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Variety’s 2014 Music Breakthrough Winner: Janelle Monae

Musician says performing has always been 'part of my DNA'

The Variety Breakthrough of the Year Awards, which recognizes a select group of rising stars in entertainment and technology, will be held Jan. 9 at the Consumer Electronics Show. 

With her retro-fresh pompadour-and-tux image and futuristic musical melange of R&B, funk, rap, punk and psychedelia, Janelle Monae cuts quite a startling figure in the contemporary music scene – as if James Brown, David Bowie, Fritz Lang and Salvador Dali had all collaborated in creating the perfect avant-garde artist for the era.

Channeling those muses and influences, the 28-year-old singer, songwriter and producer has released a small but potent body of work since her initial 2007 release, the grandly titled “Metropolis Suite 1 (The Chase).” That ambitious EP may have met with only modest commercial success (it peaked at No. 115 on the Billboard charts) but it introduced the world to a singular talent and won her the first of six Grammy noms.

“I’ve always been creating and performing – and not just music,” she says. “I paint, I draw, I write short stories. It’s part of my DNA.”

Monae’s innate creativity also afforded her an escape from her tough surroundings. “I grew up in the poorest part of Kansas City with working-class parents,” she says. “There was a lot of violence. I lost a lot of friends to gun violence. But it was a place that taught me how to turn nothing into something and how to rise above things and how to work hard.”

SEE ALL: Breakthrough of the Year Awards

After relocating to Atlanta in 2001, Monae met Outkast’s Big Boi and then founded the Wondaland Arts Society with like-minded artists before signing with Sean Combs’ Bad Boy Records in 2006. “I don’t think I had any big break — it’s all a journey,” says Monae, who released her debut studio album “The ArchAndroid” in 2010.
The concept album fared well, reaching No. 17 on the Billboard charts.

A guest appearance by Monae on the band Fun’s 2012 No. 1 hit “We Are Young,” the lead single for their second studio album, 2012’s “Some Nights,” further raised her profile.

Last year, Monae released “Electric Lady,” a sequel to “ArchAndroid” that again features Monae’s robotic alter-ego Cindy Mayweather.The first single, “Q.U.E.E.N.,” features Erykah Badu, a frequent collaborator.

Another frequent collaborator is Prince, with whom Monae is preparing a show. “He’s one of my heroes,” says Monae, who’s already working on new music for 2017.

“It’s changing so fast,” she says.”That’s inspiring, as I don’t know what’s coming next with my music either.”

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