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"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.
"Have you ever seen the movie Wattstax?" asks Ndegéocello. "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 Ndegéocello. 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 ã 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.