"YOU EVER HAD LOVE SO GOOD . . . IT MAKE YOU WANNA buy a house?" Me'Shell Ndegéocello asks the sold-out crowd at the Roxy. Her face, crinkled in mock bewilderment, glows across the tiny stage. The band, vamping an ass-grabbing groove, has just segued out of a song about loss and regret into a musical non sequitur of sexual abandon. It's about transformation: grief to glory. Ndegéocello purses her lips, furrows her brow and makes a Friday night basement party awww-shit-now face. She walks over to the stand where her bass is leaning, and as she reaches for it the audience goes nuts. Strapped on, it juts up past her head, dwarfing her. But with a brush of three notes -- a liquid, sinewy stroke of understated funk -- she's in complete command of both her instrument and the stage.
Tonight the faithful have their devotion justified. Ndegéocello -- singer, Afro-boho icon, bassist supreme -- is premiering music from her sublime new album, Bitter. The new tracks are nakedly introspective, sad and beautiful. Live, however, most of them have been overhauled into muscular catharses. The audience, buzzed off her love high, roars back affirmation.
SHE'S SMALL, ALMOST FRAGILE. HER RECORDED VOICE is bigger than she is. Tattoos decorate her arms and neck, and her close-shaved hair means that her large eyes become the center of your focus. Those eyes are often dark and brooding in photographs, but today they're direct and full of laughter.
It's a few weeks before the concert, and Ndegéocello (still her professional handle, though legally she's changed her name to Bashir Shakur) is barreling through Laurel Canyon in midday traffic, on her way to a hastily scheduled appointment with her chiropractor. "I was in a car accident a few months ago," she says, "and it was really minor, so I didn't go have myself checked out by a doctor. Well, I fell a couple of days ago, and I think I may have aggravated something from the accident. It was a light fall, but when I woke up this morning I couldn't lift my arm. That's a little scary when you're a bass player," she says dryly.
She may have started as a bass player, vibing in the go-go clubs of Washington, D.C., while studying jazz at Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Howard University, but since her debut album, 1993's classic soul/funk/hip-hop opus Plantation Lullabies, she's steadily -- sometimes painfully -- secured her status as that most endangered of pop-culture entities: the serious black musician. At a time when hip-hop and R&B sales claim a good hunk of the music-buying public's dollar, and when MTV has figured out how to turn its early disdain of black folk into a lucrative pimping of superficial blackness, American black music sounds like death. At least most of it does. Exceptions -- the Roots, Outkast, Cassandra Wilson, Lauryn, Erykah, Black Star -- scream a life-affirming defiance, but they're up against an ever-growing wall of soul-crushing banality. No sector of the culture is as bluntly obsessed with maintaining, glorifying and protecting the status quo as is contemporary black music. "I'm a businessman/I ain't tryin' to be lyrical," boasts rapper Cam'ron on his latest single, "Let Me Know," summing up the state of the music in one depressing line. The overriding themes in both rap and R&B are the acquisition of money, power and status, and, in a truly perverse twist, the victimization of celebrity (see: Puffy's dimwitted remake of Public Enemy's "Public Enemy #1").
Ndegéocello connects so viscerally with her fans in large part because she hasn't been seduced by the fool's gold of marketplace liberation. A black, bisexual working mother whose art is rooted in unapologetic political testifying and unflinching romanticism, she's after something both rare and powerful: freedom within the margins. It's an increasingly difficult trick to pull off. It means giving serious examination to your actual relationship to power and your desired relationship to it, to your actual vs. desired relationships to socially and culturally defined notions of the norm. It means being brave enough to follow your own voice, and to define your dreams in terms other than corporate.
Ndegéocello's lyrics on both Lullabies and 1996's Peace Beyond Passion dissect wrestling matches with her fears and her dreams, with the forces of racism, poverty, capitalism, junkiehood, homophobia, suicidal despair, loneliness -- and the search for love and acceptance beneath it all. Distinctly late-20th-century-urban in flavor -- full ã of funk-driven bass, born of old-school hip-hop and older-school rhythm & blues -- the two albums have had an influence far beyond their lukewarm sales figures or underwhelming mainstream recognition. Though the comparisons are a sore point with Ndegéocello, she paved the way for the likes of Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu.