[27 October 2009]
To immerse oneself in the music of Meshell Ndegeocello is to be reminded that the spirits of Miles Davis, John Coltrane, and Jimi Hendrix still reside among the living. Truly one of the most innovative artists of her generation, Meshell has pulled off the remarkable feat of delivering one aural masterpiece after another for more than 16 years. Notwithstanding the pressures of working in an industry in which fans and tastemakers alike routinely confuse the spectacle with the spectacular, the artist formerly known as Michelle Johnson has not only survived the ups and downs of the music business with her soul intact, but has left an indelible mark on the cultural landscape of black America.
So forgive me in advance for throwing all pretense of objective analysis out the window; but it’s awfully difficult to not engage in hagiography when discussing an artist who on more than one occasion has renewed my faith in the radical potential of popular music, the transformative power of human intimacy, and the ability of the Divine to manifest Herself in human form.
Of course, an artist as supremely gifted as Meshell hardly needs me or anyone else to shout her praises. If you’ve listened intently to any of Meshell’s music, you already know that she possesses an uncanny ability to arouse one’s mental, erogenous, and spiritual zones with her moving bass lines, sensual lyricism, and probing questions. You also probably know that she’s not afraid to rage against the machine of corporate greed, religious orthodoxy, and white supremacy. Arriving on the music scene in 1993, Meshell wasted no time in troubling the waters of political complacency. Wondrous works of art in service of the people, her first two recordings—1993’s Plantation Lullabies and 1996’s Peace Beyond Passion—did much more than assail the deep racial inequalities pervading American society; they also confronted the contradictory currents in black contemporary life. Throwing a middle-finger salute to the entrenched homophobia and “she watches channel zero” sexism spewing from the lips of self-proclaimed revolutionaries, Meshell provided a blueprint of how to get your rage on without alienating half of your potential army.
And yet, this revolutionary aspect of Meshell’s music was not the source of my initial attraction. What I loved most about Plantation Lullabies was its window into the musings of a hopeless romantic who understood the radical power of love. Lyrics such as “he finds peace when he looks into her eyes” were my reminder that the projects exist not just as a space of conflict and impoverishment (mainly material) but one of love and loyalty. That even under the most trying circumstances, people find ways to assert their humanity/their humanness through deep connections with others. So for me, what Meshell did on Plantation Lullabies and subsequent recordings was put the love ethic back into the liberation equation.
Of course, this important contribution hardly scratches the surface of her accomplishments. One could spend weeks talking about the political audacity of Plantation Lullabies and Cookie, the spiritual beauty of Peace Beyond Passion and Comfort Woman, the brutal honesty and nakedness of Bitter, and the intergalactic funkiness of The Spirit Music Jamia and the World Has Made Me the Man of My Dreams. Or just how she’s managed to be so consistently brilliant in a sea of mediocrity.
Speaking to Meshell via phone several days after her amazing show in the nation’s capital, the supremely gifted musician provided me with some clues on her longevity. Showcasing her wicked sense of humor, her deep sense of history, and her glaring humility, she opened up about her career trajectory, her loyal following, her undying love for Miles Dewey Davis III, and the creative process behind her most recent release, Devil’s Halo.
Immediately apparent was her excitement about the direction of her new music. Spectacular from beginning to end, Devil’s Halo covers a broad spectrum of sounds, textures, and emotions. Seductively beautiful ballads like “Tie One On” and “Hair of the Dog” mesh perfectly with pulsating gems like “Lola” and “Mass Transit.” One reason for this is the first-rate quality of the songs. It only took Meshell seven days to record Devil’s Halo, but she spent more than a year writing the material for the record. Much to my surprise, the singer found inspiration from an unlikely source. “I got to go to Ireland,” she enthusiastically explains. “I went to a couple of pubs and there were much older gentlemen playing the guitar and just singing these amazing, simple songs—and I really admired that. I wanted to get to that kind of place where the song could just exist with a guitar and a vocal.”
So does this mean that Devil’s Halo is Bitter, Pt. II? Not hardly. The truth is far more signifying of our culture’s warped ideas about love and marriage this time out. Consider the grippingly sad yet wickedly funny “Lola”, an engrossing tale on how our society—or at least popular culture—deals with “love” and “heartbreak.” To my complaint that the song, particularly the lyric “a wife’s just a whore with a diamond ring,” could be interpreted as a rather harsh take on love, commitment, and marriage, Meshell quips, “Truth hurts.”
Meshell explains further: “You see that show The Bachelorette, The Bachelor, A Shot at Love with Tila Tequila. It just seems like relationships are being presented like this really clear exchange. I hear young women going ‘well if he can buy me something.’ That song—“Put It in the Bag”—which is based on ‘can you buy me some things?’ And then the male counterpart, all he can really talk about is sex and if the woman can cook. And it’s funny to me. That you’re no more than a whore, you just have a wedding ring.”
Our brief moment of collective laughter quickly turned serious when the conversation shifted to the subject of loyalty, obligation, and duty. Much—though certainly not all—of Meshell’s music has dealt with questions surrounding issues of fidelity, commitment, and dedication. “Will you comfort me?”, she moans on “Relief: A Stripper’s Classic”. Will you love me unconditionally (without shame)? Will you accept my imperfections, my shifts, my changes? It seems to me that this issue of allegiance and devotion, particularly now, is not just related to matters of the heart or the bed. The chameleon-like nature of Meshell’s progression as an artist has also brought up the issue of loyalty and obligation with respect to her relationship to her fans (for a brilliant take on this, see Reg Jones’ recent commentary on Devil’s Halo ).
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.