: Nikki Nelms at Impaq Beauty; makeup: Jessica Smalls at the Wall Group; groomer: Marco Gamboa]
Monáe grew up in Kansas City, Kansas, raised by her mom—still one of her most important influences—who worked as a janitor, among other jobs. (Her dad struggled with addiction problems, but she and her father are now close.) She was obsessed with the arts, performing in an after-school Shakespeare program, singing and playing the guitar, and listening to The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill on repeat. After a brief stint in New York, Monáe moved to Atlanta to pursue music; she got a job at Office Depot, enrolled in a local community college, and lived in a boardinghouse with six other girls, near Morehouse College, where Lightning, Moore, and Wonder were students.


At the time, Lightning and Moore were running an arts collective called Dark Tower Project, which was inspired by the Harlem Renaissance and drew students from Morehouse, Spelman, and Clark Atlanta University. One day, Moore stumbled across Monáe playing a free gig—just her and her guitar—on the steps of a library shared by the three schools. Impressed, he bought a CD and invited her to sing at a poetry slam the group was having the following evening. “She opened her mouth to sing, and the audience leaned forward, agape,” recalls Wonder, also a Dark Tower member.

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Monáe, Wonder, and Lighting started making music together in Wonder’s apartment studio in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood. Meanwhile, Wonder and Lightning were also running an indie label—called Wondaland—and Monáe signed on as a solo artist. She soon attracted the attention of Big Boi, a member of legendary Atlanta hip-hop group Outkast, who put a song written by the Wondaland team and performed by Monáe on the soundtrack of their 2006 movie Idlewild. That effort led to a short-term publishing deal with Chrysalis, which supported some early Wondaland ventures—including a move into its current space. A short album that they self-released in 2007, called Metropolis, got into the hands of Sean “Puffy” Combs, who flew to Atlanta to encourage Monáe to sign to his label, Bad Boy. For almost any other artist, this kind of break would have been a dream, but Monáe and Wondaland put some serious thought into whether it was the right decision. “At the time, we were reading a lot of stuff about the long tail, and superfans, and serving your core audience,” Wonder says. “If you have 500 people who buy all of your stuff, you can do exactly what you want to do.” Yet Combs’s pitch—to put real resources behind Wondaland’s ideas, and to expose Monáe to a national audience—was persuasive. She signed a deal with Bad Boy and Atlantic Records. “He told us, ‘I don’t want to be part of this creatively. I just want the world to know what y’all do,'” Monáe recalls.


Wondaland had been designed to protect Monáe’s creativity from the demands of commerce. (Says Julie Greenwald, Atlantic Records’s chairman and COO, “It’s all about checking whatever baggage you have at the door and coming into their world.”) Perhaps unsurprising for a budding enterprise—but rare for one that grew out of an arts society—the members turned to business books to determine how best to structure their nascent company. One that particularly resonated with them was Ed Catmull’s chronicle of Pixar’s rise, called Creativity Inc. “We really passed that book around,” says Lightning, who says it demonstrated “the importance of figuring out who’s on our team, making sure that everyone we worked with understood what we were trying to do creatively.” Even more significant to them was Jim Collins and Jerry Porras’s Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, which inspired them to create the Vision Board, along with a set of core values and guiding principles. “We handed [printouts] around to everybody at the meeting when were getting signed at Atlantic [Records] so they could understand what our big, hairy, audacious goals were as an organization,” says Lightning. “And we can always go back to the core values when any shareholder or manager asks us about doing shows or endorsements or whatever. Even in the studio, one of us can always opt out of a lyric by going to the core values—to say, like, “ ’That would make sense if we were making a party song, but this is a song about climate change.'”

Monáe’s newest LP, Dirty Computer, which came out in April to rave reviews, is a concept album that plays with themes of sex, sexuality, and personal freedom. It’s got a future-funk sound that ranges from Prince-inspired vamps (“Make Me Feel”) and spare, New Waveish R&B (“I Like That”) to full-on rap tracks (“Django Jane”). The title alludes to an idea that Monáe had wanted to explore since before she released her first album, which is the way that LGBTQ people, people of color, women, and too many other Americans are made to feel shame about the things that make them unique human beings. “It’s told from the perspective of a young, queer, black woman who grew up in a working-class family,” she says. “And that’s me! When I strip off this makeup, this outfit, that’s my truth.”

Earlier this year, Monáe came out as pansexual—she’s had romantic relationships with both women and men, although she doesn’t talk about them publicly—which was more than a little nerve-racking for her, given that she comes from a large, religious family. (“I had a lot of good therapy,” she notes.) One of Monáe’s chief goals is for people from marginalized communities to see themselves represented in culture, politics, and business. “For so many girls who grew up in working-class backgrounds, the likelihood of succeeding or owning their own business is slim. I want the girls who’ve been told ‘no’ because of what they look like to read this article and see themselves.”


Along with the album, Monáe put out an unusually elaborate visual companion, a 45-minute sci-fi musical epic called Dirty Computer: An Emotion Picture. In it, Monáe plays a “dirty computer” who undergoes deprogramming designed to erase her past, which included a romantic relationship with a woman played by Creed’s Tessa Thompson. It’s become a hit on YouTube, racking up 1.9 million plays, but it also serves as a high-budget calling card for her visual storytelling skills as she and the Wondaland team move into TV and film production.

