Arts & Culture

‘This is a night for us’: Janelle Monáe talks coming out, her return to KC and more

A lot has happened with Janelle Monáe since her 2013 “The Electric Lady” show in her hometown.

She’s made a song with former First Lady Michelle Obama. Starred in the Oscar-nominated film “Hidden Figures” and the Oscar-winning film “Moonlight.” Became one of the few black women to run an indie label alongside a major one, when her independent label, Wondaland Records, entered into a joint partnership with Epic Records.

She’s also cemented a reputation among fashionistas after repeated eye-popping fashions on various red carpets. And she released “Dirty Computer,” her third studio album and highest-selling album to date.

In short, the Kansas City, Kan., native has worked tirelessly to graduate from an indie favorite to a formidable mainstream star teetering dangerously close (if not already occupying) a spot on the A-list.

As such, it would not be surprising if Monáe’s upcoming Kansas City show, as a headlining act for the city’s inaugural Open Spaces arts festival, will feel as much like a commemoration as it might a homecoming.

Monáe will perform at the Starlight Theatre on Saturday, Oct. 13, for Open Spaces, a nine-week metro-wide art festival featuring artists from around the globe in sculpture, music, dance, contemporary and spoken word arts.

“I’m super super super excited to be headlining,” Monáe says. “Kansas City, Kansas. Kansas City, Missouri. Kansas City period. This is a night for us.”

About two weeks before the biggest Kansas City show of her career, Monáe spoke with The Star about the excitement behind her return, her life since coming out as pansexual, what restaurant you might catch her in while she’s in town, why she doesn’t come to Kansas City more often and just what happened with last year’s Heritage and Jazz festival.

Note: This conversation has been edited and condensed.

Q: How did this opportunity to perform at Open Spaces come about?

Monáe: I grew up as a child going to the Starlight Theatre and watching some of my favorite artists perform and to be on that stage is a dream to me.

When they reached out about being a part of Open Spaces and I read more about the organization and what they’re doing, I love the fact that they’re taking a big initiative in showcasing contemporary art, both in the visual and performance space. And I love that it’s getting attention all around the world.

It was a great time for us both to be partnering, when I have an album that was centered around the arts. I did a film with it, an emotion picture as I like to call it, and will be supporting so many visual artists and contemporary artists. I just think it’s going to be an awe-inspiring night and I just can’t wait for it to be here.

Q: Is this the performance you were alluding to earlier this year when you tweeted that you hadn’t forgotten about Kansas City when we weren’t included on the “Dirty Computer” tour dates?

A: Yes, absolutely! They thought I left them out. I couldn’t leave my hometown out.

Q: Will your Open Spaces performance be similar to your “Dirty Computer” tour shows or are you planning a different act?

A: This is the only time that I’ll be performing “Dirty Computer” in Kansas City, so it’ll be important for those who did want to see the Dirty Computer Tour, if you’re in Kansas City or traveling from out of town, make sure you come to the tour. I would love love love to share this night with you.

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Singer Janelle Monáe at the 2018 Global Citizen Festival in Central Park on Sept. 29 in New York. AP Evan Agostini

Q: There is often chatter from frustrated Kansas Citians who say you don’t come to Kansas City enough. That you don’t show enough public love to Kansas City in Kansas City. How do you respond to those kinds of comments?

A: Artists are always criticized, this is not unique to me, of not doing enough. And that’s fine. But I do a lot that I don’t announce publicly. I’m one of those people. I don’t need to have the public celebration of doing for my community. I’m working with a lot of organizations behind closed doors.

With this Open Spaces collaboration I have something special where I’m going to be helping other organizations, I can’t really announce it right now, but I’ll be helping the organizations that are near and dear to my heart in KC, allowing them an opportunity to see the show and partnering more in ways to help our community as it pertains to the LGBTQIA community, as it pertains to violence that I am aware of. I have lost a lot of friends to gun violence in Kansas City.

I am partnering with organizations in that area and also in the arts. The arts saved my life. It’s because of FL Schlagle High school and mentors that I had in KCK that kept me out of fights, that kept me out of the streets because they kept me in the arts programs.

So I can absolutely do more, but to say that I don’t do anything is not accurate.

Q: What happened last year with the KC Jazz festival?

