Janelle Monáe Wants To Represent The Underdog — In Music And Onscreen

May 18, 2020

Janelle Monáe is interested in what it means to represent minority groups in art and music. In season 2 of the Amazon series Homecoming, she stars as a military veteran who wakes up in a rowboat — unable to remember who she is or how she got there.

"One of the things that really drew me in [to Homecoming] is getting an opportunity to play this vet and have a deeper conversation about how we treat our vets who are ... dealing with PTSD," she says.

"I'm always gonna want to represent the underdog," Monáe says. She adds that the role on Homecoming spoke to "what happens when those in the position of power strip you of your identity and strip you of the things that make you special."

For Monáe, that question is a continuation of a theme she's explored extensively in her music. Her most recent album, Dirty Computer, was a meditation on — and a declaration about — her life as a black, queer artist.

"I always rebel and rebuke," she says.


Interview Highlights

On her journey to being able to say publicly — and at the Oscars — that she's a proud queer, black woman

I think one of the things that I was dealing with was abandonment issues. .... One of the things that I dealt with growing up was [that] my father was in and out of my life, on drugs, in and out of prison, and he was really sick. ... He's healthy now. We are in a much better space. And I didn't realize that all of my, I guess, lack of not opening up was tied to having these abandonment issues. ... As loving as my family was, I thought, "What if they abandoned me?" Because I come from a Baptist family who's very religious, I grew up listening to certain pastors say to me and say to the congregation, "If you are not heterosexual or if you're or bisexual or queer you're going to hell." And for me, a lot of it had to do with what would my family think. Well, like, I don't want my family to abandon me in the same way that I felt like my dad did growing up. ...

not everybody in my family understands what it means to be me and what it means to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. But I'm educating them, and they're finding out. - Janelle Monáe

I needed to heal and I did. And I healed through therapy. I healed through conversations. It turns out not everybody in my family understands what it means to be me and what it means to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ community. But I'm educating them, and they're finding out. It took having those conversations for me to feel comfortable enough to stand up on the Oscars, to stand on the records that I made, and to stand for what I represent right now in this point in time in my life.

On the concept behind her single, "Make Me Feel," about bisexual identity

I wanted to make sure that if anyone felt like because they saw me in my tuxedo or saw me fully clothed and used me for respectability politics, this was the song that I wanted to piss them off with. ... Pretty much that album, it was weeding out folks who tried to place me in their little safe category. This was the rise of the Dirty Computer. ...

YouTube

One of the other things about "Make Me Feel," it was exploring being bisexual, being queer. And you can see with the lighting [in the video] we tried to pay homage to the bisexual flag. One of the things that I wanted to do was show love to the bisexual community, pansexual community, and let folks know where I am in my life and just in general.

On the symbolism of the tuxedo she wore earlier in her career

[I wanted] to pay homage to my working-class parents. ... My mom served food. She did have to wear a tuxedo uniform when she was catering. And my dad was a trash man and drove trucks and helped clean up the city. My parents were essential workers, and I, early on, wanted to pay homage to them and all those who were wearing uniforms. ... So that was one reason why I was constantly wearing the black-and-white tuxedo. And then I wanted to rebel against the gender norms and what it meant to dress like a woman or what it meant to dress like a man.

On collaborating with Prince shortly before his death in 2016

Prince ... was working with me on Dirty Computer before he transitioned on and Prince was helping, sending me song inspirations and we were going back and forth. And so when he transitioned on, I felt that I had to continue to finish that album. And I was always asking myself, "What would Prince do?" in these moments whenever I couldn't figure out a lyric or music or instrumentation or melody.

On how she almost stopped recording Dirty Computer after Trump was elected

It was one of the first times I felt very afraid. Living in Atlanta, Ga., and there were white supremacists and neo-Nazis going around to little black kids' birthday parties and holding up the Confederate flag. There was a lot going on in the country during that time and I didn't know if this was going to embolden them, at the time, to do something to people like me who were speaking out against racism and sexism and xenophobia and Islamophobia, and everything that they represent. I just didn't know. And so I started to just have anxiety attacks about it, and I'm thankful I didn't let that stop me, because I think what that album represented, especially one of my songs, "Americans," ... deals with that. It deals with how I'm not going to back down and we're not going to back down and become silent and quiet and watch this president tear this country apart and tear down the people that helped build this country.

My ancestors built this country. They helped build the White House. And so that just says: I'm American and you will never take that away from me. And we're not running, we're not hiding. We're not allowing you to dominate us.

On her first acting role, in the Oscar-winning film Moonlight

When I read Moonlight, I knew that that was a special film. I didn't know that it was going to win an Oscar because ... I didn't think that a cast of basically all black people would get that opportunity to win Best Picture, especially a small indie-feeling film like that. And I mean, it was just so specific. It was undeniable, the story and my role, my character as Teresa, she represented so many aunts and mother-like figures. I think she was a great example of how to nurture someone who is trying to uncover their identity and trying to understand more about their sexuality — just how to listen.

