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
Photo by Sheryl Nields
"YOU EVER HAD LOVE SO GOOD . . . IT MAKE YOU WANNA buy a house?" Me'Shell Ndeg√©ocello asks the sold-out crowd at the Roxy. Her face, crinkled in mock bewilderment, glows across the tiny stage. The band, vamping an ass-grabbing groove, has just segued out of a song about loss and regret into a musical non sequitur of sexual abandon. It's about transformation: grief to glory. Ndeg√©ocello purses her lips, furrows her brow and makes a Friday night basement party awww-shit-now face. She walks over to the stand where her bass is leaning, and as she reaches for it the audience goes nuts. Strapped on, it juts up past her head, dwarfing her. But with a brush of three notes -- a liquid, sinewy stroke of understated funk -- she's in complete command of both her instrument and the stage.
Tonight the faithful have their devotion justified. Ndeg√©ocello -- singer, Afro-boho icon, bassist supreme -- is premiering music from her sublime new album, Bitter. The new tracks are nakedly introspective, sad and beautiful. Live, however, most of them have been overhauled into muscular catharses. The audience, buzzed off her love high, roars back affirmation.
SHE'S SMALL, ALMOST FRAGILE. HER RECORDED VOICE is bigger than she is. Tattoos decorate her arms and neck, and her close-shaved hair means that her large eyes become the center of your focus. Those eyes are often dark and brooding in photographs, but today they're direct and full of laughter.
It's a few weeks before the concert, and Ndeg√©ocello (still her professional handle, though legally she's changed her name to Bashir Shakur) is barreling through Laurel Canyon in midday traffic, on her way to a hastily scheduled appointment with her chiropractor. "I was in a car accident a few months ago," she says, "and it was really minor, so I didn't go have myself checked out by a doctor. Well, I fell a couple of days ago, and I think I may have aggravated something from the accident. It was a light fall, but when I woke up this morning I couldn't lift my arm. That's a little scary when you're a bass player," she says dryly.
She may have started as a bass player, vibing in the go-go clubs of Washington, D.C., while studying jazz at Duke Ellington School of the Arts and Howard University, but since her debut album, 1993's classic soul/funk/hip-hop opus Plantation Lullabies, she's steadily -- sometimes painfully -- secured her status as that most endangered of pop-culture entities: the serious black musician. At a time when hip-hop and R&B sales claim a good hunk of the music-buying public's dollar, and when MTV has figured out how to turn its early disdain of black folk into a lucrative pimping of superficial blackness, American black music sounds like death. At least most of it does. Exceptions -- the Roots, Outkast, Cassandra Wilson, Lauryn, Erykah, Black Star -- scream a life-affirming defiance, but they're up against an ever-growing wall of soul-crushing banality. No sector of the culture is as bluntly obsessed with maintaining, glorifying and protecting the status quo as is contemporary black music. "I'm a businessman/I ain't tryin' to be lyrical," boasts rapper Cam'ron on his latest single, "Let Me Know," summing up the state of the music in one depressing line. The overriding themes in both rap and R&B are the acquisition of money, power and status, and, in a truly perverse twist, the victimization of celebrity (see: Puffy's dimwitted remake of Public Enemy's "Public Enemy #1").
Ndeg√©ocello connects so viscerally with her fans in large part because she hasn't been seduced by the fool's gold of marketplace liberation. A black, bisexual working mother whose art is rooted in unapologetic political testifying and unflinching romanticism, she's after something both rare and powerful: freedom within the margins. It's an increasingly difficult trick to pull off. It means giving serious examination to your actual relationship to power and your desired relationship to it, to your actual vs. desired relationships to socially and culturally defined notions of the norm. It means being brave enough to follow your own voice, and to define your dreams in terms other than corporate.
Ndeg√©ocello's lyrics on both Lullabies and 1996's Peace Beyond Passion dissect wrestling matches with her fears and her dreams, with the forces of racism, poverty, capitalism, junkiehood, homophobia, suicidal despair, loneliness -- and the search for love and acceptance beneath it all. Distinctly late-20th-century-urban in flavor -- full √£ of funk-driven bass, born of old-school hip-hop and older-school rhythm & blues -- the two albums have had an influence far beyond their lukewarm sales figures or underwhelming mainstream recognition. Though the comparisons are a sore point with Ndeg√©ocello, she paved the way for the likes of Lauryn Hill and Erykah Badu.
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.
Ndeg√©ocello 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, Ndeg√©ocello 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 Ndeg√©ocello 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 Ndeg√©ocello's words, "inseparable." They're currently living with Ndeg√©ocello'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 Ndeg√©ocello's life, it also fits her pattern of wanderlust. Bashir Shakur n√©e Me'Shell Ndeg√©ocello n√©e 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 Ndeg√©ocello 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 caf√© 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 Ndeg√©ocello'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.
"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 -- Ndeg√©ocello appears.
ON THE WAY BACK INTO HOLLYWOOD, NDEG√©OCELLO 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 Ndeg√©ocello 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. (Vibenamed Bitteralbum 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 justrepresent theiragenda."
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.
"You know what's hard?" she asks, twisting her face into a comedic grimace. "When your parents treat your child better than they treated you. Whoo! I mean, how does that happen?" She laughs deeply. "Seriously, what is that about?" She shakes her head.
What impact does her career have on her relationship with her son -- and vice versa?
"Having a child made me really deal with the dark sarcasm I had, with my being depressed all the time," she replies thoughtfully. "Do I want to shortchange my child out of having joy just because I don't have it? [Motherhood] helped me so much, because it allowed me to find ways to make myself feel better, to still understand the world as a place of suffering, but not wallow in it. To find joy and appreciate what I have. Children are born with their own optimism. They have a clarity and a simplicity that we can only wish for. Everything is so new and beautiful to them, and I'm really trying to find a way to stop [for my son] whatever it is that causes them to lose it, which usually happens around the ages of 13, 14.
"I'm reading this book called Real Boys, which is an excellent book. You gotta put that in your article. The author's last name is Pollack. It's just an incredible God-danged ol' book. It deals with how men are taught not to be affectionate, not to express their feelings, and it teaches you how to confront them with their feelings -- and when to pull back. It's an amazing book."
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.
"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.
"Mmm-hmm," she nods later, spooning soup into her mouth. "That's why [the record's] so good. The songs dictated that. It was a matter of being true to what the songs were about, and they weren't about that."
Inspired in part by her painful breakup a few years ago with dancer Winifred Harris, this is an album pulled from the wreckage of a failed love affair. They're songs from the fetal position. Late night, stare at the ceiling, wonder if I should call songs. Too far gone to cry songs. Love hymns about closing your eyes and running on fumes of faith. Yet glimmers of hope twine into resilience: The album, finally, is a celebration of the ability to love at all, despite pain or grief, and in defiance of bitterness.
There are familiar Ndeg√©ocello strokes: the terrifying father figure; a consuming fear of abandonment; loneliness so deep it feels like God calling you home; images of comforting angels. And there are wholly new avenues explored: the use of steel guitar, the tripped-out industrial blues of "Wasted Time," the heightened folk influences. Bitter's two instrumental tracks, "Adam" and "Eve," purposefully carry the names of the most famous characters in perhaps the most famous myth of creation. It's a reminder that from the very beginning (though Ndeg√©ocello clarifies that she doesn't believe Adam and Eve really are the beginning, they're just potent symbols), coupledom has been fraught with danger, with the devastation of deception and betrayal. "Loyalty" is sketched with lyric details ("His oversize Dickeys cinched way up high/She lived in her books and fantasies . . .") that give it the power of a finely scribed short story. "Wasted Time," a brilliant duet with L.A. singer-songwriter (and, incidentally, Madonna's brother-in-law) Joe Henry, hijacks the ear with the hypnotic vibe conjured by the union of these two distinctive voices. Joan Armatrading's influence is all over the place. It's a lush, languid cover of Jimi Hendrix's "May This Be Love," though, that is Bitter's crowning glory. It's also Ndeg√©ocello's favorite track on the album.
"My greatest influence is Jimi Hendrix," she reveals, "and if he's been reincarnated, or if he's looking down, sideways, or looking up, I just wanted to tell him that I love him and thank him for opening doors for me. I just wanted to make it beautiful for him."
She also wants it known that David Gamson, her best friend and producer on her first two albums, had started production work on this one when he was kicked off the project by powers at Maverick. "We handed them some stuff that didn't sound like Janet Jackson, and they didn't get it. I was sick of how they talked about him, how they treated him. I just couldn't see my friend treated like that. It was sort of a mutual decision. Then they named all these people I should work with -- this guy who worked with the Beatles, Daniel Lanois -- but did nothing to make it happen. I finally went to Craig [Street], 'cause I love his stuff, and they didn't say no. They gave us, like, a dollar to make the record. I'm really happy with it, though -- and David actually did produce a lot of the vocals."
What ultimately makes Bitterradical is that it's not trying to be. Not in superficial terms. In a culture gone mad for the faux rebellion and adolescent thrills of all things hardcore, it dares to be vulnerable, tender. But that's also part of what makes it another entry in the Ndeg√©ocello diary of career struggles. There are no "singles" in the way they've come to be defined -- hook-laden, singsong choruses and junior high poetry for verses. The understated arrangements guide attention to the lyrics and the emotion in Ndeg√©ocello's voice -- frayed and soothing, with a warm huskiness that slides from bruised to lustful with unnerving ease. It's exactly what a heartbreak album should be: simple. I ask what the company's reaction was when she turned it in.
"Well, I only made this record because I was contractually obligated," she admits. "And when I turned it in, I was literally told by the general manager, 'You're not going to sell a lot of records. If you really want to help us, you'll do a remix -- or maybe you could go write a song with a bigger name.' That was their vision. They were like, it's a beautiful record, but it's not gonna sell. I'm at a label where they obviously let me do what I do, but I just don't think they have any respect for what I do. You know, I had a really eye-opening conversation with Joan Osborne, who I think is so talented. I was telling her I handed in my record and they didn't like it, and she was like, 'I handed in my record and they told me to take it back.' I mean, I don't think anybody who works at any record company actually likes music anymore."
