Stepping Into Janelle Monáe’s Visual World

    We speak with directors who have worked with the artist

    by · April 26, 2018

    You don’t just walk into Janelle Monáe’s visual world with no concept of where you’re going. There’s a map and directions; a starting point and a finish; a beginning, middle, and end. Each music video has a purpose and, most likely, a backstory.

    Monáe exists in the rare music space of actually giving a damn about the videos associated with her songs. They’re not an afterthought; they’re just as, if not more, important than the track. “Other artists can be a lot more passive, where they just make the song and then they hire the art director to create the video with them and they're less engaged,” director Wendy Morgan, who worked with the singer on “Tightrope” and “Cold War,” tells us. “It's more like, ‘This is what we're going to do,’ and they're like, ‘Cool.’ Versus Janelle, she's very involved in the whole situation.”

    Monáe often refers to herself as being from the future. Starting from her EP Metropolis up until her last album, Electric Lady, she operated as Cindi Mayweather, a time-traveling android who Monáe has said represents the “others” in society, the oppressed and marginalized. She created a meticulous identity, one that included a black-and-white uniform, a signature pompadour, and used dance as a form of rebellion. But, as the singer has said in recent interviews, she used her alter ego as a mask. She was a shield, and the worlds she created through her visuals—though stunning and ahead of their time—were her way of escaping her true self. On her first new project in five years, Dirty Computer, we’re getting Monáe at her most vulnerable and the visuals at their most exciting.

    The concept album will include a nearly hour-long “emotion picture” that tells a story of a woman running from an authoritarian government in a dystopian future. Actress Tessa Thompson plays her lover. The glimpses Monáe’s has put out (which represent her missing memories)—by way of “Make Me Feel,” “Django Jane,” “Pynk,” and “I Like That”—show the artist in a self-assured light. In all four videos, we find Monáe with her hair down, skin more exposed than usual, and channeling her mentor Prince’s sexual freedom. The Afrofuturism themes she explored in music videos past are still present, but it’s injected with a newfound IDGAF-ness. She told The Guardian in an interview: 

    This project was about painting in different colors, not just black and white; going in and allowing myself to use all the shades of the crayon box. It was time to focus on being a complete, complex human being. I don’t know who’s gonna come with me and who’s gonna criticize me, but I’m not gonna renege, and I’m not gonna hide.

    To celebrate this new era of Monáe, we decided to pick the brains of the people who helped shape the visionary world(s) she’s created over the years. Ahead, we chat with the directors behind “Tightrope,” “Pynk,” “Django Jane,” and “I Like That,” about what it was like to work with the singer and the experience of shooting each project. 



    “Tightrope”
    Morgan first worked with Monáe in 2010, on her music video for “Tightrope,” the first single off of her album ArchAndroid. The singer and her Wondaland team (the record company she heads) reached out after they saw Gnarls Barkley’s “Going On” video that Morgan worked on. She went through the usual process of writing a treatment and inputting her ideas but, for the most part, Monáe’s team had a narrative already in mind. The setting would be an asylum called “The Palace of the Dogs,” where dancing is forbidden “for its subversive effects on the residents and its tendency to lead to magical practices,” as the video description explains. 

    The team wanted to create a dance that went by the name of the song, Morgan recalls. And so Monáe went searching for dancers—one being Lil Buck, who went on to tour with Madonna—who specialized in a style called jookin, a kind of street dance that involves intricate footwork. There were some parts of the dance sequences that were choreographed—like the part where the singer jumps off the table, very James Brown-esque—but it was mostly freestyle, Morgan says. 

    When I ask Morgan if it’s typical for the artist to do what Monáe did—go out and find the dancers—she says no. “Normally, it would be me finding them,” she says. “They really went the extra effort in terms of creating this video… they found me, they found the dancers, I think it was even Janelle that thought about the location [Atlanta] because she had been there once for an interview or something. A lot of things are coming from her, and I think that's what comes through in the videos.” 