As with Monáe’s musical projects, the Vision Board weighs in on the film work she accepts, although she makes the final decisions. This year, she will follow up her memorable roles in Moonlight and Hidden Figures with a performance alongside Steve Carell in Welcome to Marwen, a tender fantasy drama from Castaway and Forrest Gump director Robert Zemeckis. Monáe, who describes herself as “a sponge, always watching,” has soaked up some key management lessons from the filmmakers she’s worked with—Moonlight’s Barry Jenkins, Hidden Figures’s Ted Melfi, and Zemeckis. “I noticed how they start early—if you start things early there’s a different level of stress,” she says. “So I brought that back to Wondaland—let’s get ahead of our schedule. Because that’s how you have fun, you have room to enjoy the experience. And all three of them are so chill and collaborative—they never have to flex those hierarchy muscles. That’s how I run Wondaland.”

The fact that Zemeckis had directed Back to the Future was admittedly irresistible to the sci-fi-obsessed Wondaland team, but the decision to appear in Marwen was cemented for Monáe when Zemeckis heard and responded to a concern she had about her character before signing on. “I said, ‘There’s never a moment between her and the main character that says that she’s important in this film.’ A week later I got a revised version of the script and he had written in something to make you empathize with this character more. And that was enough to make me do the movie—to have this incredible director take the time to make this change himself? I felt listened to—he respected my opinion as an artist, and that made me feel like he was someone I wanted to have a relationship with.”


When Monáe signs on to act in a movie or TV show, she now works into the contract that she (or other Wondaland acts) will be involved on the music end. When Jenkins needed a pivotal song for Moonlight, Moore suggested “Classic Man,” by Wondaland artist Jidenna. “They know exactly the way the track would function in the film,” Jenkins says. In addition to voicing a pound dog in Disney’s forthcoming animated remake of Lady and the Tramp (in which Tessa Thompson will be the voice of Lady), Monáe will perform multiple songs for the soundtrack, and Wondaland will write new music for the film. Increasingly, Wondaland is also offering marketing and design ideas for these projects the way a full-service consultancy would. The team has developed its own pitch process, from researching decks to printing up colorful, hardcover books that help potential collaborators see their vision. “Our approach is, ‘We’re going to show you what we’re going to do,’ ” says Moore, who worked as California Congresswoman Maxine Waters’s chief of staff before joining Wondaland. “For young creatives of color, the chances that some other people get—those aren’t the same chances we get. So when we go in to pitch something, we can show them: This is the thing.”

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Their work is making an impression: In October, Wondaland signed a major film development deal with Universal. “They’re talented, gregarious people, and that’s a potent combination,” says Endeavor partner Dave Wirtschafter, whose agency has represented Monáe since 2011. “We worked with Prince, and were lucky enough to know about some of the ideas he wanted to pursue outside of music but wasn’t able to because he didn’t have the infrastructure. Janelle has the infrastructure. She’s augmented by this skilled group of people that surround her.”


Unlike most major touring musicians, Monáe can’t book huge runs of shows, because she needs to accommodate her acting roles. Her current tour, for Dirty Computer, for example, has been broken up into three legs so far—two in the U.S., one in Europe—and will continue through next year, when she’ll be working on at least three films (see “An Artist in Full” sidebar). Still, she can’t imagine letting acting become the primary focus of her career, the way it did for artists such as Cher and Will Smith. Music, she says, is too potent. It “has the power to bring people together. It has the power to make you want to have sex, have a child. It has the power to heal.”

Personally, she has been drawing strength from Stevie Wonder—even in dark political times, “he always moves the conversation back to love,” she says—and Prince, her role model for navigating celebrity, Hollywood, and the music business (he famously battled Warner Bros. for control of his music). “I watched Prince never get distracted,” she says. “Remaining free, and the way he fought for that, was a form of protest.” It’s a lesson she’s incorporated into everything she’s done, including Dirty Computer, the first album she ever made without his feedback. “One of my biggest strengths is I’m unafraid to say no,” Monáe says. “I’m not into people owning me. I have a strong vision, and any companies or partners who want to work with me have to match my purpose: shaping culture, redefining culture, and moving culture forward.”

[Photos: Ramona Rosales; prop stylist: Justin Fry; stylist: Alexandra Mandelkorn at the Only Agency; hair: Nikki Nelms at Impaq Beauty; makeup: Jessica Smalls at the Wall Group; manicurist: Sreynin Peng]; Maja Saphir (polaroids)]

Time she gets up

“9:36 a.m. That’s a good time for me.”


First thing she does in the morning

“Work out for 30 minutes—I do Shaun T’s Pure Cardio: Insanity. It cures my anxiety or any depression I’m dealing with.”

Lunch routine

“I kind of do a late breakfast—I’ll eat oatmeal. Then I’ll have a big dinner. I’m not a heavy-lunch girl.”

Productivity tools

“I have a limiter on my phone so I can only be on social media for 15 minutes a day. I lose so much productivity being on social media, I just can’t do it.”


Last thing she does at night

“I’m probably falling asleep to a TV show—I like to watch a documentary. Something a bit cerebral to wear me down.”

Time she goes to bed

“If I’m recording, I’ll try to go to bed by 1 or 2 in the morning. But when I’m on tour I need a good eight hours, because my voice has to rest. So closer to midnight.”


About the author

Jonathan Ringen is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. He contributes regularly to Rolling Stone, Men’s Journal, Details, and Billboard.