On how she's doing right now during the coronavirus pandemic

I'm having to look at my schedule and having to cross off all things that are not happening and financially, you know, a lot of that is hurting me as well. But I'm not in the same predicament as, let's say, like a single mom with five kids who just got laid off. And so what I'm doing is I'm understanding that, yes, we are all going through different stages of this and it's impacting us in ways. But it's like, listen, we're going to have to pull together and help one another. And one of the things that I am doing is I'm not making music right now. I'm not really inspired, because music is so rooted to my reality. ... And right now, I'm having a hard time grasping reality. I'm having a hard time understanding this new reality. That's what I'm trying to do, just realizing that we can't depend on this administration right now. We're gonna have to listen to the scientists and we're gonna have to continue to uplift the real heroes who are our central workers, the nurses and doctors and those who are delivering our food for us and risking their lives and their own health to ensure that we have what we need.

Heidi Saman and Thea Chaloner produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2020 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. When my guest Janelle Monae performed the opening song at this year's Oscars, electrifying the audience, it was an acknowledgment of her growing importance in the worlds of movies and music. She used it as an opportunity to describe her own identity, saying she was proud to be standing there as a black queer artist telling stories. She first became known for her Afro-futurist funk, soul, hip-hop in which she performed as her alter ego, an android named Cindi Mayweather. She often appeared in a tuxedo, wearing her hair in a high pompadour.

She started her movie career with a bang. She costarred in "Hidden Figures," which was nominated for an Oscar in 2017. She also costarred in the film that won best picture that year, "Moonlight." In 2018, her album "Dirty Computer" was nominated for two Grammys, including album of the year. Now she stars in Season 2 of the Amazon series "Homecoming," which starts streaming on Friday. The first season, adapted from the Gimlet fiction podcast of the same name, was a psychological thriller about a pharmaceutical company that was secretly treating war veterans suffering from PTSD with a drug that erased their memories. In Season 1, Julia Roberts starred as a counselor in the treatment program.

Season 2 starts with Janelle Monae's character waking up in a rowboat in the middle of a lake. Using her hands as paddles, she makes it to the shore, but she has no idea where she is or who she is. Walking down a road in a daze, she's picked up by a policewoman who tries to help her. At the officer's suggestion, she searches her pocket for some ID and finds one which says her name is Jacqueline (ph). The police officer takes her to a hospital, where she's questioned by a doctor.

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "HOMECOMING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Jacqueline, what brings you here tonight?

JANELLE MONAE: (As Jackie) Police officer brought me here.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) I spoke with her, and she said that you're feeling a little disoriented.

MONAE: (As Jackie) Yes, I am.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) We're trying to understand what happened to you. You said there was a guy with you. Did he hit you in the head?

MONAE: (As Jackie) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) OK. I'm just going to do a quick exam. Jacqueline, what is your address?

MONAE: (As Jackie) I don't know.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) OK. How about your birthday? What's your birthday?

MONAE: (As Jackie) I don't know. I don't know.

GROSS: Janelle Monae, welcome to FRESH AIR. First of all, how are you?

MONAE: Well, you know, I'm just trying to understand what time it is, what day it is, what world I'm living in. I feel like I'm in an alternate universe (laughter).

GROSS: It's funny you should say that because so much of your music takes place in an alternate universe, and here you are living one, but not the one you imagined. So let's talk a little bit about "Homecoming." Your character doesn't know who she is. She doesn't remember her own identity. Since identity has been at the heart of your music - performing and recording for years in a persona as a futuristic android and then performing in your own identity as a queer African American woman - did you find things you could relate to about your character in "Homecoming" because identity and her lack of knowledge of her own identity is so central?

MONAE: Yeah. You know, there are some similarities. But we are not as alike as one would think, which is why I wanted to take the role. I mean, she wakes up in this boat, my character Jackie, and she doesn't know who she is. She doesn't know how she got there. So she is on this journey of self-discovery and trying to uncover her identity. And as soon as she thinks that she's getting closer to the truth, you know, she's getting closer to a lie. And so we get an opportunity to go on this wild ride with her.

GROSS: The series also makes me think a little bit about your 2018 album "Dirty Computer," which - I should mention that the album also has, like, a 45-minute narrative film that has a lot of the music from the album in it, and you play Jane 57821 in a futuristic society where people who don't conform are considered dirty computers, and they have to be cleaned, which means, like, their memories are cleaned, too. So did you feel some resonance with that aspect of the story?