    “Cold War”
    The video for “Cold War” was filmed directly after “Tightrope,” Morgan tells me. She and the team had two days to film both, so they took a day and a half for “Tightrope,” and a half day for “Cold War.” The video is Monáe’s most vulnerable video to date, but the team initially had a totally different plan. “Shooting ‘Tightrope’ was such an ecstatic, beautiful experience and so much fun, so when we got in the studio to shoot ‘Cold War,’ it was kind of interesting because we went into this dark little studio and the tone of that song is so different,” Morgan says. At first, they had Monáe donning different outfits in each shot and a crown that she wears on the cover of ArchAndroid. There were also dance sequences and scenes with other people. All that changed when the singer got up to do her first take, though; about midway through, while singing the line “I was made there’s something wrong with me,” she started to cry. 

    “It was so intense that everyone started to cry,” Morgan says. “I cried, my producer cried, her producers cried, like everyone was kind of bawling. You know that feeling after you've done something really big, and you're just sort of more sensitive? And the song is so beautiful, and I think she was just vulnerable in that moment.” The tears are real, she insists. So real, that she started to worry. “As the director, I'm watching her cry, and I'm thinking, Oh my god, is she okay? and I almost yelled cut. I was just gonna give her a break and a rest, but, thank god, I didn't because it was just such an honest moment… it was one of the most intense things I’ve ever seen in my life.”


    “Pynk”
    While “Make You Feel” started the internet buzzing about Monáe coming out, “Pynk” is the video that really stays with you. Director Emma Westenberg was recruited by a video commissioner to bring the message of sexual empowerment to life. “It’s very much about human sexuality, but it’s also kind of tongue-in-cheek, making fun of female sex in the videos, but also showing the beauty in it.” The vagina pants—which Westenberg said were inspired by David Bowie and created by her friend Duran Lantink—were a fun wink to female anatomy. 

    The scene where Monáe shows off her bush, Westenberg says, was the singer’s doing and a surprise to everyone on set. Another off-the-cuff happening is one of the first shots of the video, where Monáe pops up in an avant-garde pink-and-red dress. After she saw the dress hanging on the stylist's rack, she was like, "I wanna go and vogue in the mountains with that dress on,” Westenberg says. “That's something that she saw and was like, ‘I have to do that.’”

    There are parts of the video that are nods to the larger Dirty Computer message. As Westenberg explains, the motel Monáe and her dancers are in is a refuge for her and Thompson. The butt scene, she says, also ties into a bigger message, as does the floating car. “Her performance is so well thought out and executed to fit with all the different songs and different characters that she plays,” Westenberg reflects.


    “I Like That”
    If I can bet on anything, [it's] on Janelle being super-creative and forward-thinking when it comes to her visuals,” director Lacey Duke says. Duke worked with Monàe on smaller projects before signing on to do “I Like That,” so the two already had a rapport. “I was drawn in just based on the fact that I know she's super-passionate about visual storytelling,” she says. 

    The video is the most mellow out of the four releases so far from Dirty Computer, but no less stunning. Afrofuturism, beauty, and cool were the inspirations, and Duke worked on making Monáe a little more stripped than we’re used to seeing her. I wasn't really interested in creating extra energy where it wasn't needed. I didn’t want anything too complex or busy,” she explains. “Janelle is usually a ball of energy, which is cool, but she's very captivating in chill moments in person and on camera, I really wanted people to see that.” 


    “Django Jane”
    Andrew Donoho says the artist, message, and song is what drew him to “Django Jane.” They shot the video a few weeks after filming the narrative segments of Dirty Computer, and Donoho was “dying to put Janelle into a darker environment to contrast what we normally expect from one of her videos,” he says. The visual takes from the rebel uprising that happens within the story and incorporates elements of Black Panther throughout which, he says, the team watched a few days before the shoot. “Jane is such an important voice for so many different movements right now,” Donoho says. “I was so excited to make a video that emphasized her power and authority. In a world where every label's video briefs for female artists revolve solely around showing ‘sexy,’ it was a breath of fresh air to show the strong, loud, and dynamic side of things.”

    Although the pacing of the shoot was stressful, it ended up being a blessing in disguise. It made the creative decisions “organic, instinctual, and honest.” As Donoho, and each director before him states, working with Monáe and her team is like working with family. Every shoot is fun, every concept is thought-out. It might be more involved than projects you’ve worked on before, but it’s “100 percent worth the craziness,” Donoho stresses. Because you know you’re working toward something bigger than yourself. Something that will be remembered.

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