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‘The past is not the past’: Janelle Monáe on art and activism in 2020

The award-winning singer, songwriter, and actor sat down with Fast Company to discuss the importance of creative control—and what it means to be an artist in the age of Trump.

‘The past is not the past’: Janelle Monáe on art and activism in 2020
[Photo: Frazer Harrison/Getty Images]
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Janelle Monáe is not okay, and she wants you to know that it’s okay if you’re not okay, too.

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Although her career is at an all-time high—she’s starring in Lionsgate’s horror film Antebellum and running her own multimedia entertainment company, among other recent successes—the Grammy-nominated singer, songwriter, actor, and producer has been struggling like everyone else to cope with the hellish year that is 2020. Sometimes that means taking a moment to put career-related setbacks in perspective.

“Things can be canceled, and everything will be okay.” Monáe explained at the Fast Company Innovation Festival this week. “Gone are the days where people are feeling like if this gets canceled, or if I postpone this, or if I say I’m not doing well mentally, I’ll be looked at as weak or people might not want to work with me. That veneer has come off.”

She added, “I think people are more understanding that mental health is more important than a business deal or a business meeting.”

Monáe spoke with Fast Company‘s KC Ifeanyi about the intersection between art and activism in a year punctuated by a global pandemic, national protests over police violence and racial justice, and the upcoming presidential election—and how the urgency of civil rights causes resonated with her character in Antebellum.

Mental health is more important than a business deal or a business meeting.”

Janelle Monáe

In the movie, which was released in August, Monáe plays a 21st-century author who is caught between two different time periods and must escape from a Southern plantation during the Civil War. She says the character, Veronica, reminded her of modern-day civil rights advocates like political commentator Angela Rye or journalist April D. Ryan—Black women who are challenging the status quo and the abuses of the Trump administration.    

“Everything about her is a threat,” Monáe said of Veronica. “She’s a threat to white supremacy. She’s a threat to the patriarchy.”

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Black women like Veronica have been fighting for marginalized voices for centuries, Monáe added, and that fight is far from over. “I think what this film reminded me of is that the past is not the past,” she said.

‘Form your companies, write your stories’

Monáe’s production company, Wondaland Pictures, signed a first-look deal with Universal in 2018, and is developing projects that will put her both in front of and behind the camera, she said. Although Monáe rose to stardom through music, she’s been increasingly prominent as an actor—with roles in movies like Hidden Figures and the Oscar-winning Moonlight, and TV shows like Amazon’s Homecoming. She even lent her voice to the remake of Lady and the Tramp on Disney Plus.

It’s an eclectic body of work that Monáe says contains a single through line: “Whenever I say yes to something, it’s usually because I can understand it. . . . I get this . . . and here are my thoughts.”

Still, she concedes that actors don’t always enjoy the type of creative control that a music star or producer is given, which sometimes means yielding to the whims of a producer or director, even when you don’t agree with them.

“It sucks when you have a very particular vision about something and it’s a little more nuanced because you’ve lived some of those experiences, and you don’t feel listened to,” Monáe said. “That’s why I encourage artists to form your teams. Form your companies. Write your stories. Make sure that you are contractually at the table in a different way.”

About the author

Christopher Zara is a senior staff news editor for Fast Company and obsessed with media, technology, business, culture, and theater. Before coming to FastCo News, he was a deputy editor at International Business Times, a theater critic for Newsweek, and managing editor of Show Business magazine

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