MONAE: Sure. You know, I've been thinking a lot about what it means to live in a world where you are the minority, where you are, you know, a part of a marginalized group of people and what happens when those in the position of power strip you of your identity and strip you of the things that make you special and that help make this country special and this world special. And I think with "Homecoming," this is - this speaks to our veterans. So one of the things that really drew me in is getting an opportunity to play, you know, this vet and have a deeper conversation about how we treat our vets who are coming back from fighting for our country and dealing with PTSD. And, you know, mental health - you know, how are we helping to strengthen our mental health care system.

GROSS: In "Dirty Computer," your character says in the film version of it, this is a society where people who don't conform are dirty computers. People began vanishing. You were dirty if you looked different, showed any form of opposition at all. If you were dirty, it was only a matter of time. And you're told to recite, I am a dirty computer; I am ready to be clean. And I know you've said you relate to this idea that you created because you felt so marginalized; you felt like such an outsider for so much of your life. I'm wondering how it felt to open the Oscars, to have the opening song on the Oscars and declare your pride to be standing there as a black queer artist.

MONAE: Well, I mean, I think I made the statement, you know, throughout music and "Dirty Computer." And if, you know, you listen even to my first album, I have a song on their called "Mushrooms & Roses." Second album - you know, I spoke about it. I think one of the things that I was dealing with was abandonment issues. And my dad, you know, growing up - and we're very close, you know, now. And he's, like, you know, my best friend, and he's doing so much better. But one of the things that I dealt with growing up was my father was in and out of my life, you know, on drugs, in and out of prison. And he was really sick. And as I mentioned, he's healthy now. We are in a much better space.

And I didn't realize that all of my, I guess, lack of not opening up was tied to having these abandonment issues, that perhaps if I, you know, told my family - which, ultimately, if you make statements like that, your family is going to hear (laughter), you know, and they're going to be like, what? We didn't know. And as loving as my family was, I thought, well, what if they abandon me? You know, because I come from a Baptist family who's very religious. You know, I grew up listening to certain pastors say to me and say to the congregation, you know, if you are not heterosexual or if you're gay or bisexual or queer, you know, you're going to hell. And for me, a lot of it had to do with, well, what would my family think? Well, like, I don't want my family to abandon me in the same way that I felt like my dad did growing up. And what about - you know, you start thinking about your fans. And you start thinking about, well, what if people say that I'm opening up now because I want to sell albums? People have said that. And they said that about other folks. And what if people, you know - if I open up, what if they say, I don't want to buy her albums anymore, you know? You know, it was this need of - just I needed to heal. And I did.

And I healed through therapy. I healed through conversations. You know, it turns out not everybody in my family understands, you know, what it means to be me and what it means to be a part of the LGBTQIA+ communities. But I'm educating them. And they're finding out. And, you know, it just - it took having those conversations for me to feel comfortable enough to stand up on the Oscars, to stand on the records that I made and to stand for what I represent right now, you know, in this point and time of my life.

GROSS: Was it also an issue for you earlier, though, to talk about your own story and your own issues? - I mean, talking about your father's story and his addiction. And - I don't know. I'm thinking maybe you didn't want to draw him into that, that maybe he wanted more privacy. And it's hard when your story is so intimately intersecting with somebody else's story and that story doesn't want to be public.

MONAE: Yeah.

GROSS: And it limits your ability to tell your own story.

MONAE: For sure. I think you're right about that. I think I'm always trying to protect, you know, people that I love and care about because they didn't ask to be famous. They didn't ask to have this life. And it's never been about me even being famous. I just love being an artist. And I love telling stories. And I love connecting with people and sharing. And I think that this is a part of the game.

And one of the things is, you know, being able to speak through science fiction and being able to have characters like Cindi Mayweather be something that can represent and help so many people, not just myself - there's so many people that could connect to her and to her world. But being able to do that does allow you the opportunity to not have to speak about everything that's so painful to you. When your reality is painful and when certain aspects of it are tied to pain, you don't always want to sing about that.

GROSS: You know what? Let's take a short break here. And then we'll talk some more. And we'll hear some music. If you're just joining us, my guest is Janelle Monae. And she stars in Season 2 of the series "Homecoming," which starts streaming Friday on Amazon. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE INTERNET SONG, "STAY THE NIGHT")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with actor, singer, songwriter, producer, musician Janelle Monae. She costarred in "Moonlight" and "Hidden Figures" and stars in Season 2 of "Homecoming," which starts streaming Friday on Amazon. Let's hear some of your music. A great track from your 2018 album "Dirty Computer" is called "Make Me Feel." Is there a story behind this song?

MONAE: (Laughter) A story behind the song - I mean, I wanted to make sure that if anyone felt like because they saw me in my tuxedo or saw me fully clothed and used me for, like, respectability politics, this was the song that I wanted to piss them off with.

GROSS: (Laughter) That's really funny.

MONAE: Yeah. I was like, you know what? This is - I want them to be pissed off. And pretty much, with that album, it was weeding out, you know, folks who tried to place me in their little, safe category, you know? This was the rise of the Dirty Computer.

