“Oh my goodness!” Janelle Monáe exclaims when asked for her memories of her first visit to Glastonbury, in 2011. “I remember our bus catching fire on the way there and us almost dying. It was a ‘Get on stage as soon as you arrive’ type of situation. I also remember the crowd being one of the best I’ve ever witnessed. They were a performance themselves.”
Back then, she was second from top of the bill on the West Holts Stage, just behind another Atlanta-based musician, Big Boi. Next weekend, when she returns, she’ll be last on in the same place on the Sunday night. It might look like a small shift upwards, but a lot has happened for the 33-year-old in the intervening years.
Her second and third albums, The Electric Lady in 2013 and Dirty Computer last year, both cracked the US top 10, while the latter was her first to chart that high in this country. Meanwhile she has honed her skills as an actress, playing prominent roles in Hidden Figures, about the black women who worked for NASA during the Space Race, and Moonlight, which won the 2017 Best Picture Oscar. Next up are roles in biopics of the feminist activist Gloria Steinem and the 19th Century slavery abolitionist Harriet Tubman, plus, less seriously, music and voice work in Disney’s live action Lady and the Tramp.
As a concert performer, she is an extraordinary, jitterbugging firecracker, taking stylistic elements from the dayglo hip hop of Outkast, the tireless motion of James Brown and the fluid electicism of her friend and mentor Prince. She puts on a hell of a show, which is why it’s hard to believe that her Wembley gig the week after Glastonbury will be her first ever UK arena appearance.
“When I started out I was performing for, like, 500 people in Atlanta Georgia for many years,” she tells me. “Nobody would book me outside of Atlanta. I’m the underdog in music. So this being my first arena over there, it’s a big deal to me. We are going to party.”
When we speak, she’s calling from New Orleans, where she says she’s “shooting a secret project”, and the American President is over here on his state visit. She sounds like she’d be more than happy if he never came back. “If I was the Queen I wouldn’t give him no tea, no nothing. We have the worst leader I’ve seen since I’ve been alive, pushing hate, ostracising immigrants and those in the LGBTQIA+ community,” she says, reeling off the most inclusive version of the acronym available. “We’re in a shitty place right now. When he got elected I was still writing Dirty Computer, so I had to be honest about how I was feeling at the time – fearful, scared – I took all that and put it on the album.”
She has released political songs all along the way. Mr President, on her debut EP, Metropolis: Suite I (The Chase), in 2007, was addressed to George W Bush. Her 2015 song Hell You Talmbout was a raw chant of the names of black Americans killed by police or in racial attacks (later covered every night by David Byrne on his acclaimed tour). “I have a lot of protest songs. In the words of Nina Simone, an artist’s job is to reflect the times,” she says. But sometimes her love of a high concept has partially concealed her message. That early EP and her debut album, The ArchAndroid, were dominated by the story of Cindi Mayweather, a time-travelling robot who falls in love with a human in 2719. Monáe was known to perform and give interviews in character.
“I don’t really believe in personas,” she says today. “That’s a part of who I am. We’re all a part of a larger puzzle and within me, I have many different pieces. You can use the future to talk about current events. It’s storytelling.”
On Dirty Computer, however, she is finally being herself. You don’t get much more direct politically than her song Americans, which includes samples of Reverend Sean McMillan making statements such as, “Until women can get equal pay for equal work, this is not my America.” As regards her sexuality, which she kept private in the early days, you might get the hint from the video for her song PYNK, in which she sports a startling pair of voluminous trousers shaped like labia.
Last year she used an interview in Rolling Stone to identify herself publicly for the first time as “a queer black woman in America, someone who has been in relationships with both men and women.” Last month the Avengers actress Tessa Thompson appeared to confirm that the pair were in a relationship, saying in an interview with Net-a-Porter, “We love each other deeply. We’re so close, we vibrate on the same frequency. If people want to speculate about what we are, that’s okay. It doesn’t bother me.”
Monáe comes back to the subject when we talk about the meaning behind the album title Dirty Computer. “It’s about being sexually liberated, loving yourself despite what the rest of the world has to say about your identity, walking in your purpose, celebrating your blackness, celebrating your queerness, celebrating your bugs and your viruses. They’re the things that make you unique,” she says. “I could talk about how messed up our judicial system is, and how messed up the behaviour is of the cis white men who are in a position of power, or I could choose to celebrate the people that need to be celebrated. I celebrated the dirty computers – the marginalised. I wanted to make sure that they know that, regardless of my status in the entertainment industry, I’m still a young black queer woman who grew up with working class parents. When I take off my red carpet look, my Met Gala outfit, I still have to deal with the reality of how I’m viewed in this country”
She was raised Janelle Monáe Robinson in Kansas City as part of a large, devoutly Baptist family, which partly explains the slow pace at which she has made her private life public. “I was always taught that if you were anything other than Christian, anything other than heterosexual, anything other than a woman being submissive, you were disobeying God and wouldn’t be accepted in heaven,” she explains. “So what I have always wanted to do is make my own church, if the church I grew up in would not accept me for who I was. Dirty Computer is a sanctuary, a church for us to come together and feel loved and feel seen and feel heard.”
That outlook continues now that she has her own film development company, Wondaland Pictures. She says she’s open for business to tell the kind of stories, as in Moonlight and Hidden Figures, that don’t often get seen on the big screen. “We’re gonna have to make more noise if we want to see change happen. I see so much untapped potential and I’m ready to collaborate,” she says. “I feel a deep responsibility and commitment. There’s a lot of dark energy trying to steal our light, and I choose light.”
Janelle Monáe headlines the West Holts Stage at Glastonbury on June 30 (glastonburyfestivals.co.uk) then plays July 2, SSE Arena, Wembley, HA9 (ssearena.co.uk)