As the spark that lit the neo-soul movement, Meshell Ndegeocello is the true definition of the word “artist.” Defying musical categorization and societal archetypes for women and femininity, Meshell has blazed her own trail in an industry known for its cookie-cutter sensibilities.
With 10 GRAMMY nominations under her belt, few artists can attest to have attained such widespread and long-term critical acclaim. And even fewer have brazenly fused together the myriad of stylistic variations between the worlds of funk, soul, hip hop, reggae, R&B, rock, and jazz.
Upon the release of Devil’s Halo, Meshell Ndegeocello managed to squeeze some time out of her busy schedule and settle down for an interview with Clayton Perry — reflecting on Prince, “Bright, Shiny Morning,” and a few concerns for President Obama to consider.
Your eighth studio project is entitled Devil’s Halo, which is named after an instrumental track on the album. Since the title track lacks lyrics, I’m curious to know the inspiration behind the mood the song sets.
I guess it’s all about contrast, expressing evil, good and bad and that there’s a calm that comes with accepting that. That’s what that particular track for me is. It’s like a lullaby of some sort. It just acknowledges that there are shades of gray.
When I think about the album, as a whole, I think my favorite would have to be “Bright, Shiny Morning.” There’s a particular set of lyrics that resonated within me: “If I think I owe you something, get in line.” What life event led you to express that sentiment?
I’ve had lots of experiences that warrant that. It’s just the endless experience of people wanting something from you. If you had it, you’d be sure to give it, but sometimes I’m just left lost about what it is they want or feel that I owe them. I’ve had certain relationships where people feel I owe them something. And sometimes when I’m onstage, people want me to sing a song like my very first record, it’s kind of hard. They feel like I owe them something. I try to do the best I can when I’m onstage but it’s like, “Get in line.”
I really like “Die Young,” too. On the track, you say, “I always pick the wrong way. It feels like the way to go.” Do you harbor a great deal of regrets?
I’m not one for regrets, but have you had a moment where you just feel like, “My God, I just keep making the wrong choice!”? You know in your heart that it felt right at the time. Once you’re further away from that experience, in hindsight, it was the right way to go even though everyone else around you felt it was wrong. But that’s back to the Devil’s Halo and the contrast. There are shades of gray. Maybe there is no right or wrong. We’re all just doing the best we can.
You’ve spent the last two decades as one of the music industry’s rare “free spirits” — doing your own musical thing on your own musical terms. What do you think has contributed to your longevity?
I guess I just really love music. That’s always at the forefront of my mind. I’m not really interested in fame. I understand that wealth is not necessarily money. I find great wealth and enjoyment in playing with people I like to play with and making little pieces of myself in the music. I just try to maintain joy, live a good life. People think that you’re making a record all the time, but I’m not. I’m just having everyday time with my family and children. I just try to have a good experience while I’m here on the planet.
Your output has been fairly consistent over the years. Your first five albums were released on Maverick and the last three have been independent releases. Is there a particular lesson that you learned while taking this independent route? How do you approach the music-making process differently?
My time on Maverick – I have no qualms. I had a great time. I was creatively allowed to do anything that I wanted to do, so I never felt repressed in that way. Making the independent records, I made them on European labels. It was just an interesting time. What I’m figuring out about the business is what’s most important is advertising dollars and getting out and reaching people with touring. That’s what I take away from this whole experience. And watching record companies crumble. You need more funding so that you can hopefully get good exposure, to let people know that there’s music out there to be purchased. Most of all, most musicians like myself don’t get to a certain level of fame. My livelihood is through touring. As long as people come out and hear live music, I feel good about that. The end of the record label is just going to usher in a more exciting time where you can hear artists that you probably would never had a chance. I think it allows you to not have the Top 100 – music from the last 100 years. People will just be a lot more open-minded. I just strive to stay creative, stay open, read a lot, stay current with the technologies. That’s pretty much what I’ve learned. As long as the music is true, you hire people that will aide you in your endeavor to reach more people.
Is there a particular reason why you stayed with European labels?
Oh yeah. The European market is much more kind to my shifts and changes. They’re cool with the fact I might want to make a rock record or a more soulful record or improvisational record. They just seem to maintain a more open mind. I think that’s why American labels are sort of falling apart. They get caught up in the genre game. They get caught up in the megastar game. Most of my touring is in Europe. It’s just a different audience. They have more exposure to different types of music and their radio stations aren’t so compartmentalized. They play several genres of music on one station. It’s just a much easier route for me. Here you have a lot of generalizations made and hoops you have to jump through to make it in the mainstream. I’m not really good at that; I wish I was but I’m just not.
Your music tackles a number of issues that a lot of women aren’t necessarily comfortable talking about. What compels you to be so bold? Is it a certain life philosophy, because you take risks so many other people aren’t willing to make?
Do you ever feel you have moments in life where you held back and you wish you hadn’t? I guess when I was younger, I really saw that in a lot of my peers and also older women that I knew. I guess I took a vow for myself to be honest at all times, and if I had a chance to put out something that I would be as honest as possible and say some things that are missing in music – especially for young women of color and women living alternative lifestyles who have shied away from things that scare other people. Just to show that there’s humanity in it. We’re all humans trying to have a good experience in life.
As a lover of music, it’s very inspirational to find an artist like you. You haven’t really been shy about expressing yourself—politically, sexually and beyond. At what point did you develop such a high self concept? Was there some event or loved one that helped you get to that point?
Yeah, there were several experiences from when I was young. I was teased a lot. I didn’t really fit in in school. I guess my brother was my inspiration. He was always like, “Screw what other people think. Always be yourself because that’s all you have.” My brother would always just push me to be a little edgier. What do you have to lose? I really appreciate that. I really appreciate having him in my life. He was like, “If you’re going to play the bass and you’re going to be around me, you have to be a little bit extra confident. They’re always going to look for a moment of weakness.” Learning from that and playing go-go music and growing up in DC, there was just no other way to be to survive. I think when I was younger, it masked my insecurities but now I think it’s a firm part of my personality. I just realized you have nothing to lose. I assert myself in hopes to make a difference.
I saw a video on YouTube — not too long ago — where you stated that your ultimate dream was to play bass in Prince’s band. When did you first pick up the bass guitar?
I think I was about 13 or 14. I really adore my brother. I wanted to play with him and be around him as much as I can, so I thought if I could play an instrument, we could play together. That started me playing music. My father plays music. Music was always in my house. I thought I’d be a visual artist but once I started playing music, it just really opened up my mind to this world and I got lost in it. Then I discovered Prince, and knowing that he played so many instruments, it’s just a total inspiration to me. That was my thing. Some kids like sports or dolls or things, but I just really liked music.
A lot of people consider you the female version of Prince. How do you feel about that comparison?
It’s a great compliment. It’s an amazing compliment. I feel good about that because he is the person that really inspired me to want to make records. I was like, “I’m going to be like Prince and I’m going to make a lot of records.” I’m very grateful for his inspiration.
Over the years you’ve made musical contributions to almost every major contemporary African-American film: How Stella Got Her Groove Back, Love Jones, Higher Learning, Love & Basketball, The Best Man, Down in the Delta and many more. How did this become your specialty? And is there a particular song that you think was the perfect fit for the scene that it was attached to?
I don’t know. I guess I have to thank John Singleton first of all. He is the person that really gave me the chance to participate in film. I guess the one that fits the best and one that I’m most proud of is “Fool Me” in Love & Basketball. The most fun I had – which is one of my favorite films of all time – is Love Jones. I love films. Before I had a record deal, I worked on Spike’s movies as craft services or personal assistant. I love movies, so it’s just a natural connection for me. My thanks will always be for John Singleton because that was the very first one. After that, many doors opened for me.
How did the connection with John Singleton form?
I was in LA at the time, and I was invited to the screening of Higher Learning. I met with him and we had a really good interaction. He said he had a love scene and asked if I would submit something. I did and it was up from there. It was a great experience.
You’ve contributed to many tribute albums as well. This past year you earned a GRAMMY nomination for “Fantasy” off Interpretations: Celebrating The Music Of Earth, Wind & Fire. Did you personally select “Fantasy” or was the song given to you by the album’s producers?
Oh yeah. That’s the one I chose. That’s a great song, and Earth, Wind and Fire – to me – is one of the greatest bands to play. The longevity they had – they started out playing jazz and then ended up being this great pop group, pop/R&B. It’s great to participate in and be on a record with Chris Love and so many other artists. It’s just an honor to be included.
Exactly one decade ago you participated in the Lilith Fair. When you think about the time period from ’98-’99 onward, what do you think of the camaraderie between women within the music industry? Do you think it’s gotten better or worse?
Oh, I think it’s gotten much better. That fair was great. It had amazing people. It was put together very well. It was very calm. I’ve toured with Dave Matthews. I’ve opened up with other male artists. It’s a different vibe having so many strong, confident women around. The people that they attracted to the tour had just a really loving, soulful vibe. I had a really good time. I hope they do it again one day.
What major hurdles do you think women still have to overcome in the industry?
Well, you still have to sell yourself with your body. You still have to stay within a certain subject matter. There’s never going to be a female Jay-Z. I think it’s hard for men, too. I like to point out that what D’Angelo went through with body imaging. We all suffer in this industry. It wants to modify you and make you something you’re not. I’m realizing it’s just people in general – we’re all suffering, male or female. That’s why I’m really hoping the way the industry is dying will open it up for other people who might not have had the chance and will allow artists to just be themselves and not feel so stifled by imagery and content.
When I think about female entertainers in general, one trend that I’ve seen evolve is the casual use of the word ‘bitch.’ It’s a term of endearment for some, word of empowerment to others, and offensive to still others. What’s your take on B-word and its use?
I love words. I love that it changes and evolves and it means different things to different people. I don’t have a fear of words. I have a fear of people. I have no problem with how people express themselves. I think what’s next and what’s behind it comes across in the energy. I don’t fear the words. I fear the people.
What do you think is the woman’s most powerful or most beautiful asset?
Femininity, the softness, her ability to be totally nurturing and loving. What people call weakness that I find it to be the most beautiful quality is the sensitivity, the ability to cry and connect. I love women. I think they’re amazing and needed in the world. If you don’t educate a loved one, then the children will be dumb. If we don’t love and educate women, then we’ll suffer as well. I’m hoping we all can connect with the softer side of ourselves. I also think gender politics is changing. I really love Casper Semenya who had to go through the gender test. I think we need to start just rethinking each other and being kind to each other and seeing that these attributes exist in all of us. We can’t be afraid of it, you know. Men can’t be afraid of the feminine in them and women can’t be afraid of the masculine in them. Hopefully, we can be a much more loving species.
Out of all of your music videos, the most powerful is “Leviticus: Faggot.” The final scene in the bathroom in particular was very powerful to me. With that in mind, I came across a few facts that I thought were really interesting. It’s estimated that a teen takes their life every five hours because they’re gay, transgender or lesbian. Reports also note that about 30% of homeless teens identify as gay or lesbian. If you could talk to President Obama about any issue, what would you talk to him about?
Oh definitely tolerance and what is the real meaning of love. If he could somehow express to people that this is your child and no matter what they’re going through, it is your moral duty to love them through it, not to send them out to the streets and have them forage for themselves. It’s just not reasonable. It’s just not loving. I guess I wish he would really understand that everybody wants to be loved and accepted. Until someone in power really takes a stand to say that we need to be more accepting and tolerant of people who are different – perceived different, because we’re not really that different – it’s not going to change. That is part of health care as well. That’s a big part of making a healthy society – for them to understand that you don’t throw your children out to get AIDS or whatever. It shouldn’t matter. We need to be loving towards all our young people.
Is there a particular song or project that you wish had been better received?
Definitely Comfort Woman. I wish people had more of a chance to check that out. Like I said, I live in the future. I’m hoping people check out this new one, go to the shows and have a good time. I look forward to traveling. My partner is expecting a child in November. I’m just excited about life and I hope people are excited about their lives and that we’re trying to put ourselves in a more positive frame of mind and not be so dark and apocalyptic and be a great support to President Obama and others who are trying to benefit the world in some way.
For more information on Meshell Ndegeocello, visit her official website.