GROSS: You know, I have to say, when you say, anybody who would confuse your tuxedo with the politics of respectability, like, I never would have thought of that tuxedo - I think, like, when a woman wears a tuxedo, it's a little different from when a man wears a tuxedo. And you're wearing a tuxedo with this kind of off-kilter pompadour doing James Brown moves. So I just think most people would find that hard to equate that (laughter) with the politics of respectability.

MONAE: Well, you'd think. I mean, there is a category of folks who think because you're fully clothed and not understanding my story, which was to wear a uniform to pay homage to my working-class parents who were janitors and my mom served food. She did have to wear, you know, a tuxedo uniform when she was catering. And my dad, you know, was a trash man and drove trucks and helped clean up the city, you know? My parents were essential workers. And I early on wanted to pay homage to them and all those who were wearing uniforms - those who were serving in the country.

So that was one reason why I was constantly wearing the black-and-white tuxedo. And then I wanted to rebel against, you know, the gender norms and what it meant to dress like a woman or what it means to dress like a man, you know? And I always rebel and rebuke (laughter) - I've been this way since I've been a child - anybody trying to tell me, you know, who I should be and using me to be a poster child for all things pure and all things good. And one thing about me is if the rest of the world was in tuxedos, I would be naked, you know?

GROSS: (Laughter).

MONAE: That's the philosophy.

GROSS: Right. Right.

MONAE: Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah. You know, it's funny, I never thought of the tuxedo that you wear as being a kind of homage to the tuxedo - was it your mother had to wear when...

MONAE: Yeah.

GROSS: ...When serving food? I guess - I know the tuxedo is a uniform for a lot of musicians who have to, like, work, you know, like, weddings or in certain clubs or, you know, in certain restaurants or lounges. And so I kind of get that. But I wouldn't have thought about that. So thanks for explaining that. And for anybody out there who thought that Janelle Monae's style of dressing was about the politics of respectability, this song, "Make Me Feel," is totally sexy. And how you look in the film companion to your album when you do this song is also totally sexy. So here is Janelle Monae doing her own song, "Make Me Feel."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "MAKE ME FEEL")

MONAE: (Singing) Baby, don't make me spell it out for you - all of the feelings that I got for you. Can't be explained, but I can try for you. Yeah, baby, don't make me spell it out for you. You keep on asking me the same questions - why? - and second-guessing all my intentions. Should know by the way I use my compression that you got the answers to confessions. It's like I'm powerful with a little bit of tender. An emotional, sexual bender - mess me up, yeah, but no one does it better. There's nothing better. That's just the way you make me feel. That's just the way you make me feel. That's just the way you make me feel. That's just the way you make me feel. So good, so good, so good, so real. So good, so good, so good, so real. That's just the way you make me feel. That's just the way you make me feel. That's just the way you make me feel. You know I love you. So please, don't stop it. You got me...

GROSS: That's Janelle Monae doing her song "Make Me Feel" from her 2018 album "Dirty Computer." And that's her latest album. There's definitely a Prince influence in that song. Did you sample him a lot?

MONAE: (Laughter) No, I did not. I didn't sample him. Prince, however, was working with me on "Dirty Computer" before he transitioned on. And I was in the middle - it was difficult for me to finish the album because of that. And Prince was helping, sending me song inspirations. And we were going back and forth. And so when he transitioned on, I felt that I had to continue to finish that album. And I was always asking myself - what would Prince do in these moments? - whenever I couldn't figure out, you know, a lyric or music or instrumentation or a melody.

GROSS: How did you get to meet him and work with him?

MONAE: I had a show. And this was around my first - before "The ArchAndroid" came out, I'd done an EP called "Metropolis." I'd just gotten finished performing. I'd opened up for Raphael Saadiq. And I had a sinus infection. And I was not feeling well. And I went backstage. And I get this knock on the door. And I'm just like, oh, God. Who is it? And it was DJ Rashida. She had a phone in her hand. And she was like, I have somebody who wants to talk to you. And I was like, OK, who are you? And why should I be...

GROSS: (Laughter).

MONAE: ...Getting a phone from you? She was like, no. Just take the phone. Take the phone. And I took the phone. And I'm all stuffy. I'm like, hello. And then I just hear, on the other end of the phone, this voice that says, hello, Janelle. And I said, hi. Who is this? This is Prince. I'm sorry, who? Prince. I'm sorry I couldn't make your show. I got the times mixed up. Really, you were going to come and see my show? Oh, my God. Yeah. I wanted to come. I love your voice. I especially love your jazz voice. I love how you're taking control of your career. And, you know, I love watching you.

