I woke up this morning to headlines of Janelle Monáe coming out as a “queer black woman.” Sure, this is something many of us speculated about and indulged over once we peeped the visuals for her new album, Dirty Computer, but to have the CEO, record label owner, CoverGirl, artist and actual black girl magician open up to the world about who and how she loves with such confidence and grace made me smile (even if I wasn’t the one with the exclusive).
It was just two days ago that The Root sat down with Monáe to talk to her about her new album. Walking into the interview room, Monáe was swathed in pink fabric, laid across the couch like Mariah Carey would be. The room was dimly lit and freezing cold. Monáe was perched under a single lamp, allowing the light to wash over half her face as she locked eyes with me. I lost the staring contest when I looked down at her white boots, kicked off and on the floor in front of her. She was comfortable.
“This is gonna be good,” I said, smiling back at Monáe, who was already smiling at me with pretty pink lips. I wanted to ask her everything, namely about her relationship with actress Tessa Thompson, who looks to be the muse of Dirty Computer.
I know I wasn’t the only one who saw Thompson’s head peek from between Monáe’s legs, almost like a clitoris, in her latest video, “Pynk.” The whispers about the two alleged lovebirds became full-blown conversations. A black woman’s sexuality does that to us—we get giddy and curious, hoping to have the woman in question (and sometimes even forcing her to) finally share her truth.
And she did. Monáe told Rolling Stone, “Being a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women—I consider myself to be a free-ass motherfucker.” She went on to explain how she read about pansexuality and realized she identified with the explanation.
Monáe’s freedom is apparent in Dirty Computer. This album is for all of us who have ever looked on from the margins. It slaps as if Prince himself were resurrected to produce it, and it bleeds black womanhood. So to be able to sit down with Monáe and have an intimate conversation about the album, queer identity, black women, Hoteps and monologues for vaginas was a dream come true.
She was intent and earnest, and I pulled out my recorder, ready to grasp every last drop of her vulnerability. This is Janelle Monáe—casual, warm and honest.
The Root: What is Dirty Computer? What does it mean?
Janelle Monáe: Dirty Computer is an album that I knew I needed to make before my first album, The ArchAndroid. Dirty Computer deals with what it means to be a part of a marginalized group and have your very existence erased. Dirty computers are seen as being full of bugs and viruses and anything to be cleaned out. Dirty computers see their bugs and their viruses—whether it’s their sexuality, their race, their gender—as attributes, as features. This is an album to celebrate us, to celebrate all the dirty computers around the world.
TR: What’s the dirtiest thing on your computer?
JM: [Laughs.] The dirtiest thing on my computer, hmmm. Wow. Whoo! I think if I tell you that, they may come for me. Just know that there’s some stuff on there.
TR: Since Dirty Computer is for the marginalized, what message would you give to black America right now—namely, to black women?
JM: I would say that despite what the world tells you negatively about yourself, you hold and possess so much magic. And in times of doubt, in times of fear, remember where you come from. Remember your ancestors and remember that I will be right by your side with this album, celebrating you. This album was inspired by the black woman, written for the black woman and written by a black woman.
TR: Finish this sentence. Black women are _____.
JM: Black women are carefree as fuck. Black women are undefinable. I think we’re beautiful as fuck and I also think that because of the horrible things that happened to our ancestors from slavery, segregation, patriarchy, we’ve had to endure a lot.
We’ve had a lot passed down to those from our grandmothers to our mothers, and we have a unique disposition. I think we’re able to have a certain level of balance and intuition and perseverance that I don’t think you can get in any other culture. There’s something you can’t explain. It’s just something that we see in each other; it’s a look that we can give one another to know, like, “I see you. I know exactly what you’re going through.” And I think it’s a wireless connection that we have with each other.
TR: This feels like a black womanism project. Can you explain what your feminism is and what it means to you and how it plays into Dirty Computer?
JM: I consider myself a womanist [and] a feminist. I can be both. I believe in intersectionality and I’m more concerned with the interconnectedness between women and making sure that’s in those conversations of feminism because sometimes it changes. I think it’s important to have black women’s voices in those rooms. As much as I’m a champion for all women, I’m invested in knowing more about the black-woman experience.
So when I’m having conversations with white women, Asian women and so on and so forth, I’m speaking from a black woman’s perspective, not just a woman’s perspective.
TR: The video for “Pynk” features some interesting-looking pants. I call them pussy pants! Where can we get some?
JM: I’m going to try to get them as a specialty for merch. They’re very intricate and they’re difficult to make. I love that you call them pussy pants! People call them vulva pants, flowers. I’ve heard so many things and I think it’s all great.
Some of the women in “Pynk” don’t have on pants because I tried my best to celebrate women, and I know that all women don’t have vaginas. You’re dealing also with female genital mutilation. There’s so many things that we as women have to deal with.
“Pynk” is a personal statement from me. I do happen to have a vagina. I feel like there’s so much policing on it. There’s so many men in the position of power who are constantly trying to take ownership of our vaginas and tell us what we can and what we can’t do.
It’s so important that we continue to celebrate all of us, even in our differences, understanding that we’re all in this together and it’s going to take us continuing to be as inclusive as possible and paying attention to the intersectionality and the interconnectedness.
TR: In “Django Jane,” you say, “Let the vagina have a monologue.” If your vagina had a monologue, what would be a line from it?
JM: [Laughs.] Not all women have vaginas, and we’re not defined by our vaginas. I think our vaginas help us do amazing things and experience amazing things, but we have our brains, we have our hearts. Those are also pink. So my vagina, which I’m proud of, would probably say ... that is a great question! I don’t have the answer to that. I’ve never been asked that question, really.
TR: You have a line that says, “I’m tired of Hoteps telling me how to feel.” Now, if you’ve ever read The Root, you know that the Hoteps come for us a lot. And we come right back. How do you feel about the Hoteps?
JM: Let me preface this by saying I love Hoteps. I love black men. I do think that it can be annoying to have opinions about women’s issues and rights and who a woman is supposed to be when it comes from an insensitive and traditional male lens and perspective. Hoteps, don’t try to come for me if that’s how you define yourself. That’s great. I love you, but I’m not talking about all Hoteps. It’s supposed to be a positive thing, but I’m talking about those who have tried to come for me and tell me how I need to be as a woman, what a woman should do, how a woman should let a man take control and be the man of the house. I’m just not about the bullshit.
I’m about agency. I’m about women having the right to make their own decisions and working in conjunction with their partner, but I don’t love the controlled approach or the traditional approach that some Hoteps have taken.
TR: We’ve been watching you change right in front of us. You’re rocking colors now, getting a lot more personal in your lyrics and in your visuals. What do you attribute this evolution to?
JM: It is important for artists, in particular myself, to evolve and do it on your own time. I don’t move or do things until I feel my soul clock tells me, until I’m mentally inspired to move. And I think that as honest and vulnerable as this work is, I’ve always been honest and vulnerable with my work and honest to where I was at that particular time. I think I’m just more of it and having fun while tapping and, you know, using the different colors in the crayon box.
I’m enjoying the experience and working in that gray area and discovering new things about myself and having conversations about myself, with myself and in front of the world. It’s a scary thing, but I think it was necessary for my evolution and growth as a human being and as an artist.
TR: How have your experiences evolved your politics around blackness, femininity and queer identity?
JM: I have always been very vocal about those issues, and nothing has changed.
Get your hands on Dirty Computer on April 27!