Janelle Monáe’s Beautiful Future: RaceAhead
The party was for the vodka and a limited-edition bottle, but it was really about purpose, inclusion, and love.
That’s the message behind the “A Beautiful Future” program, an alliance between Belvedere Vodka and Grammy-nominated musician, actor, creative community builder, and activist Janelle Monáe.
Monáe was in New York City yesterday to promote her new bottle and the program, now in its second year. The alliance kicked off in 2018 with a series of brunches designed to support Fem the Future, a grassroots movement created by the artist to advance opportunities for women and for people who identify as women in music, arts, and education.
“Women have been underrepresented and underserved in film and television and on the music side,” Monáe tells raceAhead. Representation means different stories get told, ones that reflect a broader swath of human experience. “Fem the Future is supported by women and men who want to see women given opportunities to compete at the highest levels… but to do that, we have to make more noise.”
Part of the noise was a series of short films produced by women directors and selected by Monáe for the Belvedere program. Janicza Bravo, Lacey Duke, and Kirsten Lepore were asked to answer the question: What does a beautiful future look like to you?
For Bravo, a beautiful future meant having a seat at the table. In Val From Purchasing, a slightly-too-close-to-home but hilarious short film, she means it literally. The film depicts a senior black woman executive who notices the hard work of a younger employee and invites her to join an important meeting to share the ideas her bloviating boss was about to take credit for. It’s the kind of small moment that illuminates—and the kind of work that Monáe feels lucky to be able to amplify. “If you grew up like me… from the Midwest… with working class parents… I now have this career that takes me to so many different parts of the world and I meet so many interesting people,” she says. “What I wanted to do with this partnership is highlight the things that I feel are beautiful and the voices that are unique.”
It’s also a goal for Rodney Williams, Belvedere’s unusually contemplative CEO. Sure, he’s happy to talk about the vodka. “We’re the oldest continuously operating vodka distillery in the world, started in 1910, and we’ve won so many awards in part because we’ve been committed to craft,” he tells raceAhead. But he also talks about the power of brands to make a difference. “As part of LVMH, Belvedere is a signatory to the UN Standards of Conduct for Business which outlines anti-discrimination practices for the LGBTQIA+ community,” he says. “It’s a first, and we’re very excited to be able to support that publicly.”
It’s the kind of commitment that turned the artist’s head. Williams talked about his quest to land Monáe, which required visiting Wondaland, her growing Atlanta-based hub of creative artists, some of whom are signed to her record label of the same name. His team was invited into her home where she convened other writers and musicians, but no agents, to talk about what they could do together. Culture change was top of mind. “They wanted to know as much about us,” he recalls. “I thought, wow, this whole approach of bringing people along and creating energy around a basket of ideas… felt very natural from the beginning.”
Monáe has garnered a lot of attention for her work of late—in Moonlight (2016) and Hidden Figures (2016), and with Grammy nods for Best Music Video for “PYNK,” as well as an Album of the Year for Dirty Computer in 2019. But she made headlines for her identity as well, when she told Rolling Stone last year that she was pansexual, attracted to people without regard to gender.
Looking back, she said it wasn’t courage that pushed her forward. “I think about all of the stories I’ve heard around the world, about so many young LGBTQIA+ kids, black girls like me, maybe from Baptist families like me, believing they were not accepted,” she says. She has a big platform, she’s surrounded by love and possibility. “If you strip that away… I could very well be one of those [people], ostracized from their families and their communities, put out on the street maybe even wanting to commit suicide because I don’t feel like I belong in this world.”
Her parting message to raceAhead readers was one of allyship.
“I have asked myself if I feel a responsibility to help someone — or a group, that may not be as privileged as me. Is it my responsibility to stand up for them? Is it my responsibility to share the mic? And I’ve answered yes to that,” she says. “So I just encourage everyone to ask themselves the question because I think that would create a more beautiful future when we can be there for each other.”
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|ProPublica|Tamara El-Waylly helps produce raceAhead and assisted in the preparation of today's summaries.