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Ndegéocello, Me’shell 1968–

Meshell Ndegéocello 1968

Singer songwriter, musician

Running From the Devil

Crafted Mesmerizing Soul Music

Troubled Toil on Plantation

Struggled With Sexuality, Spotlight

Provocative Peace

Im Not Willing to Let It Destroy Me

Selected discography

Sources

Rolling Stone called MeShell Ndegéocello one of the few artists who really matter in the R&B world. With her daunting, unconventional style and free-ranging artistic ambition, the singer-songwriter and multi-instrumentalist has enthralled both critics and audiences. After a debut that hinted at her impressive reach and scored a hit single, she released a hugely adventurous follow-up that explored many of the thorny issues with which she grappled. Even so, Ndegéocello repeatedly expressed ambivalence about her career path.

Born Michelle Johnson in Berlin, Germany, Ndegéocello grew up in Washington, D.C. Her father served in the U.S. Army, and played tenor saxophone, she has noted, at several presidential inaugurations. Although her fathers love of jazz had a positive influence on MeShell, she was adversely affected by her mother and fathers rocky relationship. It was horrible watching the way my father treated my mother and not feeling I could help her, she told the Los Angeles Times.Ive seen my father cheat on my mother several times in front of my face, and I wasnt strong enough to tell my mother that. Even though I knew she knew, I felt like I betrayed her by not telling her.

Running From the Devil

During her adolescence, MeShell often experienced sexual feelings that she recognized as unusual. Although she has mostly addressed male lovers in her songs, Ndegéocello identifies herself as a bisexual. MeShells bisexuality and a sense of musical mission helped form her unique creative identity. At 12, she related in Rolling Stone, she had a dream where I was running from the devil. I kept on reciting the Lords Prayer in my brain, begging myself to wake up. It seemed like the dream lasted days; finally I woke up, covered in sweat. I didnt sleep again for four days. Like pioneering blues artist Robert Johnson, who was alleged to have signed a pact with the devil, Ndegéocello has made her flight from various demons the focal point of her work.

Inspired by funk, soul and rock records in her brothers collection, MeShell learned to play the bass and began writing songs at age 16. Performing in local bands, she focused intensely on music and began to pursue a music history degree at Howard University. I hated school, she related in YSB.I went because my father got me in. I just simply was not mature enough to handle college at that time in my life. She later moved to New York and continued to hone her musical skills by playing in various bands. She also gave birth to a son, Askia, but has chosen not to publicly identify the childs father.

Crafted Mesmerizing Soul Music

Changing her last name from Johnson to Ndegéocello, which she identified as the Swahili phrase for free like a bird, MeShell began crafting her own unique musical

At a Glance

Born Michelle Johnson, August 29,1968 in Berlin, Germany; daughter of musician and health-care worker; children: Askia;Education: received music degree from Howard University.

Musician and singer-songwriter, c. 1980s-, Signed to Maverick Records and released album Plantation Lullabies, 1993; appeared on recordings by Madonna, John Mellencamp, Marcus Miller, and others, 1994-95; contributed music to theatrical productions Whats Behind Door 1, 1994 and Whispers of Angels, 1995; opened for The Who, 1996; joined H.O.R.D-E. music festival, 1996; recorded with Rolling Stornes, 1997; nominated for Grammy award for 1996 duet with singer Chaka Khan, 1997; contributed song Toison Ivy* to Batman & Robin film soundtrack, 1997.

Awards: Named Brightest Hope for 1994/Rolling Stone magazine; Best Bass Player, Gibson Guitar Awards, 1996.

Addresses: Home Los Angeles, CA. PublicistMitch Schneider Organization, 14724 Ventura Blvd., Ste. 410, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403.

style. Working in the melodic, groove-oriented idiom of such soul music luminaries as Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, she avoided the retro tag by adding elements of pop and jazz and exploring painful and often controversial subject matter in her lyrics.

