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Janelle Monáe: My Fair Lady

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Photos: Erin Patrice O'Brien

Design: Serra Semi


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My Fair Lady
When it comes to sophistication and conquering R&B, no one knows the game better than Janelle Monáe. This singer-phenom is a force of nature.

WORDS: Deena Campbell | PHOTOS: Erin Patrice O'Brien

When you hear the name “Janelle Monáe,” pleasant descriptors come to mind—drama-free, beautiful, talented—and for the most part, what you see is what you get. But as she sashays into a brightly lit New York studio for our August cover shoot on a warm afternoon, a new set of adjectives arise—feline, intriguing, powerful.

Navigating the chaos surrounding the stark-white studio, she embodies the muse for her upcoming fourth album, The Electric Lady, which drops September 10th. “An electric lady,” says the 27-year-old, Kansas City-bred singer, “is quirky, unafraid, epic and ‘nicety’—that’s when you’re being nice and nasty, noble and naughty, all at the same damn time.”

 

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Her new album is a hodgepodge of electric heavy-hitters, including Prince, Esperanza Spalding, Miquel, and Solange, and delves further into the exploits of Cindi Mayweather, the android heroine of her first EP MetropolisThe Electric Lady serves as Suite IV and V of her sci-fi saga and where Cindi learns more about herself. Much like her cosmic counterpart, Janelle, too, has ripened over time.

That might have something to do with her upbringing. Janelle comes from a working-class family that was backboned by her grandmother, a former Mississippi sharecropper and a mother who worked as a janitor. Her father was a garbage truck driver who struggled with drug addiction, and after years of seeing its negative effects, Janelle moved to Atlanta where she self-produced her demo, Janelle Monáe: The Audition. Grinding is in her genes.

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“I’ve evolved,” says an excited Janelle. “When you realize it’s your responsibility to be a leader and create the world that you want to see, you have to do it. It’s my responsibility to create music and come up with ideas that keep my community first.” Her personal community includes almost a half million Twitter and Instagram followers—all of whom are waiting with bated breath for The Electric Lady to surface.

I ask a question from @EssKayGA: “Have you considered releasing an all-rap mixtape?” Janelle seems excited at the prospect. “I’m flattered that people wonder that,” she says, smiling. “I love rap music, and I love hip-hop. I use rap as a way to communicate [and tell a story]. Yes, I will keep that in my thoughts.”

While her philosophy is grounded in innovation, style-wise, Janelle hasn’t achieved a myriad of transformations. Her popular tuxedo uniform pays homage to the working-class woman; but she did morph into a rocker chick for her recent “Dance Apocalyptic” video—a total 180 degrees from her norm. Our Instagram follower @christalbaybee noticed her makeover and asked, “Janelle! Your look in the “Dance Apocalyptic” video is SO different from your usual look. What inspired the change?”

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Without hesitation Janelle replies, “I was inspired to create a female rock star. I think an electric lady isn’t to be marginalized. As the narrator and creator of these characters, I have lived by not making myself a slave to my own interpretations of who I am or a slave to your interpretations or anybody’s interpretations of who I am.”

No one knows Janelle’s style better than her stylist, Maeve Reilly who crafted looks for all of Janelle’s recent red carpet appearances, including the all-white Dolce & Gabbana suit she wore to the 2013 BET awards. “Janelle isn’t trendy,” says Maeve. “Tailoring is most important for her. She knows what she likes and she knows what fits. She’s just a classy lady with a great sense of style.”

Her look on set is a fashionista’s wet dream. She steps out of the dressing room in a sparkled Catherine Malandrino jacket that’s complimented with black TopShop pants and Chanel fingerless gloves. Later on, she punctuates her style with snakeskin Christian Louboutins and exquisite broaches. Could she be anymore stunning? A true CoverGirl, Janelle wore the beauty brands lipsticks (Hot 305 and Spellbound 325) and bronzer (Ebony) to mimic a look inspired by the late Dorothy Dandridge.

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“What’s it like to be one of the hottest CoverGirl models ever?” I quote our Facebook fan, Kirista Sellers. Honored, Janelle replies, “Thank you! I feel privileged to stand alongside strong women like Ellen DeGeneres, Pink, Sophia Vergara, and Queen Latifah. We come in many shapes and sizes, colors. CoverGirl inspires young girls to dream big and say ‘I can be a CoverGirl too.’”

Her beauty may be blown up on billboards, but her love life is one thing that is definitely not on display. She admits she only dates passionate androids who are smart, idealistic, and funny; however, most of her love life is protected by a well-oiled privacy machine. "An android is my preference," Janelle says coyly. "Two androids and a cyborg. I’m someone who sees your spirit and soul. I love passionate androids; one that knows exactly what it’s going to do in life. I like an android who knows how to handle and support an electric lady's dreams and wings when it's time to fly."

@brialovesmj  bravely questioned, “When are you going to have kids?” After a quick pause, she replies. “When the time is right, everything is about timing. But, right now I’m giving birth to this album.”

Janelle_androidAnd she is—complete with midwife Erykah Badu who is not only featured on “Q.U.E.E.N,” but is also one of her best friends. “‘Q.U.E.E.N’ really developed from a deep conversation Erykah and I were having about a woman’s place in the world. And how we were expected to be freaks and muses and virgin goddesses all at the same time by patriarchal cultures and religions.”

Unfortunately, not all female artists remain relevant while steering clear of sexually-laced lyrics in the midst of a violent society. Janelle’s explanation? She uses her voice as a weapon, and empowers us to use her art as a medicinal treatment. An electric lady indeed.

Stay tuned for behind the scenes footage from our August cover shoot with Janelle!

Styling by Maeve Reilly
Hair by Caprice Green
Makeup by Jessica Smalls
Photography by Erin Patrice O'Brien

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Aaliyah during TNT Presents - A Gift of Song - New York - January 1, 1997 in New York City, New York, United States.
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Fans Rally For Aaliyah's Discography To Be Released On Streaming Platforms

As another day passes without Aaliyah's music on streaming platforms, fans are looking for answers.

Over the weekend, the hashtag #FreeAaliyahMusic appeared on Twitter in light of song battles between Swizz Beats vs. Timbaland and Ne-Yo vs. Johnta Austin. The latter opponents played their collaborations with the late singer, proving Baby Girl's dynamic relevancy in the age of modern R&B. As songs like "I Don't Wanna" and "Come Over" picked up plays on YouTube, the hashtag pointed out the tragedy of her songs not existing on platforms like Spotify, Tidal and Apple Music.

Aaliyah's only album on multiple platforms is her 1994 debut, Age Ain't Nothing But A Number. Other albums like the platinum-selling One in A Million and Aaliyah are being held in a vault of sorts along with other unmixed vocals by her uncle and founder of Blackground Records, Barry Hankerson.

Hankerson has built up a mysterious yet haunting aura over the years due to his refusal to release Aaliyah's music on streaming platforms. Reasons are unknown but Stephen Witt's 2016 investigation revealed business deals like the shift in distribution from  Jive Records to Atlantic helped Hankerson take ownership of the singer's masters. The deal was made in 1996 when Blackground featured artists like Aaliyah, Toni Braxton, R. Kelly, then-production duo Timbaland and Magoo as well as Missy Elliott.

Sadly, Aaliyah's music isn't the only recordings lost in the shuffle. Recordings from Timbaland and Toni Braxton have been hidden from the world with both taking legal action against the label over the years. There's also JoJo, who had to break from the label after they refused to release her third album. The singer recently re-recorded her first two albums.

With Aaliyah's music getting the attention it deserves, Johnta Austin discussed the singer's impact on R&B today. "It was amazing, she was incredible from top to bottom," he told OkayPlayer of working with the singer on "Come Over" and "I Don't Wanna." "I don't think Aaliyah gets the vocal credit that she deserves. When she was on it, she had the riffs, she had everything."

