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Janelle Monáe Wants You to Free Yourself

“We need organizations like this,” declares Janelle Monáe. She’s speaking passionately about the Trevor Project, the country’s biggest suicide-prevention organization for LGBTQ+ youth. It’s perhaps because of this ardor that Monáe, a Grammy-nominated multihyphenate, is being honored with the organization’s Suicide Prevention Advocate of the Year Award. 

She’s the second-ever honoree, after last year’s inaugural recipient, rapper Lil Nas X. It’s easy to see why the organization turned to Monáe next. Four years ago, the artist came out as pansexual—a revelation that caused a spike in Google searches for the term. “That was a big thing for me,” Monáe says in a recent phone call from Los Angeles. “There were a lot of people who texted me and were like, Yo, I identify in the same way.”

Five months ago, Monáe also came out as nonbinary in an interview on Red Table Talk and shared with the Los Angeles Times that she uses she/they pronouns. Though it was instantly picked up as a major bit of news, the revelation felt casual and anything but revelatory in the moment, Monáe says. “I think I’d already probably even talked about [it] before,” Monáe says with a laugh. But that’s how Monáe lives now, speaking freely about her identity, learning and growing in public alongside the people who watch her every move, figuring out how to free themselves along the way. 

In an interview with Vanity Fair, the artist talks about her recognition from the Trevor Project, her performance in the hotly anticipated Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery, and the upcoming Josephine Baker series she’s cooking up with A24. 

Vanity Fair: How does this recognition from the Trevor Project resonate with you on a personal level?

Janelle Monáe: It hits home. I’ve definitely had moments where my mental health was not in the best place. I wanted to have conversations with friends or family members who didn’t know that I felt anxiety around sharing the person that I was becoming. I just remember having tough moments privately that I didn’t talk to anybody about. There are certain people that won’t love and accept you as you’re walking in your truth, and I had to become okay with that. I had to be okay with letting folks go who didn’t support me, with letting family members or friends go that did not want to support me as I walked in my truth. 

I remember when I interviewed you for a Vanity Fair cover story, you said something very similar about feeling conflicted about sharing elements of your personal life with people and wondering if they would abandon you. Is getting recognition like this potentially affirming in that regard?

Yeah. Community is very important. Being affirmed by community is a human-to-human necessity. Just being seen and being heard by the people you love and admire and respect means a lot, right? I think this recognition brings more awareness to how important community is, how important our mental health is, how important it is that we’re around people that uplift us, who can be beacons of light to us in the times of darkness. We all go through different obstacles. Different stages of happiness and darkness. Hopefully, we can figure out how to be more compassionate toward one another and really check in on each other.

Different stages of happiness and darkness. I feel like that’s going to stick with me. You spoke really beautifully back in April when you were on Red Table Talk about being nonbinary. I was wondering if you could speak to what led to your decision at that time to share it. Was it something that you thought about sharing publicly before, or was it a spur-of-the-moment thing?

I’m growing in public. I have had to discover things about myself in the middle of being known, or famous. One of the things that I always do is have conversations with the people I think should be told those [things] privately, not publicly. It was important to talk to my mom, my immediate family, my close friends as I got rid of certain labels and discovered more about who I was. And I think once that happened, it wasn’t anything that I needed to hide. I don’t seek validation from the entire world. At the Red Table Talk, I felt like that was just a casual conversation. 

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