Me’shell Ndegeocello had three distinct and provocative recordings to her name when she went into the studio in 2001 to record Cookie: the Anthropological Mixtape. Cookie aimed to be the most exquisite testament to the brash, outspoken, critically engaged spirit that has become her signature. Arguably the most trenchant self-critical exploration of black life and culture—and the humanity that undergirds them—to appear in black pop since Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life, Cookie fell on deaf years, much like the un-named motorist who traveled down “Dead Nigga Blvd.” in any city in America, untouched by the terror and malaise that literally spills into the street. Like the expectant mother, Ndegeocello had labored with Cookie for months and months still because of label delays, and while we can lament the unheralded birth, there is still nourishment to be had in the afterbirth. Conceived in the months after the September 11th attacks, Me’shell Ndegeocello’s new release Comfort Woman finds the artist reflecting on life, death and the everyday struggles of surviving a world seemingly coming apart at the seams.
After September 11th,” Ndegeocello admits, “I would just sit at home and play music.” She adds that “Comfort Woman is just to say, after Sept 11th, I was like thoughts are the architecture of the mind. I wanted to put out something, like God-forbid, something happens to me . . .” While Comfort Woman shares a musical legacy to 1999’s Bitter—both recordings are spare and moody—the recording can be most likened to Bob Marley’s Kaya. For a five year period or so in the mid-1970s, Marley seemed to be carrying the weight of the Pan-African world on his shoulders with stirring recordings like Natty Dread (1974), Rastaman Vibration (1976), Exodus (1977) and the brilliant live double-album Babylon By Bus (1978). In 1978 he found a little space in JA to wax lovely about the “little gal” around the corner (“Satisfy My Soul” and “Is This Love”) and to get his puff on (“excuse me while I light my spliff, good God I gotta take a lift . . .”). Playful and relaxed, Kaya seemed to give Marley the release he needed to get back to the grind and Survival (1979) and Uprising (1980) were the fruits of that down time. While Ndegeocello is not nearly as unguarded as Marley was on Kaya, there is a clear sense that Comfort Woman, with Reggae influenced tracks like “Love Song #1”, “Fellowship” and “Come Smoke My Herb”, represents a chance for Ndegeocello to re-connect with herself.
Part of that re-connection is coming to terms with Cookie and coming to terms with Cookie mean coming to terms with Ndegeocello’s almost outsider status among black audiences. Part of the distance, both real and imagined, between Ndegeocello is due to her willingness speak the hard and the truthful about black life in these times. She wistfully responds “I don’t really worry about it. I think I did at first.” She adds, “I’m always gonna say what I’m gonna say, it doesn’t make me fit in, it doesn’t make me seem more this way or that”. For Ndegeocello it’s really about those folks caught up in mass-mediated dictums of blackness: “you’re put into a demographic that’s made for you based on generalizations and you think you’re better off, you think you’re free because you got black this, black radio or that, you’re just marginalizing yourself”
Like so many progressive mainstream artists, Ndegeocello had to negotiate with tastemakers in order to get Cookie into the world. “When I made the album, the record company was like get more famous people and I tried,” Ndegecello says, but few of those folks responded to her request save Talib Kweli, who was simply brilliant on “Hot Night” and Redman, Missy Elliot and Tweet who appear on the remix for “Pocketbooks” (“I hate that remix”). Instead Ndegecello incorporated the voices of great black writers like Countee Cullen, Etheridge Knight, Angela Davis, Claude Mcay and June Jordan, who died shortly after the release of Cookie. “These are the people who stick out in my mind, these are the people who inspire me” says Ndegeocello. She becomes particularly animated when talking about the prison poet Etheridge Knight: “here’s a man, his stuff is coming out of prison, he spent his whole life in prison, but there’s still beauty there, there’s still life there.”
