Janelle Monae on Why She's Ready to Break Down Her "Private" Barriers: "It's Uncomfortable For Me"

Photographed by Tawni Bannister
"I always want to talk to the women who have come before me," says the actress-singer-activist of her role in the Gloria Steinem biopic. Monae was photographed Dec. 6 at Pier 36 in New York.

After releasing her most personal work yet in 'Dirty Computer,' the SAG Award-winning actress and Grammy-nominated singer — part of The Hollywood Reporter's year-end Rule Breakers issue — is offering a glimpse of who she is with her lineup of other projects including another album, numerous films, and a feminist biopic: "I'm in a highly creative space."

On Feb. 22, the world got perhaps its first really close look at Janelle Monae.

The day that the debut single off her Grammy-nominated Dirty Computer album dropped, the accompanying "Make Me Feel" music video showed Monae seemingly laid bare: a mature woman, flirting with both sexes (including pal Tessa Thompson) and playing guitar in bejeweled chainmail befitting her late mentor, Prince. What happened next was even more revealing, when the famously private multihyphenate started speaking candidly about herself and her sexuality in the media for the first time.

"It's uncomfortable for me, because I've always been a private person," says Monae, who recently turned 33. "But when you make art that's so personal, folks wonder how much of this is your real life versus the concept."

The singer, actress and activist had spent the first decade of her career somewhat eclipsed by her own musical alter ego (Cindi Mayweather, an android and narrator for almost the entirety of Monae's previous catalog) and, more recently, by roles in Moonlight and Hidden Figures. By publicly identifying as pansexual during the Dirty Computer rollout, she further stressed the album's themes of agency for women, people of color and the queer community. It was hardly an easy move for a funk and R&B singer, one who came up in the Atlanta music scene of the aughts, but the response was immediate. Monae enjoyed her best first-week album sales to date, and Dirty Computer — which reached No. 1 on the Billboard R&B chart — will compete for album of the year at the Feb. 10 Grammys.

Moving on from her first album in more than five years seems bittersweet for Monae. The 14-track opus and its accompanying 46-minute narrative film marked her final collaboration with Prince, who worked on its early stages and, Monae says, "never let his mystery get in the way of his mentorship." Still, she's focused on being prolific and hints at new music in the new year. "I don't want that gap I had between albums to present itself again," adds Monae, who still lives in Atlanta. "I'm in a highly creative space."

If there's any obstacle for Monae's musical output at this point, it's her film schedule. The SAG Award-winning actress (as part of the Hidden Figures ensemble) next stars alongside Steve Carell in Welcome to Marwen (out Dec. 21), has lent her voice to STX's animated feature UglyDolls (coming May 3) and has lined up roles in Disney's Lady and the Tramp update, Kasi Lemmons' Harriet Tubman biopic and Julie Taymor's buzzed-about Gloria Steinem project, The Glorias: A Life on the Road. It was Steinem's call to cast Monae as pioneering activist and Ms. magazine co-founder Dorothy Pitman Hughes.

"Gloria wrote me personally and asked me to portray Dorothy, because she means the world to her and so many of us," explains Monae, who hopes to meet with Hughes, 80, before filming. "As I try my best to contribute to this generation, I always want to talk to the women who have come before me."

This story first appeared in the Dec. 18 issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.