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Her true peers, however, are Chocolate Genius, Tricky, Kool Keith -- visionaries blind to boundaries, and whose careers are hurt by their refusal, or inability, to play the game. She's become a heroine for the poets, musicians and street intellectuals who struggle to integrate their art with their everyday life, arching toward the divine while honoring the commonplace. But perhaps her music's greatest strength has been in its preservation and presentation of the nuanced protagonist in black music -- not some industry-generated, flossing jigaboo, but a living, breathing, struggling "self" contained within the grooves.
Ndegéocello considers this summation, then refines it a bit.
"Well, thank you," she nods, "thank you for that. It's really hard, you know, because I love rhythm & blues. I love it. But there's so little of it I can listen to now. Because it's absent not only of a protagonist, but of any real story, any real sincerity. I was arguing the other day with someone who didn't like Eminem. Well, I love Eminem. I think he's dope for so many reasons. He's got that Slick Rick, talking-to-himself thing going -- maybe you need to be really deep into hip-hop to hear it -- and he's completely keeping it real. He's totally happening. His similes and metaphors are amazing. I mean, maybe they are crass, but . . ." She pauses, then continues from a different angle.
"Everybody trips because he's white, but his pocket is better than half the rappers out there. But the real thing is, you hear his story in everything: his voice, his lyrics, his attitude. He's telling you what it is to be poor and white in this country, to have no education and no job prospects. See, it's not just about race anymore, it's about class, too, and he's a prime example of what we do to people when we don't educate them. There's a real sense of him being profoundly depressed beneath all that anger. It's like, his soul is so large. I definitely feel that he's speaking from the heart. I love him for that."
Pulling into the parking lot of the chiropractor's office, Ndegéocello blows her horn and waves out the window. "That's my girlfriend," she says, nodding toward a pretty black woman getting out of a car parked a few spaces away. As we're introduced, I realize why her face is so familiar -- she's Rebecca Walker, the writer and feminist social critic.
WALKER'S SESSION IS OVER FIRST. SHE FLEXES HER back and slowly rolls her neck as she writes out a check at the receptionist's desk; beneath her spaghetti-strapped T-shirt, her muscles ripple beautifully. Walker first met Ndegéocello when she was soliciting submissions for her book, To Be Real: Telling the Truth and Changing the Face of Feminism (1995), though it's only recently that they've become, in Ndegéocello's words, "inseparable." They're currently living with Ndegéocello's 10-year-old son, Askia, just outside Mendocino, while they look for a house in Berkeley.
While their life together clearly marks a new chapter in Ndegéocello's life, it also fits her pattern of wanderlust. Bashir Shakur née Me'Shell Ndegéocello née Michelle Johnson was born in Berlin in 1969 to a military father and housewife mother, grew up in Washington, moved to New York, and then to L.A. "Don't try to psychoanalyze me," she laughs, "I just like to move. I feel better in motion. After four or five years, I get restless." When asked about the recent name change, she says, "There were several reasons, some religious. But, you know, I was coming to a place where whatever Me'shell Ndegéocello meant to me, it had just become this other thing, for other people. It just no longer reflects who I am or what my goals are."
And what does the new name mean? "Bashir means 'a sender of good news' in Arabic," she explains. "In Hebrew, it means 'one in the song.' I didn't actually know that. I was hanging out, smoking cigarettes in this café in New York, and this beautiful man sat down and just started talking -- he was, like, an Orthodox Jewish man -- and he was like, 'Can I bum one of your cigarettes?' We just started talking, and he asked me my name. When I told him, he told me what it meant. And then, Shakur just means 'most thankful.' That's the place I'm trying to eventually get to."
Waiting in the chiropractor's lobby, I ask Walker if she could possibly slip out of the role of girlfriend and into that of culture critic in order to locate Ndegéocello's place in contemporary pop culture in general, and black pop culture specifically.
"Mmm," she begins slowly. "I think that in the realm of pop culture right now, whether that's black pop culture or white pop culture, she represents both a vanguard and a dying breed. You know, we're on the road, so we watch a lot of TV, and all these performers are talking about how they recognize that music is a business first and foremost. A lot of black performers are saying that right now -- Missy Elliot, Puff Daddy -- and it's just this kind of, 'We're so cool that we figured out that music is a business, and you've got to take care of your business.' Which is true to some extent, but at the same time, when you're so caught up in the business -- checking SoundScan every five minutes to see how many units you've sold -- I think you do lose touch with what you're trying to do creatively.