This story is part of Fast Company‘s first-ever Queer 50 List. Click here to see the full list.
Two years ago, in the pages of Rolling Stone, Janelle Monáe finally confirmed something that the internet had all but presumed to be true. “Being a queer black woman in America,” she said, “someone who has been in relationships with both men and women—I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.” She divulged that she first identified as bisexual and later as pansexual, too.
“For me, sexuality and sexual identity and fluidity is a journey,” she added in a recent interview with Lizzo. “It’s not a destination.”
If Monáe’s sexuality—namely, her rumored relationship with actress Tessa Thompson—has been a subject of fascination, so too has her dizzying body of work. In 2018, Monáe released her widely acclaimed third album, Dirty Computer, which was paired with a 46-minute “emotion picture” and earned her two Grammy nominations. (Monáe has racked up eight nominations over the years.) The Prince-inflected single “Make Me Feel,” whose accompanying video featured Monáe and Thompson awash in neon lighting, was hailed as a “bisexual anthem” even before Monáe came out.
“Dirty Computer was really a reflection of where I was at that time,” she told fellow Queer 50 honoree Roxane Gay earlier this year, in a cover story for The Cut. “I was discovering more and more about my sexuality. I was walking into being more sex positive, also understanding different ways to love and to be loved.”
Monáe’s ascent to multi-hyphenate accelerated in 2016: After declining nearly 30 acting offers, she made her film debut in Moonlight, which infamously won the Best Picture Oscar and an armful of other accolades. She followed that with a role in another critically acclaimed movie, Hidden Figures, alongside Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer. This year, the social thriller Antebellum—by the producers of Get Out and Us—will serve as a star vehicle for Monáe. (The film was initially slated for an April release but has since been postponed due to coronavirus.) She also stepped into a leading role in the Amazon series Homecoming, whose first season was headlined by Julia Roberts.
Though Monáe has long been reticent about her personal life—often citing her religious family—she has emerged as a fierce advocate and activist for marginalized communities, from agitating against police brutality to speaking at the Women’s March in 2017 and invoking Time’s Up in a powerful address at the 2018 Grammy Awards. She has called Dirty Computer an ode to black women and queer women. In January, she tweeted the hashtag #IAmNonBinary, which many interpreted as commentary on her own gender identity.
“I tweeted the #IAmNonbinary hashtag in support of Nonbinary Day and to bring more awareness to the community,” she explained to The Cut. “I retweeted the Steven Universe meme ‘Are you a boy or a girl? I’m an experience’ because it resonated with me, especially as someone who has pushed boundaries of gender since the beginning of my career. I feel my feminine energy, my masculine energy, and energy I can’t even explain.”
Monáe is, of course, known for her singular, androgynous fashion sensibility—along with her affinity for tuxedos—but another key piece of her artistic persona and advocacy is the Wondaland Arts Society, her record label and production company in Atlanta. Through Wondaland, Monáe has signed artists like singer and rapper Jidenna, and in late 2018, Wondaland inked a first-look deal with Universal. Wondaland has also allowed Monáe to maintain creative control while juggling her career aspirations: When Monáe signs acting projects, for example, she puts in writing that the film or television show will involve the musical stylings of Wondaland artists.
Monáe attributes much of her success to her careful curation of every facet of her career. “One of my biggest strengths is I’m unafraid to say no,” Monáe told Fast Company in 2018. “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.”
WATCH: Queer leaders on why Pride is even more important in 2020