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
"Have you ever seen the movie Wattstax?" asks Ndeg√©ocello. "It's an incredible tribute to a black aesthetic that's all about Afros, kinky hair -- a variety of skin tones and physical features. Darkness is celebrated just by being acknowledged. You watch this movie, and you're blown away by the consciousness that plays out in the way the people dress and talk and carry themselves. The way black people treat other black people -- it's just love. What happened to us?"
What indeed? Watching the movie is both exhilarating and heartbreaking. A cult documentary about the 1972 concert held at the L.A. Coliseum to commemorate the riots of '65, the film cuts back and forth among performance footage (Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers, the Bar-Kays, Luther Ingram, Rufus Thomas, Jesse Jackson and more), talking heads of everyday black folk, and Richard Pryor as the narrative glue holding it all together. It's staggering to see how C-list divas from back in the day -- women like Kim Weston and Carla Thomas, who were overshadowed by Aretha, Roberta and Mavis -- could sing circles around most of today's A-level crooners. Pryor, in his first big screen appearance and one of his best career performances, draws tears-on-the-cheek laughter from caustic observations on gender differences, police brutality and the resilience of Afro-Americans. Watching black folk dance in the stands, make flamboyant entrances and muse dryly on the nature of whiteness is to see blackness as a knowing performance. There's a lot of humor, but there's also affirmation and self-love, black fierceness giving itself props. The wild clothing and pimp strolls have been stripped, now, of all that subtext -- reduced to Beastie Boys video garb, kitschy costumes for white hipster parties, and mindless hip-hop celebrations of mackin'.
It's the last that most pains Ndeg√©ocello. Speaking of the ways in which mainstream hip-hop has collapsed upon itself, she beomes especially animated and frustrated.
"It hurts me to my heart," she says. "I mean, there is some gangster rap or darker hip-hop that is absolutely relevant and needs to be said. But so much of it is just jumping on a bandwagon with nothing to say. You know, I'm a big Nas fan, so I went out and bought his last record [I Am . . .]. Now, the CD booklet opens with a sura from the Koran. But the actual record begins with a rant: 'Fuck all y'all faggot muthafuckas.' And it just killed me. I don't know what to do. Do I take my record back, you know? I mean, he talks [in interviews] about black upliftment and all the stuff he's read, and I'm like, 'Well, you callin' people faggots. Did you ever read James Baldwin, one of the great intellectual minds of our time -- who was a gay man?' It's just really difficult for me to embrace and have an understanding of my brothers -- and they are my √£ brothers and I will love them till the day I die -- but I just don't understand what they're doing." She shakes her head and sighs.
"You know," she revs up again, "Mos Def and Talib Kweli are the freshest thing I've heard in a long time, but what the hell is RZA talking about? Who the hell is Bobby Digital? What is that? It just seems that, for the most part, you're either gangster mentality, Puffy mentality, or you're not at all. You don't exist.
"The really scary thing is that when I went to Africa, [I saw how] they think that Tupac Shakur -- and I love Tupac to this day, he was my boy and I love him -- but they think that's our new movement. They think gangsterism is the new black political movement and that it's what's saving black people. They've bought into the commercialism and the worst aspects of American culture. It's really hard when you go into these obscure little pockets, and they're embracing what shouldn't be embraced. It's scary."
AT THE EXACT MOMENT THAT WE ENTER Sante Kitchen on La Brea, the opening strains of Madonna's "Beautiful Stranger" blare over the sound system. Ndeg√©ocello doesn't register the latest hit from her boss at Maverick Records. She hugs one of the waiters, who jokes about how often she comes in. "I'm only in here so much," she laughs, "because I've found out that I'm basically allergic to all four food groups. This is one of the only places I can eat where I will, like, survive the meal."
"That's Raju," she grins as she sits down. "He's worked at every restaurant I love in L.A." Raju comes and leans over the table, and the two chat a little more. This gives me a chance to glance at my notes about Bitter. It's a radical departure for Ndeg√©ocello. There are no funk workouts like "If That's Your Boyfriend (He Wasn't Last Night)," "Who Is He and What Is He to You" or "Step Into the Projects." Her voice is higher up in the mix, and her singing is richer, more textured and fluid. One of the album's real surprises, though, is Ndeg√©ocello's bass playing. There's so little of it.