You don’t have to be a Billboard-topping recording artist to gain respect from peers, critics and the music industry. Me’shell Ndegeocello has made music for over 15 years that has not always been a critical success.
This uncompromising singer and skilled bassist has continued to receive critical-acclaim for her innovative, genre-busting music. The bisexual singer has inspired many young artists and paved the way for the neo-soul movement that includes artists like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, Maxwell, and newcomers Jill Scott, Bilal and Indie.Arie.
On her latest record “Comfort Woman,” Ndegeocello shows off her sensual side with lyrics about love, sex and religion. Her socially conscious songs imply that revolution starts in the bedroom.
Born in the late 1960s in Berlin, Ndegeocello grew up in Washington, D.C. She started playing the club scene in the late ’80s with Little Bennie and the Masters, and Rare Essence.
As a young artist, she was mentored by Prince and signed to Madonna’s Maverick label, which gave her plenty of creative freedom. In 1993, her debut “Plantation Lullaby,” was applauded by critics and received four Grammy nominations. The album was followed by “Peace Beyond Passion,” “Bitter” and “Cookie: The Anthropological Mixtape.”
From her home in Brooklyn, Ndegeocello tells Arjan, “I am excited about this album.” It is a radical departure from her previous hip-hop infused “Cookie,” an uncompromising look at love, sex, race and politics. It shows a gentler Ndegeocello, with love songs and musical arrangements from ’60s psychedelic jazz, to reggae and down-home soul.
The soft-spoken Ndegeocello said, “I can’t really explain how I came up with the idea for this album. I guess I was inspired by love for life and love for a person when I wrote this album.”
One of the most outspoken songs on the album is “Fellowship,” a look at the dangers of religion, with the lyrics, “Would you walk a righteous path without the promise of heaven, paradise streets paved in gold?”
Ndegeocello feels that song is particularly relevant in light of the current political turmoil after the war in Iraq. “Our leaders and Osama Bin Laden all claim to do the right thing in the name of God. I question that. I wonder if that God is worth the life of another human-being.”
Ndegeocello finds it important to create at any given point in her career, and draws comparisons with visual artists. “A person I admire is Picasso. He was able in all stages of his life to continue to create,” she says. “If I would not be able to create music, I would create art or something else. Perhaps cooking.”
Proof of Ndegeocello’s diverse musical interests are a number of recent side projects. She collaborated on the debut album of New York-based Cuban hip-hop band Yerba Buena, and covered a song for a new Dolly Parton tribute CD.
“I performed a song called ‘Two Doors Down.’ I like Dolly Parton a lot,” she says. “I think she is an amazing lyricist and songwriter. She asked me personally and I was more than happy to participate.”
In January, she will also be releasing “Papillon,” a jazz record with singers Lalah Hathaway and Cassandra Wilson. “It is mostly an instrumental, meditative record with a few guest vocalists.”
She enjoys different types of music and doesn’t want to be niched in one style. “I have listened to and played a lot of different styles of music. I guess that experience finds a way out in the diversity of my music.
Ndegeocello, which means “free like a bird” in Swahili, does not feel her genre-crossing music-making equals experimentation for its own sake. “It is all music to me,” she says. “No matter what musical type, it has the same DNA, it is all 12 notes in a scale. I just change the combinations a bit now and then.”
Ndegeocello is considered by some one of the few gay icons in music. She smiles at the notion and openly wonders if she considers herself gay. “There is not really a word to describe my sexuality,” she says.
She smiles, “I am just a polyamorous, water-based carbon life form. I find myself being able to enjoy sex with both sexes, I am able to fall in love with both sexes and I love animals.”
She admits that her gay fans are very important to her, but she does not want to be stereotyped as a gay artist. “My music is for everybody that it speaks to. I don’t like to be compartmentalized. I am just thankful, whoever likes the music.”
“Comfort Woman” is in stores now.
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