It is just over a year ago that Janelle Monáe, “crying in her spacesuit,” came out as pansexual in a cover story for Rolling Stone. It was, as the article said, “something the world has long guessed, something her closest friends and family already know, something she’s long been loath to say in public.”
Now, all these months later, Monáe, beaming and unfiltered in a black-and-white mini-dress, a long, fanned ponytail, and the spirit of Pride Month, is reflecting on the power that being open and public about her sexual identity has had. And what she wants from us, too: A “beautiful future.”
She is into the idea of conversations, and journeys. She told Rolling Stone then, “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.” According to the magazine, she initially idenitifed as bisexual, “but then later I read about pansexuality and was like, ‘Oh, these are things that I identify with too.’ I’m open to learning more about who I am.”
The occasion for our sit-down is her partnership with Belvedere Vodka’s “Beautiful Future” campaign celebrating integrity, diversity, and self-expression, an apt message on the week of New York City’s annual Pride March. This year the city is also the location of WorldPride and pays tribute to the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. She’ll be in town, the second time the Dirty Computer artist will be celebrating Pride.
She flashes a mischievous grin when I ask her how her life has changed since coming out publicly, that kind of giggle-smile that everyone in her community is familiar with, the one that telegraphs: It’s a lot.
In her public life, the one that has her giving inspirational speeches at a Pride-themed vodka party, her candor about coming out with a pansexual identity that continues to mystify so many people—aggregated pickup of the Rolling Stone story almost uniformly included “what is pansexuality?” in the headlines—was celebrated.
In her private life, things were more complicated.
“When you’re in relationships, or when your family members are having to deal with, you know, your sexuality in a public space, it’s hard,” she says. “Some of them cling more to their religious beliefs. And I grew up in a Baptist family so I had to have multiple conversations with my family around what this means, being a bi-pan woman.”
She mimics their confusion. “They’re like, well, when you were in a relationship with him?... Well, how can you love her?… Or, weren’t you in a relationship with her but you love him? It's like, you know, sexuality is not a destination. It’s a journey. It’s a journey and I’m discovering things about myself all the time and I’m choosing to embrace it and not suppress it. And this is where I am. This is how I identify.”
She says that a big “coming out story” was something she never wanted to do. But it was necessary, even if she was rattled with anxiety in the weeks before the story was published. Her music and her art has always been autobiographical: her truth for public consumption, a collective healing. That was going to continue with the release of Dirty Computer in 2018, which, amidst a treasure trove of queer-positive content, included the song, “Don’t Judge Me,” and the pointed lyric, “Let the rumors be true.”
“The only way I know how to write is to be honest to where I am,” she says. “And I knew that there was going to be questions asked and I just needed to be prepared. So I had anxiety around having to talk about my work that is so honest to who I am.”
She gestures at me and gives a firm, certain nod. “But I’m happy I did it. And I’m happy that I didn’t allow my fear and anxiety to get in the way of my freedom.”
We share a moment, a beat of mutual understanding. She tells me something that, normally, I wouldn’t include in an article, except that it was coming from a place so seemingly earnest and heartfelt that I think it truly speaks to who she is, and how this last year has changed her. “I appreciate you,” she says. “We have to appreciate each other.”
When Monáe grips a dangling microphone in an art installation set up at The Shed at Hudson Yards for the night’s celebration, she jokes that she’s always been obsessed with the future. It’s a reference to the Belvedere campaign, sure, but also the motif that defined her first era as an artist, the android, the “alien from outer space/The cybergirl without a face” that not only defined her first decade of music, but also became her go-to response when questioned about her sexuality.
It’s a bit on-the-nose, but I ask her how she sees her future.
“I definitely see women holding more positions of power in politics and behind the scenes,” she says. “Not just in front of the camera when it comes to entertainment, but really producing, running film studios. I see us at that table on the forefront. I see a world where we are listening not to speak or respond, but we’re listening to each other to understand, to really empathize with what we’re going though.”
Empathy is a major point for Monáe. It’s what we’re losing as a society.
“We’re not all alike,” she continues. “We don’t all come from the same shared community and share the same values. But being able to have a cocktail and talk about some of these important issues can go a long way. That’s what I want us to understand, that we are a civilization that literally depends on each other to survive. Once we stop caring about the little guy, the little girl, is when I feel like I’ve failed the future.”
Dirty Computer, in many ways, was a siren call to support those who are others, and who are othered. It was Monáe’s most personal work in her career, and, perhaps not coincidentally, also the most celebrated. We are meeting to discuss her journey and her initiatives, yet she is, as she has been throughout her career, redirecting the conversation towards those who are marginalized. To Monáe, there are part of her story, too, and they need attention paid.
Her performance of “Americans” on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert involved Pose star Mj Rodriguez and featured an ensemble of people of color. The lyrics of the song: “Until women can get equal pay for equal work / This is not my America / Until same gender loving people can be who they are / This is not my America / Until black people can come home from a police stop / Without being shot in the head / This is not my America.” She dedicated her Grammy nominations for Dirty Computer to her “trans brothers and sisters.”
In an interview with Paper magazine, she said, “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.” She called for people to support queer and trans people of color “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.”
She launched the organization Fem the Future to create more opportunities for and to empower women in music, film, and television.
“When you empower women, you are creating the more beautiful future,” she says. “When you empower those in the LGBTQAI+ community, you are creating a better and more beautiful future. When you’re empowering those who systemically have marginalized voices, you are creating a beautiful future. So it also goes to the question, if you are considered a privileged person in this community, do you feel like it’s your responsibility to help someone maybe less privileged?”
Thinking about the future also means thinking about the past and where we came from. It’s not lost on Monáe that at this moment, she has a voice that people are listening to, and this moment is the 50th anniversary of the Stonewall riots. She lists the names: Marsha P. Johnson, Sylvia Rivera.
“In the LGBT+ community, there were lots of black women and trans women who helped fight for my rights, all of our rights to be able to live a free and safe life,” she says. “I owe them so much. That’s why I’m talking in the way that I am. I want to be in those conversations. Whenever I have the opportunity to make some decisions around our community and to shape it for the better, I want to do that.”