By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Asked if her sexuality has yet been a problem for her son, maybe with his classmates, she quips, "He goes to a really progressive school, so I'm not the only one." Then, turning serious, she adds, "I don't think it's been an issue. I'm sure when he gets to high school it'll be difficult, but so far it hasn't been."
She smiles softly. "I love children. I want more. Rebecca and I plan to have children, maybe next year. I'm hoping we have a daughter."
AT SOME POINT THE CONVERSATION TURNS TO THE TOPIC of race. Race in America, race in Africa, race in the music industry. Ndeg√©ocello's detractors have often accused her of being racist, of being militantly anti-white. That's because they're tone-deaf to the complexities of her music, the ways that race plays out in modern-day America, and the survival techniques of black (and brown) folk who grapple with daily racism, give honest voice to their pain and anger, and struggle not to succumb to bitterness. In conversation, as in her music, Ndeg√©ocello has dual vision. On one hand, she knows that race is -- as academics and highbrow media liberals drone -- a "construct," a lie that has wreaked incalculable damage on humanity. Like most people, regardless of color, she wants to move past it.
But she also knows that the lie of race has spawned some bitter truths and painful realities. To acknowledge the "construct" and think that that is enough to counteract or dismantle the legacies of bigotry only compounds the problem. Ndeg√©ocello's critics have harped on her √£ scathing social indictments -- in songs like "Soul on Ice" and "Deuteronomy: Niggerman" -- without seeing that the world she's longing for is simply one of justice, fairness. The distinction they've failed to make is that her politics are not a war on white folk, but a struggle against white supremacy and the way it continues to mutate and insinuate itself into the fabric of American life. One of her most brilliant artistic riffs is on the connection between capitalism and white supremacy. A line from 1996's "Deuteronomy" -- "My view of self was that of a divine ho'/Like the ones portrayed on the white man colonized minded rap shows" -- has only become more relevant, more painfully dead-on, in the past few years.
"It's hard being dark," Ndeg√©ocello says. "I even get it from my mother. She tells me about my son, 'Oh, he's gotta stay out of the sun, he gets so dark.' I mean, my mother's very fair-skinned, and she's from the South. She can't help it -- that's the way she was brought up. But it wrecked me as a child. I was always like, 'How come I wasn't light like my mother? How come I didn't get good hair?' And that's what 'Soul on Ice' is about. Everybody thinks that song is about me not liking white people. No, it's about me growing up feeling ashamed of the way I looked."
Federico Pe√Īa, her keyboardist and a close friend, offers a defense of Ndeg√©ocello as he carefully dismantles the aura of angry, tortured artist that surrounds her. "I've known her since she was 15 or 16 in D.C.," he recalls, "and she's the same now as she was then. She's just like everybody else -- she can get really depressed, really dark, but she also has these moments of just . . ." He pauses, searching for the right word. "She can get happy like no one you know," he finally smiles. "I think that a lot of her struggle comes from her quest to be accepted. I think there's a struggle within Me'Shell when she calls out these truths. I think that's why she touches a chord in people. In a way, she's a soldier for those truths that America doesn't want to take a look at.
"I'm sorry," he says, "I don't want to seem offensive. Because I didn't grow up here. I was born in Uruguay and grew up in Argentina. I had to learn about America when my family moved here when I was a boy. And what I've seen is that this is still such a fucked-up place. People honestly want to say that racism is a thing of the past, but it's not. It's like a ghost. Not everybody can see it, some people pretend they can't see it 'cause they don't want to be labeled crazy, but it's still very much here, wreaking havoc. I've traveled all around the world, and I'm still constantly astonished at the depth of racism in this country. And I think, historically, America has had a problem when black folks talk about the truths of [what's] happening [here]. They tend to label that black voice as angry, when it's a voice of truth. I think Me'Shell may have fallen prey to some of that."
As rap and R&B have devolved into the soundtrack for Wall Street and Madison Avenue, the aesthetic they've revived -- especially in terms of female beauty and desirability -- is the most fucked-up brand of retro: It's all about light skin, good hair and Anglo features. With only a relative handful of artists working to the exception, the whole "I'm black and I'm proud" resistance movement once conveyed through the music and stage personas of people like Nina Simone, James Brown and Curtis Mayfield has been ground into dust.