Janelle Monae on Why She Went ‘All In’ With ‘Turntables’ to Spotlight Doc’s Tales of Racial Injustice

In a Q&A, Monae talks about how "All In: The Fight for Democracy" motivated her to write a song about how America currently finds itself in mid-turn between "a lie" and real revolution.

Janelle Monae Power of Women Variety
Sophy Holland for Variety

“Turntables” is not, as you might guess from its placement in the documentary “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” a song written to extol vinyl. It uses that film’s exploration of the historical and recent suppression of Black voters’ rights in Georgia as a launchpad to explore “what’s goin’ on” in a nation still not done turning away from racial inequities. Janelle Monáe co-wrote and performed it last fall, at a time when, as she says in the lyrics, it felt like “the whole world about to testify,” as America’s racial cauldron turned into as big a story as the global pandemic.

Prior to working on the song, Monáe had been in a funk instead of working out the funk, having writers’ block as a result of processing so much bad news from quarantine. But after Stacey Abrams — one of the documentary’s producers as well as one of its subjects — made a personal plea for her to contribute a theme song, “there was no way that I could say no,” Monáe says. (Even if she’s made it clear that she would have said no if they’d sent her back for a rewrite, so firmly did she stand behind the end result.)

Although Monáe was hardly thinking of awards consideration when she hurriedly came up with “Turntables,” she is in the conversation, having been nominated for a Golden Globe and currently being on the Oscars’ shortlist for best original song. She spoke with Variety about just how personal this political testimonial is.

VARIETY: In writing the song last year, clearly you were reacting to the film itself and the history it recounts, but there were a lot of other things going on in the country to be thinking about it and frustrated and enraged by. There was reason for hope, too. Were any of those things primary in your mind or in your mood as you wrote it?

MONAE: All of the things you said. There was a lot of rage and uncertainty going on in the world. And I think after I watched the film, I started to think about the Stacey Abrams quote: “I’m not optimistic nor pessimistic. I’m determined.” So I started to think about how hope without action is useless, and rage without action is useless. It’s not going to be a solution to just stay in my emotions. We have to act and do whatever it is that we can do to help amplify the truth. And for me, it was to amplify this film, which is focused on voter suppression, which is something that marginalized folks like my family members and even sometimes I have been a victim of.

You’ve said that prior to doing the song, you had not been in a creative mood or wanting to be in the studio. What pushed you into being motivated?

It wasn’t that I didn’t want to be in the studio. I really wanted to be in the studio, but I think like so many of us, my mental health had to be taken care of. Recording and writing music is such a part of my normalcy, and from the pandemic to the election to voter suppression, nothing going on in the world felt normal to me. So I just had to really understand what kind of world we were going to be walking into, and I had to get my mental health together.

After I watched the film, I got a sense of determination. I knew where I could take that rage, that energy, that fear, that hope, that anxiety— I knew where I could put all that those emotions into, and it was writing the song “Turntables.” I got my marching orders from Stacey. And I guess I started to finally understand that, to use an analogy, if we’re all on a boat, then it’s time to turn the boat. And if Stacy’s asking me for help, I have to show up. Because this is our opportunity to make a turn for the better and really put the power in the hands of the people.

So it was really the documentary, when I saw the rough cut. I mean, there are stories in that film that represented my father’s story. My father was in and out of prison because he was battling drug addiction. And instead of putting him in rehab, they locked him up and they took away his right to vote. I was gerrymandered; my right to vote for the person I wanted to vote for was taken out of my hands. So there are so many stories personally that affected me. And then just seeing Stacey Abrams, who was valedictorian of her school, get turned away when she was younger. Her parents and whole family got invited to the governor’s mansion, and as they got off a bus because they could not afford a car, the security guard turned them away because they just knew that this Black family clearly could not have been invited. And this was one of the smartest kids in Georgia. So I think it was wanting to bring attention to voter suppression on a global level that made me really get back into the studio and fight for the people I love and care so deeply for.

When you finished the song, you were so happy with it, or just felt  so fiercely protective of it, that you’ve said if they asked you to change anything about it, you would have said no, even if it was Stacey Abrams asking. It was a take it or leave it thing. And they loved it and took it, so it all worked out well. But was there anything specifically about it worrying you that you thought they might not want for their film? It does get pretty incendiary, and includes a four-letter word. Was it that?

I didn’t want to censor my feelings. You know, I’m not a politician, I’m an artist. And my responsibility is to an unfiltered truth whenever I’m writing music and lyrics. And with someone like Stacey, who I love and respect and admire, I know that there are a lot of eyes on her and what she’s a part of. And when you’re a politician, you have to move differently. There is an art to politics. But Stacey, along with Lisa and Liz, the directors, cared like I did about drawing attention to the truth, and we all held hands around the truth. So there was nothing to change about it, because it was a truth that we all believed in and we supported.

