Janelle Monáe On Narrating The Revolution And Holding Leaders Accountable
The singer discussed her new song for Stacey Abrams' documentary, our current revolution, and the lasting importance of films like 'Hidden Figures.'
In All In: The Fight For Democracy, a new Amazon Studios documentary about voter suppression, Fair Fight Action founder Stacey Abrams encourages viewers to vote by detailing how determined some American politicians are to revoke our right to do so. Centered on the historic gubernatorial race between Abrams and Brian Kemp — which ended with Abrams losing by 50,000 votes, but only after 53,000 voter registration applications were put on hold a month before the election and after half a million voters had already been unknowingly purged from their rolls the year prior — the documentary is a fascinating deep-dive into the long, ugly history of voter suppression in America. On an educational level, All In is eerily effective at filling in the blanks of the gradual effort to disenfranchise marginalized communities, but perhaps more importantly, the documentary provides a roadmap for moving forward, by honing in on the work that is currently being done to fight back against a racist practice that continues to plague our nation to this day.
It was the documentary’s focus on how to move forward that attracted Janelle Monáe to the project. For her contribution, the Grammy-nominated artist recorded “Turntables,” a forthrightly political single that plays over the film’s credits. Inspired by the revolutionary acts she’s been seeing every day (racist monuments being toppled over, Confederate flags being torn down), Monáe wanted to make something that re-energized those who are fighting the seemingly never-ending fight. For the song’s accompanying video — which was directed by a Black woman, Child — Monáe filled the screen with a sea of symbolic images, from turned-over USPS mailboxes to a statue of a woman of color that she drags out of the ocean. Citing herself as the narrator (not the leader) of the revolution, the singer seems almost optimistic as she gives her audience a musical pep talk: The table ‘bout to turn, she stresses. It’s not hard to imagine this powerful anthem clawing its way into the awards conversation later this year.
As people across the world discover All In (available to stream on Amazon Video now), NYLON hopped on the phone with Janelle Monáe to discuss her inspiration for “Turntables,” our current revolution, her admiration for Stacey Abrams, holding Joe Biden and Kamala Harris accountable, the need for Black women in politics, and the lasting importance of films like Hidden Figures.
What made you want to contribute a song to All In?
I think there is misinformation around the power that we hold as the people — not the politicians. One, [I wanted] to make the connection between how voter suppression worked against us in the past and in the present so we can protect our future. I thought this documentary connected the dots. If our vote, as marginalized folks, hasn’t been working in our favor, I think this [documentary] gave an explanation as to why. I wanted to help bring awareness to that. Also, I’m a big fan of Stacey Abrams, who ran for governor in Georgia and had that stolen from her by Brian Kemp due to voter suppression. He also was over the election as Secretary of State while running against her. So, there are some policies that need to be dissolved and I think this film will give you a deeper look and understanding into just how powerful you are and will encourage you to keep fighting to take back your power.
How did you approach creating “Turntables?”
So, “Turntables” is energy in the form of a song. That’s how I like to think of it, because I feel like there is emotional fatigue. You know, I talk to all my friends — some of them are leading movements, some of them are part of organizations that are protecting Black lives, protecting women — and the words that I hear most often is “I’m tired.” So this was my way of giving energy to the revolutionaries, to the revolution. When you’re emotionally fatigued, my hope is that you can put on “Turntables” and re-energize yourself. Obviously, you should take breaks when needed, but we are in the middle of a revolution. Even though we may be in the middle of it and can’t see it, change is being made. There’s a different type of noise that’s being made. There’s a different level of accountability that we are holding those in the position of power to. For those who are privileged in this country, we’re holding them accountable in a different way.
Everytime a record spins, they call it an RPM, a “revolution per minute.” That also was fascinating to me — to know that we’re in the middle of the revolution and that, when you think about music and about records playing, that also counts as a revolution. So to answer your question, it’s just: What is a revolution without a song? What is a song without a revolution?
The accompanying video adds so much. There’s so much symbolic imagery, like when you’re dancing in front of all these turned-over USPS mailboxes or, at the end, when you’re pulling a statue out of the ocean and then stand it upright behind you. Knowing that this song was already going to be accompanying a visual (the film itself), what did you want this video to add to the narrative?
