“What does a beautiful future mean to you?”
That was the question posed by entertainer and activist Janelle Monáe as she debuted her collaboration with Belvedere Vodka with a “night brunch” at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art on Thursday night. The name of her limited edition bottle? “A Beautiful Future,” of course.
Those familiar with Monáe’s creative work have long known that she has a penchant for the futuristic—musically evolving from being the “ArchAndroid” to an “Electric Lady” to last year declaring herself a “Dirty Computer.” Monáe has even launched a grassroots organization, Fem the Future, founded to advance women in film and music through providing opportunities and mentorship.
It’s this initiative, along with Monáe’s indisputable star power, that compelled Belvedere to form a yearlong partnership with the entertainer. In several cities—New York, Berlin, Chicago (where she’s also headlining Lollapalooza 2019) and an as-yet-to-be-disclosed location this fall—Monae has hosted events highlighting the contributions of changemakers in our midst while asking us each to contemplate the beautiful future we envision—and our collective power to bring it to fruition.
Monáe was dressed to match her blue and white Belvedere bottle on Thursday, wearing one of her trademark tailored suits in a vivid pinstripe. The entrance hall of the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago was dressed up as well, transformed into an elegant white dining room with an immense and visually active communal table and a blue neon “tree” staged at the head, upon which hung guests’ written visions for the future.
On behalf of The Glow Up, I was lucky enough to be one of those guests, joining Monáe and some of Chicago’s biggest influencers in toasting to a more beautiful future and enjoying a five-course, predominantly vegetarian menu as the evening’s honorees inspired us with their visions of a beautiful future.
Our first course? An “audio amuse-bouche,” thanking us all for coming and sharing the mission of the Belvedere x Janelle Monáe partnership. And then, in true Wondaland fashion, Monáe kicked off the meal by teaching us the customary double-toast of her arts collective, sending a five-minute wave of good energy around the massive table.
Elaborating on the mission of the event series, Monáe told me the intent is to have local changemakers “come together, talk about what it is that we’re doing, and figure out how we can collaborate together—what a beautiful future looks like to each of us, and creating a world that doesn’t work for just me, or just for you, but for all of us.”
Monáe’s specific focus is on creating a more beautiful future for women and systematically marginalized voices, as is the mission of each of the night’s four honorees. Activist Scheherazade Tillet fights the trauma of sexual violence with art therapy for young women and girls through her nonprofit, A Long Walk Home, while LaForce Baker is combating the issue of “food deserts” and disrupting obesity in our communities with his reasonably priced, plant-based food company Moon Meals. When not teaching second graders, Nikki Roberson fights poverty and clothing insecurity with Kicks 4 the City; and, as a trained architect and acclaimed visual artist who mounted her own exhibition at MoCA in 2017 and co-designed the Shirley Chisholm monument, which will reside in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park, Amanda Williams highlights the exploitation and abandonment of marginalized communities with her provocative and poignant work.
And lest her tremendous success causes us to forget, it has always been personal for Monáe, who says the “A Beautiful Future” bottle stands for “equality, diversity, and self-expression.”
“Personally, being a black woman—a queer black woman—from Kansas, who grew up with sharecropping grandparents and my mother and father in service-oriented positions...all of those words I feel like we fought for and are continuing to fight for,” she told me. “And so, it’s kind of in my DNA to continue to help people like myself. Although I’m an artist and have a platform, and [am] gaining more attention...that still doesn’t erase the fight that we have to continue for equality and for inclusion.”
Pointing out to me that the design of Belvedere’s limited edition bottle gives the illusion of layers being pulled, Monáe explained that it’s a metaphor for her personal philosophy.
“When I think about creating a beautiful future, I think that it’s a world where people can walk in their truth. And in order to do that, we have to pull back our layers—we have to peel back our layers—and so, I wanted the bottle to have that,” she says, musing on the joy of sharing stories over cocktails (even of the non-alcoholic variety). “As we share our stories, I hope that we can empathize more with each other, because with more empathy comes more unity and more love and more acceptance, and you have a different investment in humanity.”
Coincidentally, Monáe and I happen to share a common story, having competed for a Grammy in 2009—a first nomination for us both (which we shared a chuckle over on Thursday). Neither of us won that year, but when I asked Monáe, soon to appear in the Harriet biopic and replacing Julia Roberts as the lead in the next season of Prime Video’s Homecoming, how she’d like to see black women win, she again repeated her mantra of collaboration.
“I think that as black women, we have to understand that we don’t have to be perfect. I think there is this societal pressure for us to be perfect; to be five times better in everything that we do. And I just want us to understand that we should not put pressure on ourselves to be that. Instead, I am proposing that we believe more in collaboration over competition,” she said, being careful to discern between healthy, inspiring competition and the type prone to steal our joy. “[I]n general, we are stronger, we are better, we are shining brighter when we’re collaborating and not competing.”
Sitting at Monáe’s table on Thursday night, her words resonated. As the electric lady played consummate hostess, making sure to spend time with each and every one of her guests, I found myself beginning promising friendships with the (predominantly black) women around me, happily sharing our stories over a series of curated Belvedere cocktails, each one more delicious than the last. And as we made plans to meet and discuss ways to assist each other in our various ventures and collective missions, I began to envision exactly what Monáe had been asking me to: A Beautiful Future.