As we look at the Oscars shortlist or the Golden Globes nominations for best original song, there is a confluence a number of remarkable songs that speak to Black consciousness and the injustices of recent history. It’s as if Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” suddenly sparked a wave of film songs in 2020 and 2021, including yours, and they’re being embraced by the voters for these organizations.

I think that there are a lot of different songs being made by different people who have different walks of life and sit at different privileges in society. I think that, for me, as a Black person living in America, in the words of Nina Simone, my responsibility as an artist is to reflect the times. And I wish these were not the times we lived in. I wish that I didn’t have to write a song fighting against voter suppression and drawing attention to the injustices of marginalized people. I wish I didn’t have to do that. And I wish that the other artists didn’t have to do that, but we felt a responsibility to it. A lot of us live this experience. This is not something we get to turn off and turn off. This is life for us. This is a life for our family. This is a life for our friends. This has been the life for our ancestors.

Do you think of the song as being in a protest-song lineage with “Hell You Talmbout”?

Yeah, absolutely. I mean, “Hell You Talmbout” was meant to do something else. But all I can do is be a narrator of the times. When people listen to music a decade or 20 years or 100 years later, I want them to know and that I was there, and here’s how I contributed — and, yeah, what was going on.

What was the interaction like with your collaborators when the song was first sparked?

Well, Nate “Rocket” Wonder and I, whenever we get in the studio, we always make magic together. He has been my producer for a very long time, since my first EP. We both watched the rough version of the film; some of the animated portions were not in there yet. And Nate ran into the studio and put together three musical beds; he’s very fast. We didn’t have a month or two to turn in this song; we probably had a week and a half or two to get it together.

And we both knew that we wanted to have a cadence that represented a march, people marching, people fighting for something. And so he laid down some drums, and then we started with guitar, which always frees me up and allows me to pay attention to the rhythm and the melody first, before you bring in any other instruments. Among some of the people we were quarantining with, one of those people was George 2.0, who, when I was trying to come up with some turns of phrase, I would throw out lines, and he was always supportive with “Yeah yeah, that works” or “What if we said it like this?” It was that level of sparring and encouragement that he brought to the team. And I got all of the folks that we were quarantining with to be the choir. So this is a song really rooted in community — a song that really is centered around “we,” not me… a song that I have to say is a vessel. This song is a tool and is to be used by anybody who is trying to figure out how to stay hopeful, stay determined, as we navigate through life and reclaiming our time and our power.

Could you imagine singing this at a Stacey Abrams rally someday… assuming that there will be those in the future?

Yeah. If people who can stay at home absolutely stay the fuck at home and we can get out of this pandemic, and people can get vaccinated that really need it… If we just do our part, hopefully we can be in a room together.

Can you say why turntables came to you as a metaphor, or a play on words?

This is super important. I really want this to be in the article, because when you think about “turn,” what that means, and also understanding where we are or you are on our journey — a journey is not the end. I feel like we’re in the middle of something. You know, Georgia spoke. We flipped the Senate. It wasn’t the Georgia of the ‘60s and ‘50s. This is a new Georgia that we saw that said, “We want better. We demand better.” And it took a lot of grassroots organizations. It took Fair Fight (the national voting rights organization). It took artists. It took a lot of people to come together to help get us to having a new president and the first Black and Indian woman vice president.  So when you think about the journey that we’re on, we’re the middle of that, still, and so the idea of turning that around and placing that power in the hands of the people was super important instrumental.

And when I said, “America, you a lie”… this is important, because when I was writing that lyric, I was not excited about saying it, but it was also a cathartic experience. I think that we have to remember that truth is at the center of any healing and any reconciliation. We can’t heal or reconcile without the truth. And the truth is that America has not held up to its promise. The folks who were in or have been in the position of power have not taken care of the people that it promised to take care of. And because America a place that I call home, a place that I’m proud of, a place that my ancestors helped build, it’s hard to call America a lie. But the reality is that there are people who are treated unjustly, and I don’t need to go down the list of what those people look like or where those people come from. We see it; we know it.

And when I said, “But the whole world about to testify,” globally, people were watching this. Globally, people were saying, “America has not lived up on its promises.” And =the American people, who we saw in those long lines, we saw them going to the polls and pulling out the truth. All of the gaslighting, saying that this isn’t happening with how voting has worked against us, with uncovering the truth in “All In: The Fight for Democracy,” we see that it is a lie.

So I just think that the truth has to sit at the center of any healing. And all of those lyrics mean a lot to me. AI hope that people, when they listen to them, are reminded that until we can be truthful, in politics specifically, we’re not gonna make any real change.