Clip: Me'Shell Ndegeocello
Finding her own groove
Ndegeocello is feeling as free as her name
Neva Chonin, Chronicle Pop Music Critic Sunday, June 23, 2002
The revolution will be televised, and Me'Shell Ndegeocello is figuring out
what to wear when it is.
"I hate TV shows," the singer-songwriter, based in Oakland, mutters as she
bustles around her New York hotel room, preparing for an appearance on
"Last Call With Carson Daly." "It's so hard to squeeze myself into a
three-minute- and-15-second slot. There's no freedom in it." She chuckles.
"I don't even watch TV, man."
Ndegeocello, whose name means "free as a bird" in Swahili, might not like
the trappings of corporate music culture, but she knows how to get a
message across by seizing the moment. And with her fourth album, "Cookie:
The Anthropological Mixtape," which is getting rave reviews, and her
single, the Rockwilder-Missy Elliott remix of "Pocketbook" (featuring
Redman and Tweet), climbing the charts, that moment is now.
Where 1999's "Bitter" explored an acoustic sound, "Cookie" revisits the
funky, deep soul grooves of Ndegeocello's first two CDs, "Plantation
Lullabies" (1993) and the Grammy-nominated "Peace Beyond Passion" (1996).
The stylistic palette has diversified, though, into a sweeping historical
survey of black music that blends R&B vocals and gritty raps with a
background of funk, soul, jazz, rock, gospel, world music and shimmering
With "Cookie," Ndegeocello also reminds listeners that the personal is
political, that bedroom politics and collective politics are linked and
that spiritual evolution precedes cultural change. Samples of
activist-academic Angela Davis and poet Gil Scott-Heron blend with
Ndegeocello's own rhymed critiques to create a social and musical
continuum. The harrowing spoken-word polemic "Dead Nigga Blvd." plays off
the erotic croon of "Trust"; the poetic, soul-searching "Akel Dama (Field
of Blood)" precedes the sensual "Earth."
"Black people are not one-dimensional," Ndegeocello says. "I'm not into
demographics. You can't sum me up in one word. The monkey on the cover of
'Cookie' represents the monkey boy jukebox, where they dictate your art,
they dictate your race, they tell you what you should listen to and dig."
Three years ago, Ndegeocello experienced fallout from her challenge of
genre and racial categories when some critics denounced her album "Bitter"
as "too white" for a black artist pegged as a hip-hop soul pioneer.
"It made me feel insecure," she acknowledges now. "It was like, where do
artists go who are just trying to make music and not hop on a bandwagon?
That's the joke on the 'Pocketbook' single -- it's a cookie-cutter formula.
I've got a rapper, a famous producer and a singer, and now it's on the
In 1999, her disillusionment with the music industry prompted Ndegeocello,
her son, Solomon, and her girlfriend, writer-photographer Rebecca Leventhal
Walker, to abandon Los Angeles for a rural cabin two hours outside San
Francisco. These days she keeps an apartment in Oakland while Walker, an
affiliate artist at the Marin Headlands Center for the Arts, alternates
between artist colonies and touring with Me'Shell.
"We kind of live nowhere," Ndegeocello says. "I'm getting rid of stuff all
the time. When I don't have anything going on I just love to hang out and
help Rebecca do her thing, and she helps me do mine. I can't imagine having
a 9-to- 5 life."
A five-day workweek was never part the singer's game plan. Born Michelle
Johnson in 1969, Ndegeocello was introduced to music as a child by her
father, a jazz saxophonist. She began playing bass as a teenager and, after
briefly attending Howard University in Washington, D.C., devoted herself to
songwriting full time. Club shows in New York led to a recording contract
Ndegeocello's debut album, "Plantation Lullabies," broke new ground with
its fusion of R&B and hip-hop and earned three Grammy nominations. But
after releasing its follow-up, "Peace Beyond Passion," the songwriter was
weary of being pigeonholed as a neo-funky bassist. "Bitter" broke with
expectations, and sales slumped.
Now, with the urban-flavored "Cookie," Ndegeocello is again riding high.
Whatever. Ndegeocello has learned that she can't please everyone, so she's
going to please herself: "One day I just woke up tired of being depressed
over not being famous enough. I realized I was naive to feel like a failure
because making music was all I really wanted to do, and I'm happy."
She calls the corporate music game "a monster" that reduces artists to
homogenized products. "That's why people are turning to the Internet. When
you listen to the radio, you get the top 100. On the Internet, you can get
the last 100 years. I think people want to hear something else, and that's
what I'm trying to tap into."
If "Cookie" is the result of a songwriter fiercely following her artistic
muse, it's also a reflection of Ndegeocello's determination to address the
culture around her through music -- no matter how annoying or disheartening
that landscape might be.
"Everything moves in cycles," she says before decamping to a van bound for
the "Last Call" set. "But I'm cool. Just give me a salary and I can make it
work. The climate can change, but I'll continue to play my music, the same
as I always have."
E-mail Neva Chonin at nchonin@....