And at this point, I'm just like - I don't know what world I'm living in, if this is a prank or whatever. And I'm just like, thank you. Listen; would you like to come over tonight, you know, you and the band come over for a jam session? And I was just floored by then. And I was like, yes, yes, yes. So he ends up hanging up. And we all pile up in, like - we couldn't even afford a tour bus. We piled up in this white church van. And everybody's spraying perfume and cologne over our sweaty uniforms, performance clothes that we'd just come offstage with.

And that night, you know, we stayed up from maybe, like, midnight, 1 in the morning to 7 in the morning. And he stood there on his rug with the rest of his band. And he played all of his hits. And he gave us the mic. And we played pool. I mean, it was - yeah. I'm just - I'm getting emotional just thinking about, you know, how wonderful and beautiful that night was.

GROSS: Well, let's take another break here. And then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is actor, singer, songwriter, musician, producer Janelle Monae. And she's now starring in Season 2 of "Homecoming," which starts streaming Friday on Amazon. We'll talk more after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIRTY COMPUTER")

MONAE: (Singing) Dirty computer. Walk in line. If you look closer, you'll recognize I'm not that special. I'm broke inside, crashing slowly. The bugs are in me. Dirty computer breaking down. Picking my face up off the ground. I'll love you in this space in time because, baby, all I'll ever be is your dirty computer.

(SOUNDBITE OF JUSTIN HURWITZ'S "SURPRISE")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with actor, singer, songwriter and producer Janelle Monae. She stars in Season 2 of "Homecoming," which starts streaming Friday on Amazon.

So I know you've said that when you were recording "Dirty Computer," that you almost stopped recording it because, after Trump was elected, you were so angry. So how has the anger you are feeling about Donald Trump being elected president affecting your ability to do what you wanted to do in the studio?

MONAE: Yeah. I mean, it was one of the first times I felt very afraid, you know, living in Atlanta, Ga. And there were white supremacists and neo-Nazis going around to little black kids' birthday parties and holding up the Confederate flag, and there was a lot going on in the country doing their time. I didn't know if this was going to embolden them at the time to do something to people like me, you know, who were speaking out against, you know, racism and sexism and xenophobia and Islamophobia and everything, you know, that they represent. And I just didn't know. And so I started to just have, like, you know, anxiety attacks about it. And I'm thankful I didn't let that stop me because I think what that album represented, especially one of my songs "Americans," and...

GROSS: Yeah.

MONAE: ...I don't even think it gets a lot of - I don't think a lot of people have had the opportunity to hear it, but it deals with that. It deals with how I'm not going to back down and we're not going to back down and become silent and quiet and watch, you know, this president tear this country apart and tear down the people that helped build this country. My ancestors built this country. They helped build the White House. So that song, you know, just says, I'm American and, you know, you will never take that away from me and we're not running, we're not hiding, we're not allowing you to dominate us.

GROSS: Yeah. And you say in that song, I'm not crazy; I'm American (laughter).

MONAE: Exactly (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah. So let's hear "Americans" from Janelle Monae's album "Dirty Computer."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DIRTY COMPUTER")

MONAE: (Singing) I like my woman in the kitchen. I teach my children superstitions. I keep my two guns on my blue nightstand. A pretty young thing, she can wash my clothes, but she'll never, ever wear my pants. I pledge allegiance to the flag, learned the words from my mom and dad. Cross my heart and I hope to die with a big, old piece of American pie. Love me, baby, love me for who I am. Fallen angels singing, clap your hands. Don't try to take my country. I will defend my land. I'm not crazy, baby, no; I'm American. I'm American. I'm American.

GROSS: That's Janelle Monae from her 2018 album "Dirty Computer," and she's now starring in Season 2 of "Homecoming," which starts streaming Friday on Amazon.

You know, I think some people were surprised, like, oh, Janelle Monet, like, a musician, a singer, she became an actress. But, really, that was always your goal. I mean, you went to New York. You grew up in Kansas City, Kan. You went to New York to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. At the time, you wanted to be in Broadway musicals. So, I mean, your goal initially was to combine music and acting. So let's start with - why Broadway musicals? Why was that what you were aiming for?

MONAE: Well, I knew I just didn't want to not sing. And at that time, I was - before I went to study at AMDA, I was always in musicals and in music classes, the acapella choir. And I was competing in talent showcases and doing cover songs of, you know, Destiny's Child and Lauryn Hill. And - you know, and then I was a thespian, an International Thespian, where I was monologue competing and driving two, three hours with my team, with my drama club.

GROSS: Wow.

MONAE: Yeah.

GROSS: What kind of monologue?

MONAE: It just depended on what we were reading at that time and what my teacher would help me pick. I was also into Shakespeare. So I would do after-school Shakespearean programs. And, you know, I was always doing that. And it - both. It was never only do music, only do acting. And so I just thought musical theater was a way to combine.

GROSS: Were you concerned that being black would limit the roles you'd be considered for on Broadway?

