Janelle Monáe’s work has never been confined to only one medium. She is a singer and musician first, of course, but the stories she tells have always worked best as joint musical and visual projects, where their grand scope can best shine. It’s with Dirty Computer and its accompanying visual album that this impulse fully materializes, but even with The ArchAndroid music videos were an important addition to the Cindi Mayweather story.
For that reason, speaking to music video director Wendy Morgan felt like a crucial part of researching a book about The ArchAndroid. Director of the videos for the album’s two singles, “Tightrope,” and “Cold War,” Morgan provided fantastic insight into the character of Cindi, her imprisonment at the Palace of the Dogs by the mysterious evil force known as the Great Divide, the creative process behind the videos, and working with Monáe and the Wondaland Arts Society.
Alyssa Favreau: How did you meet Janelle? Were you approached to do the “Tightrope” video or did you already know the Wondaland team?
Wendy Morgan: No, I didn’t know them. They saw a video that I did for Gnarls Barkley called “Going On” and contacted me. I love a lot of the things they were referencing, like Sun Ra, Afrofuturism, the style of music, all things very close to my heart. I was pretty excited and honoured to work on the project, and the vision was really there. They pitched me on the type of video they wanted, and then I wrote a treatment based on their mythology. It was fabulous; it was a really good experience.
How was shooting the videos?
I’ve done a lot of music videos over the years and they were involved with the creative more so than a normal artist and their people. A lot more. The core of Wondaland is Nate [Wonder] the music producer, and Chuck [Lightning] who is kind of the creative director, and it’s Janelle Monáe. The truth is the three of them really, truly work like a collective. They sit down and I’m sure when they’re recording Chuck is in the studio with them. And when they’re working on creative, Nate is on that call. Wondaland is a real thing, they’re all working together with Janelle at the centre.
They gave me their ideas and it was still my job to sculpt it into a proper form and give it a narrative, but the characters and even the setting of the insane asylum, the Palace of the Dogs, all those things came from them. They put so much work into it. It really is their story that they had written and I was just kind of a conduit.
Where was “Tightrope” filmed?
In Atlanta. It was Janelle who was like “you should go and look at this place.” We didn’t do that much decorating, we spent all the money on talent. They wanted dance, and I remember James Brown was a big inspiration for Janelle, his style of dance and his style of footwork. She herself cast those dancers. She found them on YouTube, they do a specific style of dance called Jookin from Memphis.
They brought them over from Tennessee, and since then one of those dancers, Lil Buck, is now one of the most famous street dancers in the world. I remember working with them and looking at Buck while we were shooting and being like “oh my god, this guy is a star.” It’s incredible to watch him dance.
I shot a video for Alicia Keys and [when] she did her Grammy performance for the same song Lil Buck performed with her. His level is quite insane. He’s been on tour with Madonna many times, he’s probably the biggest name. It’s been really cool to watch his rise, because “Tightrope” was his first music video ever. It was really Janelle who discovered him.
In terms of the style of the video, a lot of the elements were, at least for a while, really quintessential Janelle Monáe: the tux and the pompadour, the saddle shoes, the big eyelashes. Did the video help cement that, or was it already fully formed?
That was fully formed. The whole time I worked with them I never saw them not in black and white. And mostly in tuxedos. For Janelle I think it was sort of a discipline that she adopted. I think she liked the simplicity of it but also it was paying homage to people from her past who worked regular jobs, people who had to wear uniforms for work. For them it was their uniform.
There really was something so different and so special in what they were projecting. What you see at Wondaland, it’s completely unique. I’m in Atlanta and I’m surrounded by this young, Black intelligentsia and everyone is wearing black and white, and tuxedos. I got to the Wondaland headquarters and they gave me a rose and glass of wine and we listened to the whole record. They were just super classy people. They were living their lives as art and it was true, it felt completely genuine and honest. It wasn’t just a project, it was much more than that, and I think it still is.
Why do you think “Tightrope” was set in the Palace of the Dogs?
They were really inspired by Octavia Butler. They had this idea of heroes of theirs: One of them being Octavia Butler, and some of the others were jazz musicians and writers from the Harlem Renaissance. Sun-Ra was a huge reference for them too. Like Space is the Place, we were really riffing on that. They had this idea [of] the Palace of the Dogs as this place where people would have been taken to be held in this prison insane asylum. This otherworldly, timeless place where someone from the future would crisscross with someone from the past.
In the video, there’s a point where Janelle manages to escape the Palace, but she’s caught and brought back in. What’s the significance of that?
I think we wanted to show that Janelle had the ability to escape, and had this higher power. We wanted it to feel like this was just a chapter, that the Palace of the Dogs and the saga there was not over. The idea of the Palace of the Dogs is that the people that were held [there], including Janelle Monáe, including Octavia Butler, were probably going to have to do something together to rise against. It was kind of a playful moment in the video, where we showed that Janelle Monáe, or Cindi Mayweather, had these powers that transcend the situation. It’s hard to say what’s going to happen [with the story], but the goal ultimately is to shoot a movie or release a book.
Then you did the video for “Cold War” after that?
We did them back-to-back, on the same trip. We shot over two days and spent the last half of the second day doing “Cold War.” We shot a whole other video for “Cold War.” The concept was these portraits, an artistic take on some of the mythology.
It was just such an incredible experience shooting “Tightrope,” getting all these artists together and the dancers and all the Wondaland people. It was just such a dream to do that kind of project. Everyone was feeling all the feelings and we get into this little, intimate studio and there’s so much love in the room because we’ve all been through the “Tightrope” experience all together. The very first take we do is this close up of Janelle and she starts to sing and she starts to cry and it’s just so intense that everyone in the room started to cry. She sang the whole song and it was all legit, there was no acting in that. It was really just raw emotion. Then we continued and we shot a bunch of other stuff, and then once we got to the editing process it was like “well this is the video, that’s it.” It was one of the most emotionally charged things I’ve ever shot in my life.
That song is so beautiful. There’s something very intense about shooting music videos. It’s a lot of work, and it can be a real bonding experience.
One of the things that really struck me is that dancing at the asylum is considered an illegal magical practice. That idea of dance and music as being something with a subversive power comes up a lot in Cindi’s story. I’m curious what you think about that.
The Palace of the Dogs is Institution. It’s a place where people were trying to control creative people. Stop them, or bog them down with drugs to stop them from spreading their ideas and their revolution. Everything that art is. Dance is one of the more pure forms of expression that we have. When you start to express yourself, [that’s] really when things start to change.
You mentioned that there was a book, a sort of Cindi Mayweather bible.
It was the ArchAndroid story. I had it in my hands at one point. It’s literally a book, the whole mythology that they created for Cindi Mayweather and that whole album cycle. It was super interesting, almost before its time in a strange way, talking [about] race and Blackness in America through the lens of science fiction.
Having had—probably more than a lot of other people—this glimpse inside the Wondaland brain and the backstory they created for those records, and then being able to hear those records … That’s such a special project to be involved in. And I really hope that they do manage to make it into a movie, or publish a book, because I really respect them intellectually and artistically, a lot. I have nothing but love for those people.
Alyssa Favreau is a Tiohtià:ke/Montreal-based writer. Her work has appeared in Hazlitt, Autostraddle, Them, Popular Science, and the Los Angeles Times, among others. She also cohosts the Broad Science podcast.