A seat at the table with Janelle Monaé | Feature | Chicago Reader

A seat at the table with Janelle Monaé 

What happens when you bring 80 Chicago creatives, artists, change makers—and a Reader reporter—to late-night brunch at the MCA.

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click to enlarge "I wrote Dirty Computer, [and] even though it came from a personal place, community was at the center ‘cause that’s what was personal to me—creating a community where I could feel safe, where people that I love and care about could feel safe." - ZAKKIYYAH NAJEEBAH
  • "I wrote Dirty Computer, [and] even though it came from a personal place, community was at the center ‘cause that’s what was personal to me—creating a community where I could feel safe, where people that I love and care about could feel safe."
  • Zakkiyyah Najeebah

“Life is about creating memories,” Janelle Monaé says with a martini glass in hand, rocking a blue pinstripe suit. “It’s full of tiny little memories that we access when we are happy, when we are sad, when we’re in our darkest times, and in our most exciting times. I just hope that we can create memories that we’ll never forget.”

Mirroring her surroundings, Monaé’s look is a work of art, her red lip, tinted sunglasses, and Windsor-knotted tie accenting the white-and-blue lobby of the Museum of Contemporary Art. 

With Monaé positioned in the middle of this 80-person table, the scene resembles the culminating visual of “Crazy, Classic, Life,” the video that opens her emotion picture for Dirty Computer. Except, instead of me staring at the poster in my dining room, I’m actually at this table, surrounded by Chicago’s most dynamic and influential creatives and artists. There’s a palpable energy in the air that pulsates in a way that’s so surreal, it’s clear tonight—the night before her Lollapalloza performance—is something special.

click to enlarge Monaé has partnered with Belvedere Vodka for the A Beautiful Future campaign. - ZAKKIYYAH NAJEEBAH
  • Monaé has partnered with Belvedere Vodka for the A Beautiful Future campaign.
  • Zakkiyyah Najeebah

We’re all here for a late-night brunch hosted by Belvedere Vodka and Monaé’s grassroots movement Fem the Future to imagine A Beautiful Future—the theme for their partnership— together. Guests softly tap each other’s shoulders to embrace in mini reunions. Others wear contemplative faces thinking of their own “beautiful futures” to write on strips of paper that will be hung from a blue neon tree at the table’s end as a symbol of things to grow. For Monaé, the brunch nights are about building community and sparking a global conversation of change.

“I wrote Dirty Computer, [and] even though it came from a personal place, community was at the center ‘cause that’s what was personal to me—creating a community where I could feel safe, where people that I love and care about could feel safe,” Monaé tells me during a brief interview before the brunch.

click to enlarge Monaé, center, with honorees Scheherazade Tillet, Amanda Williams, Nikki Roberson, and LaForce Baker - ZAKKIYYAH NAJEEBAH
  • Monaé, center, with honorees Scheherazade Tillet, Amanda Williams, Nikki Roberson, and LaForce Baker
  • Zakkiyyah Najeebah

Four Chicago community leaders are being spotlighted at the brunch, including Scheherazade Tillet, cofounder and executive director of A Long Walk Home; LaForce Baker, founder and CEO of Moon Meals; Nikki Roberson, fund-raising and community outreach director for Kicks 4 the City; and Amanda Williams, visual artist and architect of aw Studio.

During the night’s red carpet and cocktail hour, DJ Rae Chardonnay mixes songs from Monaé and other Wondaland artists, while singer-songwriter Jamila Woods floats around the room in a black crop top, pink skirt, and black Chucks. Janelle plays a humble and gracious host, and watching her work a room of starstruck guests feels like the suite overtures that opened her first two releases. With the Electric Lady as the catalyst, the night feels magnetic; no presence was a coincidence. 

Belevdere’s partnership with Monaé began with a conversation and blossomed into both wanting to celebrate the differences that make us unique. Carlos Zepeda, Belvedere vice president, says everyone in the room for that conversation had a shared vision of a future full of diversity, inclusion, and self-expression. 

“We started talking about giving individuals a platform to air their point of view and inspire others, and that’s where the magic really happened,” he says. “With an event like tonight, we are honoring local change makers, and the way we’re honoring them is we’re giving them a voice.”

Monaé knows the world’s problems won’t be solved in one night, but also knows that as we talk about hopes and dreams and make plans to stay in touch, so much more greatness is coming. If Janelle’s awed introductions over her guests of honor were church announcements, as she suggested on Twitter the next morning, then each change maker’s remarks about their work and vision were devotionals dedicated to pushing forward.

Tillet, who cofounded A Long Walk Home to support sexual violence survivors, offers the only vision of a beautiful future that she’s seen in action, the one from the community of women who have found family and strength together. Her quiet demeanor, with a beaming Monaé looking up at her from her seat, lifts the words even higher into the night and punctuates an evening of inspiration.

“Because of them, I believe a beautiful future is now.”  v

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