Janelle Monáe on organizing an LA food drive during pandemic, dismantling systemic racism

Janelle Monáe was supposed to perform at the Hollywood Bowl later this month. But the concert is cancelled because of the pandemic and the movie she stars in, “Antebellum,” is also postponed. 

Monáe is pivoting. She’s helping organize a food drive in LA's Watts neighborhood on Tuesday, July 7. Hunger is more pressing as millions of people have been out of work for months. 

KCRW: You’ve already done a few food drives in LA and Atlanta. How did they go? 

Janelle Monáe: “They were very successful and exceeded my and our expectations because we're in the middle of COVID-19. There are a lot of folks who are scared about going out and also feeling ashamed of showing up to receive free box lunches for them or their family members. But we wanted to do our best to get rid of that stigma. 

I think all of us are taking financial hits, some of us more than others. … My situation is not the same as a single mom trying to raise five kids, who just got laid off or that’s an essential worker. 

So yeah, I'm really thankful that people see the love in it and see the openness and understanding that the only way we're going to survive this crisis, this pandemic, is by sticking together and leaning on each other.”

Usually you’d be performing or promoting a movie, and you've had to switch gears. What's happening with your artistic career?

“I don't sleep. I guess I’m also in the middle of trying to heal and dealing with a lot of trauma. Not only are we dealing with COVID-19, but as we all see, Black lives are being taken at the hands of police and violence. And I'm in the middle of grieving with my people, with my community, and also trying to figure out how to help. 

I've been trying to figure out how to be more creative in terms of problem solving, and finding solutions, and organizing with some of my peers, and with activists, and folks who are leading the movement to fight for Black lives. So that’s kind of where I've been. 

I've been DJing. I think music has always been healing for me. … I don't have to be writing music to be inspired and moved and motivated by it. So I've been listening to albums. 

… I've been also watching documentaries that I think are valuable, and I'd love for people to watch if they haven’t. Like ‘Disclosure,’ which is a deeper look into trans lives and discrimination. 

And also “On the Record.” That’s another documentary that deals with sexual assault and violence against women and particularly Black women in the music industry. 

I've been just trying to figure out how to be a better citizen, and show up for people that I can be allies to, and ask those who want to be allies to me and my community — to try to figure out ways that I can push them in terms of helping.”

During a recent benefit concert for small businesses that are struggling in the pandemic, you got emotional and couldn’t finish the song. What happened? 

“I hope I'm not alone with feeling very hopeless about the state that we're in. And I have times of feeling hopeful. I have times of feeling like fighting. I’ve had times of feeling like I don't want to fight. There's fatigue. 

I think what I was experiencing right then and there was the feeling of other folks who may not be as privileged as I am. … Folks who have actually lost people due to COVID-19, who couldn't be with them as they transitioned on. Thinking about the people affected by the lies of this current administration … and the information they hide. … We could have prevented a lot of these deaths. 

And just thinking about the small businesses because that's what we were talking about and raising money for, but there are a lot of Black-owned businesses are suffering right now. There are a lot of Black folks who make up essential workers, and they're risking their lives to make sure that I have mail, to make sure you have your trash picked up, and to make sure that we're okay, the nurses and the doctors. And I think that moment, like many moments I have privately, was just a result of feeling hopeless and sad.”

That [concert] happened before George Floyd’s death and the subsequent expressions of anger, grief, and frustration in our streets. 

“Black people have been screaming Black Lives Matter. We've been marching. We've been in this fight as a people for a very long time. … I think a lot of my pain stems from that too. Because not only are we fighting COVID-19, we're fighting to exist.”

It must be exhausting, you have been dealing with this a lot in your art and in your personal life. Where are you in the arc of hope? Are you feeling hopeful or feeling like this is such a high mountain to climb?

“I am standing my ground in terms of what I'm personally requiring of those who say they’re allies to the Black community. I think that one of the things that we all have to think about is how we can use our power, how we can use our privilege, how we can use our existence to help protect marginalized folks and human beings who deserve those same freedoms. 

… There are moments of hope when I see white folks out there marching, and releasing statements, and if they are doing the work to dismantle systemic racism. They’re talking about chattel slavery. They’re talking about Jim Crow. They’re talking about microaggressions against Black folks. They're talking about the lack of inclusion in the workspace. 

All these things that we're dealing with can be dismantled. And the folks who are going to have to do it are white people. Until I see that real work being done, I think we're seeing glimpses of it, I appreciate the protests, I appreciate the hashtags. But it's going to take real conversation and policy change and the burning down of systems that don't work for all of us. They're just working for white folks.”

It’s hard for people in power to voluntarily give up power.

“I think you hit on a point. … The president and that administration will do anything to keep power. That’s what it's always been about: suppressing the vote, making people wait in long lines, and making it harder for us to put folks in office that actually care more about the people than staying in the position of power. And that’s what we’re seeing. I think we can do better than Donald Trump.”

Where can people get more information about Tuesday's food drive?

“We're going to be in Watts. You can look on my Instagram [for more information]. And we're partnering with Project Isaiah, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, the Lila Project, the Social Justice Learning Institute.

… We're happy to be distributing 2000 boxes of produce, and fresh veggies, and frozen poultry. We're going to do this the safe way. We’ll have on our masks, our gloves. Contact-free. You don't even have to get out of your car. You can just pull up, and we'll put it in your trunk and in the backseat of your vehicle. 

It's great if you can be pre-registered. We're really trying to make sure that we’re servicing everyone. And we want your families to be accounted for. 

… We’re there from 12 to 3 pm.”  

Pickup Info: Success Avenue and East Century Boulevard adjacent to Ted Watkins Park, Los Angeles 90002

Registration at tinyurl.com/WondalunchOnUs

—Written by Jennifer Wolfe and Amy Ta, produced by Angie Perrin and Rosalie Atkinson