In 1993, a tape of her material found its way to some music industry figures in Los Angeles, who arranged for her to perform a special showcase gig there. One of those in the audience was Freddy DeMann, an executive for Maverick Records, the label founded by pop megastar Madonna. She was incredible, mesmerizing, DeMann recalled in the Los Angeles Times of Ndegéo-cellos performance. MeShell quickly signed with Maverick Records because she felt they offered her a greater opportunity to express herself more creatively than other labels.

Troubled Toil on Plantation

Ndegéocello entered the recording studio and began work on her album Plantation Lullabies, but the pressures of her career began to weigh heavily. Everything happened so fast, she averred in the Los Angeles Times.I was playing a club and within a week or two weeks, I was signed. Then I was in a studio, working 18 hours a day. I thought I could handle it, but I couldnt. She vanished briefly from the recording studio, taking refuge in crack cocaine. However, she quickly stopped taking drugs, returned to the studio, and completed the album. Actually, I think I was having a spiritual death, she told Entertainment Weekly.I had thought that making a record would solve my problemslift my self-esteem, make people from my past love me the way I wanted to be loved. But instead I felt as if every bit of joy I had was dying. When rock star Kurt Cobain committed suicide in 1994, MeShell remarked that she understood Cobains pain and despair and felt a sense of kinship with him.

Released in 1993, Plantation Lullabies demonstrated MeShells range and ambition. One of the albums tracks, the playful If Thats Your Boyfriend (He Wasnt Last Night), became a hit; other tracks covered more serious territory.Essence described MeShell as sonically and spiritually the daughter of [60s jazz-folk singer] Nina Simone and [political rapper and Public Enemy leader] Chuck D.Vibe hailed Plantation Lullabies as a stunning debut, saying that the purported meaning of Ndegéocellos name might account for the ease with which she flutters through musical styles.Spin dubbed the album a bodacious, invigorating, self-assured suite of songs that accent the best elements of soul, funk, jazz, and their aggro-meltdown in hip-hops style wars.Plantation Lullabies appeared on the Village Voices 1993 Pazz & Jop Critics Poll, one of the most respected polls in the music industry.

Straggled With Sexuality, Spotlight

With her shaved head and deep, sultry vocals, Ndegéocello presented a striking departure from the manicured sirens of the R&B world, and her open bisexuality challenged virtually everyone. People see me as a heretic, she ventured in the Los Angeles Times.Homophobia is rampant in the black community, so I am a traitor to my race, and gay people dont like me because Im not gay enough. In The Voice, she noted the common roots of sexism, racism and homophobia. I realize that in terms of the global totem pole, as a Black woman Im at the bottom of it, she lamented, and as a gay woman Im at the bottom of the bottom of the totem pole. So there is no point in trying to fit in. She also expressed ambivalence about being openly gay. Sometimes I think it was naive to come out, and sometimes I regret it, she explained. Obviously it intrigues people and often it makes them intolerant; it also makes them assess me more quickly. They think they understand and know me, but thats very untrue.

Ndegéocello impressed audiences with her live performances, which showed her stretching into jazzy improvisation. Playing bass and vocalizing in a husky style influenced by both rap and classic soul, she demonstrated a range reminiscent of such genre-busting pop innovators as Prince.Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn saw in one performance a sense of freedom and sweep in her music that was nothing short of intoxicating in its best moments, and felt that despite the artists occasional lapses, her show rests on a foundation of potential greatness. Rolling Stone named her Brightest Hope for 1994.

Yet it was in a duet with a white rock star on a cover tune that Ndegéocello reached her biggest audience. In 1994 she joined pop hitmaker John Mellencamp for a version of the Van Morrison song Wild Nights, lending both her smoky voice and fancy fretwork to the track; it became a hit and helped both of their careers substantially. But Ndegéocello didnt restrict herself to such high-profile enterprises. She collaborated with writer-choreographer David Rousseve on a theatrical production entitled Whispers of Angels, and worked with her life partner, choreographer Winifred Harris, on the production Whats Behind Door 1, for Harris Between Lines dance company.

