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How Janelle Monae Discovered Her 'Inner Weirdo' In Kansas City

Marc Baptiste
Courtesy of Atlantic Records

At 28, rising pop star Janelle Monae has collaborated with musical royalty, like ErykahBadu and Prince. Last summer, she was featured in Fun’s runaway hit We Are Young, and recently played Saturday Night Live, with songs from her new album Electric Lady, which debuted as number 5 on Billboard’s 200

But the Kansas City, Kan., native had her first local headliner at the Uptown Theatre on November 15. It was a boisterous, sold-out party attended by dozens of her family members and former teachers.

The show highlighted Janelle Monae’s eclectic blend of science fiction, female empowerment and urban realism. Her dead-on vocals, dance skills and stage antics make her seem like a reincarnation of Michael Jackson or James Brown.

Monae is known for her androgynous tuxedo-inspired outfits and signature pompadour, which don’t stop her from being a Cover Girl. 

After a visit to her alma mater, F.L. Schlagle High School, and before her show at the Uptown (where she insisted on having Gates BBQ backstage), Janelle Monae sat down with Jon Hart at KCPT’s studios to talk about the Kansas City roots of her music and personal style.


Interview Highlights

On her Kansas City roots

I am just so thankful that I have a support system like Kansas City, like my family still. And I try to make the most of all these opportunities. I try and say something profound, or build with these powerful people that I’m meeting… [like] providing a performing arts school in Kansas City, Kan.  That’s something that I really am passionate about and there’s an urgency.

On her early Kansas City band The Weirdos

I would sing with them and perform with them at various talent showcases. We were really avant-garde individuals…  The majority of people, they were singing and they were rapping other people’s music, and I was one of them, and I would do a lot of cover songs. But The Weirdos wrote their music and were very political about what they wanted to see done differently and had a very unique approach. I will say being a part of them and touring with them around Kansas City helped me to discover my inner weirdo, if you will.

On cultivating her personal style in Westport:

Here in Kansas City is where I cultivated a lot of my style and individuality. I remember, my parents couldn’t afford to buy me every expensive new thing that came out as far as clothes were concerned…  I would go on Westport and I would go to thrift stores or consignment shops and I would get coats and I would get shoes. And I was more interested in having the most unique outfit. You know, I never wanted to fit in. I would buy those cat glasses. You know, people would look at me like … “What is she doing?” I was cultivating my style long before today

On the influence of the Coterie Theatre:

In school, I was in English AP, and I would write a lot. My teacher, Mrs. Appleberry, who I had the opportunity to see today, I went to go speak at my old alma mater, FL Schlagle High School. She really encouraged me to write, write from your heart, and she had such a unique and interesting way of teaching that it always made me want to write and be great at it.

And so, I took that over into acting, and the programs that I got into, the Young Playwrights Roundtable … where I would go and just write short stories, and fellowship with other writers and actors. And then I did Shakespeare at Wyandotte High School.  The Coterie Theatre was so instrumental in helping me hone my craft as a writer.

Sylvia Maria Gross is storytelling editor at KCUR 89.3. Reach her on Twitter @pubradiosly.
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