For Ndegeocello, folks like Gil Scott-Heron, Knight and Jordan are part of a continuum: “from Countee Cullen to Etheridge Knight to Gil Scott Heron, to me [for] a period of time, to Dead Prez and it just goes on and on.” Ndegeocello is sensitive to the ways that mass culture distorts that continuum as she admits “it fascinates me that Tupac and Biggie are heroes or some sort of saints—what did they really contribute, except their great craft . . . I’m like, where are we going? . . . What are we really doing?” While Ndegecello of course places some of the blame on the corporate entertainment industry, she, as always, is quick to indict herself in the process: “Looking at the media today, I’m quite ashamed of myself, of things I’ve participated in. Everything is marketed to sex and gossip and it’s just a shame that those are the things at the forefront, on people’s minds, those are the things that make you popular, what you have on or how little you have on and it has nothing to do with music, nothing to do with sports it has nothing to do with the things so many communities put their faith in. It’s just a sad place to be.”
Ndegeocello is also quick to resist indicting other artists for their choices, arguing that “there is no idea of a sell-out, ‘cause you don’t know the motivation . . . you don’t know if folks were poor . . .” Ndegeocello’s comments highlight what has always been striking about her work, namely her ability to find humanity even amidst the ruins. Such is the case in her surprising comments about R&B singer R. Kelly, who has been indicted on over 20 counts of child pornography. “I’m sorry, the R. Kelly thing pissed me off” Ndegeocello relates, “Jesse Jackson can fly to Bosnia and help—did anybody call him?—I wish I had a number, I’d be like ‘hey’, you have a certain position in life, you can’t be doing this.” In the end she ask, “you think he’s worse than any of these other guys, who have women sliding down a pole in their videos?”
Though she often takes the high road when talking about some of her industry peers, Ndegeocello is less reticent to give the critical lash, when the subject is homophobia and the current HIV/Aids crisis. A long time supporter of the Red Hot organization, including a recent contribution to the Red, Hot and Riot: the Music and Spirit of Fela Kuti project, Ndegeocello becomes animated, “I’m just very aware that so many people are becoming infected from shame and ignorance and if I can be any kind of person to shed light on that—don’t die from being ashamed.” She also willingly links rampant homophobic bias in American society, to high levels of promiscuity in gay and lesbian communities: “I think that promiscuity in the gay and lesbian community is because we’re made to feel ashamed of who you are. No one should be able to judge you in that way.”
Ndegeocello becomes even more animated when discussing the failure of folk to communicate about the issue of sex boldly offering “We all know how to fuck, but do any of us know how to have relationship, how to talk to anybody I don’t care who you have sex with, are you a decent human being?” Again in the self-critical mode that’s become her hallmark she shares “I had an infidelity and it was so hard when that person looked me in the eye and said, ‘you could be jeopardizing my life’ wow this ain’t no herpes and syphilis, this is your life.” And it is this sense of death that gets Ndegeocello again thinking about the folks—her folks—admitting, “I’m like ready to get on a bus and go to every black community and be like ‘hey y’all’ at the end of the day, how can we make it better, because this is gonna kill us. This where I get on my soap-box, this is going to kill us. I’m hoping that the heterosexual community gets off their high horse.”
In one of her last published essays, June Jordan spoke powerfully about the living having a responsibility to remember those who perished in the 9-11 attacks and it is those very attacks that at the root of Me’shell Ndegeocello’s Comfort Woman. The reflective spirit of Comfort Woman, particularly in the aftermath of 9-11, is best captured on the track “Liliquoi Moon”, where Ndegeocello poignantly sings “death will come fast/I wanna be free/closer to the stars I want to fly.” This spirit is also to be found on her forthcoming jazz recording (on the Verve label) which features, Jack DeJohnette, Kenny Garrett, Oliver Lake, Cassandra Wilson and Carol Wheeler among others, as she explains “being Muslim in these days and times, I just wanted to offer a gift and be an example of Peace and Love.”
Comfort Woman finds Me’shell Ndegeocello at peace with her music and at peace with herself: “This part of my life is great . . . I’m in a great position because I’m surrounded by people who are great people, who taught me to look at the past and be a critical thinking human being . . . I can look at Michael Jackson and I can look at Prince . . . and can see clearly that this can be addictive”. In the end, Ndegeocello says, “all I wanted to do was make music and I’m very blessed I can pay my rent and eat some good food and I’m ok with that.”
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Mark Anthony Neal is the author of three books including the recently published Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation.