Janelle Monáe has been making waves in the entertainment industry thanks to her feminist and futurist approach in music, her androgynous fashion style, and her unapologetic personality. Despite her success, Monáe has never forgotten about her roots.
Janelle Monáe is a jack of all trades. At 34, she has left her mark in Hollywood as an actress, singer, performer, model, writer and record producer.
With eight Grammy Award nominations and one Academy Award in her resume, Monáe has become an inspiration for girls that, like her, come from working-class families. Here’s her story.
JANELLE MONÁE’S HUMBLE BEGINNINGS
Monáe has a big family—with over 50 cousins—and although money was tight in her childhood, her family’s Christian faith got them through some of the worst times.
Born in Kansas City on December 1, 1985, Monáe is the only daughter of Janet, a former janitor and maid, and Michael Robinson Summers, who was a garbage truck driver. Michael also struggled with drugs throughout most of Monáe’s childhood.
Her parents separated when she was a toddler, and Janet went on to marry again and had another child, Monáe’s younger sister Kimmy.
Monáe has said it was her grandmother who made sure the family was kept on track. “If you didn’t have a place to stay, if you needed food, if you were just coming out of jail or rehab, you went to her,” she told The Guardian of the matriarch of the family.
Despite the financial struggles of her family, Monáe managed to cultivate her creativity by joining local theatre clubs and receiving drama and singing classes.
Once she became a star, Monáe found a clever way to pay homage to her parents: by donning a black and white tuxedo through many of her performances. In her words:
“My mother was a janitor and my father collected trash, so I wear a uniform too.”
RISE TO STARDOM
Monáe’s talent for the performing arts was obvious from the beginning. She starred in local musical plays like “Cinderella” and “The Wiz,” and also joined the Kansas City’s Coterie Theater Young Playwrights’ Round Table as a playwright at a young age.
After graduating high school, Monáe received a scholarship to study drama at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York City. However, she decided to drop out of the school because she felt her creativity was being stifled.
She moved to Atlanta where she enrolled at the Perimeter College at Georgia State University and started working at an Office Depot to make end meets while also working on her music on the side.
By 2003, Monáe was touring local colleges and bars promoting her first self-released album, “Janelle Monáe: The Audition,” and in that process, she met two more songwriters with whom she founded the Wondaland Arts Collective.
Two years later, Monáe was performing in a bar when she caught the attention of Big Boi, one half of the hip hop duo Outkast, and he approached her with an invitation to feature in the group’s next album.
It was through Big Boi that Sean “Diddy” Combs got word about Monáe’s work, and in 2007, he signed her to his Bad Boy Records label, officially releasing her first EP, “Metropolis: The Chase Suite.”
That EP was followed by the albums “The ArchAndroid,” in 2009, “The Electric Lady,” in 2012, and “Dirty Computer” in 2018.
JUMP TO THE BIG SCREEN & ACTIVISM
Monáe made her debut on the big screen in 2016 in the critically acclaimed film “Moonlight,” where she shared the screen with Mahershala Ali. She also starred alongside Taraji P. Henson and Octavia Spencer in “Hidden Figures” that same year.
Some of her other acting credits include “Welcome to Marwen,” “Harriet,” The Glorias,” and “Antebellum,” and the series “Homecoming,” which she joined on its second season.
Monáe is also known for being a proactive activist, especially for the Black Lives Matter movement and women’s rights. For the star, music is her weapon. “I won’t remain silent,” she said in 2017. “We need to be visible and we need to be loud. We’re not objects.”