A: You know what, I honestly never committed to doing a show in Kansas City outside of the one I did for “Electric Lady” and this one I’m doing now. There was no contract. Honestly it was so long ago that I forgot the details around it. But I will say this: I don’t cancel. I have no recollection of even confirming that performance, and I confirm all my performances.

Q: You had the bombshell reveal earlier this year, coming out as pansexual. How has your life changed since that announcement?

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Janelle Monáe arrives at the BET Awards at the Microsoft Theater on June 24 in Los Angeles. AP Willy Sanjuan/Invision

A: I think sexuality is a spectrum, and I’m learning more about who I am. I think that I’ve been celebrated, which has felt great. But there are certain people who don’t celebrate me being very free and out and open. And that’s fine.

I never felt any pressure to go out and speak about my personal life, but I think the timing is right when you have the support that you need to where you can stand tall for others including yourself, that’s a real sign that you are ready to be out and proud.

There are people who are ostracized from their families, some people are murdered or killed in their communities because of how they identify, and so with this album I knew, because it’s such a personal experience. When you release an album, your album is heavily rooted in your life experiences. It’s about you the person.

I’m in a good space mental to talk about it, and I want to continue to walk in my truth in hopes that other folks, other young teens, especially those living in Kansas City who don’t feel like they have a place to belong when you grow up in those kind of Bible belt communities, I hope that they feel seen, they feel loved, they feel celebrated and heard. And that they have a space at the Starlight Theater to feel a part of a community.

Q: The freedom that comes with that revelation, did that in any way influence your album or this show?

A: It’s not just about me, it’s about community. It’s about creating community for people like myself. For people like the kids you mentioned in the Passages program who don’t have a safe space.

It’s about creating community that says we are enough when the rest of the world says “You don’t matter as much because of who you love” or you’re pushed to the margins of society it’s like where do you go? I wanted to create that community. That’s what this album was about.

Q: As a black woman, what was the experience like coming out not only as queer, but as pansexual, an identity even less understood and accepted than gay, lesbian or bisexual?

A: For me, when you are a black woman, and also the music that I create, the art that I create, I don’t look at it as mainstream music. In the sense that I don’t write my songs to fit into what everybody is doing today.

My role as an artist is to push culture forward and to bring something new to the table. To be innovative in the space that I’m in. And if I can get a number 1 song or have cultural relevance by being authentically myself, then that is what is successful to me. That’s how I define my success. By being able to work in my truth and having my work resonate with the people it’s supposed to resonate with.

And for black women to speak about their sexuality and being a part of the LGBTQIA+ community, I feel like there is more risk there. This is a male-dominated industry and you’re already dealing with sexism and misogyny. And when you deal with being black on top of that, we’re not first in the line to be picked for roles in movies or in terms of our music, there are hardly any black women in the top 10 of the hot 100. We’re the minority, not the majority in those areas. So there was a risk for me adding onto that I’m a member of the LGBTQIA community.

We live in a homophobic world, there’s a lot of homophobia out there, a lot of misconceptions about sexuality. There’s a lot of people who will put their religious beliefs in front of humanity and what it means to love and accept everybody.

I feel like me speaking about who I am was more of a risk than a celebration. But I still went to do it and I still knew it was important for it to be done. Period.

Q: So you’re back in town for a few days. What’s Janelle Monáe’s rundown? What do you have to have while you’re in Kansas City that you can’t get anywhere else?

A: Oh my goodness, Go Chicken Go. I have to get that flat roll with the butter in it. And the G Sauce. The mashed potatoes and gravy, that yellow gravy is amazing. I love Gates. Beef on Bun, honey with the big fries with the pickles on the side.

But mostly I love eating my family’s food. There’s nobody that can cook better to me than my family. So I’m always in my mama’s house, my aunty’s house, my great grandmother’s house, that’s where I am.

Q: Does Janelle Monáe go through the Go Chicken Go drive-thru or is it someone else? I can imagine employees would lose their mind if they saw you pull up into the window.

A: (Laughs) I have, I have! And I go in sometimes and I see people I went to school with, I see family. And they’re like, “We didn’t know you were in town” and I tell them “You can find me at Go Chicken Go.”

Saturday, Oct. 13

Janelle Monáe at Starlight Theatre for Open Spaces. $39.50-$150. Oct. 13. Opening acts start at 4:30 p.m., featuring Sankofa Danzafro, McFadden Brothers, Marcus Lewis Big Band. Monáe at 9:15 p.m. OpenSpacesKC.com.

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