MONAE: For sure. For sure. It was partly one of the reasons why I did not want to go forward with it anymore. It was because I just - I didn't see a lot of those leading roles that I could sink my teeth into. And I'm also a writer. I was writing a lot growing up. I was in the Young Playwrights' Roundtable at the Coterie Theatre in Kansas City, Mo., where you would write these short stories, and if your material was good enough, the local actors would perform it.

And (laughter) I actually ended up getting kicked out of that program because my mom and I were sharing a car at the time. And, you know, she was working, trying to put food on the table, and she sometimes would - like, her job would run over, which meant if she was picking me up and she was late, then I was late for the after-school program. And after so many times being late, you know, because I was helping my mom and my mom couldn't come and pick me up on time because of her job, they kicked me out. And I remember being so...

GROSS: Did they not understand that your mother was working, I mean, that it wasn't your issue?

MONAE: That didn't...

GROSS: It was that she...

MONAE: That didn't matter.

GROSS: Didn't matter. Wow.

MONAE: Yeah. It didn't matter. And I hold no hard feelings. So if anyone's listening - like, I've actually spoken to some of them. But it actually changed my life. It put me on a path of determination. You know, I wasn't going to let that stop me. I was crushed, you know.

And that's just one story of what so many kids - you know, I guess we would consider it - like, my mom definitely - we were not middle class. We were living in a duplex, sometimes living with my grandmother or an aunt. You know, we never owned a home and a house with mortgage and all of that. So we were, you know, living check to check, which was fine. But it just makes me think about so many young kids who are having to deal with that and them feeling embarrassed or feeling like, man, you know, I can't even be a part of something that I love doing because of, you know, my home life affecting my career.

GROSS: So when you did start your movie career - I don't even know how this happened - you were in two films that were nominated for best picture, like "Hidden Figures" and "Moonlight," which actually won in that category. How did you go from not having an acting career to being in such - in films that had such a big impact?

MONAE: Voodoo, you know, just...

(LAUGHTER)

MONAE: I found this...

GROSS: I thought that was it.

MONAE: ...This woman.

GROSS: Yeah.

(LAUGHTER)

MONAE: No. I - when I read "Moonlight," I knew that that was a special film. You know, I didn't know that it was going to win an Oscar because I just thought that - I don't know. It - I didn't think that, like, a cast of basically all black people would get an opportunity to win best picture, especially, like, a small indie, you know, feeling film like that. And, I mean, it was just so specific. It was undeniable, you know, the story. And my role, my character as Teresa, she represented so many aunts and motherlike figures who - I think she was a great example of how to nurture someone who is trying to uncover their identity and trying to understand more about their sexuality, you know, just how to listen.

GROSS: So I read that you turned down, like, 30 film roles before getting the role in "Moonlight." Did "Moonlight" seem like the perfect place for you to start because of the themes of the movie and because of the people behind it?

MONAE: I wish I had the opportunity to turn down 30 films (laughter). I mean, I did say no, you know, to a few, and some of them I just didn't get. I actually wanted my first film to be science fiction. I wanted to star in a sci-fi franchise, you know. I was like, man, if I can get that, that'd be amazing, you know. But that wasn't the case, and I wouldn't trade it for the world. I'm so happy that "Moonlight" was my first film because the representation was super important, and Barry Jenkins is, you know, one of the greatest directors, how he runs his set and to be able to work - have worked with Mahershala and Ashton and Naomie and everybody who was a part of that was just an experience that I'll never forget.

GROSS: Let me introduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is actor, singer, songwriter and producer Janelle Monae. She stars in Season 2 of the series "Homecoming," which starts streaming Friday on Amazon. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF PRINCE SONG, "ALPHABET ST.")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with actor, singer, producer, musician Janelle Monae. She costarred in "Moonlight" and "Hidden Figures" and stars in Season 2 of "Homecoming," which starts streaming Friday on Amazon.

There's a song I want to play from your first album, and I played this the first time we talked, which was when your first album came out. And the song is called "Sincerely, Jane." And you had told me then that it was based on a letter that your mother wrote to you. Before we hear the song - and I really love this track - can you tell us about the letter that your mother wrote to you that inspired the song?

MONAE: When I moved away - I want to say when I moved to New York for college, yeah, she had - we would write letters to each other, and she would just keep me posted on what was going on. And I'm from Wyandotte County, Kansas City, Kan. And Kansas City, Mo., is, like, five minutes away. It's - like, a bridge separates us. And a lot of my friends were being murdered. A lot of my friends, you know, from gun violence and a lot of my cousins that I remember playing with growing up were, you know, unable to go to college, and if they did, some of them would just stay back home and kind of sell drugs. And some of my cousins were, in fact, selling drugs to our family members.