Provocative Peace

Ndegéocellos search for personal direction and inner peace which included obsessive reading of the Bible and perusal of the Koran led to the 1996 release of her introspective second album, Peace Beyond Passion. This album combines her relentless, atmospheric grooves with lengthy meditations on religion, freedom, and sensuality. This album is all my questions and all my fears, she asserted in Rolling Stone.And sometimes I find peace. The record ignited some controversy with its lead single, Leviticus: Faggot. A pro-tolerance song detailing the persecution and eventual death of a gay man, the tracks repeated use of such a homophobic term ruffled some feathers. Along with gay leaders and radio personnel, MeShells record company offered their support, asserting that Leviticus: Faggot conveyed a positive message. This support helped to garner some positive reviews for Peace Beyond Passion.Some records just leave you speechlessfilled with emotion and perspective but grappling for coherent words of expression, wrote Billboard columnist Larry Flick. He dubbed the single an intense, brutally honest cut that has us driven to distraction and reaching for words that are worthy of the songs potentially revolutionary impact. Ernest Hardy of Rolling Stone declared, With intimacy and purposefulness, Ndegéocello fulfills the promise of her first album and puts the pop, hip-hop and R&B worlds on notice: Shes one of the few artists who really matter. Scott Frampton of College Music Journal (CMJ) observed that Her bass is still the prominent force in her music, but more as an anchor for a more soulful sound that reaches back, successfully, to her R&B influences.Details, however, was not alone in asserting that Occasionally the religious concept-album trappings get too heavy for the music to carry the load. Salons Michael E. Ross, however, disagreed. Its perhaps a little early to think in terms of a breakthrough record, but the signs are right, Ross wrote of Passion, adding that on the album shes created a sonic structure by turns bumptious languid and abrasive. This is music that, even as it explores social problems on a broad scale, is intensely personal.

Ndegéocello was invited by The Whos Pete Townshend to open three dates of their Quadrophenia tour, after which time she joined the high-profile H.O.R.D.E. festival. Yet despite such honors, she expressed continued doubts about her career, declaring that Peace would be her last solo album and that she might either leave her pop career behind or join a band. Her live performances continued to enthrall audiences, as a reviewer for The Voice newspaper observed, dubbing her the undisputed funkiest heavyweight champion of the world.

Im Not Willing to Let It Destroy Me

I want some sort of collective experience, she claimed in the Los Angeles Times,Ive seen what can happen to you if you think youre invincible in this business . . . I know one thing: Im not willing to let it destroy me. Yet in her 1996 essay accompanying the release of Peace Beyond Passion, she declared I no longer spend my days in worry of tomorrow; instead I keep the thought of God ever present, in hope that my days are filled with love for myself and others. The competing pressures of stardom and parenthood continued to be an issue for her, as she told Lynna Reid of YSB.You never know, she reflected, if you are making the right or even the best decision for your child. She even mused about leaving the industry. You have to ask yourself: Do you want to be what America finds digestible? she mused aloud to Reid, adding that one day she might turn to making my own music and selling it through the Internet or out the back of a van, or start my own jazz band.

In 1997, MeShell played bass on Im Not a Saint, on the latest album by the Rolling Stones. Meanwhile, her duet with soul icon Chaka Khan, Never Miss the Water, earned her a Grammy nomination. She also contributed a version of the oldie Poison Ivy to the Batman & Robin film soundtrack.

Selected discography

Plantation Lullabies (includes If Thats Your Boyfriend (He Wasnt Last Night)), Maverick, 1993.

John Mellencamp, Dance Naked (appears on Wild Nights), Mercury, 1994.

Peace Beyond Passion (includes Leviticus: Faggot), Maverick, 1996.

With Chaka Khan, Never Miss the Water, Reprise,1996.

Poison Ivy,Batman & Robin film soundtrack, WarnerBros., 1997.

Also appeared on recordings by Madonna, the Rolling Stones, Marcus Miller and others.

Sources

Amsterdam News (New York), November 25, 1995.

