Birth name: Janelle Monáe Robinson
Birthplace: Kansas City, Kansas, USA
December 1, 1985 – present
Years Active: 2003 – present
Do androids dream of electric beats? They may if they are dreamed of by singer-songwriter, producer, label executive, actor, activist, and spokeswoman, Janelle Monáe. For much of her music-making career, Monáe has assumed the persona of an android known as Cindi Mayweather. For Monáe, using the “Cindi” character provided freedom by allowing her to create boldly outside of what she believed were the narrow parameters put forth to young Black female artists. The complex and captivating aesthetic of Cindi also deftly references the deep tradition of Afrofuturism via music, dance, fashion, and visual art.
Born in Kansas City, Kansas in 1985, Janelle Monáe Robinson was raised in the Quindaro area of the city, a working-class community founded in the mid-19th century by American abolitionists seeking to establish Kansas as a free state. Monáe grew up in a large devout family with members who played music and performed during services at several local churches. Monáe’s earliest experiences were singing in church, but soon she began developing and honing her musical and theatrical talent in a variety of spaces. In short time, she was appearing locally at talent shows held during Juneteenth celebrations and in her school’s theatrical productions. Frequently, Monáe was the winner in competitions, securing the top spot consecutively by wowing attendees with powerful performances of songs by Lauryn Hill. At school, she was active in theatre and landing lead roles in musicals.
After graduating from high school, Monáe moved to New York City in the early 2000s to study musical theatre at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy. However, she grew frustrated with the traditional route of entering the profession that the academic track provided, and transferred to Perimeter College in Atlanta, GA. In the vast student community of Atlanta, Monáe established a reputation as a Neo Soul singer-songwriter with live performances on campus simply accompanying herself with a guitar. Without much income from her music work during these lean early years, she supported herself by working at a local Office Depot. As legend tells it, after using a work computer to update her social media pages and respond to messages from her growing fanbase, she was fired from the job. In response, Monáe wrote the song “Lettin’ Go,” which soon came to the attention of Big Boi, co-member of Atlanta’s legendary Hip Hop duo, Outkast. She self-financed and self-released her first demo recording, a thirteen track CD titled, The Audition, in 2003, on her new Wondaland Arts Society label.
In 2006, Monáe was featured on two tracks from Outkast’s album Idlewild, and soon Big Boi connected the young singer with music industry titan, Sean Combs. While cultivating a professional relationship with Combs, she self-released an EP, The Chase, in August 2007. Set in the year 2719, the EP was crafted to be the first of a multi-part “Metropolis Suites” collection and it introduced her android character, Cindi Mayweather. In 2010, and now signed to Combs’ Bad Boy Productions label through a partnership deal with Wondaland Arts Society, Monáe released her debut album, The ArchAndroid. It reached the top 20 of the Billboard 200 and was nominated for two Grammys, Best Contemporary R&B Album and Best Urban/Alternative Performance for lead single “Tightrope.”
With Monáe’s music career gaining traction, her profile soon reached stratospheric heights when she is featured on the band fun.’s Number 1 mega-hit single, “We Are Young” in 2012. The song’s success is aided by a rendition of it on the popular television show Glee. Broadening her public profile that same year, Monáe was named the new spokeswoman for the CoverGirl cosmetics brand in August. Following the success of “We Are Young,” Monáe released her sophomore album, The Electric Lady, in 2013. The album reached the top 10 of the Billboard 200 chart. It featured appearances from Prince, Esperanza Spalding, Erykah Badu, Miguel, and Solange.
In 2015, Monáe’s independent Wondaland Arts Society was revamped to simply Wondaland. The brand expanded beyond the bounds of a home for solely her music releases, evolving into a recording studio offering production services to a stable of artists, as well as a television and film production company, management firm, brand consultancy, and more. As a means to celebrate the revamp, the company released, Wondaland Presents: The Eephus EP in August and it featured a variety of the label’s artists, including Deep Cotton, Jidenna, and St. Beauty.
Monáe’s career expanded dramatically and artistically in 2016 when she established herself as a marquee actor with roles in two acclaimed and award-winning films, Hidden Figures and the Academy Award for Best Picture winner, Moonlight. Hidden Figures was nominated for an Academy Award and Monáe contributed to the film’s soundtrack. Since then and over the next several years, she has expanded her dramatic work with prominent roles in both feature films and television.
The mid 2010s found Monáe leading and contributing to a number of causes. Wondaland released the track “Hell You Talmbout” in 2015, calling on listeners to say the names of Black Americans who have been victims of racial violence and police brutality. In the same year, she founded the grassroots organization Fem the Future “to create a platform to shine light on women and their talent, whether it’s behind the scenes or in front of the camera.” In 2017, she performed during the Women’s March in Washington, D.C.
Dirty Computer, Monáe’s third album, was released in 2018. It received critical acclaim and is nominated for two Grammy awards, including Album of the Year. There are numerous contributions to the album from a variety artists across multiple genres, including Grimes, Zoë Kravitz, Nana Kwabena, Thundercat, Pharell Williams, Brian Wilson, Stevie Wonder, and many members of the Wondaland collective.