Ndeg√©ocello is merely echoing the words of countless musicians who have gone before her and countless who will come after her. But I'm still struck by the note of bafflement beneath her frustration. Is she really surprised at the way she's been handled?
"You just think," she answers, "that if someone signs you, they get you. It's also a question of, what do you do when your art becomes your livelihood? See, I thought it would be a great thing that I could make music and make money. But it kinda warped my idea of my art. It's like, am I doing my art to make money, or do I just feel like if I didn't do my art I'd die? I try to take that [money] mindset out. I'm not doing this for money. Maybe that's convoluted and delusional." She pauses. "I just go out and play music because I think there are people who want to hear what I do."
In a separate interview, Craig Street (who's also produced Cassandra Wilson, Holly Cole, k.d. lang) sounds more optimistic. "The fact is," he says, "that Maverick is putting the disc out. I believe they will get behind it. And hopefully somebody at Maverick will remember that when they signed Me'Shell, they signed her as a really intense, creative artist. Hopefully somebody at Maverick remembers that maybe it's not everyone's job to sell 30 million copies of a record, that some of the cachet of being a great record company is that you're able to balance those that sell 30 million against those that come out with great artistic statements."
He goes on to compare her to the Duke himself. "She's a phenomenal bandleader, in the style of Ellington -- people who could do everything. They could write, play and perform. I've seen her on live gigs where, literally, things would be thrown together -- musicians from all over the place who she would never have seen before -- and she would literally go around, while still playing the song, and in a really natural, very easy kind of way, direct each musician into exactly the position she wanted them to have. I've seen her do that onstage a number of different times. It's an amazing thing to watch."
At the restaurant, sipping on an iced tea, Ndeg√©ocello says, "They get upset [at Maverick] thinking I don't like them. That's not true at all. It's really not. They do what they do really well, but they're very pop-oriented. That's just not what I do. And it's hard to go to their office, and ain't no black people over there. So, I don't really expect them to understand me, you know? I mean, I'm on a label where Alanis sold 28 million copies of her first record for them. Candlebox sold 5 million. The Deftones went gold. I haven't even gone gold. And that made me feel like a failure. I just really wish that, if they don't know what to do with me, they'd let me go. Not that any other label would have a clue. √£
"It's very important," she adds, "that people know that [former Maverick partner] Freddie DeMann is the one who signed me. I love him. He may be a little difficult, or -- most of all -- a little out of touch with music that's going on today, but I love him and am so incredibly thankful to him, because he really pushed to sign me. Everybody's always like, 'Oh, Madonna signed you,' or '[Maverick A&R honcho] Guy Oseary is this great genius.' No, it was Freddie who had the guts to sign me."
The exhaustion is clearly two-sided. In a faxed statement, Madonna writes: "Me'Shell is a musical genius and a brilliant lyricist, but she is also a tormented soul and a reluctant star. Her love of music is so pure, and she is very uneasy with the whole idea of promotion, marketing, and commercial success. It is a challenge to work with her, but also a great honor."
You don't need perfect pitch to hear the frustration, even impatience, in those words.
FOR ALL THE PRICKLINESS OF HER career scenario, and the heartbreak that permeates the new album, Ndeg√©ocello radiates bliss, serenity. On tour behind her last album, she was visibly shrouded in sadness. She spoke of changing her name and leaving the business. Her conversation was peppered with words of weariness and disillusionment, and though she made it clear she wasn't suicidal, she also made it clear that she was "ready to go."
A lot of her current happiness can be attributed to Walker. Part of it is due to her move from L.A. "I loved my first three years here," she says. "My son went to a great school, and I did a lot of session work. I thought I could make it be what I wanted it to be. I guess I was a little delusional. I got really sick of it after a while. It's just not progressive." And she's clearly charged by her move north. "I really like it up there," she smiles. "It's quiet, has good food, has a cool music scene. And there's an activist culture. I just love the vibe of the people." But most of her newfound contentment is simply due to her rethinking of her place in pop culture, her hopes for her art, and her deflection of outside expectations.
"I stopped beating up on myself," she says. "I stopped asking myself why I didn't sell this number of records, why I don't have corporate sponsorship. I just don't buy into any of that anymore. Getting out of L.A. helped get me out of that mindset . . . I just surround myself with people who have absolutely nothing to do with the music or movie business. I try to hang around writers, visual artists, conceptual artists -- people who aren't concerned whether masses of people are going to accept their art.
"It's really important to me," Ndeg√©ocello says passionately, "that I'm not only creating my own resistance movement, but showing celebration. It's a claiming of what is rightfully mine, my history, my heritage. I feel I owe this to people like Tom Wilson, a black man who produced the early Bob Dylan records but who no one knows about. He died in obscurity. It's about Richie Havens, who opened for one of the greatest musical experiences in our lifetime -- Woodstock. It's about Joan Armatrading and Tracy Chapman, Lenny Kravitz and Ben Harper -- people of color who resist these bullshit definitions of black life or black art. It's about not being defined by the color of your skin, and having people think that all you can do is shuck and jive. That's what I'm hoping comes across in my music, ultimately. That's what I'm striving for."