Billboard, May 18, 1996.

College Music Journal (CMJ), July 1996.

Details, July 1996.

Entertainment Weekly, June 21, 1996.

Essence, January 1994.

Gannett News Service, March 25, 1994.

Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1994; November 6,1994; May 18, 1996; August 25, 1996; May 25,1997.

Musician, August 1996.

Rolling Stone, July 11, 1996; September 5, 1996.

Salon, July 22, 1996.

Spin, December 1993.

Vibe, October 1993.

Village Voice, March 1, 1994.

The Voice, August 13, 1996; January 13, 1997.

YSB, October 31, 1996.

Additional information was provided by publicity materials from The Mitch Schneider Organization, 1996.

Simon Glickman

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Glickman, Simon. "Ndegéocello, Me’shell 1968–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1997. Encyclopedia.com. 26 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

Glickman, Simon. "Ndegéocello, Me’shell 1968–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1997. Encyclopedia.com. (May 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2871700050.html

Glickman, Simon. "Ndegéocello, Me’shell 1968–." Contemporary Black Biography. 1997. Retrieved May 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-2871700050.html

Ndegéocello, Me’Shell

MeShell Ndegéocello

Singer, songwriter

Running from the Devil

Crafted Mesmerizing Soul Music

Reached Masses with Mellencamp

Provocative Peace

Selected discography

Sources

Singer/songwriter and multi-instrumentalist MeShell Ndegéocello wrote, I love music, in a brief essay distributed by her publicist in 1996. Its like a lover that I cant commit to, but I seem to always find myself in bed with. With music, I free myself from myself. Yet freedom has not always been easy to come by for the acclaimed performer. Despite having released two critically acclaimed albums and scoring some hit songs, Ndegeocello has exhibited such restlessness that it appeared she might leave her lover music in the lurch. Yet whatever her ultimate choice, her intimate, dense fusion of funk, soul, jazz and rock and consistently bold lyrical stance had already made her, according to Rolling Stone, one of the few artists who really matter in the R&B world.

She was born Michelle Johnson in Berlin, Germany, and grew up in Washington, D.C. Her father was in the U.S. Army, and played tenor saxophone; she has recalled in interviews that he played at several presidential inaugurations. His musical aptitude and appreciation for jazz played a huge role in her development. Yet he and her mother, a health care worker, had a troubled relationship, the musician later reflected. It was horrible watching the way my father treated my mother and not feeling I could help her, she told the Los Angeles Times. Ive seen my father cheat on my mother several times in front of my face, and I wasnt strong enough to tell my mother that. Even though I knew she knew, I felt like I betrayed her by not telling her.

Running from the Devil

Her sense of isolation was compounded during her adolescence by sexual feelings she recognized as outside the mainstream. Though she has mostly addressed male lovers in her songs, Ndegéocello identifies herself as a bisexual. This and a sense of musical mission helped form her unique creative identity. At 12, she related in Rolling Stone, she had a dream where I was running from the devil. I kept on reciting the Lords Prayer in my brain, begging myself to wake up. It seemed like the dream lasted days; finally I woke up, covered in sweat. I didnt sleep again for four days. Like pioneering blues artist Robert Johnson, who was alleged to have signed a pact with the devil, Ndegéocello has made her flight from various demons the focal point of her work.

Inspired by funk, soul and rock records in her brothers collection, she picked up the bass and began writing songs at age 16. Performing in local bands, she focused more intensively on music, and went on to study for a music history degree at Howard University. She then

For the Record

Born Michelle Johnson, August 29, 1968, in Berlin, Germany; daughter of a musician and a health-care worker. Education: Received music degree from Howard University. Children: Askia, born c. 1989.

Musician and singer-songwriter, c. 1980s. Signed with Maverick Records and released album Plantation Lullabies, 1993; appeared on recordings by Madonna, John Mellencamp, Marcus Miller, and others, 1994-95; contributed music to theatrical productions Whats Behind Door 1, 1994, and Whispers of Angels, 1995; opened for The Who, 1996; joined H.O.R.D.E. music festival, 1996.

