Janelle Monáe just did an interview and gorgeous photo spread for Paper Magazine. Like everything she touches, it is amazing. The interview begins on a somber note, with Monáe talking about attending her first Pride celebration in New Orleans, falling on the same day 27-year-old trans woman Lavleen Polanco was found dead at Rikers Island prison. The senseless deaths, abuse, and marginalization of trans people, particularly Black trans women, does not seem to be slowing down. Juxtaposing a celebration of her identity and the queer people she does her art for, Monáe’s mind is fully present during the interview, but her thoughts are elsewhere. Payton Dix summarizes her thought process into four salient points:
[Monáe] mostly leans into battling bullies ("We have to be taught how to deal with bullies and bullies need to be taught the repercussions of bullying somebody"), creating active change ("Sexual identity needs to be taught in school. There should be courses on mental health, how to coexist, how we can all learn from each other"), and the importance of empowering and standing up for QTPOC ("In the same way we want white folks to support us and be better allies and use their privilege to make change in those power dynamics, it's up to us to protect those who may not be as privileged").
As known bully President Donald Trump engages in direct human rights abuses while dismissing serious accusations himself, and here in Canada, Doug Ford rules Ontario with an iron fist, encroaching on the rights of almost all Ontarians in just a year of being Premier, we are acutely aware that the personal is definitely political. Pride is not about rainbows, and Janelle Monáe doesn’t stop there. Making space has always been a huge part of her career. It seems like she’s determined to expand even more. After all, open arms is exactly what Dirty Computer, her 2018 Grammy-nominated album was about. She references her Baptist Church upbringing and what she needed as a youth: “They can listen to this album and feel hugged. They can feel loved. They can feel seen. They can feel heard. That's the most beautiful thing."
Despite some people’s attempts to manipulate and (often lazily) package Christianity and other religions as open-minded by default, many people know this is an outright lie. A few principles that cite being a good person does not account for the outright alienation, abuse, and marginalization queer people face in religious families; this can even be life and death, it’s real. The gaslighting is also out of control, with people denying their own opinion cannot impact people’s lives, but it’s clear an opinion on someone’s humanity should be met with honour, not erasure and disrespect, particularity inside of the household, as there is enough to fight on the outside. Having grown up in a religious family, I know the ways in which anything from silence to unapologetic homophobia can stifle people and destroy their self-esteem, at the very least.
Monáe seems aware that her responsibility as an artist is to not only reflect the times, but improve them. Countless songs on Dirty Computer sight outside tensions, but more importantly, the beauty in queer identity. It’s important that people see themselves as separate and apart from other people’s perceptions and projections, and she provides anthems to her fans to that effect.
In the interview, she talks about dedicating her Grammy nominations to her "trans brothers and sisters" who she says "are shunned from these sorts of events." As we’ve seen, institutional award shows, including the Grammys, are inherently and historically spaces of white, cis, male privilege.
This reminds me of a recent Rihanna quote, on being an Immigrant: “For me, it’s a prideful word,” she said. “To know that you can come from humble beginnings and just take over whatever you want to, dominate at whatever you put your mind to. The world becomes your oyster, and there’s no limit. Wherever I go, except for Barbados, I’m an immigrant. I think people forget that a lot of times. I think they see Rihanna the brand. But I think it’s important for people to remember, if you love me, everyone out here is just like me. A million Rihannas out there, getting treated like dirt.”
This is so crucial to me, as some people selfishly believe simple representation or success for them or their family is enough to represent progress or community empowerment. True advocates always see things outside of themselves.
Monáe ends the interview perfectly, setting an inspiring tone and blueprint for more to come:
“Everybody doesn’t have the same set of circumstances. There are people, young people in particular, that will be cut off from their family, hanged or jailed if they walked in their truth. Folks who are not comfortable speaking out about your sexuality publicly, we see you and you are valid and you matter. We have to protect our babies, especially in the LGBTQIA+ community. We have to do better.“