Well, I’ve got to give a lot of credit and love to Child, the Black woman who directed the film. There were certain things, like pulling out this sort of Native American, African, Indigenous women statue out of the ocean, that I knew I wanted to do, and she made that happen. But just making sure that I was the narrator in the project was so important to me. I didn’t want anyone to feel like I was saying, “I’m leading the revolution” or that I was saying, “Listen to me.” Really, a lot of the song was inspired by just what I’ve been seeing, what I’ve been inspired by, the emotions that people have been expressing — their pain, their hurt, but also the triumph and victories that are happening. When we’re tearing down those racist monuments and Robert E. Lee statues, you know, this country has not seen that before. All the way back to when Bree Newsome went up there and took down that Confederate flag, there is a boldness that I wanted to capture. Child was able to bring together so many images of Black people — and not just of our struggle. Mostly, we wanted to spend time talking about the work that we are doing, the work that is getting done, and the revolution that we are leading as a people.
This film focuses on voter suppression, which is a huge talking point for many right now as we gear up for what has become one of the most important elections in recent memory. How does it feel to be releasing All In at this very pivotal moment?
It’s so important. We need all hands on deck. I also want to give a special shoutout to the directors of the film, Liz Garbus and Lisa Cortés, and Stacey Abrams because they did the research to help us connect the dots to talk about voter suppression in the past, voter suppression in the present, and what our future looks like if we don’t keep fighting against it and recognizing all the tactics and obstacles they’ll throw our way so we can’t vote. This is just information. I think education is important. When people are pessimistic about the election, the best thing you can do is educate them, and then they can pick and choose what they want to do and if they want to vote. But if you don’t have the education and knowledge of knowing why you’re voting in the first place, then I think we would have failed. I think the best thing we can do — as artists, as directors, as creatives — is to educate folks during this time and use art to do it.
So much of this film centers on the 2018 gubernatorial race in Georgia between Stacey Abrams and Brian Kemp. As we know, she didn’t win. But she’s still become a leading voice in politics and a beacon of hope for many. Why do you think it’s important to have a Black woman like Stacey Abrams operating on such a huge platform in politics?
Because our representation matters. In every field, there’s someone like Stacey — someone who has dedicated her life, ever since she was a little girl, to public service. She wanted to be a governor to help the people and her specific set of experiences gives her the compassion that we need. Her specific set of experiences allows her to look out for the working class folks and those who are in marginalized communities. And if you don’t have that representation at the table where we’re making laws, then we’re not accounting for those specific people.
On that same note, what does it mean for you to see Kamala Harris, another Black woman, running for Vice President on the official Democratic ticket?
I feel proud. Again, in the same way that Stacey Abrams is representation for us as Black folks — particularly for women and those from marginalized communities — I think Kamala Harris has an opportunity to make policy change on a federal level, and that representation also matters. We need her in the room with these white, cis men who have been creating policies that have not necessarily been working for our people. I’m excited to hold her accountable and hold Joe Biden accountable. As excited as I am about her becoming the next Vice President, if we go to the polls and really vote for her, I also understand that we have to hold her accountable to having these conversations. Obviously, she’s not the president and she can only do so much. But I do think she has a huge opportunity to make some systemic changes that won’t work against marginalized, oppressed communities but will actually work for them.
One of the stories in All In that stuck with me the most was Stacey’s about being her high school valedictorian, getting the opportunity to meet the governor, but not being let in because the guard was racist. It reminded me a lot about what your character, Mary Jackson, and her friends (Katherine G. Johnson and Dorothy Vaughan) had to endure in Hidden Figures. All three of you were doing crucial work for NASA but, because you were Black women, none of you got to reap the benefits or receive the credit. I think films like All In and Hidden Figures help raise awareness about the ways Black women have systematically been written out of history. But do you think that these narratives can actually inspire real change?
I think people need to understand what it is like to be a Black woman in those spaces. That’s always important. Stacey’s story, Mary Jackson’s story. When Black women say, “Hey, this is what I want to do,” you should know what you’re up against. You should know that people are racist...inherently. In order to make change, I think understanding these stories and empathizing is going to be super important. Like you mentioned with my character Mary Jackson, or like Stacey Abrams, when they’re trying to become “the first,” there are so many obstacles that come up against them. Racism is one of them. Some people may not even know they’re being racist!
But I think this documentary can serve as a mirror. You might not like what you see in your mirror, but it is up to you to make the decision to change once you see yourself on the screen. There are so many people that have been that security guard for Black women, so many people who have been that security guard for Black folks who are just trying to seek knowledge, to show up where they’ve been invited to. There is nothing wrong with being the help, but so many people have looked at people who have been invited into spaces as less than, or have said, “You can’t be coming here because a governor invited you. You have to be here to serve the governor.” That moment broke my heart. It made me really upset and made me say yes to actually writing this song.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.