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"I think a lot of these younger artists really feel like they can do both, but I think that's naive. It's naive to think you can be worried about trying to make money, money, money, and still be saying something that is empowering to people, that is challenging the status quo, which would rather have your people -- black people -- in bondage."
Equally insidious is the smug, even contemptuous, dismissal of the idea of music -- or any art -- as a deeper means of communication, as a conduit for profound personal and societal transformation. To hold on to that belief, to act on it, is to be labeled clueless -- or crazy.
"I completely agree," says Walker. "To care about that, to be true to yourself and your soul and try to connect at a deep emotional, psychological, spiritual level with an audience, and to try to create art that's about transformation -- that is somehow naive. Being obsessed with the bottom line is portrayed as being sophisticated. It's so emblematic of how twisted and backward and reactionary our culture has become. And how cynical. I think a lot of musicians today just feel like, fuck message, forget about using music as a tool. Forget about those deeper levels of what art has been about in many cultures, and certainly within black culture. And I just think that's a tragedy. That's why I love her and her music, and I'm so glad she's doing it."
Walker checks her watch and realizes she has to run. "Tell Bashir I'll meet her back at the hotel," she says before taking off. A short while later an apologetic -- and noticeably more relaxed -- Ndegéocello appears.
ON THE WAY BACK INTO HOLLYWOOD, NDEGéOCELLO IS reminded that just a few years ago she was being lambasted by a lot of female rock critics for not identifying herself as a feminist. Her response at the time was a shrug and a reply of, "Whatever." Has her relationship with Walker resulted in her coming out as a feminist?
"No," she says, shaking her head. "That's what we fight -- I mean, no. What she was trying to explain in her book is that feminism comes in many different shapes and sizes. Of course, there are some things I have a feminist view to. There are some things I just don't agree with feminism about. I'm more . . ." She exhales deeply. "My politics deal with other things. We argue about that. I just don't like that word."
It's ironic that, with her art so rooted in the rituals of naming and claiming self, so many of the controversies that have blown up around Ndegéocello have had to do with her determination to do that naming on her own terms. The mainstream gay press has harshly criticized her for singing love songs to men and refusing to identify herself as "queer"; many in the music industry have blamed her decision to be open about her bisexuality for her failure to achieve mainstream success; black radio, video outlets and magazines either shortchange or ignore her altogether. (Vibe named Bitter album of the year, but put the ever-blonder Jennifer Lopez on the cover.)
"As far as the queer thing," she says, "it just bothers me, period, that white gay males define how a lot of homosexuals or lesbians see themselves. Queer? I'm not feeling that. I can't really embrace that. I can't embrace lesbian, either. I hate the way the word sounds; it's not an attractive word. It's hard being bisexual, omnisexual, multisexual, whatever you want to call it, when people have their agenda and expect you to just represent their agenda."
As she's talking, she's dialing her car phone to check her messages, and accidentally gets her father in D.C. Askia is staying there for the summer, hanging out with his grandparents and spending time with his father. Mother and son have a playful exchange before she hangs up.