Awards: Plantation Lullabies was nominated for three Grammy Awards in 1994; also received Grammy nomination for duet with John Mellencamp; named Brightest Hope for 1994 by a Rolling Stone Critics Poll; best bass player award, Gibson Guitar Awards, 1996.

Addresses : Home Los Angeles, CA. Publicist Mitch Schneider Organization, 14724 Ventura Blvd., Ste. 410, Sherman Oaks, CA 91403.

moved to New York, honing her chops in various bands; she also had a son, Askia, by a father whom she has elected not to name in interviews.

Crafted Mesmerizing Soul Music

Choosing the name Ndeg6ocello, which she identified as the Swahili phrase for free like a birdthough some observers have claimed that only part of the word is actually Swahilishe began crafting her own approach. Working in the melodic, groove-oriented idiom of such soul music luminaries as Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, she avoided the retro tag by adding elements of pop and jazz and exploring painful and often controversial subject matter in her lyrics.

In 1993, a tape of her material found its way to some music industry figures in Los Angeles, who arranged for her to perform a special showcase gig there. One of those in the audience was Freddy DeMann, co-head of Maverick Records, the label founded by pop megastar Madonna. She was incredible, mesmerizing, DeMann recalled in the Los Angeles Times of Ndegéocellos performance. She chose Maverick over other labels because it offered her creative freedom.

Ndegéocello entered the recording studio and began work on her record, but the pressures of her career began to weigh heavily. Everything happened so fast, she averred in the Los Angeles Times. I was playing a club and within a week or two weeks, I was signed. Then I was in a studio, working 18 hours a day. I thought I could handle it, but I couldnt. She vanished briefly from her own project, taking refuge in crack cocaine. She quit shortly thereafter, however, and completed the album. Actually, I think I was having a spiritual death, she later told Entertainment Weekly. I had thought that making a record would solve my problemslift my self-esteem, make people from my past love me the way I wanted to be loved. But instead I felt as if every bit of joy I had was dying. She added that she understood the 1994 suicide of rock star Kurt Cobain and felt kindred self-destructive tendencies.

Released in 1993, Plantation Lullabies demonstrated her range and ambition. One of its songs, the playful If Thats Your Boyfriend (He Wasnt Last Night), became a hit; other tracks covered more serious territory. Essence described her as sonically and spiritually the daughter of [Sixties jazz-folk singer] Nina Simone and [political rapper and Public Enemy leader] Chuck D. With her shaved head and deep, sultry vocals, Ndegéocello presented a striking departure from the manicured sirens of the R&B world, and her open bisexuality challenged virtually everyone. People see me as a heretic, she ventured in the Los Angeles Times. Homophobia is rampant in the black community, so I am a traitor to my race, and gay people dont like me because Im not gay enough.

Reached Masses with Mellencamp

Ndegéocello impressed audiences with her live performances, which showed her stretching into jazzy improvisation. Playing bass and vocalizing in a husky style influenced by both rap and classic soul, she demonstrated a range reminiscent of such genre-busting pop innovators as Prince. Los Angeles Times critic Robert Hilburn saw in one performance a sense of freedom and sweep in her music that was nothing short of intoxicating in its best moments, and felt that despite the artists occasional lapses, her show rests on a foundation of potential greatness. A Rolling Stone Critics Poll named her Brightest Hope for 1994.

Yet it was in a duet with a white rock star on a cover tune that Ndegéocello reached her biggest audience. In 1994 she joined pop hitmaker John Mellencamp for a version of the Van Morrison song Wild Night, lending both her smoky voice and fancy fretwork to the track; it became a hit and helped both their careers substantially. But Ndegéocello didnt restrict herself to such high-profile enterprises. She collaborated with writer-choreographer David Rousseve on a theatrical production titled Whispers of Angels, and worked with her life partner, choreographer Winifred Harris, on the production Whats Behind Door 1, for Harriss Between Lines dance company.