And this isn't, you know, unique to me. You know, it just happens. You know, everybody's hustling. And I think that side of me hearing that was just so discouraging, and it was - it made me - you know, my heart weep. And when it was time to write songs, I could only write from my experiences and the things that were bugging me and bothering me. And, you know, one of the lines in that song is, are we really living or just walking dead? And everything wasn't all bad, you know, growing up. Like, I just want to be clear about that (laughter). I had some of the best summers of my life with my family. And when you grow up in a big family like I have, you know, with over 50 first cousins...

GROSS: Whoa (laughter). Yeah.

MONAE: ...And lots of aunts and - you know what I'm saying?

GROSS: Yeah.

MONAE: It's your own community. You're swimming together. You're singing together. You're popping fireworks together. You are watching movies together. I mean, I used to watch a lot of films, scary movies. Horror is one of my favorite genres. And I remember watching Freddy Krueger and "Child's Play" and "Halloween," you know, with my cousins, and my nose would be bleeding. Don't ask me why, but - and I loved every moment of it.

GROSS: So the letter that your mother wrote you that inspired the song we're going to hear - what did she tell you in the letter?

MONAE: A lot of - you got to listen to the lyrics (laughter). I actually haven't listened to that song in a very long time. So I couldn't - I can't really quote any lyrics right now, unfortunately.

GROSS: OK, well I can. So...

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Hang on because I wrote them down. So - I have them.

MONAE: And some of the lyrics - oh, my goodness. I'm actually cringing at the thought of you playing this song because some of the lyrics, I just don't believe in anymore. Like, I think there's something in the second verse...

GROSS: Well, this might be it because I was going to ask you about this. It's danger - there's danger when you take off your clothes. All your dreams go down the drain, girl.

MONAE: Yeah.

GROSS: Is that the line you're thinking of?

MONAE: Ugh. Yeah. I hate that line. I wish I didn't write that line.

GROSS: Tell me why. I was really curious about that line.

MONAE: Because it's not true. It's just not true. And I think when you grow up, you know, in Baptist - you grow up in fear and people saying, you know, if you behave this way, you know, you're not going to go to heaven, you know? And I think that that's - I mean, as embarrassed as I am, you know, it's important to take a look at that and understand that artists change.

Artists change their - based on the information about yourself and about the world - and understanding that women have been oppressed for so many years and told that we shouldn't dress like this. That's too sexy or, you know, we're trying - we're looking for attention. And that if you get raped or if someone sexually assaults you, it's because of something you did. And I think that that was also something that was pushed to me, that, you know, cover up. Don't be too provocative, you know? And it's B.S.

GROSS: I thought maybe your mother was warning you with the line, danger, there's danger. When you take off your clothes, all your dreams go down the drain. I thought maybe it was your mother saying, like, don't get pregnant.

MONAE: You know what? It maybe could have been. But whenever I listen to it, I want to take responsibility for that lyric. And I think it just - I don't want to put that on my momma.

(LAUGHTER)

MONAE: That was something I wrote. And, yeah, that was where I am. I'm thankful I'm not there anymore.

GROSS: Well, I want to play this song because - I know it might not mean that much to you anymore. But I think it's really great. And another thing that's great about this song is the arrangement. I mean, you have timpani and French horns. And I remember you telling me, when we had that first interview, that you used to go to the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra a lot and listen to them. And I think it's really great that, you know, as a young artist, that you were ambitious enough to find a way to work all of that in.

MONAE: Yeah, yeah. You know, I guess one of the things that I love - and then, when I look back, I'm realizing that there were just, you know, hints of eclecticism and just, like, freedom. You know, even though there were always folks, you know, in your community trying to keep you in a corner and control you - and sometimes people use religion to do that and certain things - there was still exploration in me. And I'm just thankful for that.

And there's still wanting to bridge, you know, lots of different styles of music and figuring out how to learn from different cultures. And I love string arrangements. I love timpani. I love watching the orchestra just as much as I love, you know, a grimy hip-hop song or a rap song. I love jazz, you know? We love all these different things. And I just - I don't believe in - I don't look at music in a binary way.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: All right. Well, let's hear "Sincerely, Jane." And this is from Janelle Monae's first album.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SINCERELY, JANE.")

MONAE: (Singing) Left the city - my momma, she said don't come back home. These kids around, killing each other. They lost they minds. They gone. They quitting school, making babies and can barely read. Some gone off to their fall. Lord, have mercy on them. One, two, three, four - your cousins is around here selling dope while they daddies, your uncle, is walking around strung out. Babies with babies, and their tears keep burning while their dreams go down the drain now - while their dreams go down the drain now. Are we really living or just walking dead now? Are we walking dead now or dreaming of a hope, riding the wings of angels? The way we live, the way we die, what a tragedy. I'm so terrified. Day dreamers, please wake up. We can't sleep no more. Love don't make no sense, ask your neighbor. The winds have changed. It seems they've abandoned us. The truth hurts, and so does yesterday. What good is love if it burns bright and explodes in flames? I thought every little thing had love, but - are we really living or just walking dead now? Are we walking dead now or dreaming of a hope, riding the wings of angels? The way we live, the way we die, what a tragedy. I'm so terrified. Day dreamers, please wake up. We can't sleep no more. I've seen them shooting up funerals in they Sunday clothes - yeah - and spending money…

