Janelle Monae’s cyber-girl stare, perfect pompadour and stark black-and-white outfits — tuxedos, typically — have landed her spreads in Vogue, InStyle and Essence. Onstage, though, the rising star is giddily human. She captivated the crowd at her Late Show With David Letterman appearance with a one-legged mashed-potato dance and a knowing glint in her eye. (Her soulful, swooping vocals on “Tightrope” may have helped, too.)
But Monae isn’t all style and charm. Later that night, at New York’s Highline Ballroom, her pompadour suddenly fell out, and she showed a glimpse of the woman who existed well before her science-fiction opus did. Stepchild, she sang, freak show, black girl, bad hair.
At 24, Monae has already enlisted Sean “Diddy” Combs and Big Boi of OutKast as co-conspirators in her four-suite series based on Fritz Lang’s 1927 sci-fi masterpiece, Metropolis. (Three of the four suites are out, spanning one EP and one LP, and a graphic novel is in the works.)
In Monae’s version, though, the hero — much like Monae herself — doesn’t come from the upper classes. (The movie’s monster rises up to become, as Monae puts it, “the mediator between the haves and the have-nots.”) Her work synthesizes bright, colorful shards of folk culture — reaching back to madrigals and then forward to big-band jazz through punk and hip-hop — to create something dazzling and new. Music journalists across the Atlantic and back have all echoed the sentiment expressed after a London show in the alt-urban PinBoard blog: “Where did she come from?”
That’s one very good question.
This emergent rock-and-soul hero grew up on the tough streets around 21st Street and Quindaro in Kansas City, Kansas, a community that was established in 1856 when Wyandot Indians and abolitionists assisted runaway slaves. Now, thick black-metal bars cover windows on the few storefronts that aren’t boarded-up. Apart from the modest, A-frame homes, the only signs of vitality revolve around a barbershop, a beauty salon and three churches.
Weathered remnants of an age of hope stand a few blocks away. A statue of John Brown marks the old entrance to Western University, which was originally known as Quindaro Freedman’s School. Founded at the end of the Civil War, it was the first school for black children west of the Mississippi. The house of Monae’s great-grandmother sits just a fly ball’s arch away from the historic statue. A young Monae could stand at the Quindaro overlook and see the spot in Parkville, Missouri, where escaped slaves gathered to catch the Underground Railroad boats that would deliver them to freedom in Quindaro.
Jesse Hope III runs the Old Quindaro Museum and knows all about Monae’s family roots, which date back to 1879. Hope and Loretta Norman, Monae’s great-grandmother, are good friends. A visit to the community museum soon leads to reminiscing in Norman’s neighboring yard about the way the area looked before Interstate 635 tore through it in the early 1960s. “It took a lot of people’s houses,” Norman recalls. “We lost people, but we’ve maintained.” Click here to read more.