Provocative Peace

Ndegéocellos searchingwhich included obsessive reading of the Bible and perusal of the Koran, Islams holy bookled to her introspective second album, 1996s Peace Beyond Passion. The sophomore set combines her relentless, atmospheric grooves with lengthy meditations on religion, freedom, and sensuality. This album is all my questions and all my fears, she asserted in Rolling Stone. And sometimes I find peace. The record ignited some controversy with its lead single, Leviticus: Faggot. A pro-tolerance song detailing the persecution and eventual death of a gay man, the tracks repeated use of such a homophobic term ruffled some feathers. Yet the record company worked carefully with gay leaders and radio personnel, conveying its belief in the songs positive message. These efforts paid off, and helped earn the single and the album some glowing reviews. Some records just leave you speechlessfilled with emotion and perspective but grappling for coherent words of expression, wrote Billboard columnist Larry Flick. He dubbed the single an intense, brutally honest cut that has us driven to distraction and reaching for words that are worthy of the songs potentially revolutionary impact.

Peace Beyond Passion, though not universally admired, attracted some raves itself. With intimacy and purposefulness, declared Ernest Hardy of Rolling Stone, Ndegéocello fulfills the promise of her first album and puts the pop, hip-hop and R&B worlds on notice: Shes one of the few artists who really matter. Scott Frampton of College Music Journal (CMJ) observed that her bass is still the prominent force in her music, but more as an anchor for a more soulful sound that reaches back, successfully, to her R&B influences. Details, however, offered a slightly dissenting opinion in its assertion that occasionally the religious concept-album trappings get too heavy for the music to carry the load.

Ndegéocello was invited by Pete Townshend of English rock legends The Who to open three dates of their Quadrophenia tour, after which she joined the high-profile H.O.R.D.E. festival. Yet despite such honors, she expressed continued doubts about her career, declaring that Peace would be her last solo album and that she might either leave her pop career behind or join a band. I want some sort of collective experience, she claimed in the Los Angeles Times, adding, Ive seen what can happen to you if you think you are invincible in this business and concluded, I know one thing: Im not willing to let it destroy me. Yet in her 1996 essay accompanying the release of Peace Beyond Passion, she declared I no longer spend my days in worry of tomorrow; instead I keep the thought of God ever present, in hope that my days are filled with love for myself and others.

Selected discography

Plantation Lullabies (includes If Thats Your Boyfriend (He Wasnt Last Night)), Maverick, 1993.

(Contributor) Madonna, Bedtime Stories, Maverick, 1994.

(Contributor) John Mellencamp, Dance Naked (appears on Wild Night), Mercury, 1994.

(Contributor) Marcus Miller, Tales, PRA, 1995.

(Contributor) Boney James, Seduction, Warner Bros., 1995.

Peace Beyond Passion (includes Leviticus: Faggot), Maverick, 1996.

Sources

Amsterdam News (New York), November 25, 1995.

Billboard, May 18, 1996, p. 26.

College Music Journal (CMJ), July 1996, p. 13.

Details, July 1996.

Entertainment Weekly, June 21, 1996, p. 63.

Essence, January 1994, p. 36.

Gannett News Service, March 25, 1994.

Los Angeles Times, August 30, 1994; November 6, 1994; May 18, 1996; August 25, 1996, p. 8.

Musician, August 1996, p. 86.

Rolling Stone, July 11, 1996, p. 86; September 5, 1996, p. 33.

Additional information was provided by publicity materials from The Mitch Schneider Organization, 1996.

Simon Glickman

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Ndegéocello, Me’Shell." Contemporary Musicians. 1997. Encyclopedia.com. 26 May. 2016 <http://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Ndegéocello, Me’Shell." Contemporary Musicians. 1997. Encyclopedia.com. (May 26, 2016). http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3493600058.html

"Ndegéocello, Me’Shell." Contemporary Musicians. 1997. Retrieved May 26, 2016 from Encyclopedia.com: http://www.encyclopedia.com/doc/1G2-3493600058.html

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