Earlier this year, an account impersonating Hankerson claimed her music would arrive on streaming platforms January 16, on what would've been her 41st birthday. A docuseries called the Aaliyah Diaries was also promoted for a release on Netflix.

Of course, it was far from the truth. Fans can enjoy selected videos and songs on YouTube, but it's clear they want more.

 

Aaliyah’s music is the landmark for a lot of your favs not only was she ahead of her time with her futuristic sounds she also was a fashion Icon dancer and phenomenal actress . The future generations need be exposed to her artistry and pay homage .#FreeAaliyahMusic pic.twitter.com/LxZfxcqRgF

— Black Clover (@la_alchemist) March 29, 2020

Her first #1 solely based on AirPlay! She was the first ! #FreeAaliyahMusic pic.twitter.com/BHlANZjCGZ

— (@hodeciii) March 29, 2020

Makes no sense for someone still so influential to be hidden. Many try to emulate her. On Spotifys This is Aaliyah playlist, theres some great tracks not on her main Spotify #FreeAaliyahMusic pic.twitter.com/vLqLTVxqO9

— Blackity Black⁷ (@ClaudBuzzzz) March 29, 2020

Aaliyah is trending once again. She deserves endless flowers. This is true impact y’all. Her voice, her sound, her music...She’s been gone for 2 decades and y’all see the love for her is even stronger! We miss you baby girl! #FreeAaliyahMusic pic.twitter.com/ALDcT0ZQxR

— A A L I Y A H (@forbbygrlaali) March 30, 2020

Aaliyah said she wanted to be remembered for her music and yet most of it is not on streaming services #FreeAaliyahMusic pic.twitter.com/zwk0AWMCoE

— RJR (@MyNewEssence96) March 29, 2020

aaliyah’s gems like more than a woman deserve to be in streaming sites #FreeAaliyahMusic pic.twitter.com/mM2GWEg1pe

— k (@grandexrocky) March 30, 2020

I saw #FreeAaliyahMusic and IMMEDIATELY jumped into action! I can’t express how betrayed I felt when we were supposed to have all her music on Spotify by her birthday. Her discography is deeply underestimated and we need to make it right for our babygirl!pic.twitter.com/GfxBeJxUY1

— jerrica✨ (@jerricaofficial) March 29, 2020

Before Megan The Stallion drove the boat...

Aaliyah rocked the boat...

#FreeAaliyahMusic pic.twitter.com/iXNwssD3sY

— Al’Bei (@_albei) March 29, 2020

i think we should have that conversation #FreeAaliyahMusic pic.twitter.com/cGl269tuTr

— AALIYAH LEGION (@AaliyahLegion) April 1, 2020

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Singers Adrienne Bailon (L) and Kiely Williams of the 'Cheetah Girls' pose for photos around Mercedes Benz Fashion Week held at Smashbox Studios on October 18, 2007 in Culver City, California.
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Kiely Williams Explains Fallout With Adrienne Bailon Houghton And Alleged Fight With Raven-Symonè

Our current isolated way of life has given some plenty of time for reflection like Kiely Williams of the former girl group 3LW and The Cheetah Girls (ask your kids). The tales of both successful groups have been told time after time by fans in YouTube documentaries and members of each collective but Williams has decided to share her side of the story.

Williams hopped on Live Monday (March 30) where she discussed her former friendship with The Real co-host Adrienne Bailon Houghton and the infamous chicken throwing fight with actress/singer Naturi Naughton. The mother of one didn't pinpoint exactly why she fell out with Houghton but did point out how she wouldn't be interested in appearing on her talk show.

"I don't think Adrienne wants to have live TV with me," Williams said. "'Cause she's gon' have to say, 'Yes Kiely, I did pretend to be your best friend. Now, I am not.' You were either lying then or you're lying now. You either were my best friend and now you're just not claiming me or you were pretending [to be my best friend."

