Janelle Monáe talks about the “second life on earth” at the Times Book Festival


Janelle Monáe has done it all. She’s an accomplished musician, activist, actress, fashion icon and, with the release of “The Memory Librarian: And Other Stories of Dirty Computer” last week, a published author.

“I said that on the road, but I feel like I’m in my second life on earth,” she told the Los Angeles Times on Saturday afternoon. book festival. She was joined by Times columnist Erika D. Smith in a packed Bovard auditorium at USC.

Monáe spoke of her struggles with feeling abandoned and rejected, which stemmed from her father’s crack addiction and his absence from his life.

It was her first life, she added, “where you walked around the world with certain traumas,” Monáe said. “I did a great job of hiding it, but eventually I got sick of it. I went through life missing a lot of moments because of it. But she did the hard emotional and creative work to recover. “Being on the other side, after healing from this, I feel like a new person.”

The audience applauded.

Throughout the hour-long chat, Monáe – dressed in a black and white plaid cardigan and bucket hat – discussed her relationship to sci-fi and Afrofuturism, coming out as non-binary , and what inspired her to write a collection of short stories based on her “Dirty Computer” album and a spin-off short film.

“There was so much we wanted to say that we just couldn’t fit it into the movie and the album,” Monáe said. “And there were so many writers that we left out and then the pandemic happened.”

Suddenly, her work as a performer traveling around the world came to a screeching halt. “I had to sit down. Things stopped for me. With more free time, she decided to pursue things she didn’t have time to do. Writing was one.

“But how did you get into Afrofuturism and science fiction?” Smith asked Monáe later. “It’s not necessarily a genre designed for black people.”

It started at a young age, almost unconsciously. “I love worlds,” said Monáe, who grew up reading RL Stine’s “Goosebumps” series. She remembers a short story she wrote in elementary school about a plant and an alien that communicated through photosynthesis and kicked her grandmother out of her house.

“It was exciting for me,” she said. But it wasn’t until Monáe became an artist that she discovered musicians like Sun Ra and writers like Octavia Butler, black artists who pioneered the Afrofuturism genre.

Smith said she was struck by the strangeness of the book, with black women living their best lives. “Is this something that is possible [in the real world]?”

“Yes, of course,” Monáe replied. “That’s what we were doing before all of this. Once you started learning about colonization, indigenous communities, the two spirits, about life before slavery, we were on a roll. People who identified as men wore heels and skirts. If we look at the history of fashion, it will tell you how free people were… These were memories that once existed, and somehow even that was erased.

Janelle Monáe records the audience at the LA Times Festival of Books.

(Nick Agro / For the Time)

Before questions from the audience, Smith asked Monáe if she felt the pressure to be a cultural icon.

“I feel the pressure to put on an outfit,” she replied. “That’s why I stick to black and white.” But over the years, she learned a valuable lesson. “I don’t give power to things that I think shouldn’t have power. Things become real when you empower them.

Monáe said she used to focus on fears of criticism and public embarrassment. “But I realized I could make a mistake… If Michael Jordan misses a free throw, is he still Michael Jordan? It’s something I tell my nieces and nephews. I say to myself: ‘You can fall’. It takes nothing away – it helps build. It helps you to be closer. So I like to keep my relatability.


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