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Janelle Mone: I am the whole package

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Shes a musician whose work has brought her massive acclaim. Shes also an outspoken activist in the Black Lives Matter movement, and now Janelle Mone is in Moonlight, one of the most talked about films of the year

One of Janelle Mones earliest childhood memories is of being hugged by her grandmother, a former sharecropper from Mississippi, and listening to her stories from the past: her years as a cotton picker; how their family came to be in Kansas City; the importance of connection to others. It was there, in her grandmas arms, that a slip of a six-year-old girl decided that one day she would become a storyteller, too. She wrote precocious plays and poems, sang and entered talent competitions that she often won, and gave her mother the winnings to help towards the electricity bill.

Twenty five years later, and Mones an acclaimed musician, record label boss and activist who is about to make her acting debut. Ive never viewed myself as just a musician or singer, she says. Im a storyteller who wants to tell untold, meaningful, universal stories in unforgettable ways. I want to do it all, study it all and find my place in it.

Her first role provides a great opportunity for telling an unforgettable story. Barry Jenkinss Moonlight is the coming-of-age tale of Chiron, an African American boy dealing with his sexuality. Its based on the play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue by award-winning writer Tarell Alvin McCraney and is all but certain of Oscar nominations when theyre announced on Tuesday. Mone plays Teresa and she and her drug dealer boyfriend Juan become surrogate parents to little Chiron. Mone calls it her Neo from The Matrix moment, explaining that this film, and her recent move into acting, has always been her destiny, that she doesnt believe in coincidence: Things dont just happen, she says. Its all connected.

Its odd to hear her say this, as in person Mone doesnt feel very connected. When we meet she wears huge, round mirrored shades which obscure her face and stay firmly on throughout our interview, reflecting my own face back at me twice over. She sits neatly at the table, her legs curled beneath her. Shes courteous and friendly and businesslike. She chooses her words carefully.

I had a strong visceral reaction to the Moonlight script, partly because I felt I knew all of these characters, she says. I grew up with a drug dealer like Juan in my neighbourhood who was a mentor to local young people. I had a family member who was addicted to crack, like Paula [Chirons biological mother, played by Naomie Harris]. Chiron himself reminded me of my little cousin they were all characters I could relate to from my upbringing. And Ive played the role of Teresa in real life: my family and friends always have a shoulder to lean on with me, she says.

About 40 minutes into Moonlight, Chiron, sitting at Teresa and Juans table, asks what a faggot is and whether he is one. Theres no music in this scene; Juan doesnt grab a gun and try to blow anyone away. Instead, he gracefully picks the word apart. Its an unexpected reaction.

The misconception is that drug dealers are all monolithic, says Mone, that what you see on TV is how they are in real life. The dealers I knew growing up were hustling and making choices they may not be proud of, but they were also giving back to the community, mentoring young boys and girls, helping people to pay their bills. They can be surrogate mothers and fathers to people in their communities, just like in Moonlight.

Mone grew up in Kansas City with her mother, a janitor, her truck driver stepfather and a sister. Money was tight but her large, devoutly Christian family she has more than 50 first cousins were close. My grandmother had 11 children and although we didnt have a whole lot of money, what we did have was a lot of love, she says. My grandmother was the matriarch. If you didnt have a place to stay, if you needed food, if you were just coming out of jail or rehab, you went to her. Watching her in our family and our wider community was what inspired me and still does.

Doing her sums: in Hidden Figures with Taraji P Henson and Octavia Spencer. Photograph: Allstar/20th Century Fox

Life was tough. There was a lot of nonsense growing up so I reacted by creating my own world, she says. The arts local theatre groups, singing and drama classes gave Mone the drive and focus to finish high school and temporarily work alongside her mother as a maid to save enough money to study at the American Musical and Dramatic Academy in New York.

She then moved to Atlanta, Georgia, after she finished her studies. Shed update her MySpace profile while working at Office Depot to make ends meet, and came to the attention of fellow Atlantan Big Boi of Outkast. They became collaborators and, in 2006, he introduced her to Sean Diddy Combs, who offered her a recording contract. Mone was initially wary of signing her creative control away, but took the chance and it paid off. Diddy was hands off and wanted me to do my thing. Thats why hed offered to sign me in the first place, because I was different and I was the whole package.

For Mone, at 31, with three albums and six Grammy award nominations under her belt, her own record label up and running and two film roles in the pipeline (she also co-stars in the film Hidden Figures, the true story of the African American female mathematicians who helped catapult US astronaut John Glenn into space in the 1960s), 2016 was a year of professional triumphs but personal heartache. She had spent the early part of the year working on new music with her close friend and collaborator, Prince. He was actually helping me with my new music during the time before he transitioned. I was lucky enough to see his last show and tell him how much I loved him. He was a giver people dont know that. He gave so much: advice, very quiet donations to charities. He was a truly incredible soul.

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Making her point: on a Black Lives Matter march in San Francisco. Photograph: Breningstall/REX Shutterstock

Still mourning for Prince, Mone was grief-struck a second time last year when, in August, her cousin was killed in a drive-by shooting. The 37-year-old was shot several times when the gunman sprayed bullets into the Kansas City home where she and her three children were sleeping. The gunman remains free. Mone, a long-time advocate of tighter gun control and an active voice in the Black Lives Matter movement pauses, and says quietly: My family is heartbroken and Im still devastated. My cousin was an innocent mother of three children. How? How can this be real life? She continues: We have to do something about gun laws. And we also have to do something about police brutality towards African American people. She points out that they are two different issues, but that we need more allies. People need to continue to speak out about the way African American people are being treated. An injustice to one black man or woman is an injustice to everybody.

Mone has led marches for Black Lives Matter, performed at a concert in aid of the water crisis in Flint, Michigan, alongside Stevie Wonder last year, and released a protest song, Hell You Talmbout, in October in response to the police brutality. Unsurprisingly, she is no fan of Donald Trump. Millennials will not be silenced were the powerhouse now. Were not going to let those who want to make America great again truly take over. Because what Trump means by making America great again is oppressing women, oppressing minorities, creating hate. Were not allowing him to run the world, even though he thinks he is.

I ask her how she feels she can make a difference personally. Mone takes a deep, considered breath and says calmly: Music is my weapon. I wont remain silent. Michelle Obama having been our First Lady for eight years set an example of how we need to be. We need to be visible and we need to be loud. Were not objects. For the first time during the interview, Mone shows more than a crack of emotion not much but enough to know that the sunglasses stay on for a reason.

Moonlight opens in the UK on 17 February

Read more: https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/jan/22/janelle-monae-actor-film-music-i-am-the-whole-package-interview

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