I remember Cyndi Lauper from the mid 80’s, riding in my big sisters red convertible through the NYC streets on hot Summer nights blasting “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” as our new anthem. She burst into our lives on what was then a new medium called MTV, proudly using her music videos to spread the word to women and young girls about freedom, and self expression. Her music had become the soundtrack for certain pivotal parts of all of our lives. Janelle Monáe, was only just born in 1985, and now my young daughter has adapted the disciplined freedom and intellectually entertaining quality of her work as her model for success. Janelle remains steadfast in her effort to challenge the music industry’s blueprint of what a female star should be. It’s 2013, and here they both are, sharing the same dream in a world that has changed in many ways and in others, barely budged.
CHRISTINA LESSA: The obvious common threads between the two of you – originality, perseverance, creation of a unique persona – are evident in your work. You are both aware that understanding your past is what drives dreams forward.
JANELLE MONÁE: It’s important to possess such qualities because that’s how my mother and aunts raised me. Remaining unique and comfortable in my own skin is a part of my DNA. I definitely feel a dire need to encourage young girls to create the role models you hope to see. That’s what our heroes did. This is one way to save the next generation from the regressive qualities of our generation. I am a believer in: If the job’s not being done and you care so much, then do it. The world needs more heroes!
CYNDI LAUPER: I grew up surrounded by amazing women that influenced me as well. My aunts, my mother and my grandmother were all exceptional women who never were afforded the opportunity to follow their dreams. They were told no! no! No! Be a good girl, be a good wife, be a mother. They were told their desires and hopes were frivolous. I was always a big dreamer and these same women told me I should follow my dreams and I did. So when I sang “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun” I sang it for them.
CHRISTINA LESSA: You both incorporate the battle against social injustice into your work. Janelle, the following is a description of your ‘ArchAndroid’ concept album in three parts and the discourse it cleverly presents about inequality: ArchAndroid: an ambitious concept album about a futuristic world of androids in need of unification. Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film, Metropolis heavily influenced the album. “It talked about a constant struggle between the haves and have-nots, the ‘other.’ Androids will be the new other. I feel we’ll be living with them soon.” Another influence for the album is Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. Monae performs The ArchAndroid as Cindi Mayweather, a persona inspired in part by The Matrix’s Neo. “She’s the mediator between the haves and have-nots. She is the chosen one: chosen to help restore unity and balance.” Monáe’s messianic android muse, Cindi Mayweather, represents an interpretation of androids as that segregated minority, which Monáe describes as, ‘the Other’. “And I feel like all of us, whether in the majority or the minority, feel like the Other at some point.” In an NPR interview in September 2010, Monae stated that she is a believer in, and a proponent of time travel.
JANELLE MONÁE: I love science fiction because it stimulates my imagination. It truly does allow me to place the issues of today into the future. With my work I am able to talk about a new race, The Android, which shifts the mind to draw parallels between the human race and the android race. The parallels are more visible through Sci-Fi. We start to see clearer the similarities between ‘the androids of the future’ and poor folks of today. There becomes a possibility the androids could be you or me, African-Americans, gay culture, Muslims in a Christian society, eccentrics in a conformist society, or the minority or ‘other’ anywhere fighting for his or her rights.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Cyndi, I had read that you came up with the title for “Time After Time” while reading TV Guide—Time After Time was a 1979 science fiction movie starring Malcolm McDowell as H. G. Wells, portraying him inventing and then traveling in a time machine. CYNDI LAUPER: Actually Time after Time was not exactly inspired by science fiction, I was just looking for something to watch on TV and I saw a listing a film called Time after Time, I never actually saw it but that title stuck in my head and the idea for the song came but I really don’t watch sci fi. I do like Star-Trek though LOL! As far as the problem of class division, I was in Washington performing at two events, one for Leader Pelosi and one for the President. I am very proud and honored to have been part of this Inauguration because our President and Leader Pelosi both have been trying to lessen the gap between the haves and have-nots. Unfortunately the republicans put the breaks on progress. Most Americans are fair-minded and unfortunately our government doesn’t actually listen or act for the will of the people. Many of the republicans want our President to fail so that means they want our country to fail, just so they can get a republican in the white house. What kind of system is that? Hopefully the republicans have heard loud and clear that America wants change, wants progress and they will be willing to meet the President in the middle so we can be a great country again. Leader Pelosi has done so much. She is a real hero of mine. She oversaw the passage of The Affordable Care Act, the Lilly Ledbetter Fair pay act which ensures that women get equal pay to men, she helped repeal, ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’. She is instrumental in closing the gap between haves and have-nots.
CHRISTINA LESSA: We talk a lot at FLATT about how artists are the new global leaders, often making a much larger impact today than politicians do. You both have, and continue to, inspire young women everywhere. Cyndi, I love the story of when you went to do a show at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and you turned down a VIP tour because you said that after 40 years in music, you didn’t see yourself there, you didn’t see women acknowledged. Do you think that there is a new paradigm for women yet in the music industry and in the world?