The two remained friends after Naughton was kicked out of 3LW, the platinum-selling group known for 2000s pop hits like "No More (Baby I'ma Do Right)" and "Playas Gon' Play." Williams and Houghton were eventually picked to be apart of The Cheetah Girls with then-Disney darling Raven-Symonè and dancer Sabrina Bryan.

Williams went on to discuss her fight with Naughton, which she denies had anything to do with her skin color. With her mother near, Williams claimed Naughton called her a b***h, leading to the fight. While she didn't clear up the chicken throwing, she stated how she was "going for her neck" and was holding food and her baby sister in the process.

Apologies aren't on the horizon either. “I don’t feel like I have anything to make amends for, especially as it relates to Adrienne,” Kiely said. “As far as Naturi goes, if there was ever a reason to apologize, all of that has kind of been overshadowed by the literal lies and really ugly stuff that she said about my mom and my sister. So, no. Not interested in that. I’m sorry.”

Moving onto The Cheetah Girls, Williams also denied claims she got into fights with Raven-Symonè on the set of The Cheetah Girls films and never outed her as a teen. The rumor about Symonè and Williams was reportedly started by Symonè's former co-star Orlando Brown.

Symonè has often shared positive memories about The Cheetah Girls and their reign but did imply during an episode of The View how co-star Lynn Whitfield kept her from losing her cool on set.

On a lighter note, Symonè, Houghton and Naughton have kept in contact with Naughton and Houghton putting their differences aside during an appearance on The Real. 

Symonè and Houghton also reunited at the Women's March in Los Angeles in January. During Bailon's performance at the event, the two briefly performed the Cheetah Girls' classic, "Together We Can."

Willaims also shared some stories about the making of the group's hits. Check out her Live below.

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Kelis Announces ‘Cooked With Cannabis’ Show Will Premiere On Netflix

Kelis is taking her chef talents to Netflix. The musician will host a food competition show titled Cooked With Cannabis that’ll premiere on the very-fitting April 20 (4/20). According to NME, the show will span six episodes and be co-hosted by chef Leather Storrs.

Describing the opportunity as a “dream come true” since she’s a major supporter of the streaming service, Kelis took to Instagram to share how cannabis and cooking is one of her many creative passions. “As a chef, I was intrigued by the food and as an everyday person, I was interested in how powerful this topic is in today’s society,” the mother-of-two writes. “In this country, many things have been used systemically to oppress groups of people, but this is so culturally important for us to learn and grow together.”

Each episode will place three chefs against each other as they craft three-course meals with cannabis as the central ingredient. Each episode’s winner takes home $10,000. Guests will play an integral role in who takes home the cash prize. Too $hort, and El-P are just a few of this season's guests.

 

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I'm really excited to announce my new show, Cooked with Cannabis on @Netflix!! Anyone that knows me, knows how much I love my Netflix, so this is a dream come true. Interestingly, this was one of those things that I didn't go looking for, it kind of came to me. As a chef, I was intrigued by the food and as an everyday person, I was interested in how powerful this topic is in today's society. In this country, many things have been used systematically to oppress groups of people, but this is so culturally important for us to learn and grow together. I hope you all will tune in, it's definitely going to be a good time! We launch on 4/20! XO, Kelis

A post shared by Kelis (@kelis) on Mar 18, 2020 at 7:57am PDT

In a previous Lenny Letter profile, Kelis shared she comes from a line of culinary influences beginning with her mother who owned a catering service. In 2008, the “Milkshake” singer sought to refine her cooking skills by enrolling in the Le Cordon Bleu school. Receiving a certificate as a trained saucier, the New York native put her expertise to the test during pop-up restaurants in her native city, created a hot sauce line, and co-owns a sustainable farm in Quindio, Colombia.

“Food is revolutionary because it is the one and only international language. It’s the most human thing you can partake in,” she said in an interview with Bon Appetit. “We are the only species that cooks.”

This isn’t Kelis’ first foray into the reality-cooking television world. In 2014, she partnered with the Cooking Channel for Saucy and Sweet and published the "My Life on a Plate" cookbook a year later.

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