Running the Voodoo Down

An Interview with Meshell Ndegeocello

by Claudrena N. Harold

27 October 2009

Photos: Mark Seliger 

"At one point in my life," she confesses, "I found out that I was a liar."

Commenting on one of Devil’s Halo standouts, “Bright Shiny Morning”, I asked Meshell if the rather snarky tune was a message to her fans. One line in particular, “If you think I owe you something, get in line” seemed tailored made to longtime followers pressing her to record another Bitter or another Plantation Lullabies. Quickly, Meshell lets me know that my interpretation is off base. Noting that the title derives from James Frey’s book of the same name, Meshell explains how the song derived from her deep meditations on the humbling and cleansing process that comes about when one is forced to confront their own lies and embellishments.

“At one point in my life,” she confesses, “I found out that I was a liar. It’s just something very cleansing about that. And once you get through that and find out who you really are. You sort of have this attitude of ‘if you think I owe you something, get in line.’”

Now, after coming to grips with her strengths and weaknesses, Meshell simply strives to grow as an artist and a human being.

“It is not for me to try to please other people, but to be true and honest and good with myself. Especially in the music industry, it’s like people change themselves almost in the sense of creating mental anguish in order to make other people happy and to obtain celebrity and fame. That’s why the lyric is ‘you do anything.’  Some people do anything for their big dreams of sunshine.”  Counting herself among those who once strove for acceptance, Meshell proudly announces that she’s “no longer in that place. I have tried to make people happy at my expense and I just don’t do that anymore.” 

Contentment with self, however, does not mean that Meshell no longer concerns herself with artistic growth and development. In fact, one could argue that since the release of Comfort Woman she’s been aggressively following the creative path blazed by her idol, Miles Davis. Listening to Spirit Jamia, The World Has Made Me, and Devil’s Halo has always conjured up thoughts of Bitches Brew and a personal favorite, Agharta. Not so much because of these albums’ sonic similarities, but mainly because of Meshell’s and Miles’ incessant flirtations with the many spiritual dimensions of darkness.

The indebtedness and admiration Meshell feels for Miles became abundantly clear when asked about Bitches Brew: “Nothing comes close to that recording,” she excitingly tells me. Detailing how the historic recording exposed the listener to the new possibilities of sound, Meshell went on to explain how Miles’ artistic example still pushes her to new heights: “I know he has a difficult personal life to account for, but in terms of music, he is my true inspiration because he always tried to challenge himself and meet new people—and try different things. And I hope to stay on that path.”

Small surprise given her intense study of Miles’ career, Meshell has worked hard to surround herself with immensely talented musicians. In fact, she credits much of Devil Halo’s success to her amazing band: guitarist Chris Bruce, bassist Mark Kelly, keyboardist Keefus Cianica, and drummer extraordinaire Deantoni Parks. “They keep me clear about what is the real focus—in life and in music.” Anything but yes men, Bruce, Kelly, and Parks provide Meshell with endless inspiration, encouragement and critique: 

“Chris Bruce is as amazing a person as a player. I think it is important for artists to have someone around them to say no. And to be a good cheerleader for you as well. And to be open to new ideas. And I found that in him. With Deantoni, the drummer, he is just a blessing. He’s basically my musical inspiration. Just being around him is exciting. As a musician he really trusts himself and that really leads me to being clear about my ideas as well. Keefus, the keyboard player, he’s just a painter. He’s like the most amazing colorist. Mark Kelly is my friend, and to me one of the greatest bass players in the world. I am humbled to be around him.”

Surely Meshell’s comrades would return the sentiment. Not only because she’s an incredibly gracious human being, but also because she represents the continuation of a tradition of black artistic excellence that reaches far beyond many of our collective memories. Quite frankly, to a degree she doesn’t even fully recognize, Meshell matters. Not just to her fans, but to her peers as well. In fact, her admirers run the gamut, from rapper Talib Kweli to the brilliant young pianist Aaron Parks (who mentions her among the likes of Keith Jarrett) to cultural critic Greg Tate. She tries to take all the love in stride, but the mention of “Ironman” Tate gets her talking:

“Wow. Greg Tate. He believed in me before anyone else did. He was the first person to give me a gig. Always the person to say check this out read this. More so, he’s a really kind man. And I didn’t know a lot of those in the early part of my life. So I am very indebted to him and any kind word he has to say about me, I humbly appreciate.”

All the while appreciative of the love from friends and fans, she works hard to stay level headed: “I take a critique like a complement and a compliment like a critique.” 

Toward the end of our conversation, her rationale for such an approach made perfect sense after she shared her opinion on an artist, who, like Charlie “Bird” Parker and Dinah Washington, shares her birthday: Michael Jackson. Noting quickly her two favorite Jackson tunes (“Push Me Away” and “Heartbreak Hotel”), she unflinchingly admits to identifying with his pain and his struggles. “I relate to him a lot. I know what it’s like to not be necessarily happy with your acne or your presentation ... people judge you by your presentation. I hope he found peace.” Ending our conversation with Michael, she solemnly notes: “There’s a price for fame. There’s definitely a price.”

Sitting in my apartment with Meshell’s music and her commentary cluttering my mind with new ideas and images, I thought about the price of not only fame, but commitment to artistic excellence. What does it mean to sacrifice oneself for the love of the tradition, for the love of the art?  To concern oneself more with souls than sales? One can hardly imagine the ways in which such a commitment taxes the body, mind, and soul, but I deeply believe, that Meshell Ndegeocello—our generation’s revolutionary soul singer—wouldn’t have it any other way.

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