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Clip: Me'Shell Ndegeocello

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  • Carl Zimring
    http://www.sfgate.com/cgi-bin/article.cgi?f=/chronicle/archive/2002/06/23/P K178291.DTL Finding her own groove Ndegeocello is feeling as free as her name Neva
    Message 1 of 1 , Jun 23, 2002

      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
      with Maverick.

      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@....
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