How Janelle Monae's style allowed me to express my true identity

the voice and vision of a new generation
Image credit: Janelle Monáe

How Janelle Monae's style allowed me to express my true identity

February 10, 2019

In 2010, when I was 11, my mom was so excited to show me a video by an artist I’d never heard of: Her name was Janelle Monáe. In typical mom fashion, she sent a link over Facebook that lead me to Monáe’s “Tightrope” music video.

Until that moment, I had never seen myself reflected in someone the way I did when I saw Janelle Monáe. Since that moment, I’ve never loved an artist the way I love her.

This kind of representation has continued to have a big impact on my life. My mom has always been my superhero because growing up she always made sure I saw myself reflected in the world around me. She was the mom that drove across town to go to the toy store that had dolls with hair texture like mine and found picture books where the children had smiling brown faces. Introducing me to Janelle Monáe was no different.

She wanted me to watch the music video partially because she knew I’d like the song, but more so because she wanted me to see this young Black woman absolutely slaying the music scene while wearing a suit and tie.

I’d never seen someone with my same complexion defy stereotypical feminine beauty standards in their gender presentation. Having Monáe as a role model made my own experiences experimenting with gender presentation that much easier. I’d get questions like, “do you want to be a boy?,” “are you gay?” and “why don’t you dress more like a girl?” To those questions I was able to respond, “I want to look like Janelle Monáe,” and that was acceptable.That was something people around me could understand.

Monáe’s presence in popular culture allowed me a freedom of expression I didn’t always have access to. Her existence has and continues to push the boundaries of our mainstream understanding of Black excellence and makes space for queer folks of color to see themselves celebrated.

According to the 2017 GLSEN National School Climate Survey 94% of queer students reported hearing negative remarks pertaining to gender identity and 75% of those youth opted to forgo school functions like dances because they felt unsafe.

Last year, I attended my senior prom in a suit and I had so many kids I really rarely spoke to in high school come up to me and say they liked my outfit because looked like Janelle Monáe. It’s no longer weird when I choose to pair suits with a bold red lip. I credit Janelle Monáe for that.

This past May, I noticed a similar culture shift when I was on BuzzFeed’s Queer Prom Court. All five of us on prom court represented different places and different identities but found ourselves unintentionally wearing suits based on our own personal style preferences. That moment demonstrated that clothing doesn’t have to belong to individuals of a particular gender identity or sexual orientation. That night we all sang and danced to Janelle Monáe and bonded over our shared admiration of a woman that we got to see ourselves in.

Members of the BuzzFeed Queer Prom Court. Image credit: BuzzFeed, 2018.

Monáe’s style impact on us is just one piece of the larger cultural impact she is having throughout the media industry. Monáe has been a fixture at the Grammy Awards for years but this year is a bit different and possibly even more exciting. Her Album of the Year nomination for Dirty Computer is historic, as she represents one of the only queer women of color to ever be nominated in that category. Her Grammy nominations, along with her recent GLAAD Media Award Nomination legitimizes that her Black and queer art, as well as her message should not only be embraced but uplifted by all.

Ose Arheghan is a GLAAD Campus Ambassador and first year at Ohio State University studying political science and sexuality studies. Ose is the 2017 GLSEN Student Advocate of the Year and The Matthew Shepard Foundation's 2018 Spirit of Matthew Honoree.

the voice and vision of a new generation