The world may recognize Janelle Monáe for her music, mastery of menswear on the red carpet, and breakout performances in Moonlight and Hidden Figures, but the 32-year-old singer is now finding her footing in a new role: advocate.
She’s gearing up to release her third album, Dirty Computer, on April 27, and this week dropped two music videos that the Internet can’t stop discussing. The first is for “Django Jane,” in which she raps for three minutes about the power of being a woman (“We gave you life, we gave you birth, we gave you God, we gave you Earth,” she sings), and why men should listen: “Hit the mute button, let the vagina have a monologue.”
But the video for “Make Me Feel” is garnering even more attention. In it, she comes forward as an unapologetically queer person. Set to purple-ish lighting that recalls Prince, the video finds Monáe seductively dancing and flirting with a man and with a woman, who just so happens to be Westworld actress Tessa Thompson. Interestingly, Monáe took her love of Prince ot the next level with this record. According to a now-deleted Facebook post by Prince's DJ, Lenka Paris, it turns out the late icon helped her on the track by giving her a synth line. In an interview with BBC Radio 1, Monae talks about working with him directly. “Prince actually was working on the album with me before he passed on to another frequency, and helped me come up with sounds. I really miss him, it’s hard for me to talk about him," she said.
The song is sexy, groovy, and the lyrics send a progressive message: I am what I am.
Essentially, she sings about feeling a certain way for another human as a woman, regardless of that person’s gender. “Baby, don’t make me spell it out for you, all of the feelings that I’ve got for you, can’t be explained, but I can try for you,” she sings, adding, “It’s like I’m powerful with a little bit of tender, an emotional sexual bender.”
Of course, the topic of Monáe’s sexual orientation has come up before—though, let’s be clear: It’s no one’s business but her own.
In 2013, she was directly asked whether or not she was “into girls” on the Sway in the Morning radio show, to which she replied with aplomb: “There’s nothing wrong with being bisexual. There’s nothing wrong with being a lesbian or gay. I am an advocate. I have friends who are in same-sex relationships. I think that love has no sexual orientation,” she said. “You know what, I keep my personal life to myself. I think one of the things about that is that I want everyone to focus on my music.”
Now, she calls herself “sexually liberated,” and wants people to know what “Make Me Feel” is just a “celebratory song.”
“I hope that comes across. That people feel more free, no matter where they are in their lives, that they feel celebrated,” she says a recent interview with The Guardian. “Because I’m about women’s empowerment. I’m about agency. I’m about being in control of your narrative and your body. That was personal for me to even talk about: to let people know you don’t own or control me and you will not use my image to defame or denounce other women.”
So does the song represent a coming-out of sorts for Monáe? She hasn’t publicly made a statement—and that’s not a requirement. As Sarah Mikhail, senior director of community support for The Center, an LGBT support organization in New York, says, there is indeed power in celebrities discussing their sexual identity, but it’s up to the individual to choose whether or not to label it.
“If we ask young millennials, they might say, ‘Hell yeah! She’s not saying it because who cares?’ It’s playful and fun and exciting and empowering, no matter what,” Mikhail tells InStyle. “We shouldn’t put a label on anyone else. We spend our own time at [The Center] helping people fight for their own right to label or not label themselves. As an LGBT person and activist, I think that we should never do that, and any representation that we know will our community is amazing.”
Fans are praising Monáe’s latest project, calling it a “bisexual anthem,” with which Mikhail, who describes her as a "friend" and "ally" of the community, agrees.
Mikhail adds, “The video is being touted as a bisexual anthem because she’s flirting in this really fun and empowering way with this man and woman, and the actual song says, ‘It’s the way you make me feel,’ which is what bi people have been saying forever about our attractions. It’s about how you fall in love with a person and not parts,” she says.
According to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC), roughly 50 percent of LGBTQ people identify as bisexual. Yet they often don't see the spotlight in the public discourse. “Seeing a video from an award-winning, mainstream artist that puts bisexuality front and center is groundbreaking and certainly something worth celebrating,” Ianthe Metzger, press secretary for the HRC, tells us. “Too often, bisexual identity is erased or relegated to stereotypes that undermine its legitimacy, but videos like this can certainly move the needle. At the same time, it’s important to remember that bisexuality is a spectrum—being bisexual looks different for each bisexual person, so we have to always approach these conversations with nuance and understanding.”
Megan Townsend, director of entertainment research and analysis for the Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation (GLAAD), also argues that we need more bi representation. "Every bi story we’re getting right now—from “Make Me Feel” to shows like Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, Shadowhunters, and Brooklyn Nine-Nine that all feature central bi characters—add up to further the very necessary conversation about the bi experience," she shares. "Each of these stories, and the overwhelmingly positive reactions they get, open the door for the next inclusive piece of art, and the next, and so on. These portrayals have a real-life impact on how people think of bisexuality, and I hope we continue to see more."
Much has changed for the better since 2013, when Monáe addressed her sexuality in the aforementioned interview, though there’s work to be done. It’s still legal to be fired or denied an apartment for being LGBTQ in many states, and as Metzger points out, the Trump administration has posed several threats against LGBTQ rights.
Monáe, however, has not so quietly made efforts to represent the underrepresented with powerful acting roles in films like Moonlight, a movie that shares the story of an African-American boy's struggles as he grows up within a poverty-stricken, largely homophobic community. She’s also been an active supporter of the Time’s Up movement, and of the fact that you can’t shut women down.
At the 2018 Grammys, she delivered what was described as a “rallying cry” for an end to sexual harassment before introducing Kesha—a victim of assault—on stage to perform “Praying.” “We come in peace, but we mean business. And to those who would dare try to silence us, we offer you two words: Time’s Up,” Monáe said. “We say Time’s Up for pay inequality. Time’s Up for discrimination. Time’s Up for harassment of any kind, and Time’s Up for the abuse of power, because you see, it’s not just going on in Hollywood. It’s not just going on in Washington. It’s right here in our industry as well. And just as we have the power to shape culture, we also have the power to undo the culture that does not serve us well.”
Her brief speech was met with applause—the same way in which her first songs off Dirty Computer are quickly shifting the conversations we’re having about queer people. Which is not to say she’s fearlessly discussing these things. In an interview with Apple Music’s Zane Lowe on Beats 1 Radio, she shared that the messages behind her upcoming album aren’t easy to dispel.
“I’m going to be 100 percent honest, I’m scared. I’m actually terrified,” she said. “It’s such an honest body of work and I don’t know how people are going to react to it, Zane. I really, I don’t know. Just the thought of it is kind of freaking me out a little bit, but I feel like it’s something that I need to do. It’s something that I always knew I needed to do and it’s going to happen.”
Monáe’s new music is powerful and inspiring for LGBTQ communities, and it’s refreshing to see someone at such a mainstream level share such stories.