Revolutionary Soul Singa: Meshell Ndegeocello

“And I’m sorry, I just — I don’t even do hip-hop. We’re just all some watered-down derivative, you know. There’s some neophytes in the vibe, but basically, hip-hop being counterculture, underground culture, that’s sorta dead. That’s not going down. And it’s all mainstream. It’s just a bunch of pop music . . . No one’s striving to be Miles Davis. And, you know, I wanna be like Miles Davis.”
— Meshell Ndegéocello, OneWorld, 3 February 2002

“We come from that mental place where music is supposed to grow and evolve and be expansive, so there are some songs in the set where we leave room for that. I think of it as improvisational, hip-hop based R&B.”
— Meshell Ndegéocello, Bass Player, March 2002

“Commercial images of the sexualized allure to or aversion for black females eclipse images of black female political agency in conventional culture: As the political outlaw is transformed into the sexual outlaw, the activists becomes a commodity consumed in the hunt, imprisonment, or rehabilitation.”
— Joy James, ShadowBoxing: Representations of Black Feminist Politics

There was just somethin’ exquisite about the title: Plantation Lullabies (1993). Meshell Ndegéocello’s debut was not some pretty shit like Maya Angelou’s (courtesy of Paul Lawrence Dunbar and Abbey Lincoln) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, which for its era metaphorically captured the bankruptcy of singing and marching in the face of American imperialism. That’s why MLK, Jr. got shot when he stopped marching (he ain’t really ever sing) and started to make that connection between white supremacy in the South, economic disenfranchisement in the north, and the transnational export of American imperialism in South East Asia (an old-school southern spin on Malcolm’s “it’s time to stop singin’ and start swingin'”).

And this is how Meshell Ndgeocello was coming when she began to talk about the about the walking black dead on urban plantations across America. What we call siege mentalities and the ways that folks self medicate (“inhale now feel the rush, hold it I’m losing touch”) on celebrity, playa-hatin’, material desires and the usual suspects like bling, bling and booty and the consumption of “bling, bling and booty” (courtesy of our good friends at Viacom). Wasn’t nobody diggin’ Meshell Ndgeocello (OK, you can say it out loud: “N-day-gay-o-cello”) when she was trying to holla at her peeps in the ‘hood, so sis moved on to get her art on.

The cerebral bending Peace Before Passion (1996) and the slow motion, sketchy brilliance of Bitter (1999), which both drop nods to Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, and Jimi Hendrix, were lost on r&b and neo-soul audiences, while Meshell, like that cat Lenny, pushed the boundaries of blackness beyond market segmentation and voter demographics. (A subtle reminder that all black folks ain’t got to choose between Jesse Jackson and JC Watts or Maxine Waters and Condi Rice). With the brilliant Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtapem Meshell Ndegéocello is back on “nigga blvd”, selling fly-ass wolf tickets and holding the critical eye up to the folks with the soul (holla back W.E.B.), who ain’t never been tryin’ to deal with her in the first place.

The title of Ndegéocello’s new disc, Cookie: the Anthropological Mix-tape, gets at a street level relevancy — the place where DJs and unsigned hype earn their reputations via the whole mix-tape culture that helps validate skills before the record deal. The same street level where bootlegging (altogether now, “h to the Izzo…”) conveys a ghetto-authenticity that moving three million units to little white kids in Kansas ain’t never gonna translate into. But even as Ndegéocello tries to get at a notion of an “authentic” blackness (the kind that anthropology supposedly helps validate) that remains beyond any real definitions (what my man Greg Tate calls an “anti-essentialist essentialism”), her privileging of the very concept of a mix-tape deals with real time concepts like flow, fluidity and hybridity as a means to construct sound, ideas and most importantly, black identity.

Cookie: the Anthropological Mixtape is the first major pop recording that speaks to the era of “newblackness”, a term coined by Mama Soul (Masani Alexis de Veaux). “Newblackness” is a “blackness” that is defined by a radical fluidity that allows powerful existential “conversations” about “blackness” across genders, sexualities, ethnicities, generations, socio-economic positions and socially constructed (performances) of “black” identity (like Dunbar said, so long ago “We Wear the Mask”).