JANELLE MONÁE: I feel a shift in the amount of diverse examples of women in the music industry. I am very excited about it. The Internet has definitely helped make it possible. The independent female artist running her own label with a different perspective on life, music, and the messages being sent out to the masses can speak directly to us, without a filter, through the different social media outlets, unlike before, when we were just exposed to what the giant record companies force-fed us. There still is much of this, of course, but we have easier access and more choices available. Where I grew up there were so many young girls just headed for self-destruction, whether it was getting pregnant by a dope dealer, or not reading, or selling sex to get the things they needed. I saw that, and I saw the downfall of that whole movement with young girls. I always knew I had to do something slightly different to show them that we don’t all have to take the same routes to become successful. There are other options. As an artist, I have a bigger responsibility to it because, I do think, artists are a lot more influential than politicians are. One song can change somebody’s life. One girl’s message can change somebody’s life.
CYNDI LAUPER: Women have always played a significant role. Go back to blues and before recorded music even, they just have never gotten the same recognition as men. I used to call the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, the Rock and Roll Hall of Men because when I walked thru the museum there were only a handful of exhibits dedicated to women. I complained to the guy running the place, and he actually did respond in a positive way and there is now a very large section of the museum dedicated to women. We just have to push harder it seems. But I think the world is changing, and we evolve and things are getting better and more fair for women in most places but we do have a long way to go. I think the next generation will be the generation where equality for all will actually be a reality. I think being a musician you can give voice to these subjects like when I sang, ‘Girls’. Women come up to me all the time and say, “Thank you.”, and tell me how it made them feel strong when they heard it and I am so happy and proud to give a voice to women. I love when I hear new female artists singing songs about empowerment.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Cyndi was known throughout the 80s for her daring and experimental fashion choices. She mixed, matched and clashed colors; patterns, textures and styles to create unique looks that veritably became her brand. Janelle’s signature black and white suit is unmistakably hers alone. You both share a love for a more creative approach in your style. Speak to the origin of your original style.
JANELLE MONÁE: There were a few things that influenced the origin of my style. When I decided to become an independent artist I knew I did not want to look like any other male or female artist out. While I appreciate some trends, I knew I didn’t want to get caught up in trendy fashion culture and wanted to stick with classic pieces that never went out of style. One rule to being a time traveler is dressing timeless for any time period. I also wanted to wear a uniform that symbolized that I was dedicated to my arts collective and tribe, The Wondaland Arts Society. Sorta like how Steve Jobs speaks about the reason behind Apple’s dress code or how gangs wear colored rags. We all picked the two colors black and white and continue to honor our message through those colors. Lastly, I value my parents so much who were janitors, post office workers, and sanitary workers. They wore uniforms daily. I wanted to honor them by wearing my uniform every time I was performing or promoting my work. Whenever I put on my uniform, I think of them and am reminded I have my own work to do. I have people to make dance and uplift. I recently was talking to a friend and realized I may be the only person I know to consistently wear my black and white uniform as much I do outside of maybe Dr. Cornel West or Karl Lagerfeld.
CYNDI LAUPER: Color has always been very important to me. Color makes feel alive. So, I loved to bring color into my clothes and hair. I also mixed patterns because, while at first glance they didn’t seem to match, they actually did. Everything I wore was done with intention. I wore chains around my ankles to symbolize how women were still being held down. I love fashion. I study it. Now I love working with young designers because I think it’s important to give exposure when I can. I mean, there are so many cool young designers out there. It’s exciting. Fashion shouldn’t be about labels and price tags it should be about art and creativity.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Cyndi, your recent memoir, Cyndi Lauper, a Memoir, reveals the incredible hardships that you overcame in the early stages of your career. Leaving home in Ozone park Queens at age 17 to escape a physically abusive stepfather which led to years of marginal existence in what was then a considerably more misogynistic world. Struggling through doing odd jobs, including one as a topless dancer, and having very little money. Janelle, coming out of a home that was rife with substance abuse, and a community that was under served and all but forgotten, you somehow maintained your dignity and focus. Overcoming adversity has made you both not only adaptable in terms of success, but, keenly aware of the power and influence of artists as celebrities.
JANELLE MONÁE: Adversity has definitely shaped who I am as a person. It’s helped me remain a fighter and a humble person at the same time. Whenever I go through an uncomfortable experience that pushes me to grow or a lesson I have learned, I try and write about it in a song. Artists have the unique superpowers of being influential and tapping into global frequencies and emotions very quickly through music. Our testimonies can be huge influences to our listeners. We can help somebody along their journey through the exposure of our adversities. I have come to understand that I am in control of my emotions and outlook on life. My perception of myself and the pressure I face from the outside world are mental. I am in control of how much pressure I apply to myself for any one given thing. I look to my soul clock to inform me of when to move and when to be still. I am guided by my soul clock and nothing else.
