Musicians are barely getting a slice of music industry revenue, largely eating off of live performances instead. For ’Tour Tales,’ we dig into the rider requests, delayed shows, diligent preparation, and future of touring by talking with the multitude of people that move behind the scenes. Record executives, photographers, tour managers, artists, and more all break down what goes into touring and why it’s still so vital to the livelihood of your favorite artists. What happens on tour stays on ‘Tour Tales.’
Reneeka Rae was 19 years old when she first started working on Janelle Monae’s tours. After a decade of organizing flights, making sure Monae’s crew was on stage at the right time, and touring around the world, certain live shows hit closer to home for her than it would for most fans.
“I remember doing Glastonbury with Janelle in 2019, which was crazy because eight years before, she was opening on the same stage. Then, in 2019, she was headlining that stage,” Rae remembers. “And I cried seeing [what] eight years of persistence does.”
In this installment of “Tour Tales,” Rae discusses how Monae gets in her mode to perform, learning from Coachella mistakes, and watching the artist become a star and more. Read below.
You started working with Janelle Monae tours in 2009 you were working on the logistics side while interning with Muddy Waters Group, as Jeff Cohran was her tour manager. What did you learn?
During my internship, I learned a lot about organization and data entry skills. So, when Jeff got the job with Janelle and needed help with the travel logistics, I was doing things like charting each passenger on her team with their flight departure time and doing all of that sort of organization. I learned that with a team that big, you have to be super organized. At the time, I was 19.
Three years later, you joined her on the road as her production assistant. What was your first tour experience like with her?
The cool thing is that Chris [Patterson] and I were on tour as Janelle’s production assistants. I remember the experience of leaving one show, getting on the bus, and literally waking up in Paris. That tour was when I was grateful for my skills of nannying and being an aunt because I was like, “These adults are literally like kids.” They lose stuff or leave stuff all the time and then ask, “Have you seen my bag? Have you seen my trumpet?” One time, I did lose a stage prop. I lost Janelle’s glasses. From that moment on, I knew each night I needed to make a checklist. I don’t think she noticed, so it wasn’t that huge of a deal. I still didn’t want to feel hella disappointed as I did.
Are there things you were able to do with Janelle to get a better understanding of who she is?
Oh yeah. On the road, I may speak through her assistant, but that’s more of a protection thing because when Janelle is performing, she has to be in a mode and doesn’t want to be directly addressed all the time. Out of respect to that, I’ll either talk to management or her assistant Ivy. But, Janelle and I are cool. We’re Sag sisters and our birthdays are in the same month. She’s still a person, so there are times when we have off days on a tour that she’ll want an experience. That’s when we get to really be with Janelle the person and not as her crew putting on this production as she performs. She’s genuinely sweet. I was a fan of hers in high school starting in 2006. I never would’ve imagined working with her. She’s really considerate and is good about shouting out people after long tours. Sometimes I feel no one cares about what I do or really thinking about me (laughs). Then, she’ll be on stage and say, “I want to thank my tour management Jeff Cohran and Reneeka Rae.” That was super cool.
You helped put on her biggest Coachella performance ever in 2019. What was it like that first weekend putting together a production that grand?
Advancing the show is simple, especially since you do it so many times. But, once you start having a personnel list of 150 people, then you have to start being really sweet to Goldenvoice. They’re like, “We only have wristbands and space for 20.” So I have to say, “Well, we need seven times that (laughs). But, these people are essential.” My biggest hurdle that first weekend was rounding up all of that personnel and getting them from check-in to the stage, which is literally a maze. I take responsibility for this, but Janelle arrived before some of the entertainers and performers did for soundcheck. You don’t want that to happen. You want everyone to be on stage before the artist arrives. So, we had a talk, and once Janelle talks to you, you don’t do it again (laughs). I figured out what I needed to do, so it wouldn’t happen for the second weekend.
What show with Janelle means a lot to you?
There are many, but I remember doing Glastonbury with Janelle in 2019, which was crazy because eight years before she was opening on the same stage. Then, in 2019, she was headlining that stage. I don’t get to watch the show often (laughs). Once I get them on stage, that’s my time to do some tour accounting, answer emails, and make sure we’re straight for the next show. But, I made a point to sit in front of the stage for a moment and watch her. And I cried seeing eight years of persistence does. Janelle has never had a small performance, so even in 2011 she still had her 13-piece band. Then in 2019, she had her band, dancers, and outfit changes. It was so touching to see her growth.
What’s a fire you put out on tour?
I’ve put out many fires (laughs). Chris and I would send each other the fireman emoji because that’s literally what we are. My first time actually being a tour manager was when I was on tour with Moses Sumney. I was Janelle’s P.A. for six years and I was ready to apply everything I learned on the road between Jeff and George 2.0, and my experience as a production assistant. I loved working with Moses because it was very personal, whereas with Janelle she has an assistant, so I talk through her. We were in Denmark in August and it was cold. He was performing and I could hear his voice getting weak because of the cold, so I ran from his stage to the dressing and that was a long distance. I made some tea, put some honey in it, and started running back. Then, I saw a cart and asked the person driving, “Are you going back to the stage? Can you take me? My artist is on stage right now and I need to give him his tea.” I got to the stage and now I’m sitting to the side waiting for a moment for him to look over. Soon as he has a break, he steps off, gets the tea, and takes some sips. The rest of the performance was amazing.
You also tour managed Mereba. How’d you link with her?
It’s crazy how I ended up touring with Mereba. We actually went to school together in Atlanta with the same major. We had lost touch after graduation. But, Alex Rivas, who has always looked out for me on these gigs, hit me up like, “Hey, there’s this hip hop tour this summer that I think you would be good for.” It was the J.I.D./Saba “Catch Me If You Can Tour.” I then spoke with Adrian Miller, Mereba’s manager, and he was like, “Yeah, I have this artist Mereba.” I told him, “You have to be kidding. We went to school together (laughs).” I interviewed her our senior year, and it’s amazing seeing her growth from her performing at coffee shops to now being on these stages, collaborating with these brands, and making a short film for her album.
What’s a fan reaction on tour that shows that growth?
We were at a Starbucks and a group of girls was geeking over her. She went up to them, talked with them, and took pictures. I told her, “M, you’re legit famous. This is amazing to see.” She’s also big on doing meet-and-greets after her shows. One girl showed up and had “The Jungle Is the Only Way Out” tattooed on her arm.
According to Pollstar, the global concert industry is projected to have lost $30 billion in 2020 due to the pandemic. How did that affect you professionally?
It threw me for a loop, but at first, I was thankful I didn’t have to live out my suitcase. This is cool. It’s like a vacation (laughs). Then, I got that slight cabin fever. People got optimistic goals for the touring industry, but I feel we’re not going to be back out until 2022 or 2023. So, I had to figure out what I was going to do. When I was on the road, people would ask, “Do you want to manage this artist?” I’d be like, “No” because touring was enough. But, I’ve got into artist management. Jeff [Cohran] has been producing music since 2016. Five years later, it’s great to see how he’s grown. He has a younger cousin named Tangela who is a graduate of Berklee College of Music, eccentric, and I love her so much. It’s fun managing her. Artist management is different from tour management. I’m learning and taking it in day by day.