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Janelle Monáe doesn’t just perform music, she puts on a theatrical show. The moves of her choreography, the sequencing of her songs, and even the timing of visuals play integral parts in the storytelling of her performances — many being 90 minutes long. Monáe’s brilliance is so boundless even the grand stage that is Coachella was a bit constraining.
“The biggest issue is we a super dynamic that’s actually 90 minutes. So, you really want the world to see the full show because there’s a whole story arc and everything,” Monáe’s lead choreographer, Jemel McWilliams, told REVOLT TV. “For Coachella, we only got 50 minutes. How do we get everything in 50 minutes that’s significant? So, what we had to do for Coachella is pull out our more iconic moments.”
For this special Coachella edition of “Tour Tales,” the team behind the star’s epic Coachella performance explain how the Lizzo and Tierra Whack connection happened, how Monáe makes beautiful mistakes and how she kicked Coachella’s ass.
The thousands of people gawking at the stage knew they were in for something special from the moment Monáe first appeared atop her pristine white steps in a red, black and white leather outfit to start the theatrical presentation with a performance of Dirty Computer’s “Crazy, Classic, Life.” A common performance moment of hers that is growing in iconography is her silhouette dance intro to “Make Me Feel.” Standing on her stage shrouded in darkness — except for the one spotlight on her — she glides as if her mind is independent of her body, and she’s being controlled by the spirits of James Brown and Michael Jackson.
Even geniuses make mistakes and Monáe is no different, accidentally tossing her hat off her head during the dance routine. But, part of the mark of a great talent is how well they can make mistakes look intentional.
“Janelle has a very peculiar way of moving, which is so dope and particular to her,” McWilliams said. For her choreography, he pieces together Janelle’s unique dancing style with his brand “so when you get moments like [the accidental hat toss] it feels like, ‘Was this choreographed?’ You don’t know because that speaks to how it all felt like her.”
McWilliams has helped guide Monáe’s moves since being an assistant/associate choreographer for her in 2015. He was later brought on as her lead choreographer for her 2018 “emotion picture” for her album Dirty Computer. According to McWilliams, half of the choreography and most of the dancers for Monáe’s Coachella performance were part of that visual. McWilliams helped the Wondaland creative team mastermind her performance and some of his vision manifested onstage.
“Django Jane is an army of black girl magic women. I’ve always had this vision of Janelle with this army of women claiming their space,” McWilliams said.
Monáe performed fan favorites like “Tightrope,” “Q.U.E.E.N.,” and “Electric Lady.” But, it was the visually arresting rendition of “Django Jane” that has made a home in my memories, playing on loop. Seeing Monáe sitting on a throne, presiding over the 18 dancers around her — who danced in a militaristic unison as she raps about how “this is my palace” — it was impossible to not feel riveted. Fans may have seen creative choreography, but there were deeper meanings in each of those moves that connected to the larger story of the performance.
“Women can be sexual without being over-sexualized. If you pay attention to [the Django Jane choreography], I have moments where I’m literally revealing the nipple and then, I’m covering up the nipple,” McWilliams continued. “The very first movement, the hands are down and up, down and up. Then, they look to the left and the right. It’s saying, ‘I’m watching you over here look at me on the left and you looking at me on the right.’
“I did that on purpose. As women, they are allowed to be in control of their bodies. They are allowed to decide, ‘I want to be risqué if I want to be or I want to be sexual if I want to be. It’s my body. I can do what I want to do. I can cover myself when I want to cover myself up.’”
Alexander Jacques is the playback engineer for Monáe and is responsible for making sure the visuals on the screen during her performances match up with the song cues. If a finger snaps on a record and you see the sound paired perfectly with the visual at that moment, that’s thanks to Jacques’ meticulous time coding. His magic can be found in the very same “Django Jane” performance. Where McWilliams made sure the dancers’ moves matched the vision, Jacques made sure the visuals matched the dancers’ moves.
He told REVOLT TV: “If you notice, the black silhouettes are actually moving along with the actual live dancers onstage. That has to be time coded with the backing track and the lighting. If you go back to the video, you’ll see the black silhouette posing and doing the exact same dance moves as the actual live dancers. That’s where my time coding came in.”
The time slot at Coachella prevented Monáe from putting on her usual 90-minute show. Monáe’s tour manager, Jeff Cohran, told REVOLT TV after the performance that the sheer ambitious nature of her Coachella set — 18 dancers, a live band, and large stairs — required more preparation than the average performer at the festival.
“In an ideal world, we may load in for four or five hours and then, soundcheck for two hours. At Coachella, we were fortunate on the schedule to be able to have a few hours in the morning to load our stage and soundcheck. A lot of the other acts were kind of going on the fly.”
If the story Monáe was acting out during her Coachella performance was a battle cry for unity among women, it was punctuated by a surprise dance party between Monáe, and female rappers Lizzo and Tierra Whack. Monáe’s road manager, Reneeka Rae, says Lizzo’s involvement was planned the week of Coachella, while Whack’s inclusion was decided on the day of the performance.
After her show ended, Monáe celebrated with her team backstage and headed to a few parties including Idris Elba’s DJ set at Art of the Wild, which took place at the decadent Zenyara Estate. But, her and her team are ready for Coachella once again this coming weekend.
“I thought that she came off the stage and she knew that we just kicked Coachella’s ass,” Jacques said with a hearty laugh. “From where I was sitting, I could tell she knew we kicked Coachella’s ass and we’re ready for weekend two, as well.”
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