Ndegéocello’s comfort with this concept of fluidity, and the fear(s) that such fluidity elicits in those who want to hold on to an essential blackness (both the 13th century and 1960s-cum late-1980s versions), has been witnessed throughout her career with tracks such as, “If That’s Your Boyfriend (He Wasn’t Last Night)” (Plantation Lullabies, 1993), “Leviticus: Faggot”, and “Mary Magalene” (both from Peace Beyond Passion). Ndegéocello has never felt a need to defend or explain the supposed ambiguity that is so crucial to her music, because the “spaces and places” that she claims and cultivates are never in competition with themselves, but rather an admittedly complex and creative articulation of what it means to be “blackwomanbisexualbassplayer- sentientbeingGramscianintellectualandrevolutionarysoulsinger”. As Ndegéocello reflected very early in her career, “I’m not gay enough? I’m not black enough? I don’t care. Meet me and make your assessment” (WP, 2/13/94).

Many of the core themes of Cookie: the Anthropological Mixtape are contained in the opening track “Dead Nigga Blvd (pt. 1)” which is a sly (even derisive) homage to the ghetto streets that get renamed in memoriam to “great black leaders”. The intersection of 125th and Lenox Avenue in Harlem, for example, is where black nationalism (Malcolm X Blvd.) and radical democracy (Martin Luther King, Jr. Blvd.) meet — along with Magic Johnson’s Starbucks and more than a few crack-heads. Ndegéocello uses the song to highlight the bankruptcy of symbolic campaigns to recognize “great black men” (Buggin’ Out: “Sal, when you get some black folk up on the wall?”) and the ungrateful attitudes of the hip-hop generation (“while we campaign for every dead nigga blvd/so young motherfuckers can drive down it in your fancy cars”). Built around her signature poppin’ bass (she claims she hadn’t heard Larry Graham until after she learned to play the instrument), Ndegocello takes on lay Afrocentrism (“you try to hold on to some Africa of the past/one must remember it’s other Africans that helped enslave your ass”), health issues (“stopped breast feeding the child/you put ’em on the cow/and now you wonder why they act wild”), and the inability for many blacks folks to see sexuality as something that is literally fluid (“I can’t even tell my brothers and sisters that they’re fine/this absence of beauty in their heart and mind”).

Ndegéocello’s not so subtle swipe at the “romancing of Africa” that lay at the heart of Afrocentric thought is a likely product of the widespread belief (propagated by some of its most popular, though not necessarily erudite, theorists, namely Molefi Asante and Maluana Karenga, the father of “Kwanzaa”), among it’s followers that “queerness” is a “white man’s disease” and that black queers are a measurement of just how effectively white supremacy had “infected” authentic blackness. Whatever. In a recent interview, Ndegéocello suggests that “gay life, the whole gay lifestyle, is patterned off a white gay male aesthetic [meaning how it is perceived in the mainstream]. Now, that ain’t my vibe . . . I love my brothers. I love my sisters. I am sexually functional with both.” (OneWorld, 02/03/02). Challenging the “in the box” thinking within the gay and black communities, she adds “If you’re gonna assess my shit like it’s a marketing scheme [acknowledging her queerness], no. If you fine, you fine . . . worse thing you could be is a closed-minded gay person. And worst thing you can be is a judgmental black person.” (OneWorld, 02/03/02).

Throughout “Dead Nigga Blvd. (pt. 1)” Ndegéocello raises questions about the real meaning of “freedom” (“no longer do I blame white folks for the way we be/’cause niggas need to redefine what it means to be free”) finally admitting that “perhaps to be free is to love all of those who hate me and die a beautiful death and make pretty brown babies.” Ndegéocello’s lyric is a reminder that her inward gaze is about strengthening black community and reproducing the beauty of the “race” both physically and aesthetically. It is this plaintive and thoughtful Ndegéocello that is present on “Dead Nigga Blvd (pt. 2)”, which appears near the end of Cookie. The song opens with Ndegéocello repeating the refrain “you can gain the world and lose your soul worrying about what you ain’t got” (“trying to make that dollar”). But it is a solo by “Kid Funkadelic”, legendary P-Funk guitarist Michael Hampton, which gets at the raw passion of Ndegéocello’s desires to build and maintain community. Towards the middle of the song, Ndegéocello chants “lift me up” (a shout-out to the tradition of “lifting as we climb” as personified by the Black Women’s Club Movement of the late 19th and early 20th century).