CYNDI LAUPER: You know when I was young my ‘uniqueness’ was never celebrated. I got teased a lot and was not in with the popular kids. I didn’t get invited to any parties. Basically, me and the other misfits hung out and what we all had in common was that we didn’t have it in us to conform just to fit in. That would have been harder then being teased and ostracized for being who we were. I remember one time I was at a store and a woman came up to me and waived her fingers at my clothes and said, “What is that? You really have to go see someone to talk about your issues. Because something is seriously wrong. “A few years later, ‘She,s So Unusual’, came out and I remember walking down the street seeing people dressing like me and I had that woman’s voice in my head and boy did that make me laugh. My point of sharing that story is that we all are unique and we should celebrate our differences that’s what makes the world a great place to be a part of. If we could all just love each other and accept each other for who we are there would be no wars, no bigotry no pain. There is never a reason to point your finger at someone and say, “that is wrong”. The suits had no conception that I was an artist. Our business has gotten more and more corporate, which was never what it was supposed to be. Rock and roll was going to save the world. It still can…It’s up to the individuals. People can save the world by the way they think and by the way they behave and what they hold to be important. The industry has changed a lot; every kid wants to be famous now, but they don’t know for what.
CHRISTINA LESSA: Janelle, you grew up on classic musicals, particularly those by Rodgers and Hammerstein: “I’ve cried over string arrangements.”, you’ve said. Other influential favorites that you included were, Nat King Cole, Lauryn Hill, Jimi Hendrix, and Salvador Dalí’s painting, Portrait of Gala With Two Lamb Chops. Cyndi, you grew up during the peak of the civil rights movement surrounded by the sounds of The Beatles, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald… Ladies, what are your most inspirational musical influences today?
JANELLE MONÁE: Right now, I am surrounded by incredible underground artists at The Wondaland Arts Society who are on the way up. Deep Cotton, Roman GianArthur, St. Beauty, Kellindo, A.C.E.G, and George 2.0 have truly motivated me to challenge myself more. I learn new things from their process, ask questions, don’t take myself so seriously, and spread my wings a lot more. I just got into Joni Mitchell from my friend André 3000’s recommendation. Her writing is something magical. All these recent musical experiences have been a real delight.
CYNDI LAUPER: It’s really great to see such cool new artists like Janelle, like Nicki Minaj – with such unique perspectives and voices – connect with such large audiences, which proves that people don’t want cookie cutter. They want individuality and bravery.
CHRISTINA LESSA: PHILANTHROPY! This is an enormous part of our mission. Particularly a new philanthropy where we stop relying on the government and look to ourselves for change. At FLATT we believe that the arts, in all guises, are the scaffold for change. Both of you embody this concept. What role does philanthropy play in your life as an artist?
CYNDI LAUPER: When I was growing up in the ‘60s I was inspired and empowered by the Civil Rights Movement. Not only was the minority standing up for themselves and saying enough is enough, people in the majority stood alongside them as this country went through one of the most transformative periods in its history. A moment like that is upon us again and this time the minority is the gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender community. This time it is straight people who are beginning to stand side by side with their family, friends, co-workers and neighbors to say that this country is about equality, fairness, and that never ending pursuit of happiness. That is one of the reasons why we founded the True Colors Fund, to lend a helping hand in encouraging my straight peers to get informed and give a damn about equality. While great strides have been made in recent years, when people can still be fired in over half the states because they are gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgender… when couples cannot get married simply because they love someone of the same gender… when young people are so bullied and tormented that they feel their only way out of that hell is to end their lives… it’s clear we still have a long, long way to go before we achieve full equality and acceptance in this country. JANELLE MONÁE: Philanthropy plays a significant role in my life and well-being. Before I started as the artist, Janelle Monáe, I wrote down my core values and, “having a responsibility to my community”, was on my list. My dream is to build a performing arts school in my hometown and in other cities. Without the arts, I could have been a victim of my environment. The arts continue to serve as an outlet for many of our troubled youth. I know I am where I am today because a community of people believed in me. Early on, my teachers, my parents, my friends, guidance counselors, extended family, etc. supported me. They didn’t give up on me. I feel it is my responsibility to do the same for the next gen. I believe in the term: ‘pay it forward’. I feel like growing up with parents who worked hard to turn nothing into something has become embedded in my way of thinking. My parents created a way for us to live out our dreams when there was no easy way, especially financially. They never gave up on us. Moving away from my family back home in Kansas was and still is the most difficult thing I have had to do. I try to make sure I make each moment away from them worth it by spending my time spreading a message that I can truly believe in..
Saisha Beecham for
Cloutier Remix using Cover Girl
Courtesy Beauty & Photo Artist Agency