GROSS: That was "Sincerely, Jane." from Janelle Monae's first album. Let's take another break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is actor, singer, songwriter and producer Janelle Monae. She stars in Season 2 of the series "Homecoming," which starts streaming Friday on Amazon. We'll be right back after we take a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE BAD PLUS' "THE BEAUTIFUL ONES - INSTRUMENTAL")

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with actor, singer, songwriter, producer, musician Janelle Monae. She costarred in "Moonlight" and "Hidden Figures" and stars in Season 2 of "Homecoming," which starts streaming Friday on Amazon. I know you had a grandmother who served food in jail for about 30 years. Did she tell you stories about jail? And did she try to talk to you and her other grandchildren about never doing anything that might land you in jail?

MONAE: Yeah, for sure, you know. It was - my grandmother actually served food in the county jail for, like, 25 years. And so she would see a lot of people come in and out. And my grandmother was the type of person - her name is Bessie (ph) - and she would let people who, you know, had murdered folks and who had robbed people after they got out of jail because they met her in jail, and they all called her mama, she would let them come live with her. And they didn't do anything to her, and they actually got back on the right track. My grandmother was very forgiving and inviting. And I wish I had more of that, you know, in me because I was like, Grandma, I don't know what you're doing. Like, get these people out of here - growing up.

GROSS: (Laughter) So did you get to spend time with them?

MONAE: I did. And that changed my way of thinking because you're taught, like, their past - you know, everybody's their past. But people, I think, they can change. You know, I think rehabilitation and good mentorship and accountability, you know, rooted in love - I think all of that can change people. And I think that people who are coming out of prison and trying to make a life for themselves should get that opportunity.

GROSS: One last question. How are you trying to move forward with what you're trying to do during the pandemic, when you're basically just staying home?

MONAE: It's hard. You know, it's hard. I mean, I had a line of shows. You know, I was actually going to be performing with - at the Hollywood Bowl this June with an orchestra. You know, I was looking forward to it. And I was going to be headlining Pride in New York, and all of that, you know, has gotten postponed. And there was a movie, "Antebellum," you know, which was going to be my first lead role, that was scheduled to come out in April, and that's postponed as well as a result of it. So for me, it's the first time that I'm having to look at my schedule and having to cross off things that are not happening. And financially, you know, a lot of that is hurting me as well.

But I'm not in the same predicament as, let's say, like, a single mom with five kids who just got laid off. And so what I'm doing is I'm understanding that, yes, we are all going through different stages of this and it's impacting us in ways, but it's like, listen - we're going to have to pull together and help one another. And one of the things that I am doing is I'm not making music right now; I'm not really inspired because music is so rooted to my reality, you know. It's so rooted. And right now I'm having a hard time grasping reality. It's a - I'm having a hard time understanding this new reality.

And that's what I've been trying to do and just realizing that we can't depend on this administration right now. You know, we're going to have to listen to the scientists, and we're going to have to continue to lift the real heroes, who are our central workers - you know, the nurses and doctors and those who are delivering our food for us and risking their lives and their own health to ensure that we have what we need.

GROSS: Janelle Monae, thank you so much for talking with us. I wish you good health during this pandemic, and I look forward to hearing and seeing more of you. Thank you so much.

MONAE: Likewise, Terry. Thank you so, so very much.

GROSS: Janelle Monae stars in the new season of "Homecoming," which starts streaming Friday on Amazon. Her latest album is called "Dirty Computer."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we'll talk about managing anxiety and fear during the pandemic. My guest will be Dan Harris. He's been conducting online meditation sessions during the pandemic. His book "10% Happier" is about how meditation helped tame the negative voice in his head. He's a former co-anchor of "Nightline" and current co-host of the weekend edition of "Good Morning America." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our engineers today are Adam Staniszewski and Audrey Bentham, who is also our technical director. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Thea Challoner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I LIKE THAT.")

MONAE: (Singing) I'm not the kind of girl you take home to your mama now. I tell you no lies. I tell no lies. Your code is programmed not to love me, but you can't pretend. Oh, what a surprise. Maybe it's lust. Maybe it's love. Maybe it never ends. Ooh, say your goodbyes. Say them now. Play in my hair and nibble there all on my mocha skin. Yeah, just take a byte. Take a byte. Just take a byte. Help yourself. Help yourself. It's all right. It's all right. I won't tell. It feels so good when you nibble on it. Take a byte. Just take a byte. Help yourself. You look so good. Just help yourself. Don't think twice. Don't think twice. I won't tell. My random access memory wants you to come again. No... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.