While part one of “Dead Nigga Blvd” derisively caricatures the hip-hop generation, Ndegéocello offers them a voice on part two by sampling dialogue from the HBO special Thug Life in DC (1999), which was directed by Marc Levin (Brooklyn Babylon and Slam). Ndegéocello’s sampling of voices from various sources throughout Cookie is a form of “mixtape praxis”. Like the best hip-hop DJs and producers who bring various sounds, beats and musical genres into conversation with each other without sacrificing the groove (fluidity), Ndegéocello samples a wide range of black voices including Dick Gregory, who’s speech “Human Rights & Property Rights” from Dick Gregory at Kent State, is tagged at the end of “Dead Nigga Blvd. (pt.1), Countee Cullen and Angela Davis. On two occasions throughout Cookie, Ndegéocello builds whole songs around weighty spoken word samples.

“Akel Dama (Field of Blood)” is a tribute to Ndegéocello’s “wordsmith warrior” forefathers. Gil Scott-Heron’s “Comment # 1″(Small Talk at 125th Street and Lenox, 1970) opens the track with the line “there are a lot of comments about who’s blacker than you are, and who’s blacker than she is, and blacker than thou, in other words that’s a sort of trend.” Written at the height of the Black Power and Black Arts Movement, Scott-Heron’s comments give a historical grounding to Ndegéocello’s attempt to counter widespread perceptions within some black communities that “queer” black bodies (and those queered because their politics, sexualities, class positions, and genders are not in sync with the “black is, black ain’t” gatekeeping society) are not black enough or black at all for that matter. Later in the song, it is the voice of Countee Cullen (the Harlem Renaissance poet who personifies a black modernist version of the “DL” identity) that Ndegéocello recovers via his poem, “Heritage”. The poem’s title allows Ndgeocello to claim the legacy of one of the most celebrated poets in the tradition, but also places the “queer” Cullen into the same space that is shared by stridently heterosexual wordsmiths ranging from Etheridge Knight and the aforementioned Scott-Heron and even rabid homophobes such as hip-hop artists Common and Ice Cube. In other words, all of these men share a common “Heritage”.

It is, in fact, Etheridge Knight, the tragically obscure “prison poet”, that makes the most powerful “cameo” on “Akel Dama (field of blood)”, with his poem “The Idea of Ancestry” (The Essential Etheridge Knight, 1986) In the poem, Knight, who died in 1991, builds a complex definition of black fluidity via the pictures on his cell wall.

Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black
faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grand-
fathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts,
cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare
across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know
their dark eyes, they know mine, I know their style,
they know mine. I am all of them, they are all me;
they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee.

Ndgeocello uses the poem and Knight’s voice (the poet struggled with drug addiction throughout much of his life) to reinforce an idea that black community is strengthen by its diversity — a nigga is “my nigga”. In the preface to Poems from Prison (Broadside Press, 1968 — shout to the late Dudley Randall), where “The Idea of Ancestry” was initially published, Gwendolyn Brooks writes of Knight that he represented “blackness, inclusive, possessed and given; freed and terrible and beautiful” and its exactly that ethos that Cookie consistently forces listeners to consider.

Knight is also aurally presents on “6 Legged Griot (Weariness),” which conceptually, is one of the strongest tracks on Cookie. The song, which features the voices of Knight, the Jamaican-bred poet Claude McKay, and June Jordan, brings a myriad of perspectives into conversation with each other. In his brilliant (and brilliant is not too strong of a term) collection of essays, Flyboy in the Buttermilk: Essays on Contemporary America (1992), Greg Tate writes of the Griot: “To read the tribe astutely you sometimes have to leave the tribe ambitiously, and should you come home again, it’s not always to sing hosannas or a song the tribe necessarily has any desire to hear . . . these messengers are guaranteed freedom of speech in exchange for a marginality that extends to the grave.”

One can only imagine what kind of truth can be articulated when the voices of Claude McKay (from his classic “If We Must Die”), June Jordan (“In Memoriam: Martin Luther King, Jr.” from Naming Our Destiny, 1989) and Etheridge Knight (“Hard Rock Returns to Prison from the Hospital for the Criminally Insane”), are all sharing the body of such a messenger. But yet the song, which is bottomed by one of Ndgeocello’s best bass grooves on the disc and a resonant solo by saxophonist Jacques Schwarz-Bart, finds its “voice” in the parenthetical title — the weariness that comes with struggle in general, but more so when so many of those struggles are fought against those who look just like you.

