Some people might think that linking the inherently profound nature of Meshell Ndegeocello’s music to her sexuality is profane, but I think the link is damn near sacred. Only a handful of pop stars sing about anything other than sex not love, money not real power, and heartache to lament over relationships where neither partner initially respected themselves, let alone the other. Screen stars mimic the same, as violence, female subordination, and vilification of the poor permeate so much of our pop imagery. We can still easily count the number of female leading roles in Hollywood, and the absence of women from the corporate leadership behind our multi-billion dollar music and film industries attests to its antiquation.
Granted, the world is not as two-dimensional as straight/gay or black/white, so initially these sweeping generalizations might insult. For example, consider the number of queer people co-opted into reproducing the straight hegemony, and for this the fashion industry is exemplar. See all the fags creating stick-figure clothes and ho-heel shoes for real-world women? Can you say eating disorder and diminished self-confidence?
Yet, there seems to be something around this courage to come out. Perhaps coming out is a step towards acknowledging one’s own humanity, and thus, it is harder and harder to deny the humanity of others. Coming out often leaves us with little to take for granted — parental love and support, acceptance at school or church, and, of course, public safety. Despite President Obama’s 2009 Hate Crimes Bill, it’s hard for a faggot or dyke to walk down the street without someone reminding us that we are, in fact, a faggot or dyke. No, all Americans don’t live in New York, San Francisco, or LA. So, just walking down the street is reminder enough that things are not as they should, and certainly could, be. So why do so few straights talk about this?
Why are so few so critically minded? Poor people who make lots of money in the biz rarely ‘come- out’ from their unsatiated desire to be like the wealthy, and commercial hip-hop is the best example of folks just usurping elite influence, ignoring the inequities in the system, and the worship of wealth (dolla-dolla bills, y’all!). Queer people almost have to reflect upon themselves in ways that people who choose to identify as straight do not. Listening to artists like Meshell Ndegeocello, one sees a clear thread of self-reflection, concern for others, passion for love (not just sex). This passion for love, not just sex, comes though in her remake of Ready for the World’s 1986 song “Love You Down”.
You and the F-word.
You can say what you want to say about remakes. There have been some bad ones — the Goodgirls doing the Supremes comes first to mind — but fortunately, soul music has some remakes to remember. One should also not forget that beyond ‘Luthering’ old jams into awesome remixes (“Bad Boy/Havin’ a Party,” and, of course, “Superstar” and “A House Is Not a Home”, which Luther ‘owned’), Luther Vandross redid some badass classics like the oft redone “Anyone Who Had a Heart”, the Temptations’ “Since I Lost My Baby”, and also Stevie Wonder’s “Creepin'”. Yet, there is some real wow in Meshell Ndegeocello’s remake of Ready for the World’s “Love You Down”.
Melvin Riley, the lead singer of Ready for the World, looked like a sissy. This is no comment on his sexuality — I have no knowledge thereof. Yet his soft-spoken, high voice and hint of a lisp all raised eyebrows. What was clear, however, is that he was not trying to adopt the B-Boy hard pose that was emerging then and is just the way things are now. From that perspective, the group’s willingness to stay cool and smooth belongs to an era sorely missed. Riley sure looked and talked the walk according to a sissy kid growing up on the R&B side of the early ’80s (it’s so tiring to go to an early ’80s party and not hear any Shalamar, Club Nouveau, Freddie Jackson, Klymaxx, Skyy, or Atlantic Starr ).
In Meshell Ndegeocello’s version, ‘she’ is older, not younger, than the love interest in Ready for the World’s version. Then, there’s the bold pronoun. No, Meshell Ndegeocello does not change the gender orientation used in the original song, hence aficionados will listen closely to the opening verse, waiting to see if hell will freeze over:
It never really mattered too much to me
That you were too damned old for me
All that really mattered was
You’re my girlfriend
‘Shell is smooth as hell. Meshell Ndegeocello’s voice, as the commentator Michel Martin notes in her October 2009 interview on NPR’s Tell Me More, is all that. Her speaking voice is heavy but light, feminine but masculine, deeply personal and endearing. The commentator describes:
MARTIN: You know, I’ve often been intrigued by the sort of transcendent quality of your voice.
(Soundbite of laughter)
MARTIN: The lucid — and I think to myself, well, what does an angel sound like? If I could imagine, what does an angel sound like? I could easily imagine that an angel could sound like you.
NDEGEOCELLO: I think our culture is so… we sort of romance violence and feel war will bring peace, and it’s kind of just about sometimes your anger and your evil, it’s captivating, it just takes you over.
Meshell Ndegeocello says she loves NPR, and so do we.