Janelle Monae is ready for change

The Baltimore Sun

Janelle Monae's summer has been better than, well, just about everyone else's.

In a span of 13 days, the 28-year-old R&B singer/songwriter covered James Brown with Stevie Wonder in Los Angeles, opened for comedian Dave Chappelle in New York and spent Fourth of July on stage with Prince in New Orleans. These highlights came on the heels of Monae raising her profile through an international Pepsi campaign that aired throughout the World Cup.

Monae, who is a performer at Saturday's Summer Spirit Festival at Merriweather Post Pavilion, said she cherishes these moments because they aim to uplift crowds through positivity and transcendence. During a recent phone conversation, Monae made it clear she believes music still has the power to change society.

“We always just look at these opportunities as ways to connect to the people and really help them become even better than they were before they've seen us perform,” Monae said.

Since releasing her debut EP “Metropolis: Suit I (The Chase)“ in 2007, Monae has created the type of high-minded music that is loved by critics, fellow artists and appreciators of lofty, go-for-broke art. Her Grammy-nominated, Afrofuturism-influenced debut album, 2010's “The ArchAndroid,” is considered the second and third parts of a seven-part concept series. Last year's follow-up, “The Electric Lady,” was similarly ambitious but more refined and accessible, thanks in part to her hit duet with Miguel, “Primetime.” 

Recent radio success aside, Monae — who weaves funk, rock, soul and other genres into her take on R&B — is unapologetically an album artist who stands out next to peers often more interested in chasing the next hit.

“When people look back historically, I definitely want to be mentioned as one of the artists who really did stick to the core values of creating an experience,” Monae said. “You can look back at these songs that we created and they still resonate the same way they resonated when they first came out. You can share them with the next generation to come and that, to me, is what my focal point has always been.”

Throughout the conversation, Monae's mind frequently returned to the next generation. She cares deeply about tone and message (“Lyrics are extremely important, and they're more important than being on the radio”) of her work and others. Monae is particularly unimpressed by aging stars who latch onto younger artists for relevancy.

There is an undercurrent of phoniness to it all that Monae, who grew up in a “low-income community” in Kansas City, Kan., finds frustrating and dangerous.

“At some point, you have to realize that kids are impressionable and even adults [are, too],” she said. “When you co-sign an artist to remain relevant, but you co-sign them knowing that they're focused on promoting killing and degrading women, all those things help the black community going straight to prison. It's perpetuating this whole stereotype we're already fighting against.

“I'm aware of that, and I see it more now than ever,” Monae said.

She admits she might not be the answer to the problem, but Monae is willing to try. Her hope is artists, both emerging and established, will follow suit.

“I'm ready for something new and for something fresh. I'm ready for superstars to be innovators,” she said. “It's time for them to use their voice and do something important and something influential.”

Monae is transparent about her hopes, but in other ways, she is also purposefully enigmatic and evasive. More than once, she declined to give straight answers to seemingly innocuous questions. When asked where she was calling from, Monae said she preferred not to say because, “I'm a time traveler, so you know, people come back in time and try to get me.” She had no comment on any upcoming music.

It's easy to get the feeling Monae — who is known as a high-energy, sharply dressed presence on stage — keeps her plans to herself because each detail is deeply calculated. (She doesn't do it all alone — Monae often speaks highly of her like-minded, Atlanta-based collective, the Wondaland Arts Society.) If Monae's songs are as powerful as she hopes, then, in her mind, the impact must be maximized for fullest effect.

“I write songs because I believe in them and I believe they can change the world,” Monae said. “Whenever I write a song, I always pray that it can reach as many people as possible and that the message I intend to give with whatever song is felt, heard and appreciated, and used as apart of their lifestyle. That's really what I'm focused on.”

If you go

Janelle Monae performs Saturday at Merriweather Post Pavilion, 10475 Little Patuxent Parkway in Columbia. Ms. Lauryn Hill, Meshell Ndegeocello, Raheem DeVaughn and others will also perform. Doors open at 3 p.m. Tickets are $46-$125. Call 410-715-5550 or go to merriweathermusic.com

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