It is the voice of Angela Davis (“we love you Ms. Davis, whoooo, we are fo’ real…”) that is first heard on “Hot Night” (from Davis’ The Prison Industrial Complex, 1999) with a Salsa horn line (courtesy of Hector Lavoe’s “La Fama”). The Salsa backdrop (produced by Supa Dave West who laced De La lovely on Bionix’s “Watch Out”) helps to capture the kinds of shared spaces where latino/a and black folks have struggled with each other and created bridges to each other’s culture. It is the aesthetic of “casitas”, stoops, block parties, bodegas and sweaty local clubs, which in their casualness (the serious pursuit of leisure on a hot summer night) are often the basis for free form commentaries on shared realities. Ndegéocello sings in the song’s chorus, “it’s a hot night/let’s talk about the sign o’ the times/politics in the fight of a revolutionary soul singer/it’s a hot night/head down to the club . . . and let’s talk about the world y’all.” Her referencing of Prince, whose Sign o’ the Times (1987) was the most important concept project in black pop since Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life (1976) and description of herself as a “revolutionary soul singer” places Ndegéocello into a tradition of soul singers (Wonder, Aretha, Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke, Curtis Mayfield, Roberta Flack among others) who spoke “truth to power”.

Much has been made of the neo-soul younguns, who Ndegéocello reached out to, but who didn’t reach back (Jilly and Erykah are the most bandied about examples). One of the cats that did hit Meshell back was Talib Kweli, whose cameo on “Hot Night” (we’re eavesdropping on a cross-generation conversation between Ms. Davis and Kweli) is some scorched earth brilliance, as he simply seizes the song from Ndegéocello. In his lyric, Kweli, who is on a small list of folks that I refer to as hip-hop’s Celebrity Gramscians (Dead Prez, Common, and Mos “TopDog/Underdog” Def), acknowledges the ways that even politically trenchant music becomes a cog in globalization (“I feed my babies with music I tell the truth, now I’m a target in their market. Ain’t that a sommabitch”). Ndegéocello hits hard at this theme herself on the kick-ass “GOD.FEAR.MONEY.” Dropping another nod to classic “soul” gramscian Gil Scott-Heron, Ndegéocello sings “I used to believe everything I read/seen on TV/I was way down for the until I found out on some corporate sponsorship” quick rejoinder to those who think that political hip-hop (and other forms of insurgent political pop) is somehow not implicated in the very economic exploitation that such forms of music ostensibly aim to undermine.

In a rather poignant moment during a recent interview, Ndegéocello admitted her own complicity in such exploitation as she visited the plant of a company whose basses she endorses. In the interview Ndegéocello explains, “I knew I’d be their only black endorser, and when I went down to the plant there were all these older black women painting. I know I seem like I’m a fist-in-the-air activist, but it was hard for me” (Bass Player, 03/02). On “GOD.FEAR.MONEY” Ndegéocello also gets at the ways that celebrity undermines the work of those in the trenches as she sings “if Jesus was alive today/he’d be incarcerated with the rest of the brothers/while uh/the devil would have a great apartment on the upper east side/be a guest vj on total request live.”

Another reminder of the role that global conglomerates like Viacom and AOL-Time Warner (the parent company of Ndegéocello’s label Maverick) in defining reality, normalcy, and morality, which are all undercut by the flows and ebbs of celebrity. A subtle reminder, also, that Ndegéocello was only offered regular access to the mainstream video outlets when she collaborated with John Mellencamp on the Van Morrison cover “Hot Night” — the same Mellencamp who helped cross-over India.Arie (the exoticized natural black woman) to mainstream audiences (“damn is that “Video” they playin’ on the Starbuck’s sound system?”).

While “Dead Nigga Blvd (pt.1)” and “Hot Night” represents Ndegéocello’s politics at their most virulent, so many of her political passions are expressed in a distinctly reflective demeanor that borders on remorse. The moving “Jabril”, which is dedicated to ‘Pac and Biggie, is written from the perspective of someone praying to God shortly before death (“forgive me lord/as I die in vain/you have no angels to comfort me”). The song achieves a mystical and ethereal quality courtesy of Marcus Miller’s angular bass clarinet (and fretless bass) lines and by an extended vocal cameo by Lalah Hathaway, whose father, Donny Hathaway, recorded one of the great “death marches” in all of black pop with “Thank You Master for My Soul” (Everything is Everything, 1969). Hathaway also appears on the beautiful ballad “Earth”, which like the equally beautiful “Priorities 1-6” is in the tradition of fine and sexy Ndegéocello ballads such as “Outside Your Window” (Plantation Lullaby) and the haunting “Fool of Me” from Bitter.

On the real, while there are real-time implications to Ndegéocello’s politics throughout Cookie, sista-girl is also straight-up horny, embracing a sexual politics that is as wide-open as her social commentary. The best example is on the cleverly titled “Berry Farms” (berries of course grow in bushes and she couldn’t rightfully call the song “Bush”). While the song is about some carnal same-sex fantasies, it also highlights how even lesbian sex does not necessarily translate into a feminist politics that rejects the objectification of black female sexuality or resist a heterosexist paradigm. The song is built around a Go-Go groove (featuring Go-Go percussionist Kiggo Wellman), harking back to Ndgeocello’s earliest days as a musician in DC and thus the song is really a coming of age tale about her sexuality. The song details how a “seventeen, ooh, just young and fine” baby-girl is drawn to “Ndegéocello” (presumably when she too was that age, lest we got another spin on this R. Kelly shit), but who acted “like she didn’t know me/when her friends came around” Of course when word gets out that “shorty and I was/a little more than just friends”, shorty of course stopped coming around. When she gets pressed as to why she’s been on the DL (no pun intended) but still wants to get back to their groove, shorty hits back “can’t nobody eat my pussy/the way you do” (mouths open and agape). In one of the great retorts in contemporary black pop, Ndegéocello hits back in the song’s chorus “can you love me without no shame/you only wanted me for one thing/you know what?/you should teach your boy/to do that”.

Reminding folks that it ain’t all drama, “Berry Farms” is followed with “Trust” (“put your tongue/in my mouth/make me wet/run your hands/down my back/grab my ass/lay me down/spread my legs/mmm, tell me/what’s it’s like”). Of course lyrics like “you’re so hard . . . so deep” plays off on Ndegéocello’s belief that sexuality is indeed fluid. The track also features beautiful backing vocals by Caron Wheeler [Ndegéocello appeared on Wheeler’s Beach of the War Goddess (1993) and co-wrote “Land of Life” with her]. Wheeler also provides vocals on Ndegéocello’s remake of Funkadelic’s “Better by the Pound” (Let’s Take It to the Stage, 1975) and “Criterion”. The latter is easily most musical of all of the Cookie tracks with Ndegéocello playing the upright bass opposite drummer Oliver Gene Lake, pianist Federico Gonzalez Pena and Schwarz-Bart. The song highlights Ndegéocello’s more traditional jazz sensibilities, but clocking in at only 4:27 is both Cookie’s most accomplished musical statement and the most disappointing. Needless to say, the track will leave listeners yearning.

Cookie is the most eagerly awaited of all of Ndegéocello’s recordings. Originally slated for an October 2001 release, the disc will finally drop on June 4th. Ndegéocello’s label Maverick (Madonna’s AOL-Time Warner imprint) is consciously working to get her heard by the kinds of urban audiences to whom the project should be most relevant. To these ends they have enlisted the service of the blunted one (Red Man) and Tweet (the fluid one) on the Rockwilder/Missy Elliot produced remix of the lead single “Pocketbook”. Recently released to radio, the track was added to the play-list of more than 60 “urban” stations in the past few weeks. The remix will likely earn Ndegéocello her first real presence on urban radio. While all involved are to be commended for helping a sista out (could Red Man actually have some progressive sexual politics?), the downside is that remix is not only out of sync with the rest of the project, but as my homie Nic J suggests, it sounds like every thing on the radio.

Cookie: the Anthropological Mixtape is Meshell Ndegéocello’s strongest musical and political statement yet and it deserves a wide hearing regardless of contrived attempts to get her on Viacom Video-land. All hail the coming of a “Revolutionary Soul Singa”.