Janelle Monáe. The name means many things to many people. Actress in the Oscar-winning films Hidden Figures and Moonlight. Musician. Android. African American. Pansexual. Queer.
The meaning that is most important to me, though, is role model.
Now, I know some teachers and parents will cry out that her music and videos aren’t exactly PG. And that is true–their fabulousness often treads as far as R-rated. I’m not saying to show them in class or anything. But, kids know who she is, either via her music or her films, and she looks and feels like they do. Even if her art is not all kid-friendly, her message of loving and caring about yourself is. Like any other piece of art, it’s wise to preview before sharing with young ones and be aware of what your kids watch.
Monáe matters for our LGBT+ kids of color because it is so rare for them to see someone who looks and feels like them on the big screen or hear them on the radio. Of course, there are African American performers who are also in the LGBT+ community, but most (such as the amazing Laverne Cox and the fabulous RuPaul) are not involved with projects typically engaged in by young people. Monáe, on the other hand, was in Hidden Figures, a film so important and accessible that schools even took students on field trips to see it,[i] her music and been nominated for six Grammy awards,[ii] and was even the face of CoverGirl for a while (maintaining her commitment to androgynous looks)[iii]. She is young and beautiful. She looks like they do. And that matters. She is the face of hope.
One of the great things about Monáe, though, is that she does not shy away from being a role model like many celebrities do. Monáe does not sanitize her music or their related videos (parents, I would do some previewing before sharing with kids, especially young ones), but she also speaks out about the challenges of growing up black and queer in a place like Kansas City, our shared hometown, while letting young people know that they are heard and valued.
Like many of our students, Monáe was not always out and proud. When she first showed up on the music scene in 2007, she did so through a character named Cindi Mayweather. Cindi was a time-traveling android who fell in love with a human and then found out she was about to be disassembled. The character represented everything Monáe felt about herself—a sense of other about her body, her identity, and a lack of clarity about who was making the calls for her life. Mayweather also represented what Monáe hoped to be, which was resolutely, unapologetically, herself.[iv]
Many of our students are playing characters every day. Gay kids are pretending to be straight. Trans kids are pretending to be cis. Kids hide accents, straighten hair, and wear makeup to fit the norms around them. As a drama teacher, I obviously see nothing wrong with playing a character. But, I am always concerned about people who LIVE their characters, whether as method actors (think poor Heath Ledger, who supposedly got so into the Joker persona that he couldn’t get away from the anger and depression of that fiction) or as everyday people, feeling forced to never be themselves.
Gay kids are pretending to be straight. Trans kids are pretending to be cis. Click To Tweet
We have all played a character at some point, whether as a Starbucks employee pretending to like mornings (not that I have personal experience…), a teacher pretending to not have any problems at home, or a child putting on a happy face and telling the teacher what they want to hear. Monáe took hers to the next level, creating this alter-ego that allowed her to feel a sense of safety in creating the music she wanted to create, thanks to the barrier the character created. As an actor, I always feel free to do whatever a character would do, knowing the audience would judge the character, not me. I bet Monáe felt the same way, at least initially.
Like many of our students, too, Monáe has struggled to shed the character she created and portrayed when the time came. Kids who need to come out of the closet might find it hard to leave the cocoon of straight-safety behind, and it may be hard for friends and family to accept the truth when they have been fooled them for so many years. (This is a struggle many LGBT+ adults deal with too, of course, when they come out later in life.) When Monáe decided the time had come, she worried that people wouldn’t like her, that they only liked the robot, that they wouldn’t find her interesting.[v] This is a common struggle in the LGBT+ community, worrying that love will disappear the moment the truth about one’s identity is revealed.
Like our students of color, Monáe has, unsurprisingly, also experienced prejudice due to her race. Just watch Dirty Computer, and you will see her express it in stark, unfiltered clarity. However, she uses her place as a performer and celebrity to call out the racism she sees and to provide messages of hope. She stated that “[‘Django Jane’, a song on Dirty Computer, is] a response to me feeling the sting of the threats being made to my rights as a woman, as a Black woman, as a sexually liberated woman, even just as a daughter with parents who have been oppressed for many decades. Black women and those who have been the ‘other’, and the marginalized in society – that’s who I wanted to support, and that was more important than my discomfort about speaking out.”[vi] Also on that album, the song “Make Me Feel” celebrates everything about being a black, queer woman, making the listener—including our students—feel nothing but joy about being exactly who they are.
Finally, like our students, Janelle Monáe has struggled with her mental health. Note: I am not saying she is mentally ill; she has said nothing of the kind, to my knowledge, and it is not my place to label her. However, she is very open about being in therapy to deal with the struggles she has had with her identity and her lived experiences.
This is something many of our students, unlike her, cannot do. Some of our kids are afraid to ask for help, some are refused help when they are asked. Bootstraps. Grit. Whining. That’s what is talked about for too many of them when the time comes to get mental health, whether for an illness or just to get through.
And Monáe has had enough.
No, she may not be able to make sure that every young person who needs help, whether via therapy or just from their community, gets it. But, she makes a point of letting them know they matter and are heard: “‘I want young girls, young boys, nonbinary, gay, straight, queer people who are having a hard time dealing with their sexuality, dealing with feeling ostracized or bullied for just being their unique selves, to know that I see you,’ she says in a tone befitting the “commander” patch on her arm. ‘This album is for you. Be proud.’”[vii]
At the end of the day, Janelle Monáe creates art not just for herself, not just for the adult audience who has the money to pay to attend her concerts and films, but for our students. She doesn’t want young people to feel the way she felt growing up, to feel like they are invisible and no one cares about them. And she does all this while being someone who actually does have an ability to impact them. Kids know who she is. They have engaged with her music and her films. She looks like them. She feels like them.
And she notices them, positively, unwaveringly.
What more could we ask for from a role model?
Janelle Monáe, my hometown girl: thank you for owning your identity as a person of color, an LGBT+ community member, and a role model. You are the hero our kids need and deserve. Keep up the good work.
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