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Janelle Monáe on Being “Othered” for Her “Nonbinary Way of Looking at Music” Ahead of I Made Rock ‘N’ Roll Festival

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As Black artists’ roots in country music continue to be rediscovered following the release of Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter, the founders of the upcoming I Made Rock ‘N’ Roll Festival — which Janelle Monáe will headline on Saturday — are hoping the event will have a similar effect in the rock genre.

“We’re really on a mission to showcase the authorship of the creatives that helped to build American culture,” says Alan Bacon, who cofounded GANGGANG, the Indianapolis-based creative advocacy firm behind the festival, with his wife Malina Simone Bacon in 2020. “Rock ‘n’ roll is a big piece of that as one of America’s genres and Black creatives and artists have such a strong history in the creating of that genre.”

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It was that mission that piqued Monáe’s interest in performing at the Black rock fest, she tells The Hollywood Reporter, noting the similarities between the group and her Wondaland Arts Society.

“They reminded me a lot of Wondaland, my arts collective. We started in Atlanta and went through the HBCUs — Spelman, then Clark and Morehouse — creating the Dark Tower Project to creating the Wondaland Art Society full of actors, artists, musicians and storytellers who want to create the future and create a view print, not a blueprint. Respecting the past, but really looking to the future and shaping it and making it inclusive for the folks that have been pushed to the margins of society artistically,” she says.

That goal is a reflection of Monáe’s early experience in the industry, as executives attempted to musically box in the artist whose discography spans pop, rock, funk, R&B, soul, hip-hop and even Afrobeats with her Grammy-nominated 2023 album, The Age of Pleasure.

“I did go through a moment during that time where I felt super othered and like I had to cut off certain parts of me because people won’t understand it,” Monáe says. “And I think that that’s been proven wrong.”

GANGGANG wants to prove a similar point as it brings together Monáe alongside Gary Clark Jr., who was inducted into Guitar Center’s Rockwalk in Los Angeles earlier this month, Robert Randolph, Joy Oladokun, Meet Me @ the Altar and Inner Peace for the festival. The hope is to sell out the 7,500-person capacity American Legion Mall in Indianapolis where the performances will take place.

“We’re hoping to have a really big push telling this story,” Alan Bacon says. “This message is indicative of what we’re seeing nationally right now with Beyoncé, and sharing the headlines that it plays into the intersection between authorship and country music. It’s the same narrative.”

Malina Simone Bacon, speaking to GANGGANG’s additional focus of empowering Black creatives economically, adds: “This kind of shared collective narrative is bigger than us. This is what’s going on in America. This is the continuation of conversations about justice and DEI and it’s all compounding and strengthening.”

Ahead of the I Made Rock ‘N’ Roll Festival, Monáe chats with THR about her exploration and admiration of rock and not allowing herself to be creatively limited to certain genres as a Black artist.

How important would you say this festival is at this particular time in history?

I think music is always going to heal and bring people together and be the bridge and also teach at the same time. I like that this festival is an inaugural festival. You never forget your first and I like being a part of the first and being able to say, “Remember when.” Because I think it will be very successful, and I think lots of people will reshape what [rock ‘n’ roll] means and add their own flare to it and build on what has been and inject what the future is saying it is. It’s going to be really great to see it evolve. I’m already thinking about the future, so I like being a part of planting a seed and this is going to be a beautiful bouquet.

You’ve experimented with a lot of genres over your career. Have you felt limited by the way your music has been classified?

When I started Metropolis: The Chase Suite, which was the start of my science fiction odyssey, the words of the first song were, “I’m an alien from outer space/I’m a cyber-girl without a face, a heart, or a mind.” And during that time, I had an audience — it was smaller — but they got me, and I got them. I had my own label, and then I was partnered with folks to help make sure the music had tentacles around the world and then you start having conversations like, “How do we get people in the middle of Iowa to understand?” or “How is this going to translate to everybody?” I did go through a moment during that time where I felt super othered and like I had to cut off certain parts of me because people won’t understand it. And I think that that’s been proven wrong. I think that there’s a lot of people that get the frequency. They get what freedom feels like and looks like. And I think with music, which I love, and I’ve gone on to do film and a lot of other things that I love and I’ve always wanted to do, but music is just about a feeling and people gravitate towards the feeling. You can say, “I’m going to do a jazz album” or “I’m going to do this or that,” but if the feeling’s not there, I don’t think people will talk about it. If you can capture a feeling and an honesty and a frequency that people want to make their soundtrack, then you’ve got a hit, you’ve got something special. Once I knew that people understood the feeling that I was trying to get across, the breaking away from expectations, creatively and musically, and the community that I was trying to make and the journey that I was on, that gave me the confidence that I needed. And it wasn’t about everybody. It was about the right people.

Your 2013 album The Electric Lady included the track “We Were Rock and Roll — does this moment feel sort of full circle for you and did you feel people understood the connection you were drawing to Black people’s roots in rock ‘n’ roll with your music then?

That’s amazing that you brought that up. Nobody ever asks me about that song, and it was one of my favorites from the album. It was sort of a love letter to rock ‘n’ roll and the death of an era where we were thriving, and I was making a parallel between a love that I had and rock ‘n’ roll and trying to be clever in that way and not too on the nose, but it was a marrying of a lot of different things. I have to go back so far in my memory to remember where I was spiritually, but I recall thinking that was something cool to write.

Beyoncé’s Cowboy Carter has led to people discovering many contemporary Black country artists. Do you think a trickle-down effect will happen with people discovering more Black rock artists as a result of this festival?

That’s my hope. I hope that people are going back and looking at Jackie Shane, a trans woman, who was making amazing music and giving incredible performances during the same time as Little Richard. Jackie was friends with Jimi Hendrix, she was on the scene and not a lot of people know about her story. I hope that people listen to the artists that are holding it down right now. I love Gary Clark Jr. and I’m so happy to be playing with him. Rock, I think some people lean into it and say, “I am a rock artist,” and that’s incredible. And some of us understand that rock has so many tentacles to blues and to church. Then you have certain subgenres. It’s like an octopus in that way. It can take many different directions. A lot of freedom comes through rock music. It’s like a portal to more innovation in music.

Beyoncé’s song “YA YA” sounds like some of your earlier work. Have you listened to it?

I’ve heard that and I love Beyoncé. I love the album and she’s a friend, so I’m happy we have her still making albums.

What can fans expect from your performance at the festival?

I’m all about the element of surprise, but the night is going to be even more special because May 18 is the anniversary of the day The ArchAndroid came out, so it’ll be cool to play this festival and celebrate it. That album meant so much for me because I wanted it to reflect my nonbinary way of looking at music and blurring the lines when it comes to genre. If you listen to that album, it sort of foreshadowed the music that I would make and the freedom that I would have musically. It was sort of like a blueprint to what I was telling the world I was going to do and that I wasn’t going to be boxed in simply because you don’t understand Blackness in relationship to science fiction, in relationship to hip-hop, to rock ‘n’ roll, to punk, to classical, to opera, to jazz. That album gave me freedom.

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