Running the Voodoo Down: An Interview with Meshell Ndegeocello

Photos: Mark Seliger

With a new understanding of herself (and a new album to go with), the innovative singer Meshell Ndegeocello freely talks about some of her controversial lyrics, her deepest inspirations, and how she's reached a point where she doesn't need to prove anything anymore ...

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 ).

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