The What’s Underneath Project: Janelle Monáe Isn’t Here To Make You Comfortable
By Ada Kalu
June 21, 2023
The promotion and release of Janelle Monáe’s fourth studio album, The Age of Pleasure has not been without scrutiny. Comments largely stem from the visible sensuality they exude, a marked departure from the suits they donned at the start of their career. An interesting paradox, Janelle is unable to win. When covered head to toe, people wanted to see their body. When deciding on their own terms to lean into their current and present self, the issue became too much body. Often times, sexuality and womanhood are and can be marketing gimmicks, especially through and by a male lens *cough cough, The Idol*. But for Monáe, this is a deliberate decision for and by themselves, marking a journey to self and finally being comfortable with that. Besides, sexuality and pleasure are not new concepts for Janelle Monáe, they’ve been doing this throughout their career. In a new video, Monáe sits down with StyleLikeU, a mother-daughter platform that spotlights self image and identity through a focused docuseries. Arriving in their signature suit, Monáe sits down and answers questions for The What’s Underneath Project. Peeling away layers of themselves and inviting viewers to engage with Monáe, as they are and exist in this current moment.
In April 2018, following the release of Dirty Computer, Monáe described themselves as pansexual. Last year, almost to the anniversary of, Monáe revealed they are non-binary. ‘I just don’t see myself as a woman solely. I feel all of my energy. I feel like God is so much bigger than the ‘he’ or the ‘she,’ and if I am from God, I am everything. But I will always, always stand with women. I will always stand with Black women.’ For StyleLikeU, Monáe describes their trajectory in coming to self largely through their style. Monáe’s fashion has been a key part of their image, revealing more of themselves steadily and on their own terms throughout their career thus far. Monáe’s first studio album, The ArchAndroid was released when they were 24. Their demo, The Audition was released when they were 17 and with each project, Monáe has been on a steady journey of simply growing up. Isn’t that what’s expected of us as humans? As an artist, this has translated to the different sounds they’ve explored across their career, why shouldn’t the same apply to self? A key element of Janelle’s interview is the deep reverence for change and honoring all stages of themselves in their journey to where they are now. Their suit, which they start the interview with, is indicative of who Janelle Monáe is and their style. It’s ‘about the spirit’ and the suit, is about recognizing those in service and the uniform of service but it also represents ‘swag, sexiness…pushing back against gender norms’ and they’ve done this throughout their career.
Janelle Monáe has never simply been one thing. Long before they came out, they were discovering the multifacetedness of identity. In 2010, they spoke against binaries, especially in clothing ‘I don’t believe in men’s wear or women’s wear, I just like what I like. And I think we should just be respected for being an individual.’ The discomfort that’s expressed with their current expression is not really Janelle’s business. ‘I am mirroring back what you think about yourself, your discomforts…where you are in your freedom journey, where you are in your identity journey.’ Janelle’s current self is one of freedom and fully embracing what it means to be present with yourself and your body. The impact of patriarchy and the male gaze does not leave anyone exempt and part of combatting the sense of unease is fully understanding why you feel the way you do. ‘It took me years to get comfortable with my boobs. I was always taught, ‘Do not do anything that will make men attracted to you.’ It took me a long time to realize that it’s not my responsibility to adjust my freedom in order to make you comfortable…”
Ultimately, Janelle communicates that their identity, their honesty and vulnerability with who they are as a non-binary ‘free-ass motherf—’ is what brought them to who and where they are now. ‘I want to honor them, I want to honor her, I want to honor me at every stage…and I wanted to take them with me.’
The full clip